Mixed feelings as India farmers vacate protest sites near capital

While many feel victorious after forcing the government to withdraw the farm laws, others lament the deaths during year-long protest.

Indian farmers load bamboo and iron rods onto a truck as they dismantle temporary structures used during protests in Ghazipur outside New Delhi [Altaf Qadri/AP]

New Delhi, India – Tens of thousands of Indian farmers have cleared three protest sites on the outskirts of capital New Delhi they had occupied for more than a year to demand repeal of controversial farm laws, which were scrapped by the government last month.

On Saturday, the farmers began heading back to their homes, two days after their unions called off the year-long protest following assurances from the right-wing Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) government that their pending demands will be considered.

Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a stunning U-turn late in November, announced the withdrawal of three farm laws and apologised to the nation in a TV address for passing what the farmers referred to as “black laws”, the protesters wanted a guarantee on a minimum support price (MSP) for their products and all agitation-related cases against them withdrawn.

Indian farmers are showered with flower petals as they dance while leaving the protest site in Singhu, on the outskirts of New Delhi [Altaf Qadri/AP]

“We are happy today. Finally, we have won,” Sathbir Singh, a 70-year-old farmer from the northern Haryana state told Al Jazeera on Saturday.

“We got what we were demanding from this government since last year.”

At Tikri outside New Delhi, one of the three main protest sites, many farmers were seen dancing to high-pitched Hindi and Punjabi songs played on loudspeakers attached to their tractors as they removed their tents. They lit firecrackers, distributed sweets and hugged each other.

“Today, there is only happiness all around and no grief,” Singh said.

There were emotional scenes as well at Tikri as the farmers said goodbye to friends they had made during the protest that began in November last year.

In that month, thousands of farmers, mainly from the “grain bowl states” of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, decided to march to New Delhi to demand the withdrawal of the farm laws.

When the farmers were stopped from entering the capital by the police, they pitched their tents, blocking three main highways leading to the sprawling city.

The farmers refused to clear the sites unless the government revoked the laws, even as the country was reporting hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 cases on a daily basis.

For a year, they braved New Delhi’s biting winter, heat and record monsoons. They even suffered police violence and were called “terrorists” and “separatists” by the BJP leaders and a right-wing section of Indian media.

Modi’s government, on its part, claimed the laws, passed in September last year, were aimed at modernising India’s vast agriculture sector and would increase the income of the farmers by giving them access to more markets to sell their produce.

But the farmers said the laws would give private corporations control over the sector and deprive them of the MSP guaranteed by the government for their produce.

Last week, the government sent a letter to the protesting farmers, announcing the formation of a committee on MSP and the withdrawal of criminal cases against the protesters.

Farmers removing makeshift tents at Singhu protest site after farmers called off their protest [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

The scenes at Singhu border, the epicentre of the farmers’ protest, were no different as farmers – mostly from Punjab – celebrated their victory before leaving for home.

“We are happy that the farm laws have been repealed. But more than that, the biggest happiness is that we have beaten Modi because he was considered someone who would not go back on his word,” Swaran Kaur, 65, from Punjab’s Patiala district told Al Jazeera.

“He [Modi] wanted to turn the farmers into poor labourers.”

Swaran Kaur, (left), at Singhu outside New Delhi – the epicentre of India’s year-long farmers’ protest [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

‘Joined protest for my grandchildren’

Dressed in traditional attire, her head covered with a green scarf, 76-year-old Jasveer Kaur from Punjab’s Sangrur district had been a part of the farmers’ rallies since January.

On Friday, she walked up to Karan Preet, a teenaged volunteer at a pharmacy hub by the protesting farmers, and asked for some medicines and plasters. She thanked the young man, hugged and kissed him several times.

“Goodbye my son,” she told Preet in Punjabi. “These are all my children,” she said, pointing to a group of farmers and volunteers.

Kaur told Al Jazeera she decided to join the protest herself since there was no male member in her family. She is a widow who has lost both her sons.

Jasveer Kaur, 76, at Singhu protest site on the outskirts of New Delhi [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

“I joined the protest for the future of my grandchildren. This fight was for the protection of their land and their livelihoods,” she said, adding that the year-long protest was not a cakewalk but full of hardship.

She said they battled the harsh weather conditions in which dozens of farmers lost their lives. Farmer unions say more than 700 farmers died during the protests.

“It was painful to see so many of our farmers losing their lives here during this protest,” she said. “Whether it was the harsh winter, the unbearable summer heat of Delhi or the rains, we faced everything and did not leave. This victory is the result of our commitment.”

Lakhmir Singh, 49, sat pensively with other farmers inside a makeshift hut – his home for more than a year. While they were happy their protest had ended with a victory, there was something amiss: the absence of their companion Jatinder Singh.

Jatinder, 33, had battled water cannon and smoke shells while they began their march last year. “He died from a heart attack four months ago,” Lakhmir told Al Jazeera.

“We are happy that we won but the only thing that pains us today is the absence of those whom we lost during the agitation.”

Lakhmir Singh, (centre), sits in a makeshift hut with other farmers at Singhu [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

Prince Sandu, 32, and his team of five volunteers washed the clothes of the protesting farmers in washing machines installed at Singhu. He said he is proud of being a part of the protest.

“It seems as if this was a dream. This one year passed like a blink of an eye,” Sandhu told Al Jazeera. “There are so many memories that we have captured in videos, photographs and the lived experience here. We will cherish these moments for the rest of our lives.”

Kaur said she had never imagined the protest would go on for such a long time. But she said the farmers were sure about forcing the Modi government to repeal the laws.

“We knew that no matter how long this struggle is going to be, the victory will be ours.”

Source: Al Jazeera