Most soldiers serving in the Indian armed forces come from farming families, many return to active farming once they retire. “We are kisans, we come from the farms and we return to the farms,” they say. However, in 2020-2021, the retired soldiers have worn their uniforms once again, some wear their gallantry and service medals on their chest, others wear their insignia bearing caps, and all of them shout ‘kisan ekta zindabad’, as they sit on the borders of the national in solidarity with farmers who are seeking the repeal of the three farm laws they say are anti-agriculturist and only pro-corporate.
The armed forces veterans presence at the protest sites also has another effect on the farmers gathered there. There is a sense of security and national pride, and scores visit the farmers groups, bringing children to meet the ‘heroic faujis’. There are hundreds of handshakes, even more salutes given and many selfies taken. The soldiers, many are retired war veterans, in turn share a sense of military conduct, discipline and response skills without even taking the centre stage. They hold the Tricolour high, and even the armed, combat ready state security teams keep a respectful distance.
SabrangIndia spent another day at the border protests and met a group of retired armed force vetran, who are among the over 5000 of their fraternity, taking part in the farmers’ protests in solidarity with the hands that feed the nation.
We met retired wing commander Anuma Acharya who is from the first batch of women logistics officers commissioned in the Indian Air Force in 1993. She took a premature separation from the force, that is a voluntary retirement, nine years before she was due to retire, and in full disclosure said even though she is often identified as a Congress affiliate, she is here at the farmers protest donning her IAF veterans’ cap, in solidarity as a citizen, and an ex soldier. Excerpts from the conversation:
What brings you to the farmers’ protest, wing commander Acharya?
The first thing that attracts the entire country [here] is that there is an issue that is clear. I do not know why the sarkar does not acknowledge it. I see the essential commodities act affecting us all. All of us may not understand the issue of MSPs but we are all affected by essential commodities being hoarded. They [farmers] will not even get a judicial redressal. I feel this [laws] should have been discussed ahead, with the stakeholders. I must disclose that I have a political affiliation with the Congress, but this protest is not political at all, this is a people’s protest, of the citizens.
Now the Supreme Court has suggested women should leave the protest sites.
As a woman, there is no problem in participation in a protest. I respect all decisions of the Supreme Court but here I feel that the suggestion to remove women and children may the government wants to take stringent measures. Maybe that is why they want women and children to be removed from the protest, so brutal measures may be deployed. Otherwise Article 14 gives equal rights to all.
As a woman Air Force veteran, what is your message to your fraternity?
When we joined the fauj, we were taught to stand with the truth for the country. The government should not be so stubborn. All that the farmers are saying is that, just repeal the laws once, and then we can sit together and talk. Why can’t that be done? There is no hard and fast rule that a law cannot be related. It’s not as if the Modi government has not repealed laws before.
Some are saying that the farmers will disrupt the Republic Day parade, what is your reaction?
It’s just creating an issue. Why would any farmer, who is an Indian want to disrupt the Republic Day parade? The farmers have a right to celebrate the Republic. A hindrance or problems will only be possible if tear gas shells are launched or force is used, if that does not happen we will see that even farmers will have a parade just as we do, and unfurl the national flag.
SabrangIndia also met Anurag Lathwal, a retired soldier who has served on border postings, and participated in the Republic Day parade on Rajpath himself. He makes sure he is always holding the national flag high when he is sitting at the farmer’s protes. An office bearer of the veterans association, he told SabrangIndia that this was a united fight against unjust laws.
How long have you been living at the tent at the protest?
I came here from Chandigarh on December 16 to support the farmers. I come from a farmer family, and I worked in the fields with my father before I joined the force. After 16 years of service I took a voluntary discharge and came back to farming my lands, my father had continued farming while I was anway, and is still working in the fields today, when I am sitting on this Delhi border.
Have you seen so many former soldiers join a protest like this before?
The reason is that all the former soldiers are coming to support the farmers protests is because we are all sons of farmers. The farmer is our father, and wherever the father goes, the sons follow. The government must think about this, because the people already know this. I came when I heard on social media that the government was spreading rumours like ‘tukde tukde gang’ are here at the protests etc. That had upset me, so I first studied the three laws, and then came here to join the farmers movement.
What will happen to the protest movement now after the Supreme Court hearing?
The government wants the protest to be withdrawn somehow, but it will not happen, the government’s intentions are clear. Just as they passed these laws in the Corona times when without any committee, or discussions. The government just wants to benefit corporations, and that intention has now been exposed. The farmers have understood these laws, and the government will have to take them back, isime bhalai hai (that will be beneficial).
But there are talks about farmers disrupting the Republic Day parade?
This will never happen. All the farmers, and the ex-soldiers who are participating are all peace loving, and fully disciplined. Many of us have participated in the parade when they were on duty. I have paraded down Rajpath in 1998 myself, as have our colleagues here. We keep discipline first, above all. The kisan parade will happen as instructed by the Kisan Sanyukt Morcha committee. When they order us, we will conduct a parade. Peacefully, holding the Tricolour high. There are over 5000 veterans who are participating in the protest along all borders of Delhi everyday. Some are in civilian clothes, and some are in uniform.
What is your opinion on those who have returned their medals, or want to?
Many have returned the medals. In my personal opinion I do not agree with returning medals. Medals are our pride, as long as they are on our chest we will be soldiers, and we will be identified as that. The medals remind us of sacrifice and disciple.
According to Manidev Chaturvedi, who retired from Border Security Force (BSF), and is the most conversant in the group, the SC committee will not have an impact that will help the farmers. He too stays at the protest site all day and night.
Could you share on record why you feel there will be no impact of the SC appointed committee?
I have retired from the BSF, have served on the country’s borders, and have come here from Varanasi [Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency]. I feel setting up a committee is sad, these committees have not had any result in the past. There was no need to pass these laws in the manner they were. There should have been consultations with experts, then discussions in both houses of Parliament. That is the beauty of the Indian democracy. But here there were no discussions, even now the winter session has not been called. The laws are under suspicion. The laws do not need a [new] committee, the laws need to be repealed first, and then discussions need to be held in Parliament
What is the reason so many of you are sitting in protest in uniform?
We can wear the uniform even after retirement. This uniform stops us from doing anything wrong. And if someone else is in trouble they can come to us. The uniform has been created for that, a common man can identify us and come seek help if needed. That is why we are here in uniform, jawans are all sons of farmers. If the jawans father is here on the road, so is the son.
According to Shamvir Taliayan, ex-serviceman, and a professional bodybuilder who hails from a farming family, the protests will intensify even more. He told SabrangIndia, that more tractors will come from villages across Uttar Pradesh to join the farmers movement.
You are a professional athlete, why did you come to Ghazipur?
I am from Meerut. I am a former soldier and an international level sportsman. I have participated in Asia level bodybuilding championships twice. My purpose to come here is to have the farm laws repealed. We [farmers] do not have faith in this committee that the SC has constituted. Our only aim is that these laws should be repealed.
How many people came here with you this time?
For now around 15 tractors are coming from our area each day. There is renewed enthusiasm even after the Supreme Court hearing. For the January 26 tractor rally every house in the village will send a tractor, this was decided in the village panchayat as well. We have paraded as faujis before, now we will parade as farmers.
Is there any fear as the state government is said to be keeping a strict watch over farmers, especially in Uttar Pradesh?
They are keeping an eye, but there is no fear in the farmers community. They [police and administration officials] are going to farmers’ homes, and say they want to try to make us ‘understand’. Some make phone calls and tell us no to go, some scold. But farmers cannot be scolded. Then there are some who try to misguide us and tell us to go via misleading routes. Imagine! But we cannot be fooled. We are here.
Jai jawan, jai kisan, or hail the soldier, hail the farmers, is not a mere slogan anymore. Decades after it was first heard, it has taken on a life of its own in 2020-2021, with mazdoor ekta (workers unity) adding to the trinity.