Sara Abraham interviews Navsharan Singh
Sara Abraham: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Navsharan Singh: In recent years, I have been working on the agrarian crisis locating landless labor, especially Dalit women in the political economy of agrarian crisis and resistance.
SA: Did I also read somewhere that you were involved in popular theater in Panjab?
NS: Yes, I was. My father Gursharan Singh – he passed away in 2011 – was a well-known playwright and theatre person in Panjab. He was the pioneer of street theater, a very strong left-wing artist, director, author and an activist. He developed a new idiom of theatre, and took theatre to the villages in Panjab. The rural people of Panjab fully took to his theatre. This theatre was not reliant on fancy auditoriums or perfect lighting.
He developed a theatrical form where actors communicated with the audiences directly on the themes which were their everyday experience. Since the early 1970s, he performed in the villages of Panjab, on an average, 150 nights in a year.
Thousands of women, men and children came to see his plays, raised small funds for the performance and invited him to their villages. They often travelled for miles on tractor trolleys, bicycles, bullock carts and on foot for the performances.
I was an active member of his theatre troupe until about 1985, when I moved out of Panjab. But I kept a live connection with theater in Panjab especially in the rural areas.
SA: Thank you for that introduction. To plunge right into it, patriarchy doesn’t change in a day or in a year, so if you were to reflect on the impact of this tumultuous year on the women’s movement in Panjab and organizing in Panjab, what would you say?
NS: The year 2021 belongs to the kisan (farmers) movement and the heroic fight that famers led against the three draconian farm laws, passed in the Indian parliament in a highly undemocratic manner.
Women had a stirring presence in this protest. On November 26, 2021, farmer women came with men marching to Delhi, waving their union flags and braving the police barricades, water cannons and tear gas attacks.
The leadership of the farm movement is predominantly elderly male, with decades of experience of mobilizing farmers around local demands. There are over 32 farm unions in Panjab alone and they were all at the protest sites. A few of these unions have women’s wings led by women, but by and large women are not in leadership positions of the farm unions.
However, women were the backbone of the farmers’ protest movement. They worked quietly at the backend – collecting food and funds, talking to the press, managing the stage, and mobilizing support for the movement within the families.
In the buildup to the farmers’ march to Delhi, women’s role in mobilizing took the folk form of Jago (“awake”) – going around the village late at night singing and delivering the message of protest – was exemplary.
When the farmers’ convoy of tractors trolleys entered Delhi on November 26 to demand repeal of the farm laws, women were part of these convoys. Many in Delhi were surprised to see so many rural women on the tractor trolleys. So in the initial days of the farm protest, commentators struggled to understand the phenomenon of women joining the movement.
There was an element of surprise while noting that “thousands of them emerged from the seclusion of their homes, and in some instances actually from purdah (seclusion), in order to join protests.”
Recent History of Women’s Protests
Perhaps it is not well known that Panjab women are not first-time protesters. In Panjab rural women – farmers and laborers – have been mobilized for over two decades, mostly by the left farm unions. These women are from marginal and small landholding farming and landless households.
Over the years, as the unions mobilized women, they have encountered questions about women’s rights, citizenship, women’s right to the public sphere, women’s right to participate in popular struggles. Some unions engaged with these issues seriously.
Many farm unions in Panjab have been commemorating March 8, International Women’s Day, when they invite speakers and hold rural conventions to educate their cadre.
The question of women’s equal participation, their rights to safety, and women-specific issues in the movements are discussed in these meetings. I will not say that there has been a “resolution” of these questions but there is a serious attempt to engage, at least some unions.
Women’s mobilization is also connected with many aspects of Panjab’s left legacy. Panjab has a very vibrant progressive cultural movement which can be traced back to the late 1960s. There is rich music, poetry and also theatre. There are scores of rural theatre troupes in Panjab, and we saw them regularly at the borders where the farmers were protesting.
Many of these rural theatre troupes are part of an umbrella organization called the Panjab Lok Sabhyachar Manch. This is a cultural platform committed to building a just society through progressive cultural movement. These troupes do political theatre. Women are both part of the audience and they are the lead performers.
Another very interesting tradition in Panjab is the all-night cultural programs, a tradition which began during the years of militancy (the Khalistani secessionist movement). There used to be night curfews in Panjab, from 9 pm to 5 am. Since people could not go out anyway, they would gather before 9 pm and watch cultural programs all night.
The tradition continued even after militancy ebbed. These cultural programs mobilized women in large numbers and women see themselves as a part of the social change movements. Bringing women out of homes to these performances has also been a conscious strategy.
As I mentioned, my father began performing in the villages from the late 1960s. Initially only men would come to see the performances. He started talking about women’s absence: “Why are women not coming and sitting in the audience? Is it not safe for them?”
A time came when he would not start his performance unless women came to be part of the audience. He would tell the organizers that he would only perform if there were women.
If there were no women, he would leave the stage and go around in the village urging women to come out. He would tell them, “the housework is never going to end, but you must come out.”
Slowly women started coming out and we saw the beginning of change – when women started coming out from the private to the public space, which had been reserved for men, the public also changed. Performances about women, their oppression and resistance began to emerge. A new cultural space was created for them to participate.
The credit for mobilizing women goes to rural left-wing organizations – Naujawan Bharat Sabhas, farmer and student unions. The 1970s saw a very vibrant student movement in Panjab and young women were a part of it. These were not urban but rural women and they were part of the left-wing student politics.
For the past twenty years as the agrarian crisis deepened, farm unions began to mobilize people around various demands – MSP, subsidies, compensation for farm suicides, and compensation for failed crops. Women were an integral part of these protests.
So there’s a history of mobilizing women and men by the left groups. And this is what we saw in the farmer’s movement. Women’s presence at the Delhi borders was not “sudden.”
It is my belief that the state wants women – half of India’s people – to be locked up in their homes. That would leave the state to deal only with the other 50 percent.
Today women’s presence in the movement is acknowledged. Their formidable presence has successfully broken the convention where politics is imagined as a male arena of activity. The label of masculinity attributed to the farmers’ movement stands shattered.
This movement saw a number of women leaders emerge who will now be important actors in the unions. The movement was also important for women to reflect on earlier radical social movements – from Tebhaga  to the Anti-betterment levy movement in Panjab of the late 1950s – where women participated actively. But once the movement was over they were expected to go back to cooking chappatis and enduring domestic violence silently.
These issues came up in the conversations at the Delhi border morchas. The failure of the leadership of the earlier movements to understand the nature of women’s participation, or to pay attention to what they were saying in order to transform the gender social relations, was clearly on women’s watch now.
They challenged the present leadership to recognize that this struggle will only be half as strong, half as vibrant, if women had not joined.
Women at the morchas quickly took over new roles and responsibilities. Interestingly, managing the kitchen was not one of the prime responsibilities. At the morcha, it was men who were cooking. Women lent a hand but it was not their prime responsibility. This was a very pleasant shift.
Women were responsible for other tasks that emerged as the movement was prolonged. For example, when the farmers set up camps at the border of Delhi police barricaded the adjoining roads, not allowing traffic to flow.
The local people in the area were extremely inconvenienced by these roadblocks and also by thousands of people occupying the small space. So women started going around in the local areas talking to the families about their protest and seeking their support. This worked extremely well and helped to mobilize support among the local communities.
As we all know now, the local communities were such a big support to the farmers that they offered their homes to farmers whenever they were needed. They offered their toilets as well.
We learned from women that there were babies at the camps whose milk had to be boiled quickly. Farmer women could go to the local homes and do this anytime. And if people fell sick there were homes they could go to rest. This was incredible.
Discussing the Experience of Patriarchy
Protest stages went up at all the sites. These were used from morning to late in the evening, featuring not only lectures, but cultural performances. On January 18, the SKM dedicated one full day to women farmers’ contribution to the movement.
On that day women were responsible for running the protest stage. This was the first women farmers’ day; many followed. Women ran the entire day’s proceedings. They invited women performers and speakers and this was a day when they first talked about how the farm laws affected women.
I was there and heard women talking about patriarchy, and discrimination – not so much using these concepts – but bringing examples from their everyday lives: “Why are families not happy when a daughter is born? Why do we prefer sons? Why do we have domestic violence in our families?” Many such questions were raised.
Whenever women were celebrating a special day and managing the stage, many women participated – not only farmer women, but teachers, childcare workers, informal employment workers, nurses, anganwadi (childcare) workers and also women from the families of farm suicide victims.
Women brought a great deal to the farmers’ movement. Agrarian crisis is writ large on the body politic of rural India -– landlessness, falling incomes and the rising costs of farming, mounting farm debts, an ecological crisis manifesting in degradation of environment, health, the lack of water; lack of employment in the farm sector, especially for women, and the increasing hold of the corporate giants on the lives of farmers, to name a few.
The crisis also erupted in the form of suicides of farmers and agricultural laborers unable to repay the farm loans. While farming families bore these crisis, the suicides affect women profoundly as they are left to pick up the threads which men suddenly drop – pick up the responsibilities of farming, repaying the debts, demanding compensation from the state, and caring for the family.
In late January 2021, just a month after the morcha began at the borders, women farmers and laborers from the families of farmer suicides in Panjab joined the protesting farmers. They carried the pictures of their dead relatives, some held two.
They came, embodying the crisis. From the Bibi Gulab Kaur protest stage where they assembled, when they held the grainy pictures high, it was like a wave of corpses rising.
Women had brought to the protest their experience of crisis – not only of losing husbands, fathers or sons to farm suicides; but also there were women laborers who are landless but dependent on land for their livelihoods. We learnt from them that if cotton crop fails due to bollworm disease, farmers suffer the loss of a crop but farm workers – mostly women – lose their season of employment. Farmers seek compensation for a failed crop, but who compensates lost labor?
With women joining the movement, the farmers’ movement’s claims on the state expanded. Women’s experience of the agrarian crisis is far more intense. With their joining, the movement was no longer just about state protection through MSP. Women also raised before the public’s imagination the demands of land to the landless, guaranteed minimum wages for farm jobs, and equal wages for farm operations.
As we watched them on the borders, living under extremely harsh conditions which were made harsher by state apathy, we saw them fighting the state’s war of attrition with calm confidence.
When women came to the morcha, they didn’t come to challenge patriarchy, they came to challenge Modi. In this challenge the anti-democratic politics constituting the state practice – the “Chhappan inch ki chhati” (56-inch chest), an attribute of the majoritarian masculinist state presided over by Modi – was also challenged. So the long answer to your question about patriarchy is that the movement opened up space to address many challenges.
SA: Thank you again for that astounding account. Was there pushback from the SKM leadership and the men? Or have the women been able to hold on to political space so that they will continue to be visible and shape the demands of the movement as it continues?
NS: There was no pushback from SKM. It was supportive and facilitated women’s participation, though at times patronizingly. Many in the leadership acknowledged women’s contributions wholeheartedly but it was a struggle for some others. There were senior leaders who, while addressing the audience from the podium, would begin by saying “dear farmer brothers” even when hundreds of women were in the pandal!
At the first all-day meeting dedicated to women farmers, the SKM leadership was not present at the Singhu stage. I asked them later and they smiled and said, “Well, we wanted to leave it to our women who are so capable; we used the day for our meetings!”
I was also invited to speak at the Bibi Gulab Kaur stage at the Tikri border on the same day. The male leadership was present there.
So the SKM leadership was not opposed but many found gender equality a diversion and there was a pushback in that sense. This was most evident when a young woman, who came to the morcha from Kolkata, died from COVID. Before she died, she had confided with influential individuals that she had been subjected to sexual violence at the morcha.
There was no attempt on the part of SKM to confront this. There was an attempt to hush up the case saying that if it is opened, the incident will be sensationalized and bring a bad name to the morcha.
Even the father of the young woman who died said the same thing to me when I met him. He was in deep shock, she was his only child and he was completely devastated, but he made it a point to say that he didn’t want to bring a bad name to the morcha.
Some of us continued to insist that confronting it would only strengthen the morcha. A little later some of the SKM leaders came out and said that they strongly condemned the incident. But this was only after a police case was registered.
So this is one case where SKM needed to be fiercely pushed. It needed a lot of convincing to come to a point where the SKM actually agreed to do a press conference. They also constituted an internal fact-finding committee led by prominent women from Delhi – but the report was not made public.
These were also fairly trying times for the morcha. The SKM was under tremendous pressure: the government had stopped talking, there were no negotiations happening and there were constant disruptions at the morcha.
Active harm was being plotted against farmers everyday – there were fires at the camps; sex workers were sent to the camps and pictures were taken of women soliciting. All kinds of things were happening.
But I think the incident jolted the male leadership in more fundamental ways. Over the next few months farmers’ leaders began talking about women’s contribution from the podium more forcefully, “without women this morcha would not have been what it is.”
Rakesh Tikait, the leader from Western Uttar Pradesh, an area known for purdah and entrenched patriarchy, started speaking out on women’s contribution and the crucial responsibilities they were taking on. His wife and daughter-in-law began coming to the events.
Even when women had a strong presence at the morcha, mainstream journalists continued to probe asking questions to women –- “Were you forced by your unions to come?”
We know that the mainstream political parties force and even pay people to come to their rallies. The journalists were asking the same questions to farmer women, who always replied that they came because they wanted to, because they were farmers, and it was a question of life and death and their identity.
SA: Even I would want to ask them – “Did you have to get permission before coming?”
NS: Women said that they didn’t have to negotiate with families or let’s say it was not a difficult negotiation. The families divided up responsibilities. If the women came, the children were looked after by the grandmothers.
During the later months, there were more elderly women present at the morcha. This is because the younger ones who had taken time off from their jobs and schooling was online, came to the morcha with their children. When the schools reopened, younger women with reproductive responsibilities had to stay home so the older women came.
But all of them said that they only had to tell their men and nobody objected. They just came.
Building Bonds of Solidarity
I met women who were not part of any union. One day I was in a long queue for the use of toilet and I started talking to a woman standing ahead of me. She looked urban and middle class so I asked her if she was visiting. She replied that she had been staying in the camps since the beginning of the morcha with her three daughters. “I just decided that I had to be here, I was deeply moved by farmers’ plight … and I told my husband. He was upset initially, and said, how can you take the girls, but I told him, we are capable of taking care of ourselves. And this is a space which is safe. And he didn’t say anything.”
The farmers’ march to Delhi and their protest resonated with common people in Delhi and other neighboring cities. Many in the cities have roots in the villages. People from cities came in support and this included a large number of women who found comfort in a joyous environment of camaraderie which the morcha offered.
SA: Did you find there were links between the farmers’ morcha and the protests against Modi’s policies that had happened earlier in Delhi, for instance, the very large gathering of Muslim women on the roads at Shaheen Bagh for many months?
NS: Panjab’s left farmers’ unions had visited Shaheen Bagh in January 2020 a few times. The women members of the union also came. They came to express solidarity. It’s interesting how the media and ordinary people at that time identified them as “Sikhs from Panjab.” But they were not Sikhs from Panjab, they were Panjab farmer Union members who came in in support and solidarity. Of course, they happened to be Sikh.
It was the left-wing unions we are talking about. They saw the links between being bled by the policy-induced hard edge of corporate agriculture and the disfranchising citizenship laws which the authoritarian, majoritarian government was pursuing on the national scene.
While the Shaheen Bagh protest was going on, on February 16, 2020 in Malerkotla in Panjab, a massive anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) Rally was held. And it was by far the biggest in the country. It is estimated that over a lakh [100,000] people were present. This included Muslim women who had come out in big numbers. And this rally was organized by local Muslim organizations of Malerkotla, in collaboration with the farm union Bhartiya Kisan Union Ekta (Ugrahan) and some others. Malerkotla is the only Muslim majority district in Panjab.
It was a very significant alliance that was forged against this government’s highhandedness. The farm unions were able to link the looming disenfranchisement of Muslims and the taking away of rights of farmers and workers. The state practices created conditions which infringed the fundamental rights of Muslims citizens – lynching, in the name of the cow; renaming hundreds of ancient villages, streets, cities with names that reflect their Muslim heritage as a way to erase the history of Muslim heritage; state sanctioned impunity for hatred and allowing the expansion of the remit and reach of the authority of the Hindutva vigilante.
The CAA was passed in the backdrop of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise carried out in the Indian state of Assam. The final list of citizens published on August 31, 2019, just a few months before the CAA was passed, left out about 1.9 million applicants out of the citizen list. An overwhelming number of those whose claims for citizenship were rejected were women.
Farmers unions questioned the arbitrary NRC and CAA and explained to their cadre the threats. They asked: “Who doesn’t have papers to prove their lineage and legacy to seek claims to citizenship? “They said it was poor people who have no land and no official record of their employment, and those who top this list are women. Women don’t have the kind of papers required to prove citizenship were land and lineage and also state records.
Women’s only relationship with land is their labor; in the family, their identity is transformed as they turn from someone’s daughter to someone’s wife, taking on new names and moving to new locations. For inclusion in state records, they struggle to make sense of their belonging to their husband’s family. How do they claim citizenship?
This is true not only for Muslim women but for all women. And it resonated with women. So there was a connection and a gender dimension to this burgeoning alliance.
Farmer union women who came to Shaheen Bagh went back to Panjab with stories of the hardships which Muslim women were enduring, sitting in the biting cold on the road with little babies. So when farmers came to Delhi’s borders, visitors from Shaheen Bagh and the Malerkotla Muslim farmers also came and organized big langars at the borders, which continued until the end of the movement.
SA: Is BKU Ugrahan supporting the new electoral party?
No, they are not. They are not part of the new electoral Sanjukt Samaj Party. In a recently held press conference in Chandigarh, BKU Ugrahan made their stand very clear by saying that the elections were being held after the resounding victory of historical farmer struggle. The gains could only be consolidated if farmers preserved their unity and continued to fight for their rights through mass struggles. Each member of the Union has her democratic right to vote for any candidate or not to vote at all.
SA: Given that only some of the constituent unions have supported this development, will the new electoral party break the unity of the farmers?
The unity has come under question because only 20 unions out of the 32 have agreed to form a party and contest the state assembly elections. The farmers’ leaders who want to contest in the elections are saying that there is a lot of pressure from below – people want to see their leaders win elections and bring about some change. Others feel that it is not going to take them very far. Not only that, but it’s also detrimental to the unity achieved during the historic farm struggle.
The year-long farm struggle opened up many questions. In addition to gender, other crucial questions include the rights of landless Dalits over resources and the rights of the urban working poor over food. The urban poor have been evicted from their lands, work on slave wages in the cities and are dependent on the public distribution of food. The demand of the MSP has implications for food prices.
All such questions need to be untangled to mobilize even greater support for it. These are difficult questions which deserve the attention of the farmer unions. Their collective capacities to forge alliances and fight battles for justice and the redistribution of resources can only be achieved if the unions continue to work together and preserve the unity of people. Participating in electoral politics is not going to make this happen.
SA: How far have ecological ideas permeated into the BKU Ugrahan’s organizing and the agricultural women’s organizing?
NS: I spent a lot of time at the morcha, especially at the Bibi Gulab Kaur stage. I heard there about the ecological crisis and the destruction which accompanied the Green Revolution. I heard Joginder Singh Ugrahan several times talking about it. In one of his long speeches, he began by asking something like this: “Do you remember those times when we grew crops with no chemical fertilizer, no insecticide, no pesticide, no chemicals…And our cows gave plenty of milk for the family… And we used to have happy families. But what happened later? Where did our peace of mind go and who took happiness away?”
Then he answered his own questions, relating it to the hold of agro-corporate giants on farmers’ lives, on the agrarian crisis, on farm suicides, the mounting debts despite a massive growth in productivity, poisoned water, poor health, cancer, decayed teeth, and so on. He related the entire life cycle to the ecological crisis which had been brought upon the rural communities.
The health issue is something very palpable and links to the ecological crisis in people’s everyday experience, people relate to it. There are two parallel discussions. First, in Panjab there are no public health facilities. When people are diagnosed with cancer, the family is financially ruined getting private treatment. Second, why is this happening to our families? What happened to our soil? What happened to our waters?
But there were no positions presented or argued. There was no mention of natural farming, or zero budget farming. I didn’t hear very much about switching to more sustainable farming.
There are farmers who would say that they have a five-acre farm and on one acre they grow crops without any pesticides for family consumption. So they know what they are doing, but they want to grow the other kind for high yield to earn more cash.
But we must realize that given the state of the agrarian crisis, they are really in no position to take the risk of shifting to other crops or to “sustainable farming.” They are willing to shift if procurement at MSP is ensured. But not without that guarantee.
[Note: You might also be interested in reading an earlier article, lrdquo;Women Demanding Repeal Of Farm Acts: A Marxist-Feminist Viewpoint” by Ranjana Padhi.]
Against the Current