Kneading dough on a wintery evening, a group of women protestors at Tikri on Delhi’s border burst out in a good laugh. A statement of India’s top judge had just come up for discussion.
“Why are old people and women ‘kept’ in the protests?” Chief Justice of India SA Bobde had asked during a hearing on the matter on January 11.
“CJI should meet our suba aagu Bindu and then decide if we are just ‘kept’ at the protests,” Harinder Kaur replied, taking a sip of tea, and the laughter continued.
She meant herself. Harinder, 43, fondly called Bindu, is a state leader, or suba aagu, of the Bhartiya Kisan Union Ekta Ugrahan in Punjab. She’s also the adopted daughter of one of the union’s top leaders, Jhanda Singh Jethuke.
She’s called daughter by some of her fellow farmers, sister by many. And she is an inspiration to everyone at Tikri, participating in every decision about the ongoing movement, dealing with emergencies, and making sure every protester, especially women, is looked after.
Harinder, a single mother, has left her teenage son in her family’s care to be at the protest at Tikri. We spent a day with her to see how she goes about her work as one of the most prominent leaders of the ongoing protests against the Narendra Modi government’s new farm laws, which farmers insist are designed to corporatise agriculture to their detriment.
Meetings in morning
Harinder’s day starts early, in a cowshed which doubles up as a makeshift office of BKU Ekta Ugrahan, one of the country’s most influential farmer organisations led by Joginder Singh Ugrahan. At 9 am, she sits for the daily meeting of her union’s state committee, its apex decisionmaking body of which she’s the only female member.
“We decide the agenda for the day and implement it. We analyse where our struggle is lacking and progressing. We discuss the policies and politics and decide our course of action,” she said, explaining the purpose of the daily meetings. “This is the most important task of the day.”
“I wake up at 5 in the morning, read all the papers and notes so I am prepared for the meeting. One cannot afford to be ill-informed,” she continued.
At Tikri, her key responsibility is managing the supply chain. “We have made committees for everything, getting food, winter clothing, hygiene products. The committees tell me what all they need, we get it and distribute it among various groups. Everything goes through me as a suba aagu,” she said.
Harinder had her first brush with public mobilisation back in the 1980s, when, as a 10-year-old, she would attend protests with her father, a local leader of Naujawan Bharat Sabha, a leftist organisation founded by Bhagat Singh. “There were dramas, protests, rallies in our village,” she recalled. “I was always interested in attending them.”
After the Khalistan movement erupted and Punjab was riven with violence, Harinder recalled, her father became a vocal critic of both the police and the Khalistanis. He was gunned down by suspected militants in 1991. “I was 14 at the time. After his passing, I decided to take his baton and join the public movement.”
In her early years, in the 1990s, she was involved with various protest movements in Punjab. “In my youth I fought for affordable bus fare, education of girls, students, issues of Dalits and labourers,” she said. “In 2002, I formally joined Bhartiya Kisan Union Ekta Ugrahan. I have been mobilising women to join protests since then.”
About 75 percent of rural women in India who work full-time are farmers, according to Oxfam. Yet farming is widely seen as a man’s work and just 13 percent women own the land they till.
The ongoing protests have helped dispel this misconception to an extent. At Tikri, Harinder said, some 40,000 of the protesters are women. “The labour of women farmers may not be visible in our fields but we’re visible in the protests,” she said. “It is great that so many women have come to join the protests, it is a sign of changing times.”
Mobilising and motivating
After the morning meeting, Harinder takes stock of the arrangements and asks about the welfare of the women protesters. “The meeting usually ends by 10:30 am. After that all suba aagu go to various nagars,” she said.
For ease of managing the Tikri protest, spread over several kilometres along Delh’s border, the organisers have divided it into “nagars” named after Punjabi personalities. So, there’s Baba Banda Singh Nagar, Chacha Ajit Singh Nagar, Bibi Gagri-Gulab Kaur Nagar, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar, Shaheed Sadhu Singh Takhtupura Nagar. Bibi Gagri-Gulab Kaur Nagar is where the women protesters are and it’s the centre of Harinder’s activities.
“I visit these nagars, talk to the women protestors, motivate them, tell them to be strong. This is the most crucial part of our struggle, to give each other strength,” she said. “Sometimes it is difficult even for me. There are no bathrooms or toilets. There’s extreme cold. Managing periods gets very challenging. But we women inspire each other.”
And she has made an impression. “I met her just a month ago but Bindu is no less than a daughter to me. Whenever I need anything I just tell her. She arranges everything for the women here, from food to sanitary pads. She’s our moral support,” said Harjinder Kaur, 54, from Niyal village in Patiala. “Bindu is a bomb which has now blasted onto the centre.”
After attending to the women at Bibi Gagri-Gulab Kaur Nagar, Harinder heads to the main protest stage. “I check up on our artists, see if they need anything for their performances. I check lineups, crowds,” she said. “From noon to 3.30 pm, we manage the stage. After that we meet mediapersons.”
She rarely finds time for lunch, usually grabbing a bite only in the evening. “When I visit the trollies, people out of love invite me to eat with them. We Punjabis never let anyone leave without a meal,” she said, sharing a plate of food with a group of women from Patiala in the evening.
Harinder Kaur with fellow farmer protesters at Tikri.
Father, daughter and son
Harinder is the adopted daughter of Jhanda Singh Jethuke, who is essentially BKU Ekta Ugrahan’s deputy head. “My father and Jhanda Singh ji were close as they worked together at Naujawan Bharat Sabha. After my divorce in 2010, I dedicated myself to working for BKU Ekta Ugrahan under Jhanda Singh ji’s guidance. While travelling in the villages together, I started calling him ‘papa’ and he started treating me as a daughter. We did not know when we became one family.”
Her son, Adeeb, 14, stays with her brother in Punjab. “For this fight there are sacrifices that one has to make,” Adeeb said over the phone from his uncle’s home in Faridkot district. “I talk to her every day. She keeps checking up on me. I do not feel she is far. My mother is doing what any farmer would do. I am proud of her.”
Adeeb visited the Tikri protest in December. “I can’t wait to go there again.”
It isn’t just fellow protesters that Harinder has made a mark on, she has also impressed her union’s leaders.
Joginder Singh Ugrahan is all praise for her. “In the initial days of the Covid lockdown, all senior leaders were quarantined. Bindu was made the union’s state secretary and she took command. Along with other young leaders, she started raising awareness about the bills and other farmer issues before they were passed,” he said. “Since Bindu performed her duties well, we felt more women should join our union as leaders. Now we have more than 10 women leaders at block, district and state levels.”
Jethuke added, “Her work started back in 2020 when she mobilised rural women to join our protests in Punjab. It’s because of her that so many women have joined us at Tikri. She is a protester since her childhood.”
‘Can’t curtail our rights’
What did Harinder make of Bobde’s remark about women protesters? “The chief justice of India is afraid of woman power,” she replied in her confident voice. They can't curtail our power to protest and assemble peacefully. They know they can overcome men, but they can’t overcome women. Such is our strength.”
Punjab and Haryana, whose farmers are leading the ongoing protests, have highly skewed sex ratios. For 1,000 men in 2015, according to data released by Niti Aayog there were only 889 women in Punjab and 831 in Haryana, a sign that women have been treated as somehow being inferior to men.
“Participation in this protest shows a woman can do more than just rearing a child and caring for her husband,” Harinder said. “It shows that we are now empowered to make our own decisions. And we are not going back.”
“By saying women should go back, the Supreme Court is telling us to retreat from leadership positions,” she added. “Why should we?”
Pictures by Srishti Jaswal.