On Sunday, a caravan of vehicles moved along the Delhi-Jaipur highway, which was occupied by protesters against the new farm laws brought by the Narendra Modi government. Red flags bearing the hammer and sickle of the All India Kisan Sabha, the peasant wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), fluttered as the crowd of 300-odd left Rajasthan’s highway town of Kotputli for Delhi.
But the Haryana police stood in the way. Around 2 pm, the protesters were stopped on the border near Shahjahanpur, a barricaded crossing sandwiched between yellow mustard fields.
As the protesters got down from their cars, trucks and tractors to shout slogans and sing songs of resistance, one man stood by the highway, talking animatedly to constables of the Rajasthan police.
“Congress or BJP, they all have one problem: they’re afraid of an enlightened farmer,” he told them. “They are rattled when we know our rights.” The constables nodded uncertainly.
This was Sukhjit Singh, 42, who has been participating in the farmer protests for a week. A restaurateur from Jaipur, he spent four days at Tikri on the Delhi-Haryana border earlier this month before travelling to Rajasthan to mobilise farmers for the stir. He has dedicated himself to one task: to make people see the “injustice” of the farm laws and to convince them of his cause.
Singh speaking with police constables on Sunday.
The protesters on the Delhi-Jaipur highway.
“I have spoken to at least 500 people about the farm laws so far,” Singh, standing at over six feet and wearing a dark blue shirt and a green turban, said. “I met local farmers and explained to them why Modi’s farm laws will endanger their livelihood. They will go back to their villages in Rajasthan and explain it to their neighbours, and that is how the word will spread.”
Singh knows how to accomplish his mission; he has an assortment of metaphors, analogies and hot-blooded eye contact to bolster his arguments. His impassioned style compels those nearby to first orbit him slowly, and then become part of his audience. Even the reticent constables of Rajasthan police had to concede.
“He is right,” they said soon after Singh left. “I sprinkled water on our farm only last night. We are sons of farmers.”
The protesters demanding revocation of the farm laws have a pet example to illustrate the Modi government’s purported ill intention: they recall how it let telecom operator Jio, owned by Mukesh Ambani, entice users with free 4G internet in its early days, until it established a monopoly. Similarly, they argue, once the farm laws are in force, private companies will initially offer better prices for farm produce. But once they build a monopoly in agriculture in two or three years, the rates will sink.
Singh has this example in his arsenal of persuasion – he used it on this correspondent – and more. He tells of wine-growing contract farmers in Maharashtra, and how the entry of private players wrecked their livelihoods.
Protesters on the Delhi-Jaipur highway.
“Contract farmers in Maharashtra shifted from selling to middlemen to selling to private players,” he explained. “When their rates dropped after a few years, they could not go back to the middlemen. The corporations slapped lawsuits on them, made a big fuss, and the farmers had to reconcile themselves to huge losses.”
Although Singh is now a businessman, he comes from a family of farmers. His grandfather was born in Punjab but moved to Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan’s northernmost district, in the years preceding India’s independence.
“I did farming before I opened my restaurant. I remember how poor migrant workers would come to our district every year from Bihar,” said Singh, who regrets voting for the BJP in 2014. “That is what the erosion of the mandi system did to farmers in that state. I cannot let that happen here. I don’t want to tell my children that I stayed silent when these black laws were passed.”
At the Rajasthan-Haryana border, news channels had been tipped off about the location of the coming protesters. Times Now, NDTV, Zee News and TV9 Bharatvarsh, as also dozens of local news websites, were busy covering the protesters, often by climbing on trucks, as they shouted slogans against the government.
Singh, however, was contemptuous of most of the channels.
“See how they climbed the truck. This is how they view things: from above,” he told the police constables. “It is social media that is the voice of the people, which shows them the ground reality. There is a nationwide protest going on right now. But you switch on the channel and see what is playing — only nonsense.”
Away from his audience, the restaurateur told Newslaundry he only watched NDTV when it came to TV news. “Everything else just spoils my mood,” he said dismissively. “I stay away from it.”
However, this has not kept Singh away from the media mics. When Muslim farmers from Mewat brought fruits for his fellow protesters on Sunday evening, he happily gave bites on fraternity to the Zee News correspondent who looked at the fruits with some suspicion.
Singh speaks to Zee News at the farmer protest.
Haryana police personnel barricading the Delhi-Jaipur highway on Sunday.
For now, the mission that drives Singh and his associates is to pour into Delhi and make the government repeal the farm laws. “We want the prime minister to listen to the farmers and put forth a better law. We want him to take the Swaminathan report into account,” he said. “He just shouldn’t speak his mann ki baat, but also listen to ours.”
The Haryana police have not yet allowed Singh and his comrades to march to Delhi. While more farmers arrive every day, the protest on the Delhi-Jaipur highway is minuscule compared to the one at the Singhu border. But Singh is not deterred.
“This spark becomes a movement only when we take the word down to the last village,” he told me, wiping the sweat off his forehead. “I do not feel tired. When you stand for the right cause, there is an energy that fills you. There will be a lot of people who will try to brainwash us the closer we get to Delhi. But we need to stick to our most basic beliefs about this law. And we will.”