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National

Elderly protesters recount ’88 stir, stare at a long haul

February 09, 2021 05:06 AM

COURTESY HT  FEB 9

Elderly protesters recount ’88 stir, stare at a long haul

Ram Kumar Singh and Layak Ram. HT PHOTO

Anvit Srivastava

anvit.srivastava@hindustantimes.com

New Delhi : On a bright February morning, 101-year-old Layak Ram makes for a picture of steely resolve as he speaks about the ongoing farmers’ protests against three laws enacted by the Centre in September to open up the country’s agricultural markets.

“ I am not going anywhere till the farm laws are repealed,” said the centenarian, clad in a white kurta-pyjama and a grey jacket, resting against a pile of blankets inside a yellow tarpaulin tent pitched under the Delhi-Meerut expressway at the Ghazipur border.

The Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border is one of the epicentres of the farmers’ 75-day-old campaign against the agricultural laws they say would erode their bargaining power, put them at the mercy of powerful agribusinesses and could lead to the dismantling of the system of minimum support prices (MSPs) for farm produce.

Ram, who arrived at the Ghazipur site from Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, in November, is one of the oldest protesters in the agitation and one of the few who also participated in the late Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Mahendra Singh Tikait’s movement that brought Delhi to a halt in 1988.

About half-a-million farmers from western Uttar Pradesh arrived in Delhi in October 1988 and took over the Boat Club lawns in the heart of the Capital, close to Parliament, with demands ranging from more remunerative prices for farm produce to cuts in power and water tariffs.

Ram remembers that protest well. “The place had turned into a village panchayat, with charpoys, hookahs, bullock carts and buffaloes all around. That is where we cooked, ate and slept,” he said.

“The difference is that then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi conceded our demands, but this government seems adamant and is just not listening to us,” added Ram, who often wags a finger in the air to make a point. A passionate storyteller, Ram lets you know that his “tryst with history” goes beyond his participation in farmers’ agitations.

“I do not remember the date, but I was born in 1919, the year of the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre. Our farmers’ leader Mahendra Singh Tikait was 16 years younger to me, but he was a visionary and knew the pulse of the farmers, ”said Ram, who these days wakes up at 6 am and eats at the community kitchen set up at the protest site. “I eat my dinner at 7pm and go to bed by 8pm; it is too cold here in Delhi under the highway.”

He is visibly upset at what he calls the government’s unreasonable stance. “I witnessed the struggle for the independence of this country. We have won against the British and against our own governments in the past. But today’s government is very adamant and this is going to be a long struggle.”

Ram has not been in touch with his family since he arrived. He suffers from an old injury and wears a bandage around his head, which he has been told, has turned cancerous. “I have lived up to 101 years; and now I do not care if I if I die here.”

Two tents ahead is another tarpaulin tent where Ram Kumar Singh, a 90-year-old farmer from Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, is camping. Unlike Ram, Singh, joined the agitation recently, after the Republic Day.

Singh too was a part of the farmers’ movement led by Tikait. And he too has many stories to share.

“The then government did not use force on us to drive us out of the city like it happened on Republic Day; it bowed before the country’s farmers respecting their demands,” said Singh, his voice firm and his lips covered by a thick, drooping moustache.

Singh, who suffers from blurred vision in one eye, contends that the ongoing fight is tough, but reckoned that Rakesh Tikait, the son of Mahendra Singh Tikait and the BKU’s national spokesperson, who has emerged as the face of the farmers’ campaign, will eventually lead farmers to victory. “He is determined, tenacious and tactful like his father,” said Singh.

While Singh and Ram have many memories of their participation in the 1988 farmers’ agitation, Dharm Pal, a 73-year-old farmer from Baghpat, UP, proudly shows off a picture with Mahendra Singh Tikait, set as the wallpaper of his mobile phone. “It is from one of the farmers’ rallies 1994 or 1995,” he said, showing his phone screen.

Pal, who is camping in Ghazipur, said he was shot with a rubber bullet during the 1988 protest. “It took me and many others days to be able to walk properly, but we are here again. Tikait was like my elder brother. He also attended my son’s wedding. This is the reason why I am here today to support his son, who is fighting for our rights,” he said.

“ I was born in 1948, a year after the country got Independence. Even after so many years, the farmers of this country are forced to sit on the roads to be heard,” said the septuagenarian, smoking a hookah.

 

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