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The Guardian

Roaring crowds, roti and Rihanna: the view from a Delhi farm protest camp

As rhetoric rises on both sides, Indian farmers at the Singhu camp say they are going nowhere Women shout protest slogans at the Singhu camp. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters Puffing out his chest, his lime green turban luminescent in the morning sun, Surinder Singh made it clear he was a man who would not easily be moved. “We will stay here five years, 10 years if we have to,” the farmer said with a steely smile. “As long as it takes.” A roar of approval greeted his words from fellow farmers who had gathered for breakfast at Singh’s chai stand at the Singhu camp, one of three main protest camps on the outskirts of Delhi. Singh, a small-scale farmer from India’s northern state of Punjab, is just one of hundreds of thousands to have made Singhu his home since November, living out of the back of his now fully furnished tractor trailer. The farmers object vociferously to new laws that constitute the most sweeping reform to agriculture in India for decades. The government of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, says the laws will bring necessary modernisation and private competition to an ailing sector that has left millions of farmers destitute. A candlelit vigil in memory of a person who died at the Singhu camp. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters Farmers say the laws were passed without consultation and will allow for private corporations to control the prices of crops, crush their livelihoods and take away their land. “I was born on my land, my father was also a farmer. I will not let Modi take it away from us,” said Singh, echoing a widespread belief among those in the camps that the new laws will result in them losing their farms. “The government must abolish the black laws. Modi says bad things about us but we are simply protesting peacefully here and eventually we know we will win.” Eleven rounds of negotiation between farmers and the government have failed to reach any compromise. The government has offered small amendments, but for the farmers, it is a black and white issue: the “black laws” must go, and until it happens they are prepared to stay put – indefinitely. Police try to stop residents during a clash with farmers at the Singhu camp on 29 January. Photograph: Arun Kumar/AFP/Getty Images In the months since their protest began the farmers, who are largely from Punjab and Haryana but also Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, have created a slick operation that they say could sustain them for months or even years. In villages in Punjab and Haryana, a system has been put in place where 10 farmers attend the protest in rotation, while those left behind look after the crops and the children. Gyms and libraries of revolutionary books have blossomed across the Singhu camp, and shoulder massages are offered to those who are little stiff from consecutive nights spent sleeping in the back of a tractor. More than 1,500 community kitchens, known as langars, produce dal, rice, curry, biriyani and pizza. Sitting around a basin of dough the size of a baby elephant, three women beamed as they rolled it into 12,000 balls to be made into roti for that day. The months spent camped out in the winter cold have not dampened spirits. Impassioned speeches, many directed at Modi, were made from a stage to a captive audience. Loud cheers greeted the tractors that passed through the camp with up to 15 people clinging on, pumping out beats with the swagger of a convertible. In the afternoon a busload of students from Kerala arrived to offer their support. Small drums and tambourines were handed out to passersby, and a young Sikh adorned in an electric blue and orange turban performed an a cappella version of a Banghra hit by Panjabi MC into a megaphone. Funding has continued to roll in from fundraising efforts in Punjab and Haryana. International Sikh relief groups have also offered assistance, handing out free soap, flip-flops and other essentials to patiently queueing farmers. Among them was Babwinder Kaur. “I am here to take back my rights,” she said. “I have two acres where I grow vegetables and wheat and rice. It is not big but it is all I have. If that is taken away then where will I go, where will the next generation go?” A protest against the new farm laws on the outskirts of Amritsar on 6 February. Photograph: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images Plans are already being made for how to survive the summer, when temperatures in Delhi can hit almost 50C. With electricity supplies sporadically cut off to the camp by the authorities, discussions are being had about installing solar panels to generate power in the hot summer months. Fans and water coolers have also been put on order. The protest movement by India’s farmers – who make up more than 50% of the workforce – has been the most sustained since Modi came to power in 2014. It is also the first movement to bring the ruling Bharatiya Janata party – known for stifling civilian dissent – to the negotiating table. A protest march in Delhi on 26 January, India’s Republic Day, turned violent. Some farmers stormed the historic Red Fort monument and police retaliated with teargas and batons. Riot police and paramilitary groups descended on the camps with force and attempted to put a stranglehold on the protests, setting up concrete barriers, spikes and barbed wire around the camps. But the response only fuelled the farmers’ determination, and this week Delhi police partially withdrew their officers. Police beat farmers driving a tractor towards the heart of Delhi on 26 January. Photograph: Altaf Qadri/AP “We are feeling very angry about the way the government and police have treated us, putting barricades around us like we are criminals,” said Labh Singh, 68, a Punjabi farmer. “We are Indians, this is not the way to treat us. They have called us terrorists, saying we are Khalistan people [part of Sikh separatist movement], but that is very wrong.” The government has stepped up its rhetoric against the farmers over the past couple of weeks, accusing them of being infiltrated by outsiders and professional protesters. In a speech to parliament this week, Modi made it very clear he would not back down. Increased foreign scrutiny of the protests has become a sore spot for the government, which has released statements warning against interventions by foreign celebrities in domestic matters. For the farmers, those interventions are a source of great pride. Posters of Rihanna, who became an unlikely hero to the farmers when she drew attention to their cause on social media, have been hung up outside several of tractor trailers. At a mention of the Barbadian singer, 56-year-old Ranjit Singh from Punjab became emotional. “Rihanna is like our daughter, she is young but still she understand what we are going through here and speaks for us,” he said. “But the Bollywood actors who eat the food that we produce, they have called us traitors and ignored our sorrow. We are very thankful to Rihanna.”


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