Size matters, all sizes matter. Far away from Singu, Tikri, Ghaziabad, NH-8, and other border points circling the national capital, a small ember of the revolutionary fire lit by lakhs of farmers, is glowing hot. A couple of Members of Parliament (MP), from Punjab, are holding a dharna (a sit-in protest). At the centre of it is a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) who has been on a hunger strike everyday, for the past 14 days. He eats one meal at night, and does not even drink water all day.
All of them sleep under the open sky, on a mattress with a blanket over their heads. This too has been going on for 14 days now. In the day time, scores of vehicles who stop at the red light nearby honk in support, and citizens raise slogans, pump fists in the air, or simply clap. There is no banner, no marker to identify that the men are a part of the massive farmers protest that continues on the border. The men on protest are wearing pagdis or turbans, to those cheering they could well be a farmer’s union. However, they are well known, senior politicians from Punjab who say they are protesting here, a few kilometers away from Parliament House, to demand that the Winter Session be held, and the three farm laws kept in abeyance till then. They say they are sitting on dharna in the heart of the Capital because they too are sons of farmers, who won elections because they represent the sons of the soil. They are keeping away from the main protest because the apolitical sanctity of the farmers movements needs to be respected.
SabrangIndia spent a day, with Jasbir Singh Gill, Member of Parliament (MP) to the 17th Lok Sabha from Khadoor Sahib, Punjab, a Congress leader, as well as Kulbir Singh, a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) who is observing a hunger strike, and is perhaps the only politician to do so in support of the farmers’ protest. Singh is better known as Kulbir Singh Zira, and is often described as a politician who speaks his mind, often without a diplomatic filter, even to his own party colleagues. An elected MLA from Zira, district Ferozepur, Punjab he says he was shaken by the deaths on the border, and of the young soldier who was killed in action, and his father was at the protest in Delhi.
Excerpts from the conversation that took place, on the footpath next to the historic Jantar Mantar. A couple of police cars, nearly a dozen cops, kept a close eye on the handful of men sitting in solidarity with farmers, talking to scores of visitors who come and go, all day, and most of the night.
Why are you doing a dharna in the heart of the city, especially as a politician, when the farmers have said they do not want politicisation of their protest?
Jasbir Singh Gill: First of all, I am not here for political reasons. I am a farmer myself, so are my colleagues, Kulbir Singh Zira, Ravneet Bittu, Gurjit Aujla, GP Singh… We sit here in solidarity, in the heart of the city, at Jantar Mantar so that we are able to support them (protesting farmers) from here. The farmers want to keep their protest apolitical, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is accusing Congress of hijacking the farmers protest, so we do not want to give it a political colour. But as a farmer, I am well within my rights to protest against the injustice being done by the government through these three acts. That is why we are sitting here and giving a voice to the protest in New Delhi. The farmers are not allowed to enter Delhi, we can because of the office we hold, that is why we are sitting here and demanding justice.
You have been sitting in protest on this footpath for two weeks. Did Delhi Police give you permission?
Jasbir Singh Gill: We have applied for permission, but I do not know the status of that, nothing has been communicated to us. Police do not want us to put a tarpaulin even in the chilling cold, the temperature dips to around four degrees. This is a small price to pay for our farmers. We will sit here until there is a call from the farmer organisations to withdraw, or the Acts are repealed.
The farmers’ protest is still being called the ‘protest of Punjab’.
Jasbir Singh Gill: That is wrong. There was [once] a gap between Punjab and Haryana, due to political reasons. These Farm Acts have filled that gap, now there is a lot of unity, and they are protesting jointly. Again they [government] tried to create a rift when BJP, and JJP leaders sat on a one day hunger strike to make SYL canal, that is only political maneuvering to divide the people and defame this protest. I am grateful to the people of Haryana that out of 309 villages, less than a 100 people came for that one day hunger strike. I am grateful to the people. For Punjab and Haryana, farmers it is the middle of cropping. They have already sown the wheat crop and they have got time, while in Uttar Pradesh the sugarcane season is going on. It’s about to finish, and they are joining [now], the same situation in Rajasthan, the season of pulses etc is almost over to finish and [then] they will join.
What about Madhya Pradesh? The Prime Minister had recently addressed the farmers there.
Jasbir Singh Gill: Wherever the PM is going. He is not meeting farmers, they are BJP workers in disguise of farmers, unko chola pehnakar media ke saamne kar diya (they were dressed up and presented before the media).
That was in Gujarat?
Jasbir Singh Gill: Even in Madhya Pradesh. I can show you the video, 90 percent of those who came for the registration were invited to register, saying ‘you will get financial aid’. After the sammelan 90 percent said, we support farmers. There was also a strong protest in Udham Singh Nagar, the police denied permission, lathi-charged, tried every trick, but still the protest continued with thousands of people. This is an all-India phenomenon, an all-India protest. Only thing is that the people of Punjab and Haryana are leading this.
Because the Punjab government is also backing the protest?
Jasbir Singh Gill: The Punjab government sees the genuine demands of the government, it knows farming is the mainstay of the state. Even the CM has spoken to Amit Shahji, written to the PM for marmers demands to be accepted.
How do farmers from UP, Haryana get their voices heard here?
Jasbir Singh Gill: See, farmers are farmers. They can guard the borders of India, face the bullets. There is a new saying in Punjab and Haryana: Baap had pe, beta sarhad pe.
As an MP, what is the plan to push for the Winter Session of Parliament? Is it even possible now?
Jasbir Singh Gill: We have written to the government, D Ranjan Chowdhury, our parliamentary party leader has also written to the Speaker and to the PM to call the session. But this government is so stubborn and arrogant that they will not call [the Winter Session]. They say it’s because of Coronavirus. But they hold rallies of lakhs of people. For Bihar elections, Hyderabad municipal elections they had a massive road show, JP Nadda was in West Bengal, Amit Shah was in West Bengal. When more than five lakh farmers are sitting on the border, the farmers issue has sent shivers down their spine. They can’t face the questions of farmers. They can’t face the Opposition. That is why they are trying to do away with the Winter Session. I still demand there should be discussion on this issue, these laws should be kept in abeyance, there should be a new law in the interest of the farmers. Not capitalists. We are still going to write to the President also, in case they do not do it. We will sit here till justice is given to are farmers, why wont run or shy away.
Why are you sitting on a hunger strike at Jantar Mantar?
Kulbir Singh Zira: I want to tell you that I am the son of a farmer. I became an MLA later, first I was the son of a farmer, and because of that I have to sit here [and protest]. Hamara kisan had pe baitha hai… uska beta sarhad pe baitha hai (our farmer is at his wits end, determined to get his rights… and his son is guarding the nation’s border). But these are the times of ‘fake farmer’ and ‘fake soldier’ in the sarkar. I am calling Narendra Modi, a ‘nakli jawan’ a fake soldier, he just wore a uniform that’s easily available, but wearing a uniform does not make you a soldier. You become a soldier if you can take a bullet in your chest, like the soldiers from Punjab do, like Shaheed Sukhbir Singh did, he was martyred a few days ago, and his father was at the [farmers] protest when he got the news. That is when I thought that these are the people because of whom agriculture survives. Then the farmer groups gave an order for bharat bandh. The entire country was shut but Arvind Kejriwal’s Delhi was open, I saw it, I was sitting here, sitting on the footpath in Kejriwal’s constituency, and saw the city open. I challenged Kejriwal to come and join me… I said I will sit here from December 16 onwards. I called all the MLAs to come… But no one ever came. I say everyone who ever eats food, is connected to farming, everyone owes it to the farmer. The rotis we eat come because of the farmers. I will continue my hunger strike till Modiji decides in favour of the farmers.
You are sleeping on the footpath at night, it must be very difficult…
Kulbir Singh Zira: It is freezing. We tried to put a plain tarpaulin sheet up to cover ourselves. The cops came and pulled our tarpaulins down in the night. We telecast it live on social media, and put it up again at 1 AM. The cops returned at 6 AM and pulled it down again. That is how it has been for 14 days now, we try to put up a tarp at 1 AM, they pull it down at dawn… the breeze is freezing cold… it feels as if it goes right through you. Our saathi Gurjit Aujla ji (Member of Parliament, Amritsar) got a high fever due to exposure. But we will not turn back till Modi ji does not agree [to the farmers’ demand]. We will not go back, we will not go home even if Modi ji takes away our tarpaulin, our blankets, our clothes. Will sit here on protest, naked if needed.