Langar – the heart of the ‘No Farmer, No Food’ Protests
Volume 1 | Issue 10 [February 2022]

Langar – the heart of the ‘No Farmer, No Food’ Protests<br>Volume 1 | Issue 10 [February 2022]

Langar – the heart of the ‘No Farmer, No Food’ Protests

Amandeep Sandhu

Volume 1 | Issue 10 [February 2022]

On August 28th , 2021, while farmers were protesting against Haryana chief minister ML Khattar at Bastara Toll Plaza near Karnal, the police carried out five rounds of lathi charge. The beating was brutal, many farmers sustained injuries. One of them, 45-year-old Sushil Kajal, came back home with injuries: bruises on his back, his stomach swollen. Next morning, he died. As the police was conducting the lathi charge, a video leaked. It had the Karnal sub-divisional magistrate instructing the police to ‘break the heads’ of farmers.

Angered by the video and the death, the farmers called a meeting at the Karnal Grain Market on September 7th.  The administration suspended Internet and mobile messaging but that did not deter the farmers and their numbers kept swelling through the day. The farmers’ union body, Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) demanded the SDM be sacked, a job for the slain Kajal’s family, the farmers be compensated for injuries and damage of vehicles. The administration did not agree to the demands.

By around 4.30 pm, the farmers decided to lay siege on the Deputy Commissioner’s office. The police had laid barricades, the farmers started crossing them. By around 6 pm, since Internet and messaging was blocked, some of us received a message from SKM about requirement for food, especially water, and if possible, tea for around 2 lakh people in Karnal. Like others, I put up the message on Facebook, tagged Tractor2ਟਵਿੱਟਰ on Twitter, asked active friends on Instagram. By around 7 pm, responses started coming in that local Gurdwara Nirmal Kutia and relief organisation Khalsa Aid – who have streamlined their service skills by regularly serving the farmers protests – had started delivering water and food and tea. By around 10 pm, every single protestor had their meals as they camped on the roads. Two days back, at the Muzaffarnagar Mahapanchayat, Hindu and Muslim communities had catered to above 15 lakh people.


Image Credit – Jaskaran Singh Rana, 2021

History

Anyone who has ever organised an event, even more so a protest, would well know the challenges to sustain them. Under an apathetic and draconian regime, given a vastly corporate-owned media that ignored the protests or tried to stick labels of farmers being anti-national and separatist, public opinion had shifted from favouring Farm Laws to empathy with farmers. The protests on Delhi’s borders – Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur, Palwal, Shahjahanabad – had grown to blocked toll plazas, opposite private petrol pumps and corporate warehouses. The protests were remarkable for how well they were organised and how they sustained themselves in bone-chilling winters, scorching summer heat and monsoon floods.

What sustained the protests? Of course, it was the resolve and resilience of farmers, but practically, day-to-day, what sustained it? The answer is: the tradition of langar – community food. A langar is a common community kitchen, where food is prepared and served. The tradition of langar was formally institutionalised in the Sikh faith by Guru Nanak. The story goes, when the Guru was young, his father gave him Rs 20, a princely sum those days, to go and strike a good bargain and make a profit. On his way the Guru met some wise men who were very hungry. Guru Nanak realised there just couldn’t be any deal more profitable than feeding the hungry. This is how the concept of the langar was born. The Guru instructed that langar should be partaken in a Pangat (row) of people, regardless of religion, gender, age, caste, creed or colour and served with a spirit of Sangat (community gathering), with everyone being equal.


Image Credit – Jaskaran Singh Rana, 2021

The tradition of langar is now over 500 years old and as robust as ever. It is this spirit of langar that kept the protests going from November 2020 to December 2021 on Delhi’s borders, and 14 months in Panjab. If we go by the enormous solidarity across the country on Bharat Bandh on September 27th, the deepening of political consciousness had gone non-metro national. What sustained the langar was the spirit of Sewa or service ingrained in the Sikh psyche. Service to others is an important aspect of devotional practice, especially for the laity. The routinisation of ‘kar sewa’, or serving the house of God, because God is everywhere, primes the Sikhs to reach out to others. In fact, serving others is considered service to the Gurus and God, and langar is considered God’s bounty.

That is why, Haryana farmer leader Suresh Kauth said, ‘There is a special pleasure in struggling alongside the Sikhs. They do not allow anyone to sleep hungry. As we broke barricades, langars were ready. Every barricade we broke, had a langar van next to it. Now, how much can we eat? The langar moves next to the protesters. We do not know where the langar comes from, but it does. Always.’

This was the same as on 27th November 2020 when farmers proceeded towards Delhi from Shambhu on the Panjab-Haryana border. The Haryana farmers paved the way by tackling their state police which had set up barricades, dug trenches, placed shipping containers, used water cannons and tear gas on advancing protesters. Yet, when the farmers from Haryana and Panjab had broken each barricade, they stopped and fed langar to the police. This too goes back to a military tradition in the times of Guru Gobind Singh. As the Guru’s armies would fight battles, Bhai Ghanaiya would serve water to the fallen soldiers irrespective of which side they were on. When the Guru heard the complaint about Bhai Ghanaiya serving the enemy, he asked for the reason. Bhai Ghanaiya replied: but you say we are all equal. The Guru blessed him and asked him to continue his service to humanity.


Image Credit – Jaskaran Singh Rana, 2021

Amarpreet Singh from Khalsa Aid said, ‘The police are so hesitant to receive even water bottles from us, especially if there are cameras around. They are hungry and sweating, they need water and food, but they have been instructed not to partake langar. Yet, they do, hiding from their superiors.’ Kauth said, ‘We could be opposed to each other but what is the fear? This is Guru’s langar. Not ours’.

Dharmendra Malik, the chief on-ground organiser of the Muzaffarnagar Mahapanchayat, from the original BKU, told me, ‘Just like Guru Nanak’s 500-year-old langar, we Khaps also have the tradition of Bhandaras – free meals. Khaps are a tribal system which have withstood the Mughals and the British. When a Khap is organising an event, the villages contribute, prepare, and feed everyone. This was a Baliyan Khap event. Since the numbers of participants were huge, other Khaps, other castes, the Muslim community and even political parties opposed to Bhartiya Janata Party were in solidarity. Bhandaras were spread scores of kilometers, along the route. The aim was to ensure everyone who has come is well-fed.’

Organisation

On ground the spirit of Guru’s langar materialises in different ways. A key aspect to understanding the protests is to learn that while unions brought farmers together on issues, in the initial months, the unions did not directly contribute to either the dwellings farmers set up – tents in winters, bamboo huts in summer and monsoon – or to their langars. At Singhu, where the maximum unions had gathered, farmer groups across villages and organisations brought their own cooks and langars were at a large scale. At Tikri and Bahadurgarh where mostly BKU Ekta Ugrahan from southern Panjab and Haryana Khaps had occupied 21 kilometers along the road, people’s hutments were organised in blocks and tehsils and they cooked in smaller groups. At Ghazipur, the langars were mostly by Gurdwaras from Delhi, Terrai and western Uttar Pradesh.

Usually, langars in Gurdwaras are basic fare – chappatis, lentils, sometimes a vegetable gravy. In the protest langars, in the winter months, there was immense diversity: besides the usual fare, poori-aloo, kadi-chawal, rajma-chawal, sarson ka saag and makki di roti with a piece of jaggery, bajra rotis, bread pakodas, badam milk, non-stop tea and biscuits, gajar halwa and pinnis (a ball of wheat flour, roasted with dry fruits mixed in concentrated milk), saffron flavoured sweet rice, pulao, kheer, jalebi, Maggie noodles, boiled black chana with sooji halwa, fruits (banana, apple, oranges) many trolleys of sugarcane – serving sugarcane juice, even kheer, dry fruits in the winter months, pizzas, burgers and so on.


Image Credit – Jaskaran Singh Rana, 2021

The protesters used technology to cater to not only their own but even to the labour at the factories in and around Singhu-Kundli, three meals every day for the children of the neighbourhood and of course visitors. They rigged up poori and roti makers that turned out up to 600 rotis an hour, coffee machines that delivered 40 litres in one go, furnaces, steam boilers, big cauldrons to make hundreds of litres of dal and vegetables, and wood fired geysers.

This is the langar people from Delhi and other visitors enjoyed in the early weeks until the events of January 26th 2021. Delhi folks too reciprocated. They came with blankets, warm socks, mufflers, thermals, shoes, oil bottles. When winter rains poured, people contributed for tents and tarpaulin and steel frames and folding cots. There were some washing machines and foot massagers. Khalsa Aid and United Sikhs put up malls where people could pick up whatever they needed, free of cost. While many of these items were not strictly food, their need was such that they too were considered langars. What mattered is the spirit of sewa – service. The food langars broke some rules: covering the head, being bare foot, seated in lines. Considering the numbers of people to be fed, those rituals were done away and langars were set up to suit the walkers on the pathways of protest sites.

After the events of January 26th, due to huge barricades put up by the government, the footfall of Delhi residents thinned down. Yet, the protests continued and langars kept catering to the protesters.


Image Credit – Jaskaran Singh Rana, 2021

Supply

When the farmers marched to Delhi, most tractors came with two trollies. One in which people rode, another in which they carried provisions: wheat flour, rice, potatoes, onions, oils, ghee, wood, paathi (dung cakes) – items easily collected in villages. While union leaders were not certain how long the protests will go on, the general idea was a week or a month. The farmers were fortified. The tradition of preparing trolleys for annual Jor Mela at Fategarh Sahib, Hola Mohalla at Anandpur Sahib, knowing how to set up home anywhere, came in handy.

As the meetings between farmer leaders and the government kept getting extended and the stalemate continued, the farmers realised the need to be prepared for the long haul. Rosters were set up for participation at village level. People would spend a week at the protests, return with tractors and trollies, the next set would move towards Delhi. When coming, a call for contribution would go around the village and all would contribute, some more, some less, depending upon their own financial capacity. As the weather changed, the same trollies would bring refrigerators and water coolers as well. This is how every village in Panjab and Haryana, many in Rajasthan, some in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, contributed to the protests in keeping with the spirit of sewa and langar.


Image Credit – Jaskaran Singh Rana, 2021

Haryana villages, especially the ones near the protest sites played a huge role right from the beginning. Daily they supplied fresh milk, curds, lassi, and vegetables. Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh farmers had to often hide from police to participate in the protests. Many protesters came bare handed, with just a sheet or a blanket, and two sets of clothes. The Gurdwaras from their regions and in Delhi, relief agencies, Sikh public service organisations who regularly serve big Sikh festivals, the trading class, and common citizens, contributions from the Diaspora, attended to all their needs. The support was both in kind and cash. The local dhabas such as Rasoi and Golden Hut stopped their business and supported the protests through free meals and providing toilet facilities. The kitchens mostly ensured cleanliness, after a few weeks, plastic plates and styrofoam cups were replaced by steel vessels. It is the same with medical langars – clinics and hospitals – run by medical professionals, numerous libraries came up to supply books as well as educate local children.


Image Credit – Jaskaran Singh Rana, 2021

Conclusion

The belt from where farmers have risen to protest is the one which has fed the nation for over half a century, ever since the Green Revolution was ushered in. In fact, the reason for protests is because these farmers have experienced the after effects of Green Revolution which no government has addressed until now. The draconian, unconstitutional, Farm Laws bulldozed through the Parliament through voice vote, were in fact the culmination of crony capitalist market forces that forced the government to eject the farmers from their lands and privatise them to corporations. They were pushed by World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund to suit Big Tech interested in Big Data so they could manipulate the entire agrarian sector.

However, after almost a year of the protests, it was clear that the international bodies, Big Tech corporates, supply-chain management companies, or even the nation state, could not match or curtail either the protests or the langars. Simply because no one can put a price on the spirit of sewa. The farmers of the land, who are also soldiers in uniform, were resolved to send the message: No Farmers, No Food. They were doing that through free meals, free housing, free clothes, free medical aid, free education, and posing a question to the state: what is your role in people’s lives? Right from the beginning of the protests, when asked: will the government listen? The refrain was: it will have to listen! That was their resolve based on their faith in the strength of langar and sewa.

Post script: Finally, on November 11, 2021, Guru Nanak’s 552nd birth anniversary, considering the impending state elections in Panjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, the government relented. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a unilateral decision to repeal all three Farm Laws. The Laws were formally repealed in Parliament on the first day of the winter session. It is a mark of trust deficit in the government that SKM waited for due parliament repeal to suspend their protest. The demands still pending are: legalise Minimum Support Price for 23 crops, withdraw privatization of electricity law and the draconian pollution law, and take back over fifty thousand cases filed against farmers during the course of the protest. The government promised to act on the demands. The protests were formally suspended December 9th, 2021. The government is yet to budge on its promise to farmers.

With extensive inputs from Sukhjit Singh


Image Credit – Jaskaran Singh Rana, 2021

2 Comments

  1. Simran

    As always , on point Amandeep ! Great read ! Would love to share !

  2. Nabinananda Sen

    What a captivating and striking write-up! …So detailed, upright, comprehensive and live! … So much based on ground-zero experiences and so well-written that it smells authentic in every word…
    Would put even the most indifferent reader on their feet and raise their arm in solidarity.
    Kudos !!!

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