Farmers' Movement

Peasant women from Punjab and Haryana stand shoulder to shoulder in year-long farmers' protests against controversial farm laws

Print edition : December 17, 2021

Women farmers gather at Tikri to mark the anniversary of the farmers’ agitation on November 26. Photo: PTI

Women farmers arrive at Tikri outside Delhi to mark the anniversary of the farmers agitation on November 26. Photo: PTI

Gurjit Kaur, niece of Shaheed Bhagat Singh. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Jasbir Kaur, State committee member of the Punjab Kisan Union. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Harinder Bindu, president of the women’s wing of the BKU (Ekta-Ugrahan). Photo: by special arrangement

Jagmati Sangwan, former general secretary of AIDWA. Photo: by special arrangement

Women work in a paddyfield in the absence of their male family members, who were staging a protest against the farm laws in Delhi, at Daun Kalan village in Patiala district on June 17, 2021. Photo: PTI

Members of the BKU (Ugrahan) stop the Delhi-Shri Ganganagar Intercity Express during the Bharat Bandh called by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha against the farm laws at Daun Kalan village near Patiala on September 27, 2021. Photo: PTI

The large-scale mobilisation of peasant women from Punjab and the inspired participation of their counterparts from Haryana gave solid support to the farmers' protests on Delhi’s borders.

“I am only tenth pass, you know,” says soft-spoken Harinder Bindu, president of the women’s wing of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan), a prominent peasant organisation in Punjab. But her low level of formal education was no deterrent to her ability to rally women from the districts of Punjab to join the farmers protest on the borders of Delhi. In fact, it was not a disadvantage, she told Frontline. Women in Punjab, especially those from the peasant communities, are known to participate in various forms of democratic protests. The issues they had taken up earlier ranged from peasant indebtedness, micro-finance, to crimes against women by the rich and powerful. The three Central farm laws gave the much-needed impetus for a larger mobilisation of the womenfolk. They felt the future of their progeny, or nasl, would be lost forever if they forfeited their zameen (land) or lost control over fasal (agricultural produce). The three farm laws, they realised, posed a danger to their nasl, zameen and fasal, and so their full-fledged participation was crucial for the success of the movement.

Largely illiterate but hugely conversant with the risks inherent in the farm laws, the women who were seen at the protest sites at Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur, Shahjahanpur and Palwal on the outskirts of Delhi, were a formidable force. With their heads covered in bright yellow stoles, or chunnis, the women peasants at Tikri stood along with the men irrespective of the gender-specific hardships faced in the last one year. None of them was prepared for the long haul. They did not expect that the farmers’ principal demand for the repeal of the three laws would take a year to be fulfilled. But as each season passed, they knew they were facing an obdurate government. The adverse circumstances strengthened their resolve to remain steadfast in their commitment to go to any length to safeguard their land and the future of their children. They drove tractors, managed langars (community kitchens) along with the menfolk, addressed the protesters from stages and did all that was required to keep the movement going.

The BKU (Ekta-Ugrahan) mobilised the largest contingent of women for the farmers’ movement. According to Harinder Bindu, it has been organising women peasants since the early 2000s. The women’s participation in protests began with opposition to the Dunkel Draft of December 1991, which had recommended a reduction of government subsidies in agriculture. This resulted in the government halting procurement of paddy from Punjab, Harinder Bindu said. The slogan the women had raised then was Behnon ralo prava sang; mil ke ladaange haq ki jung. (Sisters! join your brothers in your fight for your rights. We shall win this together). The organisation held a rail roko (blockade) for 72 hours. In 2002, when bus fares went up and two labourers died in police firing. women from Harinder Bindu’s village in Bhatinda district came out in large numbers to protest. Some 4,500 women, most of them from the peasant community, took to the streets to protest a sensational kidnapping incident and the rape of a minor. Gradually, the organisation trained 22 women leaders who, Harinder Bindu said, “could speak on the stage”. When Article 370 was abrogated in August 2019, and the Central government tried to implement the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the women members of BKU (Ugrahan) came forward to oppose the decisions. Many of the peasant women even participated in the sit-in protest held in Shaheen Bagh (New Delhi) against the CAA.

Also read: How the battle was won

Harinder Bindu said: “When the farm ordinances were drafted, we tried to figure out what it was all about. Realising that it was no less than a death warrant for the small peasantry, agricultural workers and practically everyone, we decided to intensify our protests on this front.” Whether the farmers will survive the COVID-19 pandemic was not certain, but it was certain that they will perish under the new farm laws. It became clear to them that widest possible solidarity was needed to fight the contentious laws.

She said: “In order to get women out of their homes, we organised morchas in village after village. Women participated in large numbers. They would finish all their housework, farm work and mark attendance at the meeting. They would get up at 4 a.m. and retire to bed at 11 p.m. every night. They realised that if there was no land there would no chulha [traditional cooking stove] to light. Some 26,000 women participated in the protests, which covered around 600 villages where we have an organisational presence. The women protested against Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who was still a Minister in the Central government. She resigned [in September 2020] after her party [Shiromani Akali Dal] pulled out of the [National Democratic Alliance] government realising the public mood against the laws.”

The battle was threefold, against the corporate sector, the parties who backed it, and the government at the Centre. Petrol pumps, retail outlets, grain silos and multinational food chains of certain groups were picketed, mostly by women protesters. In Haryana and Punjab, all “toll plazas” managed by private companies were “freed” by the farmers with the active participation of women. Vehicles plying between Delhi and Punjab were not charged toll tax.

Women helped in the preparation for the scheduled march to Delhi on November 26, 2020, by collecting food supplies, bedding and other requirements for camping at the protest sites. “Previously, this kind of work was done by men. This time women took charge of mobilising essential items. They organised food supplies to last for at least six months as they knew the fight would continue that long as the Central government would not relent. They knew it was not just a battle against the Narendra Modi government but against Samrajyawaad [imperialism] as well,” she said. In Punjab, women took up the cudgels against two legislators who were defaming the protesters and silenced them with a show of strength in July this year.

Also read: ‘Historic first victory in unprecedented struggle’

On November 27, 2020, women from Punjab broke through police barricades, or naakas, in Dabwali and Khanauri in Haryana. Harinder Bindu said people were surprised to see a strong contingent of women protesters. This had a remarkable effect on the women of Haryana who soon joined in at the protest sites at Singhu and Tikri. Many of them threw open their homes to women protesters from Punjab for use. They even offered to wash the clothes of the protesters. A unique solidarity had been struck between the people of the two States that have long-standing disputes over the use of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal water.

On January 26, women took out tractor parades in Punjab. Many of them participated in the kisan parade on that day in Delhi. The movement witnessed a reversal of gender roles. At the protest sites, men were seen preparing food at the langar, serving and even cleaning. The women, who were used to watching television serials in their villages, were engrossed in following the news and debates on the farm laws. They also paid greater attention to what the Samyukta Kisan Morcha leaders were saying. In Punjab and Haryana, the unions had given a call for “freeing” the toll plazas. “In my village, eight to ten women would get together, hop on to a bullock cart and set off for the toll plazas. They felt they ought to contribute to the protests in Delhi,” she said. They even conducted cotton plucking operations at the toll plazas. When it was decided to celebrate International Women’s Day at the protest sites, the women collected funds and hired buses to travel to Delhi. The men were not keen that they should go but they went nevertheless.

As equal partners

Jasbir Kaur, State committee member of the Punjab Kisan Union, said: “There is an old saying in Punjab, Jis Lahore nahi dekhya, woh janmya nahi. It is about the glory of Lahore. It means that one’s birth is futile if one has not seen Lahore. Now there is a new maxim: many women feel that one’s life has no meaning if one has not taken part in the movement.” When the farm ordinances were promulgated, she said her organisation was busy sorting problems created by micro-finance companies. When the enormity of the ordinances dawned on them and protests started across the State, it was decided that women should join the protests. When the movement of rail traffic was restored in Punjab, women were able to go to Delhi. [Train services in Punjab came to a halt on September 24, 2020, following farmers’ protests.] When the Chief Justice of India [S.A. Bobde, in January 2021] advised women participants, aged people and children to return home, the women felt that as farmers, they owed it to the movement to stay on. “In any case we occupied the front rows in any public meeting. We told the men that if the police ever tried to remove the protesters forcibly, they would have to deal with us women first,” she said.

The SKM placed women center stage in their programmes. It designated January 18 as Mahila Kisan Diwas. Says Jasbir Kaur: “Women are not given a share in the property; neither are they directly involved in agricultural operations. But as they belonged to peasant families and took on many agricultural activities as a matter of routine, they felt obliged to take part in the movement.” Many women, she said, had stayed on at the morcha for the entire duration of the year. “One reporter asked me whether the women were brought to do the cooking. I was surprised at this perception as it was the men who have done most of the cooking here with the women assisting them. Earlier, men were in leadership positions addressing public meetings. Women who were shy of public speaking have now broken barriers. They even compose protest songs based on folk tunes,” she said.

Also read: Farmers' struggle in India offers a lesson in resilience

Several women had stayed back to tend to the crops and livestock as the menfolk stayed at the borders of Delhi to sustain the momentum of the movement. The women even sold agricultural produce. On January 7, when a march was held on the periphery of an expressway, women drove tractors in large numbers. The surprise element, Jasbir Kaur, said was the influx of women from Haryana.

“They participated with their veils on. There was one particular village where the women took charge and declared that each family should send at least one member to take part in the protest at the borders,” she said. It was a big achievement in that women who have never heard of terms such as minimum support price (MSP), World Bank or corporate India, were now talking about a legal guarantee for the MSP and quality health and education for their children. She said the government’s contention that the protest was motivated by political interests was false. It could not be denied, she said, that the agitation would benefit some political outfits in the coming Assembly elections. But the farmers movement, she said, would oppose any political party that pushed such policies.

Like Jasbir Kaur, Jagmati Sangwan, former general secretary of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), believes that the participation of women in the movement was the “visible expression of their less visible ongoing assertion in the public domain for decades”. She said they were attracted to the movement as active participants and not passive followers brought in by their respective family patriarchs as was perceived by a former Chief Justice of India who advised them to return home. While there was a history of women in Punjab participating in social and religious congregations as well as mass movements, the participation of women from Haryana was a new phenomenon. The farm laws posed a genuine threat to households with small landholdings. Women who aspired for a share in these holdings faced the threat of losing out under the new farm laws and other land acquisition laws, said Jagmati Sangwan.

Myriad Difficulties

The vagaries of the weather in Delhi and other gender-specific issues posed a bigger challenge for women. Says Harinder Bindu: “When we came to Delhi, it was all an open area. Our biggest challenge was toilet facilities. There were hardly any public toilets for women. For some days we faced difficulties. When we started from Punjab, we stopped at the Meham Subzi Mandi in Haryana. It was very cold. But we were mentally prepared. When the Morcha started at Tikri, we were given essentials. But the support we received from the local people was unprecedented. Gradually proper tents and proper toilets were put up. Now we get proper sleep in those tents only.” Barring one unfortunate incident, involving a young girl from West Bengal, which was condemned by all unions, there was no other untoward incident involving women in the entire duration of the agitation.

Also read: Farmers in Punjab stand in for those involved in the Delhi agitation by fulfilling their farming roles

The septuagenarian Gurjit Kaur, niece of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, has been a regular participant at the protest sites. She takes part in all democratic movements and professes allegiance to no political party. Said Gurjit Kaur: “We normally think that rural women are uneducated and illiterate. But through the farmers movement, they have shown what is democracy and how to fight for one. They have shown their revolutionary side with great courage and maturity. Not only did they understand their rights but also fought for them. I met some women from Haryana. They were in awe of Punjabi women. They asked us to go to their villages and talk to the residents. I said I would. But within two or three days, I saw a huge number of women from Haryana coming to join the protest. They had removed their veils and were curious to learn about the farm laws.”

Women from Haryana

All four, Jagmati Sangwan, Gurjit Kaur, Jasbir Kaur and Harinder Bindu said they were pleasantly surprised to see women from Haryana come out and participate very aggressively in the movement. The participation of women was in two forms. There were women who told their menfolk to join the protest sites and themselves shouldered the agriculture-related and household responsibilities. Then there were women who defied their families to join the protest. At the protest sites, those who had brought their children along helped them with online classes; on other occasions, they helped with stage duties, volunteered at the langar and helped with other tasks necessary to sustain the movement.

Says Gurjit Kaur: “When I joined the morcha, I saw farmers huddled under tractor trolleys under the open skies. I used to wonder how we would manage toilet needs. I am more than 70 years old. I decided I will be like the rest of them. As the government had campaigned against us, that we were terrorists and anti-nationals, none of the homes in the vicinity of the protest sites were willing to allow women protesters in their homes. However, one family in Haryana opened its doors for us. We finally got access to one bathroom. The issue was resolved after our volunteers put up toilet facilities.”

The future as they see it

“This was like nursery training for us. It will be a real education for the government if they push through these laws in the future,” said Jasbir Kaur. She said restriction on government subsidies was on the agenda of the forthcoming World Trade Organisation’s ministerial conference. If the Central government implemented the farm laws after the Assembly elections, there would be a bigger mobilisation of people, she said.

Also read: Long march to peasant unity

Gurjit Kaur said the insanitary conditions in the working-class colonies and industrial areas of Delhi near the protest sites bothered them a lot. “This has to change. It is difficult to believe that such conditions prevail in the capital of India and that too 75 years after Independence,” she said.

Gurjit Kaur said: “This movement has given a lot and people have learned a lot from it. For women, it has made a huge difference.” Jagmati Sangwan said: “This new awakening should be sustained with independent initiatives by women and by integrating with various farmers outfits.”

The one-year long farmers’ movement impacted many lives. For the peasant women of agrarian India, their participation in the movement and the repeal of the farm laws was a big achievement. Their contribution was on an equal footing as farmers and producers. To that extent, it was emancipation of a different kind, one that was achieved through a class struggle waged by democratic means and not by uttering meaningless platitudes about women’s empowerment.

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