As a reporter this was a tough assignment to cover. On that cold December evening in the middle of nowhere, bodies were lying all over the field. As the sun set, temperatures came down to freezing but the casualties in the train accident in a Punjab countryside kept adding up.
The locals who had been the first respondents were doing much more than just helping rescue operations. They made sure that I was given a steaming cup of tea every hour, and when darkness halted recovery operations, some food and a blanket to nap the few hours before daylight in the office car. I was the only girl around for miles, yet I have never felt safer.
Even for someone who belongs to Punjab, this was an unforgettable lesson in sewa (service, although no English word can truly encompass the word and the selfless intent behind it) by a community whose indomitable spirit of perseverance has been unparallel once again in the last year- through a harsh winter, a brutal summer and the unpredictability of a pandemic.
Over time Punjabis have been at the receiving end of deprecating stereotypes- from butter chicken at breakfast to happy hour with whiskey pegs on the head - the jokes are endless, the humour stale. Boisterous ‘chak de’ slogans at a match make the Punjabi cringe as does the belief that a Karan Johar movie resides in all our homes.
But the jokes ran out the day there was realisation that the fearlessness of a community went beyond the sacrifices inked in the chapters of history. If anyone has the staying power to withhold threats, coercion and concertina wires, it is the Punjab farmer. That day they started to malign an entire community.
History is witness- when a movement has staying power, its collective might can decide where the wind blows. Only one side blinked.
It was the Punjab farmer who took the protest, against the farm laws to the government but the support from the agrarian belt of Haryana and parts of Western Uttar Pradesh was priceless. Yet it is the men with turbans, genial faces and flowing white beards who captured not just the imagination of a nation but also the insecurity of the dispensation.
They camped at the borders of Singhu and Tikri braving everything thrown at them including the killing of 4 farmers who were run over by an SUV allegedly driven by the son of a ruling minister in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur.
Democracy flourishes when people remember they have a voice, but as the Sikh farmer showed, you don’t have to shout to be heard. This though was not a paradigm shift for a community that leads by its resilience, a seminal role that future movements even without elections around the corner can keep an eye on.
Much has been done in the last year to discredit the community. People of the state are witness that it doesn’t spare even those who fan it for political or ideological gains. Punjab has paid the price of militancy for decades, the lost years that no one sitting in Delhi could imagine the extent then and cannot now.
Continuing the march
Yet, the vilification was met with offerings, whether it was free pizzas given to the policemen at the Delhi border or oxygen cylinders distributed to the needy. Where spikes were made to stop the tractors, the farmers covered the ground with mud and flowers. No hate or social media abuse could derail them from sewa, a tenet so intrinsic to the Sikh community that it often makes you wonder what stops others.
Langar — a free community kitchen that does not turn away the hungry- irrespective of caste or religion epitomises this philosophy and shines a light on how equanimity for equality is not impossible even when religion is held hostage.
The word ‘langar’ is believed to have a Persian origin and dates, back to the time of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev whose three pillars — ‘Naam Japo’ (chanting in the name of God), ‘Kirat Karo’ (work with sincerity) and ‘Vand Chakko’ (share what you have) have not been diluted even centuries later.
Every day at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, 50,000 people are fed for free- irrespective of who they are and where they come from. The number doubles over the weekend and even smaller gurdwaras in the villages can always be counted on if you are ever stuck.
This philosophy of carrying it forward by giving it back shows that Sikhi is not just in some religious texts, and it continues to play out in the real world. Like for instance at the Bangladesh border where Sikhs fed Rohingya refugees, in France where they helped Parisians flee in their taxis from a terror attack and back home where a hospital was built overnight at a, Delhi gurdwara during the second wave but without a billing counter.
Recently, when the walls of polarisation came shrinking in once again in Gurgaon where residents disrupted Friday prayers, it was the Sikh community that offered their gurdwaras for prayers. It is almost as though we don’t expect anything different.
What makes it so easy for the Sikh community to help strangers is a crisis, these are but ordinary people. How did a community get its teachings so right that our children even through the ever- deepening fissures in society thankfully always have an example to follow?
The community ethos
As the farmers agitation gathered momentum, the langar went beyond feeding just those who had made the protest sites their temporary homes. Instead, the struggle for a cause did not come at the expense of the community ethos- as the Sikhs took the lead in feeding desperate migrants headed home as the sudden lockdown caused panic just as generously as they helped distraught citizens look for a hospital bed.
Behind every farmer though was a woman who has kept the fires of the langar burning. Elderly ladies manning tractors, mothers leaving young children back at home, women camping without adequate personal hygiene- the hardships of sustaining a popular movement become inconspicuous when the self never triumphs selflessness.
But the challenges behind the scenes were no less whether it was feeding thousands exposed to the vagaries of seasons and a pandemic or handling the storm of misinformation unleashed online. The women volunteers made sure it all ran like a well-oiled machine.
The protest has not just mobilised support against the laws, but it also united people from the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana who have often been at loggerheads. But above all, it has also been a back to the fold moment.
The movement may have been led by the elders, but it gave a sense of identity to the youth, activists say for the first time in years the young Punjabi is thinking twice before getting that ticket to Canada.
The farmers have not forgotten that this movement has cost them more than 700 of their own. It is a price they have paid but not forgotten. And that is precisely why for now, they are not going anywhere. Another winter beckons.