A Teacher’s Tribute to the Farmers Protesting at Delhi’s Borders
I am a teacher. I have been teaching high school students for the past 25 years. Perhaps it is because I work so much with young people that I feel responsible for their future, and deeply concerned about the country they are growing up in. Perhaps for that reason too, I am also a part-time journalist that writes about issues like democracy, equality and justice, because I believe that without those three things, no country can prosper and progress.
But over the last seven years, our democracy has been attacked relentlessly, inequality in our society has grown monstrously and the institutions that were set up to give us justice have been subverted terribly. Over the last seven and half years, a single question has grown bigger and bigger in my mind — Who will stop the fascist forces bent on destroying our beautiful country?
Many have tried and continue to try, and though their efforts have been commendable, their success has been short-lived. The anti-CAA-NRC protests, for example, were a bright but brief beacon of hope and resistance, as Covid-19 shut down Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi and other protest sites. Universities like JNU, Hyderabad University, Jamia Millia, and others have resisted, but they too have been brutally repressed. Brave journalists have told the truth, and many have been attacked, arrested, and even killed. No one has quite been able to stop the fascist juggernaut and the subverting of Indian democracy, despite many trying.
But on November 26, 2020, all that changed. Hundreds of thousands of farmers came to Delhi’s borders protesting against the three draconian farm laws. They were tear gassed, water-cannoned and beaten, and refused entry into Delhi. But instead of giving up and going home, they simply pitched camp at Singhu, Tikri, Shahjahanpur and Ghazipur borders and stayed. Despite everything the government and its servile media have done to try and break them, the farmers have stood strong, and almost a year after their arrival, have won a massive victory with Narendra Modi declaring that the farm laws will be repealed.
This is possibly the first time in his political life ever that Modi has ever had to bend his knee to the will of the people. There are many hurdles still to be crossed, but India has just witnessed the power of peaceful, democratic protest. The scorecard now reads MODI — 0, FARMERS -1.
I am grateful that I have been able to visit Delhi’s borders over a hundred times this past year and record the stories of the farmers on protest. (www.indiaspeaks.info) These stories have been watched by hundreds of thousands of people who have been deeply moved by them. It has been a difficult and heartbreaking year. Over 700 farmers have died. Some because of extreme weather, many because of suicide, and some because of murder! Despite everything, they have remained peaceful and non-violent.
As a teacher, I am acutely aware that values cannot be taught, they have to be caught. One cannot simply lecture children and young people and tell them to be good. They need real, live role models to emulate. They need to see those who are living the values of courage, decency, humility, and humanity. As a teacher I have also been deeply concerned about the lack of positive role models in India today. Is a good role model a cricketer or a film star who makes crores of rupees every year, drives around in expensive sports cars, but does not have the courage to speak against an unjust government? I don’t think so.
But today, I am thrilled to say that my search for positive role models is over! I can hold my head up high and say that we don’t just have a handful of role models, we have hundreds of thousands of them. They are called the farmers. And they are right here at Delhi’s borders.
In school we teach our children about the freedom struggle. We tell them about those who were not afraid to sacrifice their lives and their freedom for justice, liberty and equality. But we teach them history as if it were fiction. What we don’t realize is that a second freedom movement is underway right now. And just as our freedom fighters of old fought against the brutal policies and might of the East India Company, our farmers today are fighting against the modern-day ’East India Companies’ and a government whose policies and practices are making the rich richer and the poor poorer. History is repeating itself.
I will never forget my first encounter with the protesting farmers at Delhi’s borders. 10 days after they first arrived, I decided to go to Ghazipur border and see for myself what was going on. As I walked on the Delhi-Meerut highway to where a group of Sikhs was sitting on mattresses by the side of the highway, one of them got up and started walking towards me. I got worried. What was he going to say to me?
His name was Baba Manjeet Singh and he had come all the way from Rudrapur. He did not ask me who I was, he did not ask me what I wanted. His first and only question was, “Are you hungry? Please have something to eat.”
I was stunned! Never in my life has a stranger approached me with such friendliness and an offer of food. I sat down with him and the others there and we had pakoras and tea together. I asked the Babaji, “What if the police attacks you again? What will you do?” And he simply replied, ‘Nothing. We will take the blows but we will not hit back. We do not believe in violence. We have come to peacefully to claim our rights and fight against these black laws.” He then closed his eyes and sat there peacefully. I will never forget that conversation as long as I live. I have met thousands like that Babaji at Delhi’s borders over the last one year, and I now know that despite everything, goodness, decency, courage and kindness are alive and well.
I have hope once again that our children will have a better future.
(Originally written for ‘Trolley Times’)