Feature: 110-year-old protesting farmer says ‘This is not India we fought for’

Tarushi Aswani

The hand that grips the walking stick is shaky. But Gandharv Singh seems indomitable. The 110-year-old farmer from Uttar Pradesh’s Etawah district arrived at the farmers’ protest site at Ghazipur a month ago to register his resistance to the seven-year-old Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre and the “black laws” it has passed.

He has been camping there ever since, adding the weight of the history of the dissent he had once took part in and lived through to the solidarity of the farmers gathered at the Ghazipur, Tikri and Singhu borders of Delhi who have been protesting against three controversial farm laws for more than nine months.

The crevices of Singh’s face reflect the folds of changing times in a changing India. “I was in my late thirties when the fight against the British was on the rise and believe me, the determination I see here at Ghazipur reminds me of those times. But today, our oppressors are fellow Indians,” Singh told The Wire.

The British and the BJP

Every morning, Gandharv Singh wakes up with the sun and prays for a BJP-mukt Bharat (BJP-free India) as he chants verses from the Bhagavad Gita. His amity with Rakesh Tikait, one of the leaders of the farmers’ movement, is very strong, but he prefers to remain a silent observer when the tents come alive in the evening with revolutionary songs and the protestors comb strategies out of their tangled thoughts.

Singh notices a stark similarity between the colonial British government he had once resisted and the Modi government he resists today.

“The similarity lies in the way laws are made without consulting those who will be affected,” said Singh. “Azaadi ka matlab yeh toh nahi tha ke BJP ki ghulaami karein! Yeh sarkar sirf kanoon thopti hai (Achieving freedom didn’t mean that we should become slaves to the BJP. This government imposes laws on people). Overnight, they make laws, kill livelihoods and don’t even consult citizens. Just like the mice that spoil crops when the farmer is not looking.”

The 110-year-old farmer has twin glints in his eyes. One is the glisten of old age and the other is the sparkle of his memories of a nation uniting under Mahatma Gandhi’s calls for civil disobedience.

“We used to meet as small units or groups in our village chaupal (central sitting area) to secretly discuss upcoming satyagrahas and the ways we could contribute to the civil disobedience movement,” he recalled.

In contrast, he said, the times we live in today are sad days for a country that boasts of being the world’s largest democracy. The current attitude of the authorities to the minority groups worries him. The rising numbers of protests in the country show how often the government passes anti-people laws, he said.

The atmosphere in India today, the kind of toxicity that the minorities have to breathe, Singh mourns, is much the same as it was at the time of partition.

“The British had a very clear policy of ‘divide and rule’. Is the BJP government any different?” Singh asked. “They use the same method to instigate communities against each other.”

‘More dangerous than the Empire’

The more he thinks about it, the more similarities Singh sees between the colonial British government and the seven-year-old BJP government today. Before the British began meddling with the religious dynamics of the Indian cultural fabric, he said, Eid and Holi were not merely religious occasions, but the building blocks of a cohesive society in which people engaged in a syncretic way of life.

“Angrezon ne Hindustan ka battwara kiya, Modi dilon ka battwaara kar raha hai (The British divided India, Modi is dividing hearts),” Singh said. The India of the 21st century, Singh added, is destroying Muslims, Dalits and the economically backward sections of society. “Kamzor varg ko kuchal rahi hai, yeh sarkar (This government is crushing the weaker sections of society),” he remarked.

The BJP also uses the same kind of labels the British used to mute questioning voices, Singh said. “Just as the British labelled all dissenters ‘rebels’ irrespective of their means and cause, this government labels them ‘Khalistani’, ‘aatankwaadi’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘anti-social elements’ and so on,” he explained.

And in the most supreme of ironies, the BJP even uses the same draconian anti-dissent laws made by the British to jail anybody who questions the government.

“The degree of injustice meted out by this government reminds me of the struggle we waged against the British Empire,” said Singh. “These laws, both the farm laws and the laws used against protesters, have made clear to us the distinction of ‘us’ and ‘them’. They don’t care about us. This farmers’ protest reminds me of the 1940s when we sat in dharnas after Gandhi’s calls for protest. But this India is not the country we fought for. The Modi government, along with its corporate friends, is more dangerous than the British Empire.”

‘What kind of patriotism is this?’

Gandharv Singh frequently breaks off his conversation to raise his hand in blessing to the people who stop by his tent with a namaste. He does not have the physical strength to get off his cot with the kind of ease he had had in his youth.

“Inke kanoon humein road per le aaye, yeh kaisa deshprem hai jismein inhe doosre Bharatiya ka dard nahi sunaai deta? (Their laws have made us live on roads. What kind of patriotism is this that you can’t hear a fellow Indian’s cries?)” he demanded angrily. “Nasal aur fasal dono barbaad hogi (Both the generations that follow us and our livelihoods will be spoilt).”

A father of four and a proud farmer, Singh had wanted to participate in the protests since November 2020, but first sent one of his sons, Devender, to represent him in the battle against laws that, in his eyes, essentially mandate the corporate takeover of the agriculture sector.

Dissent is in his blood, Singh said. Patriotism, he told The Wire, does not mean keeping quiet or blindly following the government. In the past, he had participated in the non-cooperation movement, civil disobedience protests, the quit India movement and the nationwide satyagrahas. He had lived through the bifurcation of India into two nations and now lives to see what he calls the “partition of hearts”.

Choosing to stay secular had taken India to its tryst with destiny, he said. But 21st century India is a grave disservice to those who fought for the country’s freedom.

“Kaale kanoon ka natija sirf desh ka kaala bhavishya hoga (These black laws will only result in a dark future for the country),” he told The Wire. Courtesy The Wire

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