News Desk: On the morning of December 7, Bhavana More spoke to her husband Ajay More on the phone. It had been 12 days since the 32-year-old farmer had left home, travelling 71 km from his village in Haryana’s Sonepat district to Singhu on the border with Delhi to join the protest against the Narendra Modi government’s three farm laws.
Since November 26, after their tractors and trolleys were stopped from entering Delhi, thousands of farmers from Punjab had set up camp in the village of Singhu. Over the next few days, farmers from Haryana poured in, and the gathering had swelled to lakhs.
Ajay More, a marginal farmer with an acre of land, wanted to be part of this massive uprising. “He used to say, ‘hum bhi jayenge, hum bhi kisan hain, hum bhi apne baare mein mangenge,’” said Bhavana More, 28. We will also go. We are also farmers and we will make our demands.
Concerned about the biting cold, Bhavana More had packed a coat and a quilt for her husband. After he reached Singhu, he called to reassure her: the protest site had enough facilities to keep people warm, he claimed.
“He said his heart was in the protest,” she recalled.
When they spoke on December 7, Ajay More told his wife he would return home the next day. But relatives at the Singhu border called his wife the next morning to say he had not woken up. “Thande pade the,” she said. His body had turned cold.
The death, most likely caused by hypothermia, came as a shock. Her husband did not have any underlying health concerns. “He was very healthy, no illness, nothing. It just happened suddenly,” Bhavana More said.
The sole breadwinner of the family, Ajay More has left behind elderly parents and three daughters aged five and six.
‘70 farmers have died’
Lakhs of farmers across India are bitterly opposed to the three laws passed by Parliament in September, which the Central government claims will give farmers more options for selling their harvest and improve crop pricing. But the farmers believe the laws will dismantle price safeguards and leave them at the mercy of corporations.
With the police blocking farmers from entering Delhi to protest the laws, border crossings into the capital – places like Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur – have turned into giant protest sites, swept by cold winds.
A crowdsourced list prepared by volunteers working with farmer groups has recorded the deaths of at least 58 farmers at these protest sites.
Furman Singh Sandhu, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, Punjab, part of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha or joint alliance of farmers unions protesting against the farm laws, claimed the number of deaths has exceeded 70. “The major cause is heart attack and the cold for senior citizens,” said Sandhu. “Most younger farmers died in accidents.”
Families of 10 farmers who died and their fellow protestors confirmed that the impasse over the farm laws was taking a heavy toll – particularly on those braving a harsh winter with temperatures dipping to a minimum of 1.1 degrees.
The deaths, in fact, have prompted the setting up of makeshift medical facilities and hospitals at the protest sites. With some farmers dying by suicide, mental health counsellors and therapists have been deployed to address anxiety and depression among the protestors.
With every death, grief sweeps over the protesting farmers, but they say their resolve to continue the resistance remains unchanged.
“Our heart breaks every time we see someone in an ambulance because we know it is a death,” said Manjeet Singh, a 43-year-old farmer from Ajror village in Patiala, Punjab, who has been camping at Singhu for 50 days. “But we are mentally prepared for the long haul.”
“You look at our history, we do not feel afraid,” Singh continued, voicing a common sentiment among Sikh farmers from Punjab. “We look at our gurus and their sacrifices for our community.”
But there was one thing that bothered Singh. He questioned why Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not condemned the farmers’ deaths. “It is so upsetting,” he said.
Fighting the cold
Around 36 km from Singhu lies another major protest site at Tikri in Gurugram district of Haryana, on the western border of Delhi. Like Singhu, Tikri too has seen a spate of deaths among the protestors.
Devender Nandal, a 44-year-old farmer from Nandal village in Rohtak, Haryana, died at the Tikri protest site on December 13. “He felt cold and started vomiting,” said his brother Sanjay Kumar.
Nandal was rushed to the Pandit Bhagwat Dayal Sharma Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Rohtak, over 60 km from Tikri. But he did not survive.
To secure themselves from the bitter cold, most farmers at the protest sites have been sleeping in their trolleys that are lined with mattresses and stacked with blankets. In the evening, a thousand bonfires light up both Singhu and Tikri, as farmers try to keep themselves warm.
After the first deaths due to the cold, several non-profit organisations have stepped in to distribute warm clothes, shoes, socks, gloves, jackets. They have also set up nearly 200 tents at the Singhu protest site for the protestors to sleep in. Some also volunteer to heat water in large drums for the elderly to bathe in, while others use traditional braziers as makeshift geysers.
But it isn’t just the cold that is killing farmers.
On December 14, Makhan Khan, 45, was standing behind the stage where farmer leaders address the protestors everyday at Singhu. He suddenly collapsed and died on the spot, recalled Furman Singh Sandhu of Bharatiya Kisan Union.
A landless agricultural labourer from Bhinder Kalan village in Moga, Punjab, Khan had initially protested against the farm laws by sitting on the roads in his own district, his wife Paramjeet Kaur said. “He was very fond of reading the news,” she recalled. When the first batch of Punjab farmers from Punjab drove up to the Delhi border on November 25, Khan was among them, said Sandhu.
He returned home on December 1, but went back to Singhu on December 13. He called his 17-year old son Kashmir Ali and said: “The condition here is very bad, farmers will die here…they are sitting in the cold.”
But it was not the cold that killed Khan. Doctors said he had suffered a heart attack.
Like Khan, Ram Kumar Dhull, a 56-year-old farmer who cultivated three acres of land in Kaithal, Haryana, felt passionately about the need to resist the farm laws. He travelled to Tikri on November 26. “He said he would not leave from there till a decision was made,” said his son Balraj Dhull.
Over a month later, on December 30, Ram Kumar Dhull was still at Tikri, when he suddenly fell ill. He was taken to Jeevan Jyoti Hospital, about a km away, but he did not survive. The doctors said a nerve in his brain had burst.
At Singhu, makeshift hospitals have sprung up to help farmers needing emergency medical care. United Sikhs, a non-profit, set up a two-bed facility while Life Care Foundation, another organisation, has set up eight beds.
“So far, we have treated 30 emergency cases including gas stroke and food poisoning,” said Mohammad Sadiq, a lab technician who volunteers at the Life Care Foundation hospital unit, which has been functioning round the clock since November 30.
More often, farmers come to the facility to get their chronic conditions checked: hypertension, diabetes, joint pains, diarrhoea and asthma. Sadiq said his unit processes around 400 samples in a day to check the blood sugar levels of farmers.
Sometimes the afflictions are not physical.
Ram Singh, a 65-year-old Sikh priest who belonged to a family of farmers, travelled from Singhra village in Karnal, Haryana, to Singhu border on December 9 to spend a day with the protestors, said Baba Geja, one of his disciples. He went back on December 15 to distribute blankets to the protestors. He died by suicide that night after he shot himself.
The priest left a note blaming the government for the plight of the farmers. “He said the government was doing injustice to the Sikhs and the farmers,” said Baba Geja.
The suicide has left his disciples stunned: “He never made us feel that this would happen.”
Since the demonstrations started, at least four suicides have taken place at the Delhi border protest sites, according to news reports.
Mental health counsellors working at the protest sites say many farmers are experiencing intense anxiety about the impact the farm laws could have on them if they get implemented. Moreover, the talks between the farmers groups and the government have remained inconclusive, with the government refusing to take back the laws. This has exacerbated the psychological stress of the protestors, made worse by the fact that they are far away from their homes and families.
“They are not being heard so there is frustration and aggression,” said Sanya Kataria, a clinical psychologist, who has been counselling 6-8 farmers daily at the Singhu border since January 4. She said her patients reported instances of anxiety, hypertension, restlessness and difficulty in sleeping. “They keep saying ‘bechaini si ho rahi hai.’” – we are feeling anxious.
The portrayal of farmers as “Khalistanis”, a term coined for those who want a separate Sikh homeland, and “terrorists” by politicians and the mainstream media also left a dent, Kataria added. “One patient reads the news for six hours and becomes anxious when he sees the comments on it [on social media],” she said.
Death by accident
In some cases, death has come on the fogged out roads and highways leading to the protest sites.
Forty-five-year-old Ram Mehar, who farmed 25 acres of land in Chaan village in Hisar, Haryana, left home on the night of December 6, driving his tractor trolley to Tikri border. “He had taken 20 to 30 quintals of wheat, some milk and rice for the farmers,” said his brother Ram Vilas, 40.
A truck carrying stones collided with Ram Mehar’s tractor trolley on Rohtak bypass on the morning of December 7. He died on the spot.
Another farmer Tej Singh, 34, had a car accident while heading to Dharuhera in Haryana from Tikri, where he was a regular at the protest site. His car collided with a truck on the road on the night of December 31.
“We initially thought he was missing but we got a call from the hospital,” said his relative Rajdeep Singh. Tej Singh had been taken to the Pandit Bhagwat Dayal Sharma Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Rohtak, but did not survive.
His relatives said the death would not have occurred had the government paid heed to the demands of the farmers and resolved the stalemate, instead of compelling them to put their lives at risk in the punishing peak winter of North India. “The government is just wasting time,” said Rajdeep Singh.