Home News The human cost of peasant protests in India – Srishti Jaswal

The human cost of peasant protests in India – Srishti Jaswal

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On the morning of November 10, Gurpreet Singh was found hanged from a tree in Singhu, on the outskirts of New Delhi, where thousands of farmers have been camping out for over a year to protest a series of government-approved laws.

Gurpreet, 45, a landless farmer, didn’t leave a farewell note, but a word was engraved on his left hand: zimmedar, responsible. The man had been back at the protest site for two days. He had come from his village of Roorkee, in the state of Punjab, where he had rented half a hectare of land. In his last days he had confessed to his comrades the discomfort of having to divide himself between the village and the site of the protest, 250 kilometers away. He was barely in a position to feed his family and the situation worried him.

“Nobody thought he could do that extreme gesture,” says Lovepreet Singh, 20-year-old son of Gurpreet, who on the morning of November 10 received a photo of his father’s corpse via WhatsApp. “It shocked me. I could not believe”.

Permanent mobilization
Gurpreet took his own life just ten days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a surprising turnaround, announced the repeal of controversial agriculture laws. On November 29, the Indian parliament approved a decree that cancels the three laws introduced by the Modi government in September 2020.

In the executive’s plans, the laws should have allowed farmers to sell their produce and increase the yield through private investment. But farmers, especially in the “granary” states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, rejected them, explaining that the agricultural sector would end up in the hands of large companies that would have ignored the “minimum support price” ( msp) guaranteed by the government.

In November 2020, thousands of farmers marched to New Delhi to support their claims. When they were prevented from entering the capital, they decided to camp in three areas around the city, where they still stand despite the repeal of the laws. At this point they are demanding that the government pass a law to guarantee MSPs and address other problems facing the sector.

In the twelve months of protests, Gurpreet’s death was not an isolated case. According to data from the Samyukt kisan morcha (Skm, United Farmers’ Front), the organization leading the protest, Gurpreet is the ninth farmer to take his own life. Another 700 would have died from diseases favored by the cold, record rains, smog and heat waves.

The Modi government said there are no documents confirming the death of the farmers, sparking strong protests and a request for compensation for the families of the deceased, which the farmers call shaheed (martyrs). The Skm asks for a plot of land to build a monument dedicated to the martyrs in Singhu.

But Gurpreet’s family has different opinions on this. “I wish he had waited a few days before taking this step,” said Mandeep Kaur, the farmer’s 40-year-old wife. “Everyone says my husband is a martyr. But we? What will we do without him? “.

Gurpreet’s family says that the man, after his involvement in the protest in early November, was increasingly aloof and ignored calls from relatives. “The day before his death, around noon, Gurpreet turned off his phone after talking to us. The next day we got a call from your number. A farmer informed us that he was dead, ”Mandeep said. “If we had had the slightest suspicion we would have stopped him. I would have gone there, I would have asked someone for help. We certainly wouldn’t have lost it ”.

Families on the pavement
Karnail Singh, a 75-year-old landless farmer from Sherpur village in the state of Punjab, died in December 2020 after falling ill in Tikri, one of the three main protest sites on the outskirts of New Delhi. A month later, 45-year-old Nirmal Singh, also a landless farmer from the village of Dhaula, Punjab, committed suicide in the same place. He left behind a wife and two children.

In March, Sukhpal Singh, a 40-year-old farmer from Baalianwali village in Punjab, died of food poisoning during protests. Now his family faces over $ 6,700 in debt.

The government claims that “big farmers” are behind the protest, but a study by the Punjab University of Patiala found that almost all the farmers who died during the protest were landless or at most owned a plot of just over a hectare.

The deceased farmers belonged to the lowest level of the Indian farming community. Their deaths could spell economic ruin for their families, many of whom are now in debt.

Gurpreet’s son says that in 2000 the family owned about two hectares of land. “But in 2007 our entire harvest was lost due to natural disasters. My father was forced to sell the family land to pay off a huge debt, ”he explained.

Earth mother
Siddhupur’s Bhartiya kisan (Bku) union, of which Gurpreet was a member, had helped him rent a car to do the dual business of milkman and taxi driver, in order to earn a living. Then Gurpreet had rented a piece of land to grow vegetables and feed for his animals. “My husband had paid off all the debts, but we still couldn’t make ends meet. We lived for the day. Now that he’s gone, we rely on God’s will, ”says Mandeep.

The Punjab government has announced that it will offer jobs and funds for the families of deceased farmers as a gesture of support. Some NGOs have offered financial assistance. But Gurpreet’s family has not yet received any help due to the delay in issuing the death certificate. “On the occasion of the funeral, the Bku of Siddhupur gave us 50,000 rupees and some cereals to go on,” Mandeep said.

Gurjinder Singh, 28, coordinator of the Siddhupur Bku, was one of the first to visit Singhu after Gurpreet’s death. “I got a call early in the morning. They informed me that a man from Roorkee village had been found hanged at the Singhu border. I’ve seen a lot of deaths in the last year, so many that they don’t scare me anymore. But for Lovepreet it was hard, she was crying all the time. We decided that we would not allow them to see the father’s body until they got home ”.

Lakhwinder Singh, a professor of economics at the University of Punjab who recorded the deaths of farmers during the protest, explains that “in Punjab the land is traditionally considered ‘mother’, and the practice of agriculture is associated with prayer. Most of the farmers participating in the protest share this belief and have welcomed the new agricultural laws with great anxiety and concern. For many of them this state of mind represented an unbearable burden in the harsh conditions experienced during the protest ”.

Lovepreet would like to take his father’s place in the protest. But his mother is worried. “I don’t have the means to pay the cost. My son is all I have left. I have already lost as a wife, I don’t want to lose as a mother as well ”.

(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)

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