It's a well-oiled protest machine that has succeeded in rattling the rightwing government in New Delhi, while gaining international support and solidarity.

LUDHIANA — On a recent cold January morning, Charanjeet Kour’s small courtyard in Chammat, a village full of farmers in the north Indian state of Punjab, was swarmed by several dozen people. 

They offered the 70-year-old woman help with sowing a crop of wheat. Just a few days ago, Charanjeet lost her only son Baljinder Singh Gill in a road accident. 

32-year-old Gill was returning home from India's capital New Delhi, where he had spent four days in solidarity with tens of thousands of farmers, who are protesting India's draconian farm laws they believe favour big corporates, while putting the country's agrarian population at a serious disadvantage.  

Like thousands of other farmers who have been protesting against the controversial farm laws since October last year, Gill also feared the new laws would strip them of their government guaranteed minimum support price given to selected crops. 

“He was really disturbed before he left home to join protests,” recalls his mother, Charanjeet. 

Gill toiled hard on his fields to pay off the debt of $17,830, which his family had incurred in their attempt to tackle the crop failures and price fluctuations. 

His mother Charanjeet, a widow, was sure her hard-working son would turn around the family’s fortunes. But his untimely death has naturally dashed all her hopes of a rescue from them.

With Gill gone, there was no one left in the family to look after their farmland. The group of men who recently showed up at her door had come for the purpose of filling in for her dead son. 

They worked with professional precision and within five to six hours, they had finished sowing wheat in the family's 1.5 hectare land. Before they left, they told Charanjeet that they would visit her regularly until the harvest.

Gill was on his motorbike when he had a collision with a truck. The impact killed him instantly. Apart from his mother Charanjeet, he left behind his wife and two children - they were between 5-8 years of age. 

“If these volunteers would not have helped, I might have sold my land. And in Punjab, selling your ancestral land is akin to selling your soul,” Charanjeet said. 

While the tragedy that befell Charanjeet and her family reflects the human cost of India's new agricultural laws, it also displays a remarkable unity among the country's farming community. 

To understand what keeps the Indian farmers going, while braving all sorts of odds from police brutality to the freezing cold and the rains, TRT World visited Punjab, the north Indian state that has become the epicentre of protests since September last year.  

We meet a team of farmers who are part of one of the biggest farmers' unions in India with a million members, including 80 thousand women. They are working tirelessly to keep the campaign against the controversial farm laws alive.

Crisis Managers  

 “We will not let even a single farmer’s family live in distress in Punjab,” said Harbans Singh, 68, a member of BKU or Bharti Kissan Union (Indian Farmers Union), a pan-India farmers’ representative organisation with local chapters across the country.    

Harbans’ faction is headed by Joginder Singh Ugrahan, who along with thousands of his supporters, is camping at Tikri border, around 27 kilometres outside the capital.     

Harbans was instructed to stay back in Punjab to keep the flow of men and women, money and material, going. But his main job is to manage crises like Gill’s death without delay. 

For the last four months, Harbans has parked his tractor in the middle of a highway blocking a corporate-owned toll plaza outside Punjab’s business hub, Ludhiana. He is living out of his tin-cased tractor-trolley. Inside it, Harbans has hung Gill's portrait with 'martyr' written on it in bold letters. 

“We have a network of volunteers in place so that protests in Delhi and life in Punjab can go on simultaneously,” said Harbans, while sifting through logbooks he maintains to record daily donations. “It is a long battle. We cannot win it if we are not organised and disciplined.”

The Network

Connected through a network of Whatsapp groups and Facebook pages, volunteers make up the backbone of protests in Punjab. They work under a sophisticated corporate-style hierarchy, which enables them to function smoothly.  

Each village has a team of ten volunteers who function as a single unit. A big village can have more than one unit. Each has its own representative, a spokesperson and a treasurer. Under farmer union laws, no person in this unit can attend any political rally or function. They can only vote in elections but cannot campaign for them. These village level units are then connected with other similar ones in towns, cities and districts, and finally to the central command represented by four key leaders— Joginder Singh Ugrahan, Harinder Kour Bindu, who heads the women’s wing, Jhanda Singh Tethhuke and Singara Singh Mann.

“We make sure that thousands of protesting farmers, who are camping at different Delhi borders for months, need not to worry about their families, fields, cattle etc. back in Punjab,” said Prof. Paramjeet Singh Dillion, 47, who is the spokesperson of Mandevi village Unit in Sangrur district.   

Interestingly, at least two members from each unit remain stationed at the frontline of protests outside the national capital. Their job is to ensure a hassle-free supply of food, fuel, clothes, bedding, among other things, to protesting farmers from their respective villages. Supplies can also be sought from the central reserves maintained at the protest site. To ensure farmers at each protest site have access to essentials,  a fleet of tractors and trolleys are parked outside several villages. 

In case of an emergency at the protest site or back home, the village units are meant to address it. If the unit head is unable to resolve the issue, he contacts the district for help. 

“A few days back a farmer’s son fractured his arm in Punjab, while his father was part of the January 26 tractor rally in New Delhi,” said Dillion. “Within no time I contacted our unit head and he took the boy to the hospital. The father was then sent home next morning after we put a route request in our Whatsapp group.”

Every day, hundreds of private cars, taxis, buses, trucks and tractors shuttle between Punjab and New Delhi carrying men, women and material.  

“As unit head it is my job to coordinate with these vehicles and ensure people are rotated properly from my village,” said Dillion, who has spent over two months at New Delhi’s Tikri border with protestors from his village. 

“In each rotation I have to make sure around thirty percent people know how to cook. That makes my job tough,” Dillion said, laughingly. 

In a small village at the Tikri border, which has just 150 households, there is one tractor trolley, ten farmers and five unit members permanently stationed there. 

It is Dillion’s job to ensure they have access to essential supplies. He oversees the transportation and rotation of protestors, while keeping a tab on their families back home.  

Every week, Dillion collects cash donations, clothing, milk, wheat, rice, pulses from villagers and sends it to the protest frontline. The supply is sent along with a fresh and well rested batch of protestors. 

The following day, the vehicles come back from the protest site with tired men who are then sent to their respective homes to rest. 

“Discipline and management is our biggest strength,” Dillion said.

The long and arduous resistance against the Hindu nationalist government's farming laws has ended old rivalries between several villages of Punjab.  

When local unit heads from adjoining villages came to know that Gill's family was unable to sow wheat this season, they were quick to send over 30 volunteers to work on the dead farmer's land. 

Gill's village unit has made a pledge to his mother Charanjeet: they will look after her crop until it is harvested. 

The unit has also contacted several donors to help Charanjeet clear Gill's debt. 

Despite losing the sole breadwinner in the family, Charanjeet  will donate a portion of her harvest to embattled protesters. 

Source: TRT World