Mahila Kisan Diwas - New Dimension added to the Struggle for Women's Rights
SOON after the farmers’ dharna at the five sites of Tikri, Singhu, Shahjahanpur, Palwal and Ghazipur got underway at the end of November 2019, women started joining the dharna, first in small groups and then in a steady stream. For weeks they had to face biting cold, icy rain and terrible discomfort but nothing could weaken their determination to participate in the struggle to save their land and their livelihood. They were of all ages. Many were elderly and frail, others were young mothers accompanied by infants and children. Those early days saw many of them sleeping in the open or under tarpaulin sheets or inside trollies or in makeshift tents. There were no arrangements for toilets or for bathing. And yet none of them was prepared to leave the camp and, every day, their numbers increased.
By January 1, there were thousands of women at each one of the sites and the committees in charge of each camp had put into place arrangements to ensure their well-being and health. Huge piles of waterproof tents, mattresses, folding beds, blankets, quilts continue to arrive in trucks and trolleys from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, UP and Delhi as the number of women continue to swell.
In recognition of the tremendous fortitude displayed by the women, the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha which is leading the struggle declared that January 18, would be observed as Mahila Kisan Diwas. Bastions of patriarchy – the khaps of Haryana, farmers from Western UP and Rajasthan and, above all, Punjab – were recognising the tremendous strength that women had brought to the struggle, women at the dharna sites as well as the women who were minding the fields, the cattle, the homes and the children back in the villages.
JANUARY 18, MAHILA KISAN DIWAS: THE DAY OF WOMEN FARMERS!
This announcement sent a wave of excitement from the camps of struggle to women everywhere. Women were being recognised as farmers. Their unending labour, their uncounted hours of toil, their back-breaking participation in every agricultural operation and their incalculable contribution to cattle-rearing and dairying was being recognised by their own community.
The three weeks of preparation for the ‘big day’ saw an amazing burst of energy and creativity all over the country. Leaflets describing the contribution of women to agriculture and dairying, demanding that the government recognise them as farmers and give them access to all the subsidies, loans and schemes that this would entitle them to, were printed in huge numbers in every language and distributed by women activists in villages, cities and towns. The devastating effect that the three black laws would have on all sections of society and condemnation of the government’s inhuman behaviour was brought home to millions of women through leaflets, posters, songs, skits, small and large meetings.
AIDWA units were extremely active all over the country. While the 18th was to be observed at state, district and unit levels, groups of AIDWA activists from the northern states decided to participate at the dharna sites too.
I accompanied a group of 27 AIDWA (Kanpur) activists led by Seema Katiyar, secretary AIDWA UP, Neelam Tiwari, president and Sudha Singh, secretary of Kanpur AIDWA to the Ghazipur border. Many in the group were young, enthusiastic women but our 85 year old veteran leader, Shameem Begum, was the most enthusiastic of them all! We reached on the 17th evening, possibly the coldest evening of the year. We went straight to the AIKS camp and, very soon, were given a taste of the hospitality of the langar next door. There are langars throughout the camp. Hot tea and snacks, fresh rotis and vegetables, rice and dal are available from early in the morning till late at night. There are an endless number of volunteers, young and old, male and female (mostly male!) who stand in each langar, calling out to everyone who passes by to come and ‘chhakho’ (eat). Apart from those who are participants in the dharna and those who come in support, the police on duty and poor people and their children from the nearby bustees are all fed with the same warmth, unfailing courtesy and good humour.
After eating our fill and more, we went in a procession to the area where the women occupy in their tents. Shouting slogans in solidarity with the kisans and demanding the recognition of women as farmers, intoxicated with the atmosphere of unity and brotherhood all around, the bitter cold was completely forgotten.
We marched past the stage where the daily meetings are conducted. The road behind it has rows and rows of tents housing many thousands of women. We were greeted by a group of volunteers, young men who have been assigned the job of making all the arrangement for the stay of various groups of women.
Three of our group went with the volunteers to the office tent. A register is maintained here of all those who are in the camp and also of those who are expected. The kisan sabha comrades had informed the office that we would be coming in the evening and a tent had been allotted to us. Once our arrival was confirmed by members of our group, the volunteers were told which tent to take us to. In a few minutes we were in the tent and, in the next half hour, mattresses had been laid on a durrie on the ground, blankets, pillows and quilts had been neatly placed on each mattress and three folding beds were brought in for those who had problems with sleeping on the floor. The cold just didn’t enter the tent and there was much hilarity and singing before everyone fell asleep.
Outside, volunteers kept guard over not just this area but the whole camp. Walking around, helping anyone in need and ensuring complete security.
The management of the camp is the responsibility of the organising committee that oversees all decisions to be made as far as the Ghazipur border is concerned. This committee has eight members. Kisan organisations like AIKS are represented on the committee which also has two representatives of Gurdwaras. It meets every morning at 9 to discuss preparations for any ‘event’ like the Lohri burning of the black laws, and, of course, the Kisan Mahila Diwas and decides speakers at the daily public meeting and other matters concerning stage management. It ensures that no objectionable statements or speeches are made. It also runs the camp office, which has several departments – housing/lodging, sanitation (all the cleaning in the camp is done by the volunteers not by sanitation workers hired from outside), stage management, supplies of food etc., medical. Each department is looked after by one organising committee member and a team of volunteers. Within six weeks, an efficient, participatory, democratic system has been put in place to deal with all that is needed at a protest site where the number of participants is more than a lakh, where thousands more collect in solidarity every day. The spirit of camaraderie, service and selflessness that infuses everyone in the camp has created a tremendous feeling of unity and equality. Caste, gender, and communal differences have been, at least for the time being, subsumed in a strong commitment into a joint struggle.
On the 18th morning, we went to the public meeting, shouting slogans, feeling quite elated.
The stage had been handed over to women. The speakers were women only. After the meeting, there was to be a women’s kabaddi competition!
The proceedings on the stage were being conducted by young Ravneet Kaur, ably assisted by even younger Navsharan Singh Kaur and Kiran. All these confident young women are from farming families of the Terai now in Uttarakhand. In front of the stage, on durries spread on the blocked highway, were thousands of women also mostly from the Terai. There was also a sprinkling of young women activists from different districts of UP. Soon they were joined by a big contingent of over a hundred AIDWA members from Ghaziabad.
On the stage were also about 50 women who were sitting on hunger strike. This is a relay hunger strike in which different groups participate. One day it is the army and para-military veterans who sat there, their chest stiff with medals. Another day, it is a group of Buddhist monks. Today, of course, it is a group of women, all proudly sporting their garlands! Several women speak, many for the first time in their lives. All of them re-iterate their determination to sit there until they win. Some of them refer to the Supreme Court’s gratuitous advice to them to go home with their children. They scoff at it and say that the court is unaware of what they are prepared to endure in this life and death struggle.
Kanpur AIDWA comrades are asked to sing a song for the crowd and every line they sing is greeted with cheers and claps! They sing: We will come out of our homes to join the women’s association. We will break all barriers. We will break open the locks. We will ignore the taunts that will be made. We will ignore our fathers-in-law/mothers-in-law/sisters-in-law/ brothers-in-law. We will ignore our husbands and our community members! We will break all barriers and join the women association.
After that I am asked to speak on behalf of AIDWA. I’m proud to represent our organisation and express solidarity and support for this magnificent struggle. All the women cheer when I tell them of AIDWA’s demand for recognition of women as farmers. They do 75 per cent of all agricultural work and own only 12 per cent of the land. If a woman farmer is pushed to suicide by debt, her family receives no compensation. They respond enthusiastically to appeals for unity and raise their hands when asked if they will defend the Constitution against Manusmriti.
Thousands of men are also standing and listening intently. They laugh sheepishly when I congratulate them for the tremendous work they are doing in the camp – cooking, cleaning, making beds – and request them to continue to do this at least some of the time, after they return victorious to their homes.
All of us celebrate the fact that women who had been compelled to cover their faces all their married lives are at this very moment learning how to drive tractors and will be driving them to Delhi on the 26th. Of course, with their faces uncovered!
The meeting continues after this for a few hours. Then follows the kabaddi tournament in which eight teams participate. An exhilarating display of strength and cunning.
We left Ghazipur very reluctantly. We had come to support a struggle of a kind not seen before, a struggle that farmers, men and women, are waging at very great cost, to ensure all of our futures. We had been fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a new world of warmth, solidarity and security that only a common struggle can give birth to.