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How India’s Farmers’ Protests Ushered Political Awareness Among North Indian Women

When 27-year-old Ramanpreet decided to leave her village in Tarn Taran in Punjab and come to participate in the protests on the borders of Delhi, she didn’t know she would be doing something life-altering.

“I lead a hectic life,” she said.

On a normal day, she wakes up before dawn to tend to the cattle they have at home — two bovines and three goats, cook for the family and saunter off towards the fields where her work would change seasonally. She would either help with seeding or de-weeding or harvesting. The protests infused a very different sense of politics in her, as well as in many women like her.

In August 2020, when the world was coming to terms with the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, the BJP-led Narendra Modi government was busy pushing for farm laws which would fundamentally change the structure of Indian agriculture as it exists today. “The present farmers’ struggle knocking at the doors of the capital is a culmination of many streams of ideologies, concerns and a wide class coalition,” writes Ranjini Basu, an agricultural policy researcher based in Delhi. She says the threat of corporate interests taking over their livelihoods is a key unifying factor among various groups that have come together at the farmer protests.

Farm unions began protesting the laws in August and September in northern Indian agrarian states like Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. However, when the government passed the laws in Parliament, about 40 farm organizations came under the umbrella of Samyukt Kisan Morcha and decided to march towards New Delhi. Security forces stopped the farmers at the five major entry points to the National Capital Region. Over December and January, they became the protest sites for farmers from all over the country to arrive at.

In February, about 87 farmer organizations in the United States came out in support of the farmers in India. “India’s farmers have mobilized to create one of the world’s most vibrant protests in history against unjust farm laws that will increase agribusiness’ stranglehold over their food system,” their statement read. The protests garnered international support from individuals such as climate activist Greta Thunberg and lawyer Meena Harris.  

What started as a battle to get the government to revoke the hastily passed farm laws has now become a struggle to save people from the agrarian crises - manifested by poor soil quality, availability of seeds, depleting ground water, pollution, and deep ecological damage.

During this time, women have marched shoulder-to-shoulder in this battle. About 40,000 women reached the protest sites on March 8 from five states to lead the charge.

Political awakening

Women have always been an integral, and rather invisible, part of India’s farming communities. Apart from physically demanding work like ploughing (by hand carts or by tractors) and work that involves money like selling the farm produce at the markets, women do most of the farm labour. A report by People’s Archive of Rural India found that nearly two-thirds of the female workforce is engaged in agriculture, “either as cultivators or agricultural labourers.”

But, since farmers who are women barely own any land, they are not considered farmers. “In a country where 73.2% of rural women workers are engaged in agriculture, women own only 12.8% of land holdings,” according to a report by IndiaSpend. This has meant that their contribution to agriculture has gone largely unnoticed. Even the Chief Justice of India’s Supreme Court remarked that the women and elders at protest sites should be persuaded to go back, implying that they did not qualify as farmers to protest.

When it comes to protests, though, women refused to linger in the background. “We have to be vocal, we do not have a choice,” said Harinder Bindu, Punjab state president of the farmers’ union Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan) women’s wing. “Women will bear the brunt of the consequences of these farm laws.”

Women in Punjab have experience with this already. Unable to repay loans, more than 1,100 farmers in Punjab, die by suicide every year. “86% farming households in Punjab are under debt,” according to a 2018 joint report on farmer suicides, by Patiala-based Punjabi University, Ludhiana-based Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), and Amritsar-based Guru Nanak Dev University. “Over 16,606 farmers died by suicide between 2000-2015,” it states.

When the male farmers died by suicide, the women were tasked with caring for the family and their farms. If the farm laws are implemented, many women farmers reason that they would suffer the most, as it directly affects their livelihoods and food security.

While this is what brought the women out to protest, it is not the reason for them to continue protesting with equal fervor.

“I came to seek food security for my family, but I ended up staying because I began to learn a lot about systems of power and oppression,” said a farmer from the village of Atari in the Tarn Taran district.

She was a part of a small meeting conducted in Atari, where a few hundred farmers and other local residents had gathered. It was the memorial of Sardar Sham Singh Attari, a celebrated Sikh general who died fighting the East India Company.

“At the event, we felt like we were carrying forward the fight that Sardar Sham Singh Attari had given his life for,” she said, implying that they were battling forces as oppressive as the British colonialists.

About seven men and a woman took the stage, said the farmer who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the central government. “They spoke about the high handedness of the government,” she said, adding that the speakers articulated their opposition to the citizenship law which would have rendered Indian Muslims second-class citizens, they spoke about oppression in Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh. “Every time there is a protest, the government cuts off the internet. Why?” she asked.

About 70% of cases of global internet shutdowns happened in India in 2020, showed a report by Access Now.

Women and the Indian state

In December 2019, when the Modi government passed the Islamophobic Citizenship Amendment Act, swarms of young women, students and activists congregated in various cities across the country to oppose the law. They began reading the Indian Constitution in their meetings, which espouses secularism, religious freedom’ and equality.

The protests were so powerful that the government has not implemented the laws until now.

Women have been a thorn in the flesh for the central government in India. Even the current farmers’ protests got a boost when widows of farmers, who died by suicide because of debt, joined in the protests. In a recent online talk, researcher and scholar Navsharan Singh said that the farmers’ movement would be remembered for “inspiring hope,” especially in times when the populace is battling the virus and protesting an authoritarian state.  For women like Ramanpreet, it certainly changed her life.  “Now I understand how power works,” she said. “I will never see society with the same lens again.”