How the farmers protest turned into a kitchen overflowing with food.
by Harman Khurana
"Wars cannot be won on an empty stomach"
Video by Harman Khurana, New Delhi
2 January 2021: At the Singhu border with Delhi, Baljeet Singh is 350 km away from his village, working at what looks to me like a mystifying setup. A pump fills up a rotating container with fresh milk. When I visited it was time for another batch of their evening langar (a communal meal). Families living at this border didn’t need to memorise the location of the stall, for it has been around for a month now. The pump and the rotating container are used to mix up huge batches of fresh turmeric milk and coffee, now a part of their routine to combat the chilling temperatures of Delhi. Two farmers from Kapurthala, Punjab did a quick taste test of the yellow-golden concoction. Smiling, they brought out the glasses and poured steaming turmeric milk for the farmers agitating at the Singhu border (between Punjab and Delhi). The border’s eight-kilometre long stretch was transformed into a mini-city where farmers from Punjab and Haryana camped from 26 November, 2020. Their only demand: a full repeal of the three contentious farm laws which were bulldozed through the Parliament by the Union government. The laws would allow the farmers to sell their produce to private traders directly, changing the current market structures of APMCs (agricultural produce marketing committees). The farmers believed that this would make them vulnerable to exploitation by these traders and the mandis (markets) would slowly succumb to non-use.
A farmers’ agitation originated in Punjab, the state which contributes the maximum to the wheat and rice requirement of the nation. It slowly moved to the borders surrounding the National Capital Territory of Delhi when their voices fell on deaf ears. Farmers from Punjab were soon joined by their counterparts from Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat as the movement spread all over India. Instagram handles of Kisan Ekta Morcha, a farmer’s newsletter Trolley Times started at the Tikri border (between Punjab and Haryana), independent news media outfits like Newslaundry, Caravan magazine, who the farmers happily talk to and photojournalists like Vibhu Grover and Naveen Macro updated me with the happenings at the borders.
I got Singh’s number when I met him at the Singhu border in January. His WhatsApp Status during the protest used to be filled with videos of langar preparation or motivational quotes.
Having returned to his village since, I talked to him over a call.
“We knew our struggle would be a long one since the government won’t budge from their stance easily. We had planned our rations according to that.” He added that during the initial days of the protest, farmers had brought rations for their ‘trolleys’ (tractors). Slowly they built makeshift kitchens to cook the food together.
Singh also told me about their agitation in Punjab. Close to 40 farmers’ organisations had come together to form a united front called Samyukta Kisan Morcha which led the protests in Punjab and subsequently in Delhi. Planning for the langar hence was not a difficult task. Some farmers from his area clearly intended to set up langar stalls for everyone. “We had got the rations to last us for a month when we first arrived at Singhu border on 26th November. We had planned to serve tea and biscuits to the people for freezing winters. Then we started serving hot vegetable soup along with kheer to bring a change in taste.”
The farmers who have fed the nation for generations didn’t believe in starving themselves. They continued to stand tall peacefully, replicating their old routines at their new homes in their tractor ‘trolleys’.
Religion and food have always been an inseparable part of any civilisation. Religion binds the otherwise differentiated society in a common thread while the food sustains it. Cultural mythologies are a strong reflector of this peculiar bond that people get socialised into. Our choices of cuisines are cut out for different occasions and festivities from the time we are born. In Punjab, the protests were led by farmers from the Sikh, Punjabi and Jat (both Hindu and Sikh) communities. The egalitarian Sewa Bhav forms the backbone of Sikh religion and practices, but service for humanity is the backbone of all faiths.
The Sikh temples have always stood as a symbol of giving. Khushwant Singh’s A History of the Sikhs says that the shrines “...have subsisted on the contributions made by the local peasants; the bigger shrines received large sums in offerings, particularly during religious festivals when their laṅgars would be called upon to feed as many as 50,000 pilgrims in one day.”
The women at the border baked chapatis on choolah (makeshift oven) which they assembled using pavement stones. Vegetables were being cooked in deghs (pots) big enough to feed hundreds of protestors and visitors.
“Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism, started the tradition of langar with just twenty rupees. That is the beginning of the miracle and even today no one goes hungry...you visit any gurudwara and or any programme and even before you reach there, you will find stalls overflowing with langar. I feel this is God’s gift to Punjabis, so they keep feeding people,” says Baljeet.
The ‘spirit of optimism’ or ‘charhdi kala’ is a lived experience for a believer in the Sikh faith. When the going gets tough, this ever-rising energy gives hope and healing yet a fearless outlook to the Sikhs. “They (Sikh Gurus) have commanded that the Sikh Panth (community) should always flourish in Charhdi Kala. When our Sikh brothers were attacked by BJP goons with stones didn’t falter, and still raised ‘jaikaaras’ (calls in Guru’s praise)? That is called Charhdi Kala,” Singh said while referring to the clashes of January 26, between the farmers and the Delhi police during the tractor rally that was planned in Delhi.
When I asked how much his group had spent organising the langars, he gave a ballpark Rs. 7-8 lakhs, which he says was contributed by his farmers friends and “NRI friends” who have been donating regularly.
“If we die of hunger as a form of protest, how will we fight the bigger fight?”
In front of the stage set up by Samyukta Kisan Morcha was a langar stall which stood out differently, with their hand-painted sign board...
“Aapki Aakhon pe Parda hai,
Godi Media, ye Biryani Nahi Zarda hai.”
(“Godi Media, you are blinded by lies.
This is not biryani but sweetened rice.”)
Muslim Federation of Punjab is an eight-year-old organisation based out of Malerkotla in Sangrur, Punjab. They have been working to provide food at the civil hospitals and organising langars for the needy in their city.
The Federation was co-founded and is headed by advocate Mubeen Farooqui. During his legal career, he is known for representing the family of the eight-year-old girl from the Gujjar-Bakarwal community in Kathua, who succumbed to brutal sexual violence and murder. He succeeded in sending the accused to jail for life. Continuing his efforts to fight injustice, outside of the legal system as well, his team of 25 people ran a food stall at the Singhu border from 26 November 2020.
“This is the first stall from the left side when you enter. So, if we go away, it will be looked at as a sign of weakness of the movement,” said Farooqui over a phone call.
Muslim Federation of India
Around 200 kgs of zarda was cooked on two choolahs (makeshift ovens) which have been set up just behind the stall. Advocate Farooqui explained how they arranged crucial supplies. The Federation used to pay for the water tankers and the firewood. Seeing their efforts, other organisations and the locals from the area started contributing to buy them supplies.
Farooqui added that they hadn’t planned for a long stay at the protest. “We had brought the ration for five days when we came to help our farmer brothers. Then they asked us to stay for longer to support the agitation.” Farooqui’s family and friends helped replenish the supplies and rations whenever they visited him. It became a well-established synergy.
What about the signboard? Farooqui spoke of how “Godi media” channels when reporting about them, said they were serving biryani to attract people to become a part of the protests. The narrative of biryani as an “anti-national” food and a euphemism of the crowd being paid to protest goes back to the Anti-CAA protests against the central government in January 2020.
Undeterred, the Federation continued to serve fresh zarda every day.
From the Tikri Border
"My father-in-law lost his only son. Who does he come here for?”
70-year-old Avtar Singh from Patiala insisted that they serve langar to fellow farmers when he first heard of the protests. His son-in-law Sukhbir Singh, who is a potato and wheat farmer helped him set up their trolley under the banner of Shaheed Baba Deep Singh Sewa Samiti.
I got in touch with Singh over a phone call. He was informed by his fellow farmers about going to Delhi to protest. Unsure of whether they would be granted permission to protest inside the capital, they settled at the Tikri border. Their langar camp ran day and night since 10th December 2020. Singh had said they would keep the langar going till the government agrees to their demands.
“Everyone contributed as much as they could. Farmers at the site and locals from Haryana gave us rations from their farms. When we prepared kheer, our brothers from Haryana brought fresh milk for us. They were our biggest contributors.”
When asked how much food they prepared every day, Singh replied there were no limits. “The langar sewa went on day and night and the rations kept refilling by God’s grace.”
Back home, Singh told how their household and farms were managed by his wife and his mother-in-law. The women who could make it protested shoulder to shoulder.
“Our only focus is to get the laws repealed. Our protest is our Charhdi Kala.”
The New Year
Farmers took turns going to and fro from the protest sites. They came out in huge numbers again when it was decided that they would organise a tractor march in Delhi on Republic Day. The farmers stood strong against the state’s forces and media’s advances to delegitimize their efforts by branding them as ‘Khalistanis’.
“The Nishan Sahib is the marker of a gurdwara. Wherever you see it, it means you will get free food and stay, and you can be blessed by the Guru, whether you are a crorepati or a poor sod,” says Chaman Singh, a member of Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee which manages gurdwaras in Delhi state and works for the welfare of the Sikh population. The religious flag led the people to their Gurus and in the nineteenth century started resonating with the Khalsa slogan “Degh, Tegh, Fateh'' (Victory to Charity and Sword).
Singh referred to the incident of a group that broke away from the peaceful tractor march to unfurl the Nishan Sahib at the Red Fort. The farmers were greeted with the State’s tear gas shelling and water cannons. Since the 26th of January violence, Delhi Police fortified these borders, discouraging the ‘trolleys’ and other vehicles from entering Delhi. The concrete barriers were constructed, barbed wires were put, while the Prime Minister, in an all-party meeting on 30th January, said that the “government was just a phone call away” for the farmers.
Chaman Singh told me that the DSGMC first started sending blankets, heaters, and turbans to different borders. It then set up stalls to know the needs of the farmers and arrange for supplies at the border itself.
“...Dal, roti and sweet dishes that we served at the borders are the same you would get in langar at any gurudwara. The sangat (community) donates to the Gurudwara committee which disburses funds for the stalls. Everyone, in one way or another got connected to the Kisan morcha.”
Singh told me about “a variety of langars” which didn’t serve food. “We served everything that the people needed to stay strong. Be it clothes, medicines and shoes. After the 26th of January violence, many farmers went missing or were detained by the Delhi Police. We provided legal help to the families of those farmers. We have spread the message amongst the protestors to contact us at the stalls where we could register their cases.”
“Isn’t this legal help in difficult times a form of langar in itself?”
Protests in the time of the Pandemic
May 1, 2021: As Delhi deals with the roaring second wave of the Coronavirus disease, the farmers continue to camp at its borders, completing 156 days.
Baljeet Singh returned to his village Bundala, Punjab last month to harvest his crop. They had to stop running the langar stall. He plans to visit the borders once he finishes tending to the crop.
The Muslim Federation of Punjab is running their langar stall with fewer volunteers since some of them returned to mark the month of Ramadan.
Chaman Singh’s efforts are currently directed towards helping Sikh families infected with the virus in the state. He is currently working with JAGO party (a Sikh politico-religious party) to provide meals, oxygen cylinders and other necessary supplies. He says that due to a sudden rise in cases, Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee sends fewer volunteers to the border to help farmers.
Contact with Sukhbir Singh couldn’t be established despite a number of attempts.
The official handle of Kisan Ekta Morcha and Trolley Times report that in the last few days, farmers from Tikri and Ghazipur border are sending food packets to Delhi hospitals and to the needy.