The scent of victory was in the air. As tractors rolled through the protest camp on the outskirts of Delhi set up by farmers almost exactly a year ago, rousing cries of “long live the revolution” and “we defeated Modi” rang out. Old men with trailing silver beards and rainbow turbans danced on tractor roofs and flag-waving children were held up high.
“For one year we have been at war,” said Ranjeet Singh, 32. “We have suffered, people have died. But today farmers won the war.”
Just hours before, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, had made an unexpected address on national television, announcing his intention to repeal the three farm laws that had been at the heart of one of the most sustained and dogged protests India has recorded in decades. The agricultural reforms had been called the “black laws” by the farmers, who feared their livelihoods would be put into the hands of vast conglomerates that would crush them.
Dit was 358 days ago, that hundreds of thousands of farmers marched on foot and in a convoy of tractors hundreds of miles from the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana to the Delhi border with a single demand: repeal the farm laws. On the way, they were met with police batons, teargas, water cannons and concrete barricades, but still they persevered. Once they got to the edge of Delhi, they dug in, and have stayed put ever since.
Around them, where it was just a dusty roadside a year ago, something resembling a shantytown now stands. Concrete buildings have been erected alongside bamboo huts, community kitchens, libraries and shipping containers turned into homes for the farmers, complete with air conditioning units, bathrooms and fridges – set out by the farmers who vowed they would not budge until Modi backed down on the laws. And on Friday morning, to the surprise of many, backing down was exactly what he did.
The news was greeted with cautious optimism among many farmers who have spent the year living in the Singhu border camp. While most took it as a triumph – “the farmers beat Modi when nobody else could” could be heard everywhere – many said they did not trust the prime minister at his word and would only be celebrating when the repeal had been approved by the president and parliament, and their farmer union leaders had the documents in their hands.
Over the loudspeakers booming out across the camps, speeches made by activists and farm union leaders spoke of their deep mistrust in the prime minister. “We are not leaving here until we the repeal papers have been stamped. Modi could be playing us but farmers are not fools,” declared one speaker.
“Why should we believe Modi just because he says something on the television,” said Avtar Singh, 65, a farmer from Ropar in Punjab. “Only when we have seen the official documents repealing the laws will I be happy.”
Like many, Singh spoke of his anger that it had taken Modi a year to repeal the laws, which had never even been implemented due to the backlash. A morbid tally of the number of farmers who had died in the year of unrest hung outside one tent, a figure that now stands at 719 by their count.
“They knew these were bad laws, why did they make us suffer here for a whole year?" hy het gesê. “I am an old man, it has been hard living here in the dust and pollution and heat and summer rains. Oor 700 people lost their lives. Modi should not just take back the laws, he should come down here and apologise to all of us.”
The apparent victory over repealing the farm laws also emboldened many in the camps, who said they would not leave until other significant issues in the agriculture sector had been resolved, particularly around the varied minimum prices that farmers in different states receive for their crops which are seen by some as vastly unfair.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Sardar Gurmukh Singh, 53, from Hoshiarpur in Punjab, pointing to the concrete house he had erected for himself, complete with air conditioning units. “Repealing the farm laws is just the beginning.”
While Modi’s tone in his speech had been unusually remorseful for the strongman leader, accepting that “something had fallen short”, most in the Singhu camp felt that this was a move that had been done purely for political strategy, not out of concern for the farmers.
At the beginning of next year there will be an election in the state of Uttar Pradesh, now governed by Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which it is crucial for them to hold on to. Egter, the race is already looking tight and they had begun to pay a heavy political price in the state for the farm laws and their perceived mistreatment of farmers.
“We all know this is political strategy, it’s because Modi is scared of losing the state elections,” said Surinder Kaur, 60, from Punjab. “But that still shows the power of the farmers: we are more powerful than Modi.”