One hundred and twenty-three days into the farmers' protest, as Delhi’s burning summer approaches, one of the few women farm leaders there, Harinder Bindu, describes her 30-year journey in building solidarities across caste, class and gender, raising political consciousness and mobilising women.
New Delhi: One hundred and twenty-three days into the farmers protest sit-in at Tikri, a neighbourhood by the western border of India’s capital Delhi and Haryana, farmer-union leader Harinder Bindu is unafraid and undeterred. Even as the protests appear to have reached a deadlock, with the central Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government pretending there are not currently thousands of farmers scattered across the borders—Bindu feels this “takkar” (collision) between the farmers and the government is a matter of staking it out.
She has reason to believe so, given her long history in previous struggles around state compensation for farmer-suicides in Punjab, resolving farm-labourer issues with the Bharatiya Khet Mazdoor Union, agitations against the assault of Dalit girls and decades of going from village to village, building women’s solidarities ground-up across mandis, gurudwaras, houses and halls.
Bindu, the 44-year-old general secretary and president of the women’s wing of the Bharatiya Kisan Union Ugrahan (BKU Ugrahan)—one of the few recognisable women leaders in the unions—has been immersed in activism since childhood. Her father was a part of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, a leftist organisation founded by Bhagat Singh in 1926, to mobilise workers and peasants against the British Raj, and bring agrarian reform for the working classes. One of the primary attempts to tarnish protesters by the right-wing has been the label of ‘Khalistani’ separatists and potential terrorists. However it is difficult to bring that charge against Bindu whose father was killed by Khalistani militants when she was 14. She promised herself she would carry on her father’s fight against oppression. Today she continues to do exactly that.
Bindu spoke to Article 14 in February, shortly after managing the day’s series of talks at the Tikri border protest site of the BKU Ugrahan stage. The beginnings of summer were making their way felt as the sun beat down relentlessly upon the heads of protestors and the “basanti chunnis” of the women in front of the stage.
Our conversation mainly revolved around what it means to be a woman in activism from rural Punjab, the need for farmers to have “a politics of their own that they can rely on”, and how women are mobilised to become political figures. Bindu spoke passionately, nearly without pause—practiced in the discipline required for giving long, rousing speeches. She drew upon incidents from her 30 years of activism to illustrate certain essential planks of the struggles she is part of.
Edited excerpts from an interview.
In the farmers protests, while there is definitely a large involvement of women—there are relatively few women in leadership positions. Even on the posters of the farmer unions, women’s faces are rare. As the president of the women’s wing and State General Secretary of the BKU Ugrahan, you are somewhat of an exception. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became involved in activism?
This has been a tendency from my ancestors. My most formative influence was my father—Meghraj Bhagtuana, and being immersed in the life he led. He was a part of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, founded by Bhagat Singh, and extremely involved in the mission of the organisation. In spreading among people in the villages the literature and values of Bhagat Singh, the need for agrarian reform and equitable redistribution of wealth.
The Khalistani movement had also gathered strength in those years. So in response my father and his comrades made a ‘jabar te firqa parasti virodhi’ Front (Front Against Communalism and State Repression). Their stance was that it is your right to place your ask in front of the government. But this doesn’t mean tussi Khalistan de naate goliyaan maaro, kise da katl karo, kise da kaarobar ujaado (It doesn’t mean that you fire guns on behalf of Khalistan, murder people and uproot businesses). Meanwhile, the police were doing fake encounters against members of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha and filing spurious cases—so the Front was protesting against this too.
My father was the ilaka convener of the Front. So within our home, the ideologies of Bhagat Singh, student jathebandi (community organizing) on working class issues were constantly discussed. Questions like why is the mazdoor varg (labourer class) oppressed over centuries, why don’t they own land, why can’t they be equal?
My father would say sadda des azaad nahi hoya, ik samjhauta hoya (our country has not become independent, it has merely reached a compromise.) The white Englishmen have left, so our documents have become brown. Without economic security, education, jobs—all these basic needs being taken care of for everyone—independence is incomplete. So being part of all these intellectual discussions, I felt it was really good.
From such a young age?
Yes, yes. I would go with my father to rallies, to see the plays of (progressive playwright) Gursharan Singh, street plays in our village. The Front put on a lot of programmes to promote a sense of unity post-Partition years, did sloganeering like “Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai aapas mein hain bhai bhai”, “Hindu Sikh ladan ni dena, mud santali banan ni dena” (Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians—we are all brothers; Won’t let Hindus and Sikhs fight again, won’t let Partiton happen again )—I internalised all this. After this came Sewewala.
On 9 April 1991, my father Meghraj Bhagtuana became shaheed (martyred). Along with 18 others who were shot by Khalistani militants. Twenty two people were wounded in the incident. This left us really shaken. We had heard of course, the stories of our people being massacred in Jallianwala Bagh but here we were seeing it with our own eyes. When I saw my father’s dead body, I made a promise to him and to myself: Jo ladaai tune shuru kitheya ise nu main jaari rakhoongi. The fight you have started I will carry it on. I will pick up the [ideological] flag you carried and never let it fall.
I was 14 then. Today I am 44.
From then to now, that’s a long journey. How have you seen gender showing up in all this?
I’m really happy that my family was supportive from the very start. My father always said kudiyan kamzor nahi hondeya, kudiyan mundeyan barabar hondeya (girls are not weak, they are equal to boys). He would say, be equal, read and write, study — you can do any work that boys can. And I did. I worked in farming, with my father and in my grandfather’s field. I harvested cotton, everything… I also attended a government school till matric (10th grade).
After school I worked with the [Bharatiya] Khet Mazdoor Union (All India Agricultural Workers’ Union) for 10-11 years. I worked with farm-labourers—especially Dalit labourers who would take land on dehadi (contract) in the fields, and worked on resolution of lakhs of small-small issues. These years really grounded me in how terrible the working and living conditions were for mazdoors—how their houses didn’t have bathrooms or even doors sometimes.
For all we love to say that everyone is equal—koi baraabar nahi (there’s no true equality). Caste plays a huge role in daily life. I saw how labourers, especially Dalit and from poorer backgrounds, were being looted essentially—paid so little for their labour.
There was also this stigma that was prevalent—comments about how can a young girl from a Hindu family go to work with Dalit farm-labourers in their fields? Despite all this I felt, no. I have to work on exactly these issues, and exactly here. The work brought me a sense of sukoon (peace). When I would be working with mazdoors to alleviate their conditions, I would forget everything else, all these taunts.
Over those years I also read a lot—the writings of Bhagat Singh, the history of China and how the revolution happened there. I realised that the labouring class and farmers are going to have to fight for their rights in India too—demand their rights from the government. That farmers need to have a politics of their own that they can rely on, that can provide real liberation from exploitation.
So these years were clearly influential for your politics and thinking long before you joined the BKU Ugrahan (in 2002).
Yes. And then during my time with BKU Ugrahan came the stretch of privatisation—long before it manifested into its present iteration in these three farm laws. Like breaking the ‘bijli board’ (electricity board). In 2009 we were part of a big fight against this. We collected in Chandigarh for a big protest. There was a lathicharge, farmers were even killed.
Throughout this period we raised awareness in the villages about what privatisation means. Explaining to people that big corporations taking over electricity means that bills will increase,poorer households will not be able to afford electricity.
The Union had already been doing this kind of awareness-raising for the past 20-25 years on how increasing loan and debts may lead to loss of land-ownership, and how farmer suicides would increase. And we had seen all these things come true. So efforts to mobilise were ongoing. We organised people into unions to resolve their issues together. For instance if someone was losing their land, we would go to the panchayat together, convince the tehsildar—never let any of the farmers in any of the jathebandis have their land seized due to karza (debt)—not even to the arhatiyas. At the end of the day the land belongs to the farmer who labours on it.
Since we are on the topic of land-ownership, I want to ask about women and land rights. On paper, in the law women do have rights over land, but how much of this translates into reality in Punjab?
See as far as ownership of land is concerned even the majority of men in villages don’t own land or at most have four or five acres. Maybe just 15 percent actually own land. As for the big fields and farmland—it is the jagirdars (landlords) of Punjab like the Badals—Manpreet Badal, Sukhbir Badal—the MLAs and ministers who actually own it. Ordinary farmers don’t own much land. And women don’t own land at all.
If there is ever a case where land ownership is in the name of a woman, it’s because registry fees are cheaper. But she still doesn’t get any agency or say over that land in reality. It’s not like she can make decisions about what portion to contract out or to sell or decide anything to do with the land herself.
One thing I’ve heard repeatedly at Singhu and Tikri is that kisan kisan hota hai, jaati-paati kuch nahi hai (farmers are farmers, there is no caste). But as you mentioned earlier, in reality this is not true. So even as we speak of women farm-labourers and women farmers, we have to also look at caste.
Yes, the Dalit community faces a lot of sexual violence, oppression and trauma. It’s not just Uttar Pradesh where these cases are read about in newspapers but also in Punjab. In MLA Sukhbir Badal’s area, Muktsar district for instance, there are a lot of coercion, rapes, torture that Dalit women have to face because of caste. And there’s also inter-religious discrimination. The issue of caste cannot be erased from any discussion or fight we have for liberation.
The second thing is kisan-mazdoor ekta—farmer-labourer solidarity (as most Dalit agricultural workers tend to be landless mazdoors not land-owners). All the jathebandis like BKU Ugrahan have decided that if we don’t bring the labouring classes to equality, then our fight too is in vain, is weak. Women, youth, labourers—all have to be on a level of equality—then only our power becomes strong to carry on this protest against the government’s unjust laws. It is upon us to also help mazdoors fight in their struggles over land as they are part of this kisan andolan.
I remember in 2016, in Jalaur village of Sangrur district, the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee was fighting for the 1/3rd share of panchayati land legally owed to Scheduled Castes. And they were tortured—the village gundas attacked them. They were even lathi charged, their houses wrecked, Dalit women were sexually assaulted—all this because they asked for what was rightfully owed to them. So BKU Ugrahan helped them get back on their feet in solidarity.
In this landscape marked by caste and patriarchy, how does the kisan andolan change things?
All sections of society have been part of this whether students, women, farmers, mazdoors. But it will this protest solve the problems of caste? No. Will it restore the rights of women? No. Will it make farm-labourers the owners of the land they work on? No. But there is one thing. Is andolan vich kuch rishte badalne shuru hue. (Over the course of this movement, some relationships have started to change.
Before this andolan it was women and girls who did all the chores, washed dishes and cooked food. But in this andolan at the protest sites men are making rotis. Men are doing cleaning and washing-up and sweeping. They are cooking vegetables—all the domestic work, men are also engaged in.
Women have not been brought to the protest sites to do these household chores. Because if women are going to stay caught up in roti-pakana (making rotis), they will not get a grasp of politics. They will not develop this awareness and will remain in the grind.
Previously in Punjab, new brides and women of the house were not readily allowed to participate in politics or protest. But in this movement, every student or young woman whether university educated or not—wants to come here, stand against the new laws. This is a very good sign. They are developing this consciousness through this period.
The goal of women’s equality is far, it’s a long fight and we will keep fighting for it. Still, the protest has created a space. Women are getting increased respect, they are on stage, they are taking the mic to put their views forward. We even celebrated 18 January as Mahila Kisan Diwas. All the activities on that day were run by women. You can see at the protest sites the role women play in keeping it going— and it feels really good.
While women are here, it’s also true that there are many women still at home because they have to look after children or keep the household running. This is one reason that they are taking it in shifts to come here with a jatha in buses. In your experience what is necessary to raise consciousness among women? What goes into making women politically active?
It took a lot of effort, a lot of hard work to get to this point. When we did rail roko in September 2020, for over 70 hours—at that time not too many women were part of the protests. Maybe 100 to 200 women joined us. That was the beginning.
It was difficult for women—most from precarious living and financial situations, to join us. They didn’t know too much about the policies and why it was that they were not getting the right price for their produce even before these laws. Slowly with our small team we went house to house talking to them about the protests. We held public meetings, went into gurudwaras and slowly they began to understand and join us. Numbers started to increase rapidly. We raised with them the material questions integral to their daily lives— that you work so hard, why are your basic needs not met?
In 2012 we had gathered women impacted by farmer-suicides in Bhatinda’s Haji Rattan Gurudwara—3,000 women showed up. Each woman that would come would be carrying three photographs of loved ones she had lost to suicide—her son, her husband, her father-in-law—all would have died of suicide.
We organised on this issue of getting compensation for the impacted families for a long time. Finally in 2014 the government sanctioned 96 crores so each farmer-suicide impacted family would get 2 lakh compensation. Our demand of the government was that 5 lakh rupees, employment and debt-forgiveness for the surviving family.
A large number of women were involved in organising for this issue and became politically educated at the time. We organised candle-marches and ‘Rang de Basanti’ conferences. We learned how to drive cars to get from one place to the other to do this organising work. We tied speakers to these cars and drove from village to village raising awareness till dusk fell, trying everything to have women to join committees, rallies. We went to mandis—we worked at the absolute ground level—all with the aim of raising this consciousness in women: that we struggle so much as women, we are oppressed within and outside families, we are assaulted— and till we don’t stand together as a community against these injustices — how will the situation of women change?
We have to stop this oppression so our children have a better life. We have to form our own jathebandiya on shared solidarities.
What kind of results have you seen over time in women as a result of these mobilisations?
I’ll tell you one incident from long before this andolan. After a girl from a mazdoor family in Gandhar village of Muktsar Sahib district was raped by dominant caste landlords in 2014, we took 4,500 women on a march to Faridkot. All women of BKU including those from zamindar backgrounds mobilised together rising above the usual caste-solidarities that mark these cases and had the men arrested. During this protest many women even got arrested. Many had never even seen the face of a school. Still they had the guts to speak against injustice, and even asked the police officers to arrange cars or bus-fare to get home when they were released!
At first when women started mobilising in protests, various political parties, Chaudharies would say that if the woman leaves the house, who will make food and hold it together? But we ignored it and kept working towards our goal. On 18 January, celebrated at protest sites as Kisan Aurat Divas, 30,000 women came from just one district of Barnala- filling buses and trolleys, clad in their basanti chunnis [characteristic of BKU Ugrahan, as the colour of ‘basant’ or spring that Bhagat Singh loved].
Now over the course of protests women in Punjab have become increasingly interested in working with BKU Ugrahan. And the organisation’s state leadership has been really working on improving women’s conditions. There’s come a passion now—that women can do everything.
Even today up to two lakh women in Punjab are still fighting there — working with BKU Ugrahan staging protests at toll plazas, Reliance petrol pumps and malls, Adani’s Silos (grain storage warehouses). Along with the women even children are joining in protests. At the 21 February rally in Barnala’s grain market, 80,000 women attended.
Over the course of the past few months at the sit-ins, many farmers and protestors have passed away—some from the harsh conditions and some by suicide. Can you tell me a little about the mental impact of being physically present at a site where these things are happening?
See those of us who are here know that there are a lot of issues. You have to take care of yourself in these conditions, especially during the winter cold, health conditions were aggravated and some elders died. Struggle is the only solution. I know it’s not an easy struggle—especially when it seems like the government is indifferent or is actively branding us as terrorists. Agar sarkar sadde hazaar tota karna chaave to sannu do hazaar tota karvaun liya sareer da taiyaar. Kyunki ye takkar hai. (If the government wants to make a thousand pieces of us, we should be ready to sacrifice two thousand. Because it’s a collison.)
According to me however many deaths have taken place at the farmers protests —the accidents, the heart attacks and even the suicides out of despair—the government is solely responsible for it, the BJP government is the murderer.
The government tries everything to stop us—calling us terrorists, deshdrohi, putting protestors in jail, registering the UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967) against us—but we are prepared. It is our right to stage an andolan, to protest.
The government has done this previously— brought accusations against human rights activists, journalists and intellectuals. For telling the truth journalists like Gauri Lankesh are murdered. Recently based on analysis of laptops and pendrives, they have concluded that those accused in Bhima-Koregaon are completely innocent. This BJP government has made it so that whoever speaks up, there is a jail ready and waiting for them.
Doesn’t that frighten you?
No. I am not scared. We are not afraid at all. We are ready.
Sannu pata hai ki jaisi na lade waisi maar dena sannu. We know that if we don’t fight, they will kill us anyway. At least by fighting we will attempt to save our mulk. We take inspiration from Bhagat Singh, Kartar Saraba, Ghadari Babbe, our Gurus and our histories of revolution. Our fight is a very long one, a very big one. And we will keep fighting till inequality is not abolished. Till women, labourers are able to live a life of dignity and respect, till a good society is established.
All of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan—everywhere people are rising and realising how the fates of poor people are not written by God—it’s not about your karma. Why is the common man losing everything? They have started to see.
During the Coronavirus pandemic Adani-vani have only prospered while the families of mazdoors are dying, are not able to clap together two rotis for the day, are not able to get achaar to eat, a bottle of water to drink, infants are lying there not aware that their mother is dead. Migrant labourers walking home because the government has not arranged transport during the lockdown are run over by trains, increasing rapes in the country, educated youths not being able to get employment. The oppression of Dalits— if you dress well the dominant castes will kill you, if you drive a motorcycle they will kill you, Muslims are being lynched—this whole situation of the country is what is actually frightening.
Bolenge. Sanu na case da dar hai, na phaansi, jo marzi kare sarkaar.
So we will speak. I am not afraid of a case being registered against me, nor of hanging. The government can do whatever it wants. I will speak.
(Riddhi Dastidar is a Delhi-based reporter and researcher. They work on gender, disability justice, public health, climate and culture.)