“Twenty women were inside the tent when the stones started raining on us,” Kulwinder Kaur said, recounting the January 29 attack on farmers protesting against the Narendra Modi government’s farm laws at Singhu on Delhi’s border. The ‘ladies only’ tent was pitched at the entrance to the protest site, and housed 15-20 women.
When the attack happened, Kulwinder recalled, an elderly woman of around 70 was bathing in a curtained corner. “Our volunteers rushed in and saved her,” she said, adding that as the women began running out, another round of stones rained.
The stones tore through the tent. “Suddenly I saw a petrol bomb landing inside our tent and some of our beds caught on fire,” she said.
By the next day, a new tent had been erected. Hadn’t the women considered moving their tent someplace safer? “No, we are not scared,” Kulwinder replied. “We didn’t move when the asked us to go back, we won’t move now.”
The Delhi police claim the attack was carried out by “local residents” inconvenienced by the protest and angered that the tractor parade organised by the farmers on Republic Day had led to violence in the capital. The farmers at Singhu maintain that it was the handiwork of people associated with the Sangh Parivar. And they have questions for the police. “Why did the police stand back and allow the attack to happen?” asked Kulwinder. “How did the men manage to enter this heavily barricaded protest site?”
Security personnel at Singhu.
Since the attack, Satyender Singh walks around with a baseball bat. “I carry it for safety,” he explained.
Satyernder claimed that people associated with the Sangh Parivar have been threatening the farmers and telling them to leave since Republic Day. On , a group of about 150 men came and said if the farmers did not leave, they would return with two lakh people to evict them.
The next day, they came back and with the farmers. The police claimed these attackers were “locals”. Alt News this claim, showing at least some of them were linked to the BJP and they had come from afar. Locals or not, the police didn’t take action against the attackers; instead they arrested 44 farmers, .
Again on , a mob of men arrived and threatened the farmers. “Today, they didn’t come with lathis and stones. They came for about 15 minutes and shouted that we should leave,” Satyender said, adding that the farmers didn’t respond. “We are angry, but we cannot respond, right? The moment we do the government and the ‘Godi Media’ will turn us into terrorists.”
“Yes, we are angry and yes we are not terrorists,” he added, “but we are also not scared of anything.”
Jasbir Das, who has been on intermittent fast for the past 49 days in protest against the new laws, seconded Satyender, “If the men were locals they would not have come with full police support, they would not have come in big cars, wearing fancy clothes. We know the local people. They are hardworking poor people. These were clearly hired goons made to pose as local residents.”
Satyender Singh at the protest camp.
‘How did they enter?’
In the wake of the Republic Day violence, the police deployment was beefed up at Singhu. To get to the protest site now requires crossing four barricades and taking a long detour. At each barricade, the police check identity cards. After 6.30 pm local residents are not allowed to cross even the first barricade whereas journalists can walk up to the last barricade and take interior roads to reach the protest camp. The police have even dug up some of the interior roads, although they are still usable.
On Saturday, we had walked about a kilometer and taken a detour only to find ourselves in front of a dug-out, barricaded road. We were wondering if we would have to find another way to the protest camp when a policeman standing by the roadside called out, “You can climb over the barricade and then carefully walk along the edge of the trench,” he said, and let out a laugh, “Don’t fall inside though.”
An approach road to the Singhu protest camp dug up by the police.
So how did a fairly large mob of men manage to enter the protest camp? We asked several police personnel deployed at Singhu for a clarification, but they wouldn’t speak to the media. Only inspector Atul Kumar of the Delhi police agreed to comment. “We didn’t see the men, they came from inside,” he claimed, adding that the police noticed the men only after violence had broken out.
Were they from the Sangh Parivar? “No, they were just locals who are frustrated with the protest,” Kumar replied.
The farmers denied this. They claimed the mob had made their way to the protest camp along the barricaded road. “They came with the police. As they started pelting stones at us, we clearly saw the police stand back,” alleged Sukhvir Singh, a young protester.
The police intervened only when the farmers responded to the attack, he added. “The moment we responded in self-defence, the police started shouting at us and a lathicharge began,” he recalled. “Then they teargassed us.”
Sukhvir Singh with fellow protesters at Singhu.
Mood on ground
Not surprisingly, Singhu is quite tense. At the entrance to the protest camp, there are two stages, about 200 metres apart. One is managed by the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee and the other by the Samyukth Kisan Morcha, the coalition of farmer unions spearheading the protests against the farm laws. A has surfaced between the two groups since the Republic Day violence, which the Morcha blames on the KMSC. The police, meanwhile, have laid a barricade between the two stages.
But the farmers aren’t overly concerned about the divide between their unions. “We may have differences but our goal is the same, repeal the laws,” explained a farmer who asked not to be named.
Contrary to rumours, the Singhu protest isn’t fizzling out. The camp is as crowded as ever. “In our villages in Punjab, we have created a system that if 10 people return from Singhu today, 10 people will join us tomorrow. If you don’t participate you will be ostracized in the village,” said Sukhvir.
In a corner of the camp, Pradeep Kumar is busy serving tea and packets of chips from his small stall, mostly to the protesters. He lives in a nearby village and has been running the tea stall for six years.
Is he bothered by the protest?
“I have to walk 3 km to go get milk and rations, but other than that I have absolutely no problem,” he said. “I even get free food here,” he added, laughing.
Pictures by Aditya Varier.