Farmers Leading Protests in India—and the Young Feminists Camping With Them—Just Scored a Major Win. Will It Last?

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(Mannat Boparai)

As the world advocates for collective action toward the empowerment for all (including universal healthcare and tuition-free education), farmers and agrarian laborers from the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in India have finally pushed back with a massive movement. And after a year of unprecedented protests, an equally unprecedented victory has been won. To some readers, just to exist without immediate corporate control over agriculture may seem small—but these farmers are poised to change the whole game.

With cynicism and fatalism at an all-time high, amidst disease and economic hardship, against mega-billionaire multinational foes and clampdowns on citizen-activism, protesters pursued an uphill battle with disciplined unity despite all odds.

Nothing about the past year’s massive agrarian protests were unremarkable. Yet, certain entrenched gender dynamics were predicted, given the history of social movements in South Asia (and frankly everywhere else). But convinced of the brave-hearted promise of this movement to reject anything as fait accompli, many women also challenged the gendered status quo from day one. (Some spoke with Ms. a year ago.)

Women have lived and died with the protest since its inception. In fact, the protests’ victory has been dedicated to the memory of the 714 people who died—by road accidents, disease, violence, suicide—during the 12 months of living on the roads in civil disobedience. Indeed even the tireless archiving of the deaths (in the face of state erasure) is led by a young woman, Anuroop Sandhu. Undoubtedly, while the protest was majority male, the centrality of women’s contribution has been unquestionable.

Mannat Boparai has been active at the protest since December 2020: “There were issues even in the questions we were asked first. ‘How will women contribute?'” she said. “No one asked the young men here. As if women had to prove something.”

Women of Boparai’s age were a minority within the minority. Culturally, the absence of village women under 40 was unsurprising: Besides their domestic and farming duties, the practicalities around young (especially unmarried) women living on the roads with men from their villages are often unthinkable.

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Woman making a speech to the gathered farmers in 2020. (Kawalpreet Kaur)

“But all generations have almost equal level of resistance,” said Navpreet Kaur, a lecturer in economics who has been at protest sites at least weekly since November 2020.

“They welcomed us,” said Anjali Sheoran, who lived with the protesters from Punjab and Haryana states for the first two months. Sheoran remembers engaging elders in conversations about the absence of younger women. “Some even said, ‘I will ask my daughter or granddaughter to come here and join.’”

“They were glad to see educated women from cities joining the morcha [protest] and giving befitting replies to the media persons,” said Kanupriya, who joined the protest camps on Nov. 28, 2020.

In speaking to several of these young women (with the benefit of increased independence, political consciousness and educational opportunities) important efforts at culture change become evident. None of them had ever joined an agrarian protest ever before. All agree this was the experience of a lifetime.

“[I’ve] Lived Ten Years in One”

It’s no wonder. Mankiran Kaur has seen several changes and challenges, external and internal. She modestly underplayed her staying power (returning to protest sites with supplies throughout the later months of lower participation and greater doubts, especially by city-dwellers).

Mankiran Kaur explained that while she had been itching to protest against the government’s excesses over the year, watching Punjabi farmers break through barricades and come in tens of thousands to protest outside New Delhi is what gave her fearlessness and hope.

“I just wanted to hear, again and again, ‘Sat Sri Akaal [Sikh greeting] child, how are you?’ I live in New Delhi. Even our neighbors don’t greet us daily like that. Protesters in India are opposing new farm laws that seem to hand over the keys of its agrarian sector to Big Business. …The protesting elders never changed, till the end.”

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Protesters in India over the past year opposed new farm laws that seemed to hand over the keys of the country’s agrarian sector to Big Business. (Kanupriya)

And the exchanges extended well beyond pleasantries. While mainstream media gave a scant glimpse into this—often circulating wild rumors and conjectures against the protesters—the protest witnessed crucial developments towards inclusivity. 

“One barrier that is shaken, I won’t say broken, is women sitting next to men, and talking about farming,” said Mankiran.

“Men have witnessed women explaining the [now repealed] laws and their impact quite sharply,” Anjali said. “These things surely left the impression that women are crucial part of any movement and gave somewhat recognition to the fact that women are also farmers.”

“Men have witnessed women explaining the [now repealed] laws and their impact quite sharply. These things surely left the impression that women are crucial part of any movement and gave somewhat recognition to the fact that women are also farmers.”

Gendered dynamics of protest in part mirrored gender dynamics of agrarian plight.

Given the history of deep trust deficit of small and marginal farmers towards the government, women’s involvement was no surprise. Their visibility was not guaranteed. The credit for their contributions at times an afterthought: “Our sisters are also here.”

But dynamics shifted as well. From the earlier months of women expressing solidarity as “daughters of farmers,” and “wives of farmers,” to women speaking as farmers. In the early days, students like Harpreet Kaur were watched suspiciously; by the end of the year, though, they were encouraged for speaking up when others would not—from first being praised in a tribute song (by the popular ‘bard of the protest’) for having risen and become men, to having space to articulate their own opinions as women.

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In India, 60 percent of the country’s population works in agriculture. (Guneet Kaur)

“They were the cover of TIME, but at the same time, had to claim this space,” said Mannat.

Almost exactly a year after she had first expressed that women seemed great for photo ops but not stages, Harpreet Kaur stood next to an older woman who told a group that the bulbule (bubbles) of desire in her revolutionary heart deserve as much time on a stage as any man’s.

“They are more aware about their role in society as whole, in production, and same time they realize they are not given proper space in decision-making,” said Harpreet.

Many women first gained access to the protest bullhorns and microphones on a special gathering of women agrarian workers and farmers arranged on International Women’s Day. The march brought a lot of women together to the protest sites for the first time and triggered discussions, information swaps, and a surge of strength from their own convening power, further increasing women’s attendance and participation—a reminder of the possible power of any symbolic ‘awareness day.’

Friendships forged have become lifelines, practical and emotional. “Some of the young girls especially worry they will just be left with phone numbers now, but none of those physical meetings they began to love,” said Kanupriya, sharing a short video she created on the last day of the protests.

In certain moments of the protest, the soaring collective spirit seemed to transcend gender and other social divisions. When a male leaders’ tears were captured on camera and went viral not as a sign of weakness but of heart, it redoubled the energy around the then-deflating protest.

When Haryanvi men “considered more conservative,” said Anjali from Haryana, joined Punjabi men to cut and cook vegetables for langar [community kitchen], “they may or may not have started seeing the kitchen work as necessary survival work instead of a gender role.”

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Men sorting vegetables for community kitchen. (Harpreet Kaur)

Self-identifying as of third gender, Jasleen Kaur Patiala gave a spirited call to action to thousands of protesters: “I’m neither a man nor a woman, I have the guts to fight!”

“I’ve rarely heard or seen any trans person on a public platform in our community,” said attorney Guneet Kaur, “so this was a refreshing change. It is not that the morcha [protest] is without its rifts and fissures, but I witnessed friendships and networks that if not for the morcha were unlikely. These include young women coming together to make morcha spaces accountable, people forming friendships across districts and states, bonds formed due to a common experience of incarceration, solidarity and allyship beyond caste, class, religious and age location.”  

This coalition-building and solidarity work was being undertaken in the background of some grave threats.

While violent and sexualized threats against celebrities like Greta Thunberg for words of support for the farmers’ protest made news, labor activist Nodeep Kaur was in jail for a month where she was reported to have been tortured and sexually assaulted. Meanwhile, media reporting engaged in fear-mongering that immediately resulted in the policing (by self, family and/or community) of young women’s participation.

In January 2021, media dog-whistles accompanied violence and an internet shutdown—about which Rihanna wrote a six-word tweet that became a critical juncture in the protest given the Indian government’s reaction of launching a massive counter-campaign on social media, featuring even Bollywood and sports celebrities.

One woman who had by then lived with the protesters for two months said, “I was there during the January 26 chaos. Nothing happened, no violence organized by protesters … but with that much media noise, in Indian society, when parents came to know, I had to come back home.”

When they couldn’t physically be at the epicenter of the protests around Delhi, many women organized locally in Punjab and Haryana, and some became preoccupied with countering dominant narratives online. Many non-celebrity women faced online harassment and debilitating trolling. 

And they have taken note of which well-known self-identified feminists writers and activists in India failed to express solidarity for a sustained progressive movement (complete with its feminist nuances) easily accessible from the nation’s capital.

One woman said, “One of my sheroes, the internationally recognized progressive trailblazers, wrote one line in some kind of solidarity. I cried like a baby when I read that. Our grandparents met water cannons in the freeze and were dying. And she wrote one line. But we have to pick our battles. I don’t wish to call her out. She’s one of many. We’ve kept track.”

Other feminists external to the protest were critiqued for extending support in a manner that amplified the feminist issues in isolation, thereby undermining or even erasing intersectionality and “other dimensions like Kisaani and Sikhi,” said Guneet Kaur.

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The farm leaders had planned to strike until all the new farm laws are repealed. (Harp Farmer / Facebook)

Mankiran observed the growth of leadership from within, without awaiting external validation: “There is a change I’ve personally seen in women’s visibility at morcha … and in leadership roles. I’ve seen some but of course we will see more. Because this morcha has given a stage and voice to many women.”

“As if We Were in a Little Revolution Within the Revolution”

Mannat commented on the dual labor undertaken by some young women who dared to challenge patriarchy while also challenging state repression.

Whatever existed in the rest of society, existed at the farmer protest too—including sexual harassment and abuse. The women who believed this to be especially unacceptable at the revolutionary protest ended up facing some wrath but raising essential questions: from possible models of accountability for sexual misconduct that are community-based without being dismissive; to the danger of predators lurking in progressive clothing; to the thorny challenges of closure after online “Me Too” disclosures.

“I think it has sensitized a lot of men. To what extent, I cannot say,” said Mannat.

In April, a young woman who had traveled to the protest site from West Bengal, died of COVID. Posthumously, there was attention to the fact that she was “harassed”—understood as a euphemism for assaulted. More women felt compelled to share the incidents of sexualized threats that occurred all along: unwanted callers outside their tents; knowing that any complaint by young women to leadership would be a quick excuse to ask young women to leave; having to take matters ‘into their own hands’ with girlfriends, surrounding and scaring a stalker when he was alone or avoiding and evading a more powerful harasser; creating warning systems to alert women of predatory men; managing tech abuse like tagging, messaging and online flirting, including by journalists and activists within the ‘progressive’ groups and ‘religious’ groups.

“This format of 24-7 live-in protest is new and I think we all learned some lessons along the way,” said Guneet. “There is a need for leadership to understand that conflict around gendered questions are not merely personal matters and harassment even in personal relationships can impact the larger cause if the harasser is allowed to go about with the morcha without providing accountability.”

Some young women began having urgent, even if quiet, informal discussions. Convening “women’s circles” allowed for conversations about experiences that had felt solitary and provided critical mobilization for legal, psychosocial or advocacy support.

Young women found themselves figuring out how to hold their abusers accountable, but also how not to give anti-protest forces further fodder. But they also at times found themselves managing mud-slinging from their own supposed allies.

“A lot of times I felt our voice and space was being taken up by ‘dominant’ feminists,” said Mannat. “The movement did have a lot of vultures. People taking up a space that didn’t belong to them at all. … I remember there was a committee being formed, but had women who were completely outside of the morcha. … What’s the point of that?”

Eventually, a few women successfully worked on a “Statement On Making Movement Spaces Safe For Women,” issued by a small yet spirited group within Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), after the statement did not find a home in any organization affiliated with or present at the protest. Indeed the statement notes: “Further, the silence and non-committal response of other progressive forces around us compounds the bewilderment.”

One of the drafters of the statement told Ms: “I don’t think we have mechanisms in movement spaces—feminist, left, progressive or peasant organizations.”

These women grappled with not wanting to utilize police or other punitive measures, while not finding solidarity and remedy from colleagues and leadership. Some admit their (wishful) bias of believing their “movement spaces” to be particularly better than everyday families and communities. They didn’t expect personal allegiances and private grudges to dictate outcomes, including apathy and denial. They also grappled with the difficult challenge of ‘leaderless’ spaces (particularly claiming to be so in the wake of an allegation) or then leaders who maintain these gendered issues are secondary to the larger goals.

Other issues delegated to later include land reform; women’s right to land; caste hierarchies; and rights of laborers (named in the slogans, underrepresented in the considerations).

As protesters go home, will any wins in terms of equity spillover to other organizing spaces, unions, towns, villages, even homes?

“It will be limited to morcha; however, it certainly will provide a roadmap for future movements,” says Navpreet.

As this historic protest winds up, that future is here.

Later is now.

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About

Mallika Kaur is a writer, lawyer and organizer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia and teaches at UC Berkeley School of Law. She is the author of “Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper,” Palgrave MacMillan (2019). She is also the co-founder and executive director of the Sikh Family Center, the only Sikh American organization focused on gender justice. Tweet her @mallikakaur.