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Balwinder Kaur, 60, left her home, two sons and four grandchildren in Ranjanwadi, Punjab, on November 25 to join the “Chalo Dilli” march of farmers protesting the new farm laws brought by the Narendra Modi government. She’s now at Singhu, the focal point of the farmer protests on Delhi’s borders.
Kripal Kaur, 70, left her home in Singur, also in Punjab, that same day, but she won’t say who she has left behind. “I am here,” she explains. “That’s all that matters.”
As one nears the Singhu protest site, it is impossible not to be struck by a sea of turbaned heads. At first glance, one mostly sees men. Look closer, however, and small groups of women are scattered throughout. They not only participate in protest activities, shouting slogans and carrying placards, but also oversee the making and distribution of food.
What brought them here? “I voted for Modi. Many people told me not to but I did. Today, he has betrayed me,” Kripal says, energetically lifting a hand to stress her point. “At election time he made such big promises but what has he done for us?”
It isn’t easy for these women at Singhu. They have to brave the Delhi cold and the lack of toilets, privacy and hygiene, but they are determined to stay put until their demands are met. As one of them puts it, “As long as we’re here together, it’s fine”.
In any case, the women point out, they didn’t really have a choice but to march on Delhi. “We protested in our towns and villages for two months, but no one heard us. So now we are here,” explains Manjeet Kaur, 40, who has left her husband and two children in Patiala.
The spirit of the protest, Manjeet says, lies in the determination of the farmers to secure a dignified future for their children. “Yes, this is not the most comfortable situation for any of us. But this discomfort is a small price to pay,” she replies when asked what gives her the strength to continue with the protest against all odds. “If we don’t protest now, our land will soon go to Ambanis and Adanis of India. This means that in future our kids will become labourers on our own land.”
Anger towards Modi and the demand to repeal the new farm laws is a running theme in conversation with the protesters, women and men alike, the depth of their anger coming across even though most of them only speak in Punjabi.
“If Delhi doesn’t listen to Punjab, then we will come and turn Delhi into Punjab,” Paramjeet Kaur, 48, sums it up. “Only then will we leave.”
Kripal Kaur, 70, who left her home in Punjab's Singur.
‘Not work, it’s public service’
Balwinder, Manjeet and Paramjeet are among a group of 12 women sitting near the main stage at the protest site. Most of them are wearing green dupattas, the colour of the Bharatiya Kisan Union community.
They did not know each other before joining the protest, the women say, but now they live like a family. Do they interact with women from Haryana as well? “There are only a few of them and we see them but we mostly stick with each other since we can’t understand their language,” says Manjeet.
The women sit wedged between tractors, under a makeshift roof made of tarpaulin and cloth. There are bins of onion, peas and carrots around them and the women have divided their work. It is around 3 pm, lunch has been served and tea is being brewed by men in a nearby tent. The women are preparing dinner, peeling onions, shelling peas, chopping carrots. Balwinder is sat in front of a basket, slicing onions.
“Do you have to do this work everyday?” we ask.
Immediately, three women jump to correct us. “This isn’t work. We don’t call this work. This is seva,” one of them says, meaning service. “This is the seva we happily do as part of the movement.”
The women preparing dinner under a makeshift roof.
At the Singhu border, it is difficult to put a count on the number of protesters, with estimates varying from 3,000 to 6,000. The caravan of tractors and lorries blocking the highway seems endless. After walking 3-4 km, we ask some people how far we still have to go to reach the end of the protest. “You walk for as long as you can and you still have to carry on,” one person said. Another added, “This goes on till Sonipat.” Sonipat, in Haryana, is some 20 km from Singhu.
But even with so many mouths to feed, there’s no dearth of food at Singhu. Three meals are served every day and tea and fruits are supplied all the time. It may seem chaotic, but there’s a method to the madness. Men and women share the daily work. And their routine has ensued the resistance.
According to Balwinder, some of the elderly men and women wake up at around 4 am and go to bed only by 11 pm.
“We women wake up at 4 am, we freshen up, prepare for breakfast. Once food is served, we also eat and then rest for a bit before preparing for lunch. Again, food is made and served. Post lunch, we go and sit near the stage,” she says. After spending some time sitting in the sun, near the stage, the women head back to the tents and start preparing for dinner.
‘Bathing is a problem’
Balwinder carries a mug of water and makes her way towards an empty plot. “Come, I’ll show you our toilet,” she says.
The dusty plot is next to the farmer protest site at Singhu on Delhi’s border with Haryana. A few men stand around. Balwinder walks along a brick wall lining the plot. Some metres ahead, a white plastic sheet is hung and a few bricks are stacked against the space between the wall and the sheet.
“This is where we urinate and defecate. This is the women’s toilet. Men can go anywhere and everywhere,” she says, laughing heartily. The stench of faeces fills the air. “Well, until Modiji changes his mind, this is where we will shit,” she says while walking back from the makeshift toilet, amused by her own commentary.
Balwinder Kaur at the toilet.
Along the highway, at different places, one can see men showering and freshening up by a water tap. Usually five-six of them share a bucket or tap and shower in the open.
For women, of course, open bathing is not an option. Balwinder says she couldn’t shower that day. “I woke up after dawn. My eyes just would not open, I was really tired. And once there’s light, it’s difficult for us women to shower,” she explains.
Most of the women who wake up at 4 am, wait for a sliver of light because it’s difficult to shower in pitch dark. As soon as the sky breaks into a little bit of light, they quickly shower. Women hold up large pieces of cloth for each other and they all finish showering before full daylight.
In the last one week, the Delhi government has installed a few mobile toilets at the protest site, but the women don't use them. The toilets are located a little ahead of the protest site, beyond two police barricades. “We have to walk 1-2 km if we have to use them,” says Paramjeet Kaur, 48.
What about when women have their periods?
Manjeet says when they have their periods it is not easy. “We have bought along our pieces of cloth that we wash and use. Some of us who use sanitary pads have stocked up on them. But, yes, usually we are in pain and sleeping on the road or on a tractor during that time is not very comfortable,” she adds.
Pictures by Nidhi Suresh.