Dilbag Singh has been at Singhu for about two months. The farm labourer, 50, is one of the thousands of farmers who are camped along Delhi’s border in protest against the three new farm laws brought by the Narendra Modi government. What sets him apart is that Dilbag claims to have cycled to Singhu all the way from his home at Panjwar village in Tarn Taran, Punjab.
A Hindi poster adorns the front of his bicycle and a Punjabi one the back. They carry the same message: “I cycled 470 km to be a part of this protest.”
The poster on his bicycle.
Dilbag is among a handful of protesters who are tasked by the organisers to lift the mood at Singhu. To this end, he takes rounds of the protest site on his bicycle, talking to farmers and seeking to inspire them with the posters adorning his cycle.
He is a marginal farmer. He doesn’t own much land, although he was hesitant to reveal how much. Asked why he opposed the new laws, he said, “Will I go looking for Modi when I need something? For me, an arhtiya is everything.”
Arhtiya is the middleman who facilitates the sale of agricultural produce at APMC mandis for a nominal fee. In states such as Punjab, the arhtiya also doubles up as a moneylender who bails out the farmer whenever they face a financial crunch. Dilbag fears the new laws, which enable private players to buy directly from farmers, will make the arhtiya redundant. “An arhtiya is the responsible one who lives close to our house and can be approached easily. So, I can go and ask him for money,” Dilbag explained.
Missing out on his daily wages as a labourer, Dilbag is seeking to make up by going around the protest with a weighing machine. Once he’s done cycling around Singhu for the day, he sits by the roadside with his machine, charging people a few rupees each to weigh themselves. Proud of the multiple langar, or communal kitchens, being run at Singhu, he said, “By God’s grace we have been able to feed people for a long time and will continue to do so.”
The carrier on the front of his bicycle is stacked with newspaper clippings containing pictures of his “protest on cycle”. “We will stay here until Modi accepts our demands,” he said when asked how long he plans to stay at Singhu.
News clippings he carries.
A day before violence broke out during the on Republic Day, Dilbag had cycled into Delhi. “I have tried going to Delhi 6-7 times, why has Modi blocked all the roads? What was the need?” he asked. “We could have talked freely. Why isn’t Modi talking to us?”
Referring to Modi’s recent remarks in the parliament about the 1984 anti-Sikhh carnage, Dilbag rued that the prime minister only makes speeches and never reaches out to them in person. On February 8, to the Motion of Thanks in the Rajya Sabha, Modi had said, “India is proud of every person of the Sikh community”, and that “Punjab cried the most during 1984 riots”.
Dilbag wasn’t moved. “Why is he not talking to us without any restrictions?” he asked, meaning the prime minister.
Cycling around the protest site.
It’s nearly three months since protesting farmers arrived on Delhi’s borders, demanding the Modi government repeal the new laws and provide legal guarantee to the minimum support price regime. Their representatives have since held 11 rounds of talks with the government, without success. There’s no clarity how long the protest will continue.
The protest site has been turned into a fortress under siege by the police, who have erected massive barricades to keep out even journalists. One has to walk several kilometres through side alleys to reach the main stage at the protest.
In recent days, media presence at Singhu has thinned out, adding to the sombre mood among the protesters who continue to hope the government will accept their demand. “They can send police, army or CRPF,” Dilbag said as he cycled away. “But a lot of them are sons of farmers.”