Karnal, Haryana – For nearly two months, Prem Singh, 65, followed a ritual he had unwittingly slipped into.
He left his village in northern India’s Haryana state on December 1, 2020, to join tens of thousands of Indian farmers staging sit-ins along the borders of the national capital to demand the repeal of agricultural laws passed in September last year.
While camping at the protest site in Singhu – located along the Delhi-Haryana border – Prem ensured he called his son Sandeep, 34, back in the village every morning.
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“He did not have a phone of his own,” Sandeep says, sitting in his dimly-lit room in the village of Manpura in Haryana’s Karnal district, 260km (161 miles) away from Singhu.
“But he would use somebody else’s mobile to check on us. I expected his call at a certain time every day. It had almost become a ritual.”
That ritual came to an abrupt end on January 26.
Crammed on a tractor at Singhu with several others, Prem, at around six in the evening, collapsed off the vehicle. He never made it back.
“I was with him at that time,” says Joginder Singh, 36, a resident of Manpura.
“We paid our respects to him at the protest site and took his body to the village for the funeral. He became one of the many martyrs that have laid their lives for the cause of the farmers.”
Since November 26, tens of thousands of farmers have camped at three different locations around the capital, demanding the government withdraw the laws they say put them at the mercy of private companies and destroy their livelihoods.
As the protest enters its 100th day on Friday, at least 248 farmers have died at the borders outside New Delhi, according to the data collected by Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), or United Farmers’ Front.
Some died of health issues, others by suicide, said the SKM, which on Saturday plans to stop all traffic on the six-lane Western Peripheral Expressway that forms a ring outside New Delhi for up to five hours to continue their protest.
‘I plan to take my father’s place’
Despite mounting deaths, the farmers say their commitment towards the protest remains unshaken. But their active involvement has run into impediments.
In the month since Prem’s death, Sandeep has been home to welcome visitors who have come to offer condolences.
“My mother is also not back to normal,” he says.
“She is not speaking to anyone. I need to be at home to look after her. But I plan to take my father’s place at Singhu once everything settles down. We have lost the main member of our family. We also have to worry about our income.”
With only an acre of farmland, Sandeep says the family’s major income comes through labour work.
“I work as a driver, my elder brother works as a labourer here and there,” says Sandeep.
“After my father’s death, there is one less earning member in the family. I need to balance my work and my time at Singhu. I can’t stop earning, but I can’t abandon the protests either.”
For Sandeep Kaur, 34, the issue is not as complicated. She has two children – aged two and five – and even though she supports the agitation, there is little she can actively do about it.
Her husband, Manpreet, 42, had been camping at Singhu from the day the protest began.
“After almost a month of being at the border, he came home to see us,” she told Al Jazeera during a telephone call.
“The next day, he felt uneasy. The day after that, he died sitting in his chair. The doctor said he suffered a silent heart attack.”
With very little farmland in the small town of Bhawanigarh in Punjab’s Sangrur district, Kaur can no longer afford to participate in the protests.
“I have to take care of my little kids,” she says. “I do not get along with my in-laws. My father passed away three years ago. I am a small farmer and I have very little support system. We have not received any help from the government, either.”
Like Kaur, Sandeep Singh is also a small farmer, who cultivates rice and wheat largely for self-consumption. The new farm laws do not affect him directly, he says.
“But they will devastate livelihoods of farmers with larger landholdings that are dependent on the government-decided minimum support price,” he says.
“If they lose their income, they can’t employ people like us to work in their farmlands.”The families of labourers who died during the protest have lost hands to earn their daily wages. For those relying more on their farmlands, the problems are different.
Roshni Singh, 60, and her husband Shishpal, 72, looked after two acres of their farm in the village of Gagsina, 20km (12 miles) from Manpura. Shishpal’s brother Kripal, 62, nurtured another two acres.
“We had divided the work on four acres between the two families,” says Roshni, covering her head with a scarf.
When the farmers’ agitation began around New Delhi, Shishpal had his task cut out. “He had been at the protest site at Singhu from the first day,” says Roshni.
‘Juggling between protest and farmland’
While he was away, Kripal doubled up to look after his brother’s farmland. Roshni managed the household and started spending more time in the field than she usually did.
“That way, we could participate in the protests and also maintain the farms,” she says. “It was an arrangement that seemed to be working for us.”
But on January 4, Kripal received a call from a farmer at Singhu. Shishpal had suffered a heart attack and was admitted to a hospital in Sonipat city in Haryana.
“He was shifted to another hospital a day or two later,” says Kripal. “Five days after the attack, he died. We had to borrow about 300,000 rupees ($4,100) for his treatment.”
Shishpal is survived by two children – Sandip, 25, and Manju, 27.
“Manju is married,” says Roshni. “Sandip is in the army. My son is standing on the borders of the country. My husband stood on the borders of the capital. I am proud of both of them.”
The night before he suffered a heart attack, Shishpal had come home for a day. “He was absolutely fine and upbeat,” Roshni says, with a wistful smile that deepens her wrinkles.
“He mobilised more farmers in the village to join the protests, erected a union flag on a tractor, and chanted slogans. He deeply cared about the protests and was determined to see the withdrawal of the farm laws.”
Kripal says his brother would often worry about the state-regulated markets, called mandis, once the private players step in.
“The mandis will become redundant,” Kripal recalls his brother saying.
“The corporations would dictate prices, and they would have a monopoly over us. The corporate power over agriculture would make us slaves on our own lands.”
These words, reverberating in Kripal’s ears, have made him more determined to see the protests through.
“That is what Shishpal would have wanted,” he says. “I have been to Singhu a couple of times since he passed away. I am juggling between the protests and the farmland.”
Every morning, Kripal wakes up, and walks over to his farm to water the wheat crop that is currently being cultivated. He sprays fertilisers and pesticides if he has to.
He then walks over to Shishpal’s land and repeats the process. What started as a temporary arrangement for Kripal has now become a ritual for him.