Farmer leader Joginder Singh Ugrahan at a cowshed at the Tikri border of the national capital. | Photo: Manisha Mondal/ThePrint
Farmer leader Joginder Singh Ugrahan at a cowshed at the Tikri border of the national capital. | Photo: Manisha Mondal/ThePrint
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Tikri border, New Delhi: Joginder Singh Ugrahan wakes up at 4 every morning to a cup of tea. Within moments, he rushes to attend meetings planned for the day — with his team, other farmer groups, inquisitive reporters, and practically anyone who knocks on the door.

An empty gaushala or cowshed, sharing its wall with a small temple, has been serving as his humble abode since 28 November, when he stationed himself at the national capital’s Tikri border with his army of farmers called the Bhartiya Kisan Union Ekta (Ugrahan).

The 75-year-old former army-man is uncompromising in his demand seeking a repeal of the farm laws that the Narendra Modi government brought in earlier this year.

He articulates his opposition to them in seven-eight press conferences everyday — each time with the same assertion and resolve. Lately, however, the questions being posed to him aren’t as much about the farm laws as his personal ideologies and inclinations.

On 10 December, the union marked the international human rights’ day by holding up posters of activists and scholars who have been arrested under stringent laws such as the UAPA in the last few years — Sudha Bhardwaj, Varavara Rao, Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam, among others.

The symbolic protests, according to Ugrahan, were an attempt to remember and acknowledge those who have been put behind bars for “something as simple as criticising the government”.

“This isn’t the first time we have done such a protest. We have been doing so since 2018. If intellectuals are termed anti-nationals by the government purely for criticising its policies, then we will continue to demand their release,” Ugrahan tells ThePrint.

“In fact, the demand for their release was also part of the letter the farmer unions handed over to Narendra Tomar as part of our letter,” he adds.


Also read: 10 senior economists write to Modi govt, demand repeal of ‘fundamentally harmful’ farm laws


The Maoist label and questions on unity

Soon after the protest, Union ministers Ravi Shankar Prasad and Piyush Goyal, besides Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, immediately termed it as an agitation “infiltrated by Leftists and Maoists”.

But Ugrahan, who had also visited the Shaheen Bagh protest site against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), remains unfazed by the labels thrown his way, and is anything but apologetic about his politics.

“When we left from Punjab, they said these aren’t farmers but Congressis. Then when we entered Delhi, they began calling us Khalistani,” Ugrahan says.

“But on 5 December, when we met Tomar sahab, he thanked us for holding the protests so peacefully and not being aligned to any political party. Then on 10 December, after holding the protests for political prisoners, we became Naxals. How did we go from being non-aligned to Naxals in five days? This is a deliberate attempt to divide us,” he says.

The farmer leader also says he has no connection with the activists whose release he was demanding, and has no political links either. He adds that ahead of the 2017 Punjab elections, he had appealed to his followers to press NOTA, and not vote for any political party.

Joginder Singh Ugrahan with his followers at the Tikri protest site. | Photo: Manisha Mondal/ThePrint
Joginder Singh Ugrahan with his followers at the Tikri protest site. | Photo: Manisha Mondal/ThePrint

The cracks in the different farmer unions and the Ekta Ugrahan began showing soon after the latter’s protest in solidarity with arrested activists. Representatives of other farm unions, which are part of the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, termed the protest a “misuse” of the platform.

On Monday, the Ekta Ugrahan refused to be a part of the hunger strike announced by the 31 other farmer bodies, claiming that they weren’t consulted before taking such a decision.

Earlier, Ugrahan was not included in the meeting between Home Minister Amit Shah and 13 farmer leaders — a meeting that Ugrahan subsequently objected to.

However, Ugrahan is careful to not confirm any divide between the protesting farmers.

“We have always had some differences. But they are like my elder brothers. If they have said something against our protests, then it’s okay. I won’t say anything against them,” he says.


Also read: Delhi passes resolution demanding repeal of farm laws, CM Kejriwal tears up copy of laws


‘Tikri much more austere, simple than Singhu’

The differences between the 31 groups protesting the farm laws and Ugrahan’s union aren’t just limited to their politics, but also extend to their style and approach to protest.

While the other groups have been protesting at the Singhu border, Ugrahan’s union has occupied the Tikri border as its site of protest.

“You will notice there aren’t tractors playing loud songs here, there aren’t large langars. There is mostly a sombre atmosphere here,” says Randeep Maddoke, a farmer part of Ugrahan’s media team.

Pizza langars, solar panels and washing machines have become a common sight at Singhu, but things are a lot more austere at Tikri.

Women protesters washing clothes with hands at the Tikri border. | Photo Manisha Mondal/ThePrint
Women protesters washing clothes with hands at the Tikri border. | Photo Manisha Mondal/ThePrint

While celebrity singers and artists are often seen visiting Singhu, that’s not the case at Tikri.

“Singers come here as well, but we are very careful about who can go up to the stage. We check the track record of the singer, if their songs have had any problematic lyrics, we try and keep them away from the mics,” Maddoke says.

The simplicity in Tikri’s air also projects Ugrahan’s own lifestyle.

A decades-old Maruti 800 he owns gathers dust outside his gaushala-turned-residence. He claims to have no interests and hobbies either — even during ordinary times.

Main naa khaata hun, na peeta hun,” is his reply asked about what he does for merriment.
But despite the simple lifestyle, there is a certain child-like energy with which Ugrahan engages with others, including the protesters at the site.

“He is our pradhan, our leader. But the way he is leading this protest despite all the cold and other inconveniences, it’s really inspiring. The way he talks to us is also like he is a young person, constantly cracking jokes and laughing with us,” says Gadhmedh Singh, a farmer present at Tikri.


Also read: Supreme Court asks govt to consider putting farm laws on hold ‘to enable negotiations’


Ugrahan’s following

Ugrahan took his surname from his village in Punjab’s Sangrur district, before he launched Bharatiya Kisan Union Ekta (Ugrahan) in 2002.

Since then, the group has courted a huge following — particularly in the Malwa region of the state for its relentless pursuit to get government compensation for the families of farmers who have committed suicide.

Ugrahan’s aides say his ordinary day in his village, prior to the protests, involved addressing large crowds of farmers about their rights and policies that can be of help to them.

The protest strength at Tikri has been growing by the day — now spanning over several kilometres on the Rohtak-Delhi road.

On Wednesday, the union organised a special protest at the border — of widows holding the pictures of their late farmer husbands who committed suicide.

Women and children holding frames of their farmer family members who died by suicide. | Photo: Special arrangement
Women and children holding frames of their farmer family members who died by suicide. | Photo: Special arrangement

“There are many families who have lost not one, but two of their male members to suicide. The protest was done to show that if the farm laws are implemented, the situation will only worsen for the small and marginal farming families such as these,” says Rajinder Kaur, a member of the women’s wing of the union.

The large and robust wing used to be headed by Ugrahan’s late wife until she died in 2014.

‘Didn’t fit well in the army’

Ugrahan shies away from talking about his stint in the Army, and says that he considers it “history” now.

“Yes, I was in the Army for a short while. But I didn’t fit there, so I turned back and came to my village,” he says. “I am a farmer since birth. When I realised I don’t fit in the Army, I went back to farming. Then when I saw all the problems that farmers face, I began this organisation. Then I became the state president,” he adds.

Ab marne ki taiyari hai, chale jayenge (I know I will die soon, we’ll see),” he adds.
Ugrahan has no sons. Both his daughters are now married. He says he has nothing but respect and kind words to share with people now.

“I don’t have anything else to give now. I have my tongue, and I want to use it wisely, give respect and treat people kindly. Soon two-three years will pass by, and I will succumb to death. My legacy will be my words,” he says.


Also read: Indian agriculture — 6 tough realities, 5 dangerous myths and some solutions


 

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Mr Singh is a great leader and leading the agitation in a democratic way.He is courageous and honest and is sure to win.May God bless him with success.

  2. My big salute to Soldier and farmer Mr Singh. Keep up the fight, Modi is handing over everything to Gujarati businessmen who are mostly crooks and corrupt, we won’t allow this to happen. We have to secure this nation from communal party who is playing dividing polarizing games, their time is over, let farmers take over, create a party after this win.

  3. If 50 percent of produce procured is wasted to the tune of 2 LAKH CRORES and even then it is just for 6 percent farmers.

    Than imagine the dangerous
    Level of meagre resources wasted is sought by a small percentage of the farmers for their own community is upsetting the economic recovery of INDIA.

    Government should understand that absolutely large percentage of the population is angry with this wastage of resources.

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