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A Snake in the Sarson: How Punjabi Farmers Found themselves at the Gates of Parliament

By Ashveer Pal Singh

Illustration by Anmole Brar

A few days ago, armed with a daffli and the rhythms of Punjabi dhadis two young women sang into microphones amongst a group of farmers camped out on the Haryana-Delhi Border:

Pimps are trying to sell our land, we will pin them to our knees.

We’ve sharpened the edges of our blunt swords,

the youth is eager to rip out the roots of oppressive rulers.’

These are not the refrains that regularly accompany a trip on the Grand Trunk Road, though perhaps the Punjabi faces might look familiar. Farmers, young women, children, all manner of people moving in one direction, with one purpose. Less makki di roti; more maan ki baat.

The protests have recently emerged across a number of media channels, and while a great deal of commentary and playtime has been spent listening to pundits wax poetic about whether or not one ought to agree or disagree with the vehicle, few have stopped to question the direction itself. How exactly did we get to this point, and what led us down this road in the first place?: So let’s take a moment for a quick explainer: Why are people protesting towards Delhi, who are they, and what is at stake?

Tell me about it. No really, please tell me about it.

This September, the BJP-lead government rammed three acts through the parliament under the guise of achieving that elusive dream of ‘global agricultural capital’. Aside from demonstrating how quickly the government of India is capable of moving (when it is politically motivated to do so), these three acts also succeeded in entirely deregulating agriculture in the country, putting farmers in peril. Crops can be sold outside of government-regulated mandis, contract farming has become formalized, and companies can hoard essential commodities. While these changes may seem abstract and easy to detach oneself from, what is critical to note here is that these changes remove key protections for those who till the land - putting their livelihoods, families, and associated local economies at risk. Keep in mind as well, that these destabilizing changes come on the heels of the farming community in India has made international headlines for widespread suicides under the weight of immense debt among agriculturist households across the country. This is the single most important development in Indian agriculture since the Green Revolution of the 1960s, by which this community labored to make the country food secure and independent of first world nation food aid. The irony is that today, the agrarian community is one which has little margin-left with which to absorb the economic shocks that these acts will bring.

After smaller protests around the country by a multitude of farmers organizations, and failed talks with the central government to resolve the impasse, Punjab’s farmers declared Dilli Challo and marched towards Raisina Hill in cars, buses, and tractors. But they are not alone. Over 500 farmers unions across the country are supporting the march officially.

But take a look on Instagram, and you’ll find young women shouting and singing slogans alongside their turbaned uncles, and children on the road too. International support has been voiced across the diaspora, as well as from elected representatives in the UK and Canada. Every part of the Grand Trunk ecosystem seems to be stepping up to play its part. Local mechanics have volunteered their labor to maintain tractors. The famous Amrik Sukhdev Dhaba fed protestors as they passed. Free medical booths appeared on the roadside as if out of thin air. Local hotels offered their facilities for protestors to wash up. It’s notable that this protest marks one of the first instances that the farmer's movement has gained such widespread support.

Illustration by @nabhawna

What is at stake?

Reforms like these impact so many lives at so many levels. The trickle-down effects run everywhere from the bhavans of Delhi to the ribbons that tie the braids of a little girl sitting in her second class. Don’t believe us? The next time you eat, take a good look at your plate and consider how many different individual people were somehow involved in the simple production of your lunch. Still, among the many ripple effects, the three which stand to absorb the brunt of the impact are:

First: Agrarian lives. Farmers and their allies have long worried that the central government will buckle to pressure by multinationals to deregulate the market, which will invariably lead to lower take-home income for farmers, and a disruption of the social fabric of the countryside. For farmers in Punjab and Haryana, these laws are the beginning of the end of the government’s annual procurement of wheat and paddy at the Minimum Support Price to ensure the central pool of foodgrains that feed millions through the New Food Security Act 2013. Aside from farmers, allied agricultural families are also at risk, including local landless labourers and migrant workers who have settled into trekking back and forth from UP and Bihar to Punjab and Haryana. By dismantling government regulation in agriculture, agrarian communities and those within their periphery fear the corporatization and consolidation of neoliberal capitalism in a country that once was founded on Nehru’s visions of soft socialism.

Second: The right to dissent. Not since the dark days of emergency has India witnessed a clamping down of the democratic right to protest, a muzzling of independent journalism, and the indiscriminate detention of activists and civil society leaders. When the caravan of protesters reached interstate borders the state resorted to oppression: tear gas, barbed wire, water cannons, roads dug up, and concrete blocks strewn across the road to prevent movement to Delhi. This did little to stop farmers who hurled barricades into waterways and crossed the police’s makeshift barricades; later, the same farmers served police langar. Despite the organic nature of the protest and brutal state repression, mainstream media houses with links to the ruling party have been quick to call this a Congress plot at best, and a Khalistani-led agitation at worst. The government’s attempt to stifle and intentionally misperceive a peaceful protest physically and narratively disrespects article 19 of the Indian constitution and motivates the resistance to oppression that we heard the young women sing about earlier.

Third: The Idea of India. When India was founded, the global community was deeply suspicious that a patchwork of cultures, communities, castes, and local political systems would find durability under one flag and one administrative unit. Today, the country is touted internationally as the world's largest democracy and has found its place at the international table. Yet, as the COIVD-19 pandemic has shown, the government’s priorities and policy implementation is drifting further from the basic needs of everyday citizens. In his recent speech to the nation, the Prime Minister mentioned the agricultural bills, but remained mum on the protest, effectively ignoring thousands of protestors who are eating, sleeping, and singing at the gates of the capital city he controls. If barbed wire is what greets aggrieved citizens in a democracy, it’s easy to understand why one would be eager to rip out the roots of oppression.

So please pardon us for a moment, while we add our voice to the chorus. And as they say, feel free to join in if you know the words.


About the Author

Ashveer Pal Singh is a PhD candidate in the Department of anthropology at Stanford University and a User Experience Researcher at Facebook. His thesis research examines bureaucracy, e-governance, and political culture in Punjab. He has a passion for translating insights gained from qualitative research into action. Most recently, he was deputed as a consultant to the Punjab Government by an Indian think tank on a project to increase citizen's access to government services through tech. He holds degrees from UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago and can be found reading the Chandigarh Tribune in his free time.


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