Fatehgarh Sahib, India – On the morning of November 10, Gurpreet Singh’s tall body was found hanging from a tree in Singhhu outside the Indian capital New Delhi, where thousands of farmers have been camping for over a year to protest against a set of agricultural laws. Government.
Gurpreet, a 45-year-old landless farmer, did not leave any suicide note but was found with the word “Jimdar” (responsible) engraved on his lifeless left hand.
Gurpreet had returned to the protest site two days earlier from his village Roorkee in the Fatehgarh Sahib district of Punjab state, where he had taken 1 acre (0.4 ha) of land on rent.
In his final days, he told his fellow demonstrators that he was torn between his time in the village and the protest site 250 km (155 mi) away. Barely able to make a living, he was tormented by the impasse.
“Nobody thought he would take such a big step,” said his 20-year-old son Lovepreet Singh, who had received a picture of his father’s body on WhatsApp that morning.
“It crushed me. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Farmers unions claimed hundreds of deaths
Gurpreet committed suicide just 10 days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a surprise U-turn, announced the repeal of controversial agricultural laws. India’s Parliament on Monday passed a bill to repeal three laws passed by the Modi government in September last year.
The government claimed that the laws would enable farmers to market their produce and boost production through private investment.
But farmers – mainly in the “grain bowl” states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh – rejected the laws, saying they would lead to a corporate takeover of the agriculture sector and asking them to guarantee their produce. Minimum Support Price (MSP) will be denied. by the government.
Thousands of farmers marched to New Delhi in November last year to press for their demands. When they were prevented from entering the capital, they decided to camp at three sites around the city, where they still remain despite the repeal of agricultural laws. They now want the government to pass a law guaranteeing MSP and address other problems faced by them.
Gurpreet’s death was not isolated in the year-long protest. He was the ninth farmer to die by suicide, according to data compiled by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (United Farmers Front or SKM), the farmers’ body leading the movement, which also says that nearly 700 farmers have lost their bones. There has been a stir – bitter cold, record rain, fog and heat.
But the Modi government claims there is no record of farmers’ deaths, prompting anger and demands for compensation to the families of the dead, whom the farmers refer to as “shaheeds” (martyrs). The SKM is also demanding allotment of land for the construction of a martyr memorial in Singhu.
But Gurpreet’s family has mixed views on the matter. His widow Mandeep Kaur, 40, told Al Jazeera: “I wish he had waited a few days before taking this step.”
“Everyone calls my husband a martyr but what about us? What would we do without him?”
Gurpreet’s family says that after joining the protests again in early November, he started dodging their calls and started living separately.
“The day before his death, around noon, he switched off his phone after talking to us. The next day, we got a call from his phone and a farmer leader told us that he was no more,” Mandeep told Al Jazeera.
“If we had even the slightest hint, we would have stopped it. I would have gone there myself. I would ask someone for help, but we don’t lose it.”
Landless, small farmers paid the highest price
Karnail Singh, a 75-year-old landless farmer from Punjab’s Sherpur village, died in December last year after falling ill at Tikri, one of the three main protest sites outside New Delhi.
A month later, Nirmal Singh, 45, a landless farmer from Punjab’s Dhaula village, also committed suicide at the same spot. He is survived by his wife and two children.
In March, Sukhpal Singh, a 40-year-old landless farmer from Punjab’s Baliyanwali village, died after consuming poison during a protest. His family now owes more than $6,700 in debt.
Contrary to the government’s claims that most “big farmers” are behind the farmers’ protest, a study by Punjabi University, Patiala found that almost all the farmers who died during the movement were either landless or small farmers, who owned 3 acres. (1.2 ha) was owned. ) of the land.
The deceased farmers were small or landless farmers who are at the bottom of India’s farming community. His death means destitute families, many of them now deeply in debt.
Gurpreet’s son says that in 2000 he owned 4 acres (1.6 ha) of land. “In 2007, due to a natural calamity, our entire vegetable crop was damaged. My father was forced to sell our ancestral land to pay off the huge debt,” Lovepreet told Al Jazeera.
Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU)-Sidhupur, affiliated to the farmers’ union Gurpreet, helped him rent a car, which allowed him to earn a living by doubling as a milkman and taxi driver. Eventually, they started renting out land to cultivate vegetables and fodder for their livestock.
“Though my husband had paid off all the debt, we could barely make a living. It was always a face-to-face situation. Now that he is gone, we are at the mercy of God,” Mandeep said.
The Punjab government has announced that it will offer jobs and money to the family of the deceased on compassionate grounds, while some NGOs are offering financial help.
But Gurpreet’s family is yet to get any help due to delay in issuance of death certificate. “During the last rites, BKU-Sidhupur gave us Rs 50,000 [$672] With some food grains to maintain as help,” Mandeep told Al Jazeera.
‘Death doesn’t scare us anymore’
Gurjinder Singh, 28, the convener of BKU-Sidhupur, was one of the first to visit Singhu after Gurpreet’s death. “I got a call early in the morning. I was told that someone from Roorkee village was found hanging at Singhu border.
“I have seen so many deaths in the last one year that it doesn’t scare me at all. But it was difficult for Lovepreet, who was crying at that time. We decided that we will not let them see the dead body of their father till they come home.
Lakhwinder Singh, professor of economics at Punjabi University, who has recorded the deaths of farmers during the protests, said: “In Punjab, traditionally land is considered to be the ‘mother’, while the practice of farming is associated with worship. Most of the farmers who participated in these protests shared this sentiment and were filled with anxiety and insecurity about the government’s decision on agricultural laws. Along with the harsh conditions during the protests, this concern was overwhelming for many. ,
Lovepreet is now planning to take her father’s place in the protest. But his mother Mandeep is worried. “I do not have the means to pay for the human costs of this protest. I only have my son. As a wife, I am lost. Now I can’t give up as a mother.