Field Notes: 'Farmers Armed With A Book Are A Force No Barricades Can Stop'

ARSHDEEP ARSHI

Since I remember, book stalls have been part of every people’s protest in Punjab, a state given to taking no nonsense and taking to the streets. It’s quite simple: if the books and leaflets they sold didn’t sell, there wouldn’t be any book stalls. 

The average protester at Punjab protests does not have much money. She is usually working class but determined and imbued with a thirst for knowledge. At every protest I find, they throng these makeshift book stalls. Sometimes, they buy a book or two. Sometimes, if it is just a Rs-10 leaflet. 

Young protesting farmers, leftists, civil society, and farm organisations typically set up these libraries. One was called Shaheed Bhagat Singh Library, named after the great pre-independence revolutionary. I’ve seen some set up by the Punjab Kisan Union, a leading farm union and by the Communist Party of India and some by students from Panjab University. Some libraries were run by young activists and students who ran Trolley Times, a popular newspaper during the largest protests four years ago.

A farmer reads a book titled Ki Ishwar Mar Gya Hai (Has God died?) at the Kisan Mazdoor Mahapanchayat at Jagraon, Ludhiana, Punjab, on 21 May 2024. Photo: Arshdeep Arshi

Yet, working for the mainstream media through the years of the second Narendra Modi government—rocked in 2020-21 by massive protests by farmers, which have ebbed but flare up every now and then—I would hear how “uneducated” the farmers protesting at the borders of Delhi were. 

The national media, time and time again, would say these farmers did not understand the three farm laws that Modi’s government tried—unsuccessfully—to pass in September 2020, that they did not know the benefits of these laws, that they had been misled by farm organisations supposedly were working at the behest of opposition parties. 

The reality is quite the opposite.

In February 2024, I went to the Shambhu border on Delhi’s western periphery to cover the protest called by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (non-political) or SKM (non-political), a leading organisation representing farmers. This happened a few months after I left the mainstream media. With no deadline and no pressure for sensational quotes or hot takes, I wandered through the long line of tractor-trolleys for a few kilometres, trying to absorb all that I saw. 

The mainstream media were at the site of action further down the road at barricades set up by the police at the Punjab-Haryana border, where a couple of days ago, farmers and the Haryana police had clashed. 

As I write this, the farmers are still there. Sometimes, they try to breach the barricades, and the police fire tear gas or order baton-charge. Injuries are inevitable.

As I wandered away from the action, I met, at leisure, the people responsible for this show of strength. Some were resting, some playing cards, and some were reading books. 

These protests have had dramatic implications for India’s politics. As Modi becomes Prime Minister for the third time, he and his party have been diminished primarily by disillusioned rural voters. Roiled by rural distress and anger, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost 71 seats in rural India. 

The farm protests were the genesis of this disillusionment, and their unwavering commitment to their cause is fuelled by their desire to gather knowledge about not just their condition but about larger philosophical issues related to their lives, as the books they read indicate. Apart from the titles mentioned in the two photos, I have spotted farmers reading Punjabi literature, biographies and revolutionary literature.

When I returned home that cool February day, I was talking to a colleague, S P Singh, who pointed out how the scrum of journalists there never mentioned the phenomenon of farmers at the protests spending long hours reading. I sent him this picture I had shot earlier that day: 

Two farmers, one young and the other old, by the roadside. The older farmer was holding up the yellow-and-green flag of a farmers’ organisation, and the younger was reading a book, Sach Di Bhal Vich (In search of the truth). 

Singh saw the photo and wrote on his Whatsapp broadcast group, “Resistance, determination, and intellectual pursuit—framed by the roadside, where modernity (the road) jostles with nature and wilderness” 

“Farmers armed with a book will be a force no barricades can stop,” wrote Singh. “The picture reminded me of Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena's beautiful ditty about basant (spring) that he wrote in a remarkable collection for kids, called Kitabon mein billi ne bachhe diye hain (In books, cats have given birth to kittens!) It goes like this: 

क्या बसन्त का मौसम आया 

फूल नहीं खिलते इस बार 

सूनी डाल पे तितली बैठी गुमसुम पढ़ती है अखबार 

(Spring is upon us, flowers will not bloom this time. On a desolate branch sits a butterfly dispiritedly reading a newspaper)

The reference is to the mass media, the newspaper, and the TV letting us down. “I'm so happy to see the farmer has turned to the book,” wrote Singh.

How right he was.

On 21 May 2024, I visited the Kisan Mazdoor mahapanchayat or gathering at Jagraon in the Punjab district of Ludhiana, organised by the SKM, which was persuading farmers to vote against Modi’s BJP. Books were a common sight. Several stalls were packed with revolutionary literature, books, and leaflets on the general elections of 2024. Many farmers were browsing, reading and buying these books.  

In 2020-21, during the 13-month Delhi farm protests, libraries kept farmers up to date with issues, context, data and ideologies. They could take a book for free, read it and then return it to the library.

That makes me wonder: Have those who criticise farmers for being uneducated and inadequately informed ever been to a protest? I’ve found that farmers like to keep themselves up to date about the issues that concern them more than their critics. 

You can read Arshdeep Arshi’s full story here.

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