On January 23 morning, a dozen farmers set out from Punjab’s Moga to take part in the tractor rally that their fellow farmers protesting against the Narendra Modi government’s farm laws along Delhi’s borders had planned for Republic Day. They reached the capital in the evening of the same day and joined in the protest.
During the rally, some of the other protesters deviated from the official route, leading to clashes with the police.
In the aftermath of the rally, all 12 of the farmers from Moga were detained by the Delhi police, and booked for attempt to murder, rioting with dangerous weapons, and obstructing a public official in their duty. Ten of them are still in jail. Navdeep Singh, 17, was later freed as he is a minor. Daljinder Singh, 19, was granted bail by a Delhi court on February 25.
“Contrary to what the police are alleging, we did not commit any violence,” Navdeep told Newslaundry over the phone from his home. In fact, he added, none of the 12 farmers were anywhere near the scene of the violence that day.
In all, the Delhi police have arrested 153 farmers, accusing them of being involved in the Republic Day clashes, according to Amarveer Bhullar, a lawyer who has taken up the cases of some of the jailed farmers.
Day of violence
Narrating what happened on January 26, Navdeep said. “It was a long march and tractors were moving really slowly. By the time we crossed the Tikri border, it was already late. During the march, a tractor broke down which delayed us as we had to wait for the tractors in front of us to move forward.”
Navdeep said since they did not know the route they were separated from the main procession. “We were lost and we had to follow directions using GPS on our phones which led us into old Delhi,” he added. “We eventually saw the Singhu border tractor march and joined them.”
At around 4 pm, they reached Peeragarhi Chowk and were met by a police force of 200-300 men. “They asked us where we were going. We told them we had come from Moga and were trying to get back to the Tikri border. They told us they would take us back to the border. Two officers boarded our tractors. One of them took control of the lead tractor and he took us to a police station,” Navdeep said, adding that they didn’t know where this police station was.
They were questioned by the police till around 12:30 am, their phones and personal belongings were confiscated, and they were sent to the Sultanpuri police station. Till that point, the police had not filed an FIR against them, he claimed, adding the police asked for their Aadhar cards which they did not have on them.
At 3 pm on January 27, they were shifted to the Nangloi police station. Since Navdeep was 17, he was separated from the group. “Since I was a minor, they shifted me to a room that had six other minors,” he said. No FIR was lodged against him and he was released at 10 pm on January 30.
“On the night of January 28, all us minors were called in by the senior officer and asked to call relatives. They checked my phone for videos and when they didn’t find anything, they reset my phone. They made me spend the night in the station, and allowed me to call my brother and father in the morning. After completing all formalities they released me on January 30,” Navdeep said.
‘Never incited violence’
At 4.27 pm on January 27, an FIR was lodged at the Nangloi police station against the remaining 11 farmers and they were charged with an attempt to murder. Newslaundry has obtained a copy of the FIR, and it’s replete with discrepancies.
To begin with, the violence and the arrests occurred at around 4 pm on January 26. Yet the FIR wasn’t registered until a day later. Further, the police behaved in a manner suggesting there was no delay in filing of the FIR. Under the column asking the reason for the delay, the FIR states, “No delay.”
The FIR names as many as 23 farmers in total. They are booked for attempt to murder, rioting with deadly weapons, damaging public property, unlawful assembly, conspiracy, obstructing and assaulting officials.
The complainant is one inspector Amit Kumar. He alleges that leaders of various farmer groups and the Jamindar Students Association “conspired and instigated the protesters to forcibly enter Delhi from Tikri border after breaking the barricades and attacking the police personnel”.
The FIR claims that the protesters “broke barricades at Nangloi” and attacked police personnel. They were “armed with swords, spears, rods, lathis and other dangerous weapons”. It records that the protesters “hit police barricades with tractors with the intention to cause death to the police staff deployed on barricades”. It further declares that the protesters and their leaders with the “preplanned objective of not following the mutually agreed route, resorted to unlawful acts”.
Refuting the allegations made in the FIR, Navdeep said at Peeragarhi Chowk, where they were stopped by the police, there weren’t any barricades on the road for them to knockdown. Moreover, if they had rammed their tractors through, they would show at least some signs of damage, but that’s not the case. He told us that their tractors were confiscated at the Nangloi police station when he was released.
He also said they were not carrying any weapons, contrary to what the FIR alleges. “We had flags of the Kisan Sanyukt Morcha on our tractors. Since we didn’t have flagpoles, we were carrying a stick to put a flag up later. We didn’t even have any kirpan with us. We never incited any violence,” he added.
Getting legal aid
Relatives of the jailed farmers said they did not have to worry much about the legal proceedings because several lawyers had offered to help them for free. One such lawyer is Amarveer Bhullar from Bhatinda. He has been giving legal advice to the farmer leaders mobilising the protests against the farm laws and representing some of the farmers arrested by the police.
He first heard about farmers being arrested on January 27, Amarveer said. “I started contacting people in the Delhi police to ask about these arrests. In the evening the same day, I came to know that a total of six FIRs had been registered against the farmers,” he added.
The next day, he put a message out on WhatsApp groups of farmers as well as on his Facebook page saying he would provide legal services free of cost to anyone arrested in connection with the rally.
“I texted in Punjabi and it went viral across Punjab,” he said. “On January 28, I started getting calls from all over Punjab about missing relatives and friends. I compiled a database and found that about 55 farmers were missing or had been arrested. On January 29, I along with my colleague Anand Khatri identified 32-33 more farmers arrested by the police.”
Now, though, the lawyer said, the farmers are being released on bail on the grounds of parity, meaning they face a similar set of allegations, or because they are too young or too old.
Granting bail to Daljinder, additional sessions judge Samar Vishal, said there was no video footage of him committing violence at the spot, and “considering the age of the accused, his clean antecedents, and the period of incarceration”, he was deemed fit for bail. He remains in Tihar jail, however, pending some paperwork.
In high spirits
Surjinder Kaur, mother of Harjinder Singh, 22, has been trying to get her son released for over a month. The last time she saw him was on January 23, when he left for Delhi to participate in the tractor rally, along with 10 other farmers.
Harjinder is her youngest son. Her older son is in the army, stationed in Srinagar. Surjinder lives with her daughter-in-law and her two grandchildren. Harjinder has studied till class 10. After Harjinder’s father died in 2014 and his brother signed up for the army, Harjinder had to take on all the responsibilities. “Now, all the responsibilities have come on to us. Besides doing the household chores, we manage the household entirely,” Surjinder said.
When Harjinder was arrested, his family did not have any idea of his whereabouts. They found out he had been arrested only three days later, on January 29.
Are they wary of joining the protest now? “No”, Surjinder said. “He is in jail awaiting his bail order. But this is a long haul. My son will continue to be part of the protest because our demands have not been met.”
Sarabjit Kaur, wife of Ramandeep Singh, 29, has spoken to her husband just twice on video calls in the past month. She is hopeful he will get bail soon because “he has not done any of what the police have accused him of”.
Baljit Kaur, sister of another arrested farmer, Baldhir Singh, said that the events have caused some fear but this is not the end. She said that they will again join the protest and fight for their demands.
Navdeep has not emerged unscathed. His family were scared when they learned about his arrest. His board exams are due next month. “I was scared when I was in the waiting room but now I am fine. I will not take such steps and risks again,” he said. “I am not planning to go to the border now.”
Keshav Pransukhka contributed reporting.