Dispatch from Tihar: Jailed farmers remain steadfast, refuse to take back their protest
Jasminder Singh, a 43-year-old farmer from Punjab’s Perron village, pulled up his cotton trousers to show me large blue bruises on his legs. “See, how badly the police hit me,” he said angrily. His body was covered in such marks, proof of the beating. Jasminder stared at the light streaming into a small barrack in Tihar Jail, where we were both lodged. He looked at me with tears in his eyes. “What does the government think—that it will break our spirits by jailing us? That is a big misconception. Maybe it is not aware of our history. We will not turn back until these laws are repealed.”
On 29 January, Jasminder said, he was on his way back from Narela, near the Singhu border of Delhi. Since late November 2020, lakhs of farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have gathered at several entry points into the national capital in a massive agitation against farm laws enacted by the Narendra Modi government in 2020. Along with thirty or so other farmers, Jasminder had gone to Narela to buy vegetables and other supplies. “When we were coming back, the police attacked us with sticks,” he said. “They took all of us in a green bus, got our medical done and locked us up in Tihar Jail.”
Malkit Singh a 47-year-old farmer from the Himatpura village in Tohana tehsil of Haryana was also among those farmers. Vague expressions of both fear and confidence crossed his face when we spoke. When I asked him about this, he said, “It’s no fear, just worry. We do not even know what sections”—of the Indian Penal Code—“are imposed on us, why they have been imposed.”
I met Jasminder and Malkit during the three days I spent in Tihar, after the police arrested me on 30 January, while I was reporting at Singhu border. They are among the 120 people that the police has arrested since 26 January, under 13 first-information reports. That day, a tractor rally to mark the agitation resulted in clashes between the farmers and the Delhi Police. The police met the protesting farmers with heavy barricading, tear-gas shelling and lathi charges. In turn, the farmers moved the barricades, making their way to central Delhi via Outer Ring Road, with some reaching all the way to the Red Fort. Farmer unions condemned the violence but refused to halt the agitation.
Since then, the Modi government has escalated its crackdown on the peaceful protests at Delhi’s borders. The police upped the barricading at the protest sites to several kilometres, even using iron spikes and concertina wires. The government indefinitely shutdown the internet at all protest locations, as well as districts of Haryana adjacent to the sites. On 29 January, right-wing goons attacked the Singhu protest. I saw a mob pelt stones and fling petrol bombs at the protesters—in full view of police and security forces. The morning before I was arrested, I reported that members of this mob were connected to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
After this, my name too was added to the police’s FIRs. The police registered an FIR against me under four sections of the Indian Penal Code, including those on obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions and assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty. Knowing full well that I am a journalist, the police classified me as a protester.
In the ward where I was lodged in Tihar, prisoners with names beginning with the letters J, K, L, M and N were locked up. All the farmers I met here were small farmers hailing from faraway villages, who farmed either five- or ten-acre plots. Many of them were clueless about why they had been arrested and jailed. Several of them had not even met with a lawyer since they were arrested. Many of them asked, “Why is the government doing this to us?” Yet, despite the despair they felt, they assured me that they would not take back their opposition to the farm laws.
Aside from Jasminder and Malkit, I also met Jagseer Singh and Jassi, two confident young farmers from the Dehla village in Punjab’s Sangrur district. The two young men kept repeating encouraging words, to lift the spirits of the jailed farmers. “Ey tey sheran di qaum hai, kissana di quam”—the farmer community is one of lions—they said.
Jassi, who looked to be in his late twenties, told me that for several years, he had been working with the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan), the largest union at the protests. Over a lakh of the union’s cadres have been sitting in protest at Tikri border since late November. “I have been witness to the state repression of farmers before,” Jassi said. “Punjab’s farming community is famous for its ability to mount a strong resistance. We are the heirs of that revolutionary wave.” The farmer unions had announced that until the jailed farmers were released, they would not negotiate with the government, Jassi said. “The government should know that farmers are not afraid of arrests. Our courage is bigger than the mountains. This government is not capable of breaking our spirits.”
In the same ward, I met Baba Jeet Singh, a 70-year-old granthi in a gurudwara in Haryana’s Baniyani village, from where the chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar hails. Jeet Singh was working in the langar service for farmers sitting in the Burari Ground at Delhi’s outskirts. When farmers arrived in large numbers at Delhi’s border in late November, the government had offered them use of this ground as a compromise. Some farmers moved there, but most refused, choosing instead to block different entries to Delhi. According to news reports, in late January, the police forced some protesters to vacate the site and arrested others.
“We were lathi-charged and picked up,” Jeet Singh said. But he was not troubled. He laughed easily, always running his hand over his white flowing beard. Coming from wrinkled mouth hidden behind the beard and moustache, Jeet Singh’s laughter sounded defiant.
He introduced me to Jagbir Singh, a 60-year-old farmer from Rithal village in Haryana’s Rohtak district. Jagbir Singh told me the police arrested him near the Peeragadhi metro station. “I was going to Rajendra Place, to my brother’s house, but I was arrested on the way. They told me that they would let me go after seeing my Aadhar card,” Jagbir Singh said. “Of course, they had never picked me up to let me go. They arrested me to jail me in Tihar.” He said that another young man from Jind, in Haryana, had been arrested alongside him “in the name of the farmer protest.”
Jeet Singh also pointed to Narendra Gupta, who was lodged in the barracks with us and was arrested with Jeet Singh. “I am a resident of Delhi, I am not even a farmer,” Gupta said. “I was quietly going towards my house. Suddenly, the police picked me up. I told the police that I am not a farmer, but they did not listen to me.” Gupta said the process for his release had begun. “Maybe I will get to go home soon,” he said. He was eventually released the same day as me, on 3 February.
Young farmers from the Dera Baba Nanak town in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district were imprisoned in the ward next to ours. Several times a day, I heard them loudly singing Punjabi folk songs associated with the farmers’ protest. They chanted,
Kendr di sarkar rahi sada kisaana layi gaddar, Jatta tagda hoja.
Aaaja sadak te dharna maar, ladai chidh payi aar ya paar, Jatta tagda hoja.
Governments at the centre have always betrayed farmers, be strong, Jatta
Come protest on the road, its fight to the death, be strong, Jatta.
After the songs, the young men would shout, “Kisan Ekta Zindabad!”—Hail farmer unity! Farmers in the barracks surrounding us would yell back, “Zindabad, zindabad!”
The farmers I met gave me their families’ phone numbers. Though some had spoken briefly with the relatives at home, they wanted me to get out and assure their families that they were undeterred. There was no device in jail to record their songs and slogans, but I can still hear them ringing in my ears.