“They had shut the gates of Delhi on us,” says Bittu Malan, speaking at the edge of Buttar Sarinh village. “Now the gates of every village in Punjab are closed to them.”

Bittu Malan is a five-acre farmer from village Malan in Sri Muktsar Sahib district. The ‘they’ and ‘them’ he refers to is the BJP, the ruling party at the Centre and a very lonely contender in the Lok Sabha polls in Punjab. The ‘us’ to whom Delhi denied entry was tens of thousands of farmers marching on the national capital in November 2020.

Memories of the k isan a ndolan and its camp towns at the gates of the national capital run deep in Punjab. Tens of thousands of farmers from this state had embarked, three summers ago, on a long march of resistance and hope. Travelling hundreds of miles in their convoy of tractors and trailers, they had converged on the capital with just one demand: the repeal of the three farm laws that threatened their livelihoods.

On reaching the gates of Delhi, they encountered a Great Wall of indifference, erected by a government deaf to their pleas. For nearly a year, as participants tell it, their nights were filled with the chill of solitude and the heat of injustice, regardless of whether the thermometer registered just 2 degrees Celsius, or soared to 45 C. The iron trailers became their homes.

Amidst the ebb and flow of 358 days, over 700 bodies of farmers who died in the camps they set up around Delhi, made their way back to Punjab, each one a silent testament to the price of their struggle. But the andolan did not waver. Their sacrifice and the larger struggle saw the government buckle at the knees after a year of denial and a lot of bluster. The prime minister announced the repeal of the laws on November 19, 2021.

Now it’s payback time in Punjab. And Bittu Malan and so many farmers like him seem set on returning the treatment they had tasted at Delhi. On April 23, Bittu, who seems to see it as his duty to settle the account of each fallen farmer, boldly confronted Hans Raj Hans, the BJP candidate for the Faridkot Lok Sabha constituency at Buttar Sarinh village.

Watch the video: 'Punjab's farmers hold BJP candidates to account during campaigning.'

Delhi denied entry to tens of thousands of farmers marching on the national capital in November 2020. In 2024, the farmers have decided it is payback time

Hans faced a barrage of questions and comments from Bittu: “We can't even think of running over animals, but in Lakhimpur Kheri, [Ajay Mishra] Teni's son ruthlessly took the lives of farmers by running a jeep over them, crushing their limbs. Bullets rained down in Khanauri and Shambu . What was Pritpal's crime ? His bones shattered, his jaw fractured, all because he went to serve langar . He lies in the PGI [hospital] Chandigarh; have you visited him?

“A 40-year-old man from Patiala, father of two young children, lost his eyes to a tear gas shell. He owns just three acres of land. Did you pay a visit to his home? No. Did you venture to Singhu ? No." Hans Raj Hans had no answers to the questions.

Across Punjab, a thousand Bittus eagerly await the arrival of BJP candidates at the entry point of villages – each of which seems to be another Buttar Sarinh. Punjab is to go to the polls on June 1. The saffron party had first declared candidates for just nine out of 13 constituencies, but on May 17 named four others to fill its list. All of them are being welcomed by farmers with black flags, slogans and questions and are not being allowed to enter many villages.

“We won’t allow Preneet Kaur to come into our village. We have even questioned the families which have been loyal to her for decades,” says Raghbir Singh, a four-acre farmer, from village Dakala in Patiala district. Preneet Kaur is a four-time member of Parliament from Patiala and wife of former Congress Chief Minister of Punjab Captain Amarinder Singh. Both had left the Congress in 2021 and joined the BJP last year. Like other BJP candidates, she is being welcomed with black flags and slogans of murdabad in many places.

It's the same in Amritsar, Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and Bathinda as candidates of her party are learning the hard way. A month after his candidature was announced, three-time Congress MP and now BJP candidate from Ludhiana, Ravneet Singh Bittu, is finding it quite difficult to campaign in the villages.

PHOTO • Courtesy: BKU (Ugrahan)
PHOTO • Vishav Bharti

Left: Farmers protest in Barnala (Sangrur) creating a human wall to stop the ruling party candidates from entering their village. Right: Sher Singh Pharwahi (face covered by flag), president of MNREGA Mazdoor Union, Punjab during the recent protest

PHOTO • Courtesy: BKU (Dakaunda)
PHOTO • Courtesy: BKU (Dakaunda)

Farmers wait on the edge of their village, guarding it against the entry of BJP candidates in Mehalkalan, another village in Sangrur. A region steeped in the history of peasant resistance

In other parts of the country, politicians may be ramping up anti-minority and ‘hurt sentiments’ rhetoric. In Punjab, they are met by farmers with 11 questions (see below the story). They are asked about legal guarantees for a Minimum Support Price (MSP); about the farmers who died during the year-long struggle; about martyrs of Lakhimpur; about Shubhkaran , who was killed at Khanauri with a bullet in his head; about the debt burden on farmers.

Not just farmers but agricultural labourers too, are troubling the candidates of the ruling party at the Centre. “BJP has killed MGNREGA by reducing the budget. They are not just dangerous for farmers but for agriculture labourers too,” says Sher Singh Pharwahi, president of MNREGA Mazdoor Union, Punjab.

And so the ‘treatment’ continues. The farm laws were repealed 18 months ago but the wounds are yet to heal. Those laws were: the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 ; the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 ; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 . Farmers remain sceptical, saying that they are being reintroduced by the backdoor.

With just a few days left for voting, campaigning is still gaining steam in Punjab and so is farmer resistance. On May 4, a farmer named Surinderpal Singh died in Sehra village of Patiala when he and other peasants were protesting against the entry of BJP candidate Preneet Kaur. Farmers allege that he died when Preneet Kaur’s security tried to clear the road, however she has vehemently denied the allegations.

Having just wound up wheat harvesting operations, farmers are now relatively free, and the coming days will likely see more acts in this drama. Especially in bastions like Sangrur, where the soil is steeped in epochs of resistance. And where children are raised on the epic tales of militant peasant leaders such as Teja Singh Swatantar, Dharam Singh Fakkar and Jagir Singh Joga.

PHOTO • Labani Jangi

The list of questions BJP candidates are confronted with as they enter the village

More trouble looms ahead. Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU Ekta Ugrahan ) leader Jhanda Singh Jethuke recently announced in Barnala: "Just wait for a week and you'll witness them being chased out not only from villages but also from Punjab's towns. Remember how they blocked our path from Delhi with walls and nails? We won't retaliate with barriers or nails but with human walls. They may drive over us as in Lakhimpur, but we are ready to bar their entry to our villages with our bodies."

Still, they must be thankful to the justice loving farmers, says Bikram Singh Majithia, a leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal. “They have just blocked their entry to the villages. They are not welcoming BJP leaders with tear gas shells and rubber bullets as they did to the farmers in Delhi.”

Memories of resistance and popular action, both old and recent ones, run deep in Punjab. It was just 28 months ago, that people in this state stopped Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a flyover in Ferozepur. Today, they block his party’s candidates at the villages. Satyapal Malik – twice appointed Governor of different states by the Modi government – had this to say to the party that gave him those posts: “Punjabis don’t forget their enemies easily.”
Vishav Bharti

Vishav Bharti is a journalist based in Chandigarh who has been covering Punjab’s agrarian crisis and resistance movements for the past two decades.

Other stories by Vishav Bharti

P. Sainath is Founder Editor, People's Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought' and 'The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom'.

Other stories by P. Sainath