On the afternoon of 24 November 2020, I visited the Ghulal toll plaza in Punjab’s Samrala tehsil where farmers were protesting against the three farm laws.
It was supposed to be a day-long assignment but it’s been over a year, and I am only now returning home. Apart from the protest sites in Delhi, I also travelled to Punjab and Haryana to work on stories around the three farm laws, and the impact on families of those protesting.
While I was at the Ghulal toll plaza that afternoon, several farmers were preparing for their journey to Delhi – tarpaulins were being put on top of trollies, charging stations for their phones were being figured out, and ration and giant cooking vessels were being loaded.
That evening, around 70 elderly Sikh farmers told me that they will go to Delhi, and make the government accept their demands no matter what.
I laughed and wondered if they even understood the herculean task ahead of them. Did they not know the Modi government’s approach towards any kind of dissent? 380 days later, I am here at Singhu border – one of the major farmer protest sites – and I look back at my cynicism, and laugh.
The three laws have been repealed, the Centre has agreed to drop police charges against farmers, and finally, the farmers have called off the protest, and have left for their home.
I’ve been busting fake news via a Facebook page for a few years but since November 2020, I have had only one beat: Farmers' protests. And I chose to report from the site, not from my house in Punjab’s Ludhiana.
11 December, 2021: A Bittersweet Farewell
In the last one year, I have stayed only seven nights at my own house.
Two days ago, on 11 December, as farmers left from Singhu border, I felt both joy and sadness. This emotion was summed up by what a Sikh gentleman from Delhi told a farmer-friend from Punjab on 11 December:
“For a year, Punjab was one hour away but with you leaving, it’s again six hours away.”
Till late 10 December night, Babbu Maan’s Kabzaa played on speakers near the Samyukta Kisan Morcha stage at Singhu border. On that day, many people had come down to Singhu border from Punjab – some to take back their relatives, others to take back the water-coolers, washing machines, big vessels that had been accumulated in the last one year at the protest site.
I slept around 2 am, and woke up to an emotional farewell song being played outside our tent at 6 am. As I stepped outside, I saw a phoolon ki barish (shower of flowers), and people garlanding each other.
The Sikhs of Delhi did ardas before their “brothers from Punjab” left.
I saw farmers from Haryana and Punjab exchange phone numbers and addresses. They hugged each other tightly, wept, and promised to show up at each other’s children’s weddings. It was also my day to leave, finally. I said goodbye to the elderly who fed me, took care of me, and gave me love and warmth that only family can.
In the last one year, I had befriended a hairdresser, a Delhi local, with a barber shop near Singhu border. It pains me that I haven’t been able to meet him before leaving, as he is at his home in another state, and recovering from an injury.
On 11 December, like thousands of others, I too left – only to return to Singhu border at midnight because there was such a traffic jam that we took a U-turn from Panipat. Every few 100 metres, there were langars organised by locals.
Some showered flower petals, others fed us halwa, while others danced with farmers who are returning home victorious.
Right now, as I send this blog, it’s 13 December, and I am standing at a bus stop, hoping to take a bus to Mohali, with a friend.
Before I ponder too much about what lies ahead, let’s go back to the cold November night of 2020 when the march to Delhi began.
The Night It All Began
As farmers readied their trolleys and tractors for Delhi, music recounting Sikh history was played. Before the 40-50 trolleys began moving forward, ardas was done, degh was distributed, and the drivers of these trolleys and tractors were honoured with siropa (sacred robes). I had to file this story, and typed it out from inside a trolley.
It was to be a day assignment, but the josh of the elders forced me to pack my bag and leave with them for the Punjab-Haryana border, with Rs 3,500 in my pocket. I will be back in a few days, I told myself.
Around 7.30 am on 26 November 2020, Haryana police barricaded the roads, and I assumed it was time to return home.
This was at Shambu border. I thought farmers won't be allowed to go at all, so I decided to go to Khannauri to cover the protests happening there. While we were on our way, news came in that the farmers had breached the barricades.
On the road leading towards Khanauri the same day, I saw hundreds of trollies, and even a roadside langar had come up. I stopped by for a cup of tea, spilled some on it, and till date that stain remains. As they say, “kuch daag acche hain.”
Here, most farmers were associated with BKU's Joginder Singh Ugrahan, one of the tallest farm leaders from Punjab.
There were plenty disagreements that day – BKU (Ugrahan) did not want to march towards Delhi that day, but protesters were adamant.
Some removed the barricades, others cleared sand from the road which was dumped by Haryana’s Jind police to stop them farmers.
Finally, we left for Delhi, often making our way through fields.
The Making of a Movement
The next day, a journalist’s nightmare came true, and my phone’s battery hit 0%. The power bank was also out of battery, and there was no way to charge anything. I borrowed a protester’s phone to record some footage en route to Delhi.
I noticed that there were plenty of reports in Punjabi but I felt this needed to reach a larger audience, and so I began shooting videos of protesters breaching barricades and police using water cannons on farmers, in Hindi.
This was the first time I witnessed a conflict between farmers and the police.
We reached Singhu border – a place I call home now but was utterly unfamiliar with at the time.
The farmers and the police clashed, with police firing teargas shells. My eyes burnt, tears rolled down my cheeks, and a young protester gave me his loyi (shawl) to rub my eyes.
When things calmed down, I walked up to a grocery store and charged my phone.
That night was a tough one. Many of us had no blankets or even a bedsheet to sleep on. Remember, this is November-end in Delhi, and we were sleeping under a smoggy sky in the cold.
Some people slept inside their tractors, others slept on the road. A few of us found a bus and set ourselves in there. Till today, we don’t know who owned that bus.
I woke up at 3 am, shivering. We looked for firewood, and some chai.
Soon, it was morning, and the site was swarming with people, many wondering where to defecate. There were no toilets in the vicinity.
Singhu was not the only protest site at Delhi’s borders. On 29 November, I found myself at Tikri border.
It was going to be reunion with some farmers I had met a few days ago but it took a sad turn when I was told that a farmer, Gajjan Singh, had died. He had suffered a cardiac arrest.
Five days later, I finally took a bath, washed my clothes, and wore clean clothes. Things ironed out as days and weeks passed. Farmers made their own arrangements.
In the last one year here with the protesters, I have seen their excitement, fearlessness, heartbreak, and grief.
Enough has been written about what happened in the national capital on 26 January 2021, as farmers reached Delhi on their tractors.
"That day I remember bumping into Pulitzer-winning photographer Danish Siddiqui, who was killed in Afghanistan a few months later while reporting."
That day in Delhi, I saw a man with a helmet on his head, and he asked me about my whereabouts. I asked him who he was and when he told me was Danish Siddiqui. I was embarrassed that I didn't recognise him, though I was (and still am) a huge admirer of his work.
That day, again, I had trouble with my phone. I ran out of memory. I hope to fix this problem soon.
I am in awe of the relentless pursuit of justice of the farmers. One elderly Sikh man got injured when a mob attacked farmers on 29 January. I stayed with him and others at Singhu border. They ran a tea langar and come from Majha region of Punjab.
Every day, they woke up at 3 am, and expected the same from me. If I refused, they would remove my blanket and say, “Naam japo.” I had no option but to be as disciplined as them.
Two days ago, I met them after a long while, and they asked me, “Kithe mar gya see tu? (Where had you gone?)"
Twitter Was My Byline
What benefitted me the most was access to Twitter and English. Instead of sending pitches or footage to news organisations, I chose to connect with the world via Twitter.
I hated the traditional bureaucratic system of sending stories and the endless wait to get it published. The best thing about Twitter is that there is no gatekeeper.
"I saw something, I clicked pictures, and posted on Twitter. I heard an announcement from stage, I tweeted. I saw something interesting, I tweeted."
All I did was tweet, Twitter was my byline.
Some days, I ate nothing for one or two days, as I was so busy capturing moments from the protest.
This hard work paid, my work was noticed, and top journalists and activists started following me and even texting me. At one point of time in January, I had 42 million impressions on Twitter.
I never tried to reach out to anyone. People were just drawn to the work I was doing. International news organisations interviewed me for some stories... this could not have been possible if I was living in my village.
I joined Instagram and began sharing news there soon after.
Turns out, it was a sensible call because Twitter clipped my wings, I believe. My tweets were shadow-banned.
I understood the power of social media when youngsters asked for selfies with me – how odd and flattering at the same time.
The Memories & Lessons of a Lifetime
In the last one year, I have made lifelong friends and have even visited homes of a few.
I have laughed and cried inside the tents here, taken therapy sessions too, and found the secret of life – work is the only constant. Here, university students I met pushed me to read more. I met elders who blessed me, made friends who are now my sounding board.
For the first seven months, I did not go back home to my mother and brother. Even on Diwali, I was at Singhu.
In the last one year, I have only spent seven days at home, of which on four occasions, I went at night and came back in the morning.
Surviving in Singhu was quite easy, as everything was eventually available – food, bedding, even clothes. What does one do when it’s time to head to other sites though? I had to borrow money from friends to survive, which I have returned now.
In November this year, as the Prime Minister repealed the three farm laws, I did a Facebook Live, I made videos, took photos, spoke to farmers who were joyous – and suddenly I started getting congratulatory messages too. There were people feeding me mithai¸ hugging me.
I am a part of their family now.
I lucked out because this is not the only family I became a part of – there is also Sanjeev Kumar, the kind man who let me use WiFi at his home. I must tell his story.
Some time last year, I was sitting at the hairdresser’s, browsing through WiFi networks I could use, when I came across one that had a Dalit caste identifier in the WiFi name. Intrigued, I inquired who this was, and I was pointed towards Sanjeev’s home. I walked up to his house, and asked him why that was the case and pat came a reply – “We are proud of our identity, we are children of Ambedkar.”
Since then, we have been friends, and either we met at Ambedkar Library at Singhu, or I would show up at his doorstep looking for WiFi and a cup of tea. A day ago, I met him, and he fed me food, and warned me that if I visit Delhi and not meet him, he will reach Punjab with a stick to beat me up.
These are the relationships I have forged in the last one year – memories and lessons of a lifetime. I know one thing for sure that there is always going to be a roof over my head and a warm cup of tea, whether I am in Punjab or Delhi.