Navigating Complexity at the Tikri Border

Author: Jasdeep Kaur

“We should be focused on resisting Modi and his government but we are also having to spend time managing people on our side who are being too provocative. If there is any violence, we will lose,” said a concerned twenty-something physiotherapist, the son of a farmer union leader who has been at the protests since they started on Nov 26. This statement exemplifies some of the complexity we missed examining these protests from a distance.

The taxi driver who drove us to the border was also a young son of a farmer. He had been to the protests but was still using an internet connection from Reliance—one of the corporations the protesting farmers were fighting against. He eagerly played, nevertheless, the Kisan (Farmer) Anthem for us, telling us that the lyricist has been arrested and tortured. A phone call from a professor in Punjab, the one who had sent us this fresh perspective on the protests, interrupted the anthem as its lyrics celebrated “Jats” (a common farmer caste) with typical Punjabi machismo. “Farming depends on much more than the 19% of the population that is Jat. Many other castes, most notably the Dalits (the largest landless labor caste) are essential for the profession. If this farmer action is reduced merely to a Jat movement, as many are trying to do, then we will yet again lose a chance to transform Punjab,” he exclaimed over a bad connection. “But we heard Kisan-Mazdur Ekta (farmer-laborer unity) slogans,” we objected. He replied an explanation, “It’s more superficial than you realize. Even the largest farmer union leader, Joginder Singh Ugrahan, stressed this concern on January 7, 2021.” One short car ride seemed to confirm Naipaul’s view of India—a land of “a million mutinies.”

The car dropped us at the Tikri Border where nearly half-a-mile of barricades, guarded by police forces, separated us from the farmers. Last November, the protests moved in several caravans of tractors from Punjab to Delhi via different highways. The police blocked every entrance to Delhi, including the Tikri Border. The farmers simply parked their tractors in two of the three-lane highway and have stayed there since. The farmer ‘township’ at Tikri is one long column of tractors and trolleys. Today it stretches over fifteen miles. The cops blocked every side road to vehicle traffic. So, we would have to walk to get around the barricaded stretch, through an adjacent village that seemed to be an industrial labor colony. We wondered aloud about whether the attempts to get tractors through the formidable barrier, as the farmers have planned to do on January 26, would be possible at all.

We navigated around the village’s narrow, open-drain lined streets that were pockmarked with cow dung and garbage. Our kids excitedly pointed at the stray cows and bulls wandering about. The people were poor but not destitute, and their glances did not feel hostile at all. Most were indifferent, some helpful. We saw a few signs pointing the way to the farmers. The loud speeches from the makeshift stage setup at the head of the trolley column also helped. Before I came to America, I had frequently walked such lanes. However, what was for me a nostalgic experience, for my American-born kids was an eye-popping, learning experience.

As we got to the stage, we were a little perplexed by all the noise and goings-on around us: fiery speeches, announcements for laundry, sloganeering, a squad of farmers led by a man carrying a huge plow and flags of all kinds. The kids did not understand much of what was being said but they liked the call and answer of the sloganeering. To a call from the stage “Kisan-Mazdur Ekta (farmer-laborer unity),” the assembled crowd answered: “Zindabad.” What does Zindabad mean, one of them asked. It means ‘long-live’ or ‘hurray’ we explained.

As advised by friends, we merely walked alongside the trolley train to “absorb the place.” All the trolleys are parked together covered with tarpaulins in order to create impromptu shelters for cooking, sleeping and hanging out during the day. I so wanted to just sit and hang out with some of those beautiful and familiar faces. I had to be vigilant though, as the kids had to reckon with the chaos of pedestrians playing real-life frogger with reckless vehicles, tractors blaring loud music, public buses, and auto-rickshaws in the one lane still open to local traffic. Along that lane, farmer allies had set up free stalls for medicine, books, warm water for baths, laundry and even foot-massage. Folks are pitching in any way they can.

Having grown up navigating such roads, I loved taking it all in. And now it was wonderful to see my daughters struggle to navigate it themselves. MK was cautious and BK was stunned. But JK kept marching along, falling, indifferent about her open shoelaces and probably catching every germ in the world. MK and JK had us pause to read all the slogans and signs on the trolleys and the stalls.

The Tikri protests are dominated by farmers from Malwa—the largest part of Indian Punjab, south of the river Sutlej—but they come from varied backgrounds. I can discern this because all the trolleys display the names of their village, district and farmer union, and often have different flags. We learned that there are forty separate unions that have joined in a united front called the Sayunkt Kisan Morcha. Inexplicably, the largest union, Bharatiya Kisan Union Ugrahan, is not part of that front. BKU-Ugrahan coordinates with the united front but remains separate with their own stage about 10 miles down the road from the first Tikri stage. We’re really hoping to figure out why. Red flags suggest that some farmers belong to unions with leftist ties. We notice farmers smoking hookah. They are obviously not Sikh and are from Haryana. It was stunning to see their trolleys nestled among those from Punjab. They are clearly welcome by Sikh farmers, even though Sikhs excommunicate someone for smoking.

We took a breather at the Punjab Kisan Union trolley cluster where we were welcomed with familiar Punjabi warmth. A leader of this union is Jasbir Kaur Natt, one of the few female faces in the farmer leadership. This place was buzzing with activity as it also served as an ‘office’ for Trolley Times, a recently founded bi-weekly newspaper. We listened in on the conversations: “there is no going back…we have to keep this protest peaceful…there are reckless elements in the protests that risk all the progress we have made…Baba Nanak would not recognize our caste and ritual-ridden community…and so on.”

The most interesting discussion explained that laborers cannot demonstrate for long. Unlike farmers, who have their land, laborers rely on daily wages. Apparently, many came to demonstrate but could only afford to stay for three days. The new farm laws though, would transform the farmers—who weren’t rich but were free—into laborers for big corporations. 

The discussions were interrupted as farmers from the south Indian state of Karnataka walked in. The discussion then turned to the women’s march on January 18th. Throughout the couple of hours we were there, people came in asking for pins and flags which seem to have run out.  MK found herself a book. JK sat down on her haunches to peruse the latest edition of the Trolley Times. BK stayed close.

Then the kids struck gold. A nine-year old boy from Mansa, AV heard MK talk about her first love: horses. He and his dad took all the kids to the Nihang settlement across the road to show them their horses. I expected our kids to be shy but instead the Nihang Baba attending the horses was beautifully bashful. The unexpected excitement of a boy and three girls befuddled him. Through a gentle and shy smile he told the girls the names of the horses. The white was called ਬਿਜਲੀ (electricity). He was non-committal as the girls sought promises that he would show them how to care for the horses when we return the next day. As we left that cluster of trolleys the wind blew down one of the tarpaulins. People scrambled to maintain their shelter.

The girls went to sleep expecting and perhaps dreaming of ਬਿਜਲੀ. And we tried to sort out the tangled information and contradictions we heard during the day.