After a year of protests, the Indian farmers’ protest has finally triumphed. On November 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the controversial new laws, which farmers argued would leave them destitute, would be dropped. Shoaib Mir, Ahmer Khan specially for the Foreign Policy.
But the protests left a trail of both death and martyrdom behind.
Between March and April, thousands of Indians flocked to the village of Singhwal, in the Haryana region of north India, to offer their condolences to the family of Karamveer Singh, a former protester now known as a martyr.
Singh, a 52-year-old smallholder who owned around 2 acres of land, was an active participant in the long-running protests against three farm bills introduced by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, along with thousands of other farmers across northern India.
On Feb. 6, 2020, he was found hanging from a tree at the border between Haryana province and New Delhi, one of the main protest sites, about 103 miles away from his village. His suicide is just one among hundreds in the farmers’ movement.
The farmers’ movement started in November 2020 in response to bills the protesters said would demolish the support structure that has traditionally provided farmers a minimum income. They feared corporate domination of India’s agriculture and the loss of their own ability to make a living. Opponents painted these bills as necessary, free market reforms. In the months following, at least 654 farmers have died at different sites around New Delhi, where the protesters have maintained a continuous presence — one they say they won’t give up until the laws are finally formally withdrawn.
Anuroop Kaur Sandhu, a tutor at the University of Delhi who comes from a farming community, has been chronicling the deaths in her blog, “Human Cost of Farmers Protests.” The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (or “United Farmers’ Front”), a coalition of farming unions that has played a key role in the protests, has also collected data on the deaths. Most deaths resulted from natural causes like diabetes or heart attacks, but 33 of those deaths were suicides. For communities where economic desperation often drives suicide, those figures have become martyrs.
More than a month since Singh killed himself, people were still visiting his family. The roads leading to his house have posters of him to guide people in the direction of his home. His village is also known as “Shaheed Karamveer ka gaon”—meaning the village of martyr Karamveer.
Martyrdom has a powerful cultural pull in India, stretching back to figures who sacrificed themselves in the fight for freedom against the British. Individual martyrs often have their own followings. Bhagat Singh, a resistance member who was executed at age 23 for murdering a British police officer, is a particular hero in Haryana and Punjab, where most of the protesters are based. Martyrs are seen as sacrificing themselves for the good of the nation or community.
Karamveer left behind three daughters, his wife, and his mother.
In his two-room house, his family is grieving. His youngest daughter, Anshu, is still not aware of what happened to her father. Every night before going to sleep, she enquires about his whereabouts, and her mother tells her: “He is working at the fields and will return in the morning.”
“I cannot find the courage to tell her what tragedy has fallen upon us and that her father will never return,” said Santosh Devi, Karamveer’s wife.
“In our last conversation, he asked me about the well-being of our daughters and made sure our buffaloes are given food on time,” she said as tears rolled down her cheeks. “He promised me he will return home the next morning, but he did not. He was very much attached to his daughters, mostly the youngest one, and we were planning to send her to school, but now all our dreams have been shattered.”
Karamveer’s daughter, Diksha, 15, said her father wanted her to become a police officer. “I will fulfill his dream and make him proud. I will fight for the truth,” she said. Diksha believes her father sacrificed his life for a greater cause, and she wants to become like her father and put the people’s cause first.
During the months of protest, Karamveer spent four days a week at the protest site and visited home on the weekends. “I am still not able to believe that he is no more,” Devi said. “I talked to him over the phone one day before the incident but couldn’t sense anything wrong. He was a real man who couldn’t stand injustice. I guess seeing the condition of our community at the protest site for the last five months made him emotional and broke him from inside, which led him to end his life.”
Devi said her husband was deeply affected by what the protesting farmers called the “black laws,” and his suicide note was full of rage. Karamveer’s brother Brijesh said, “the Modi government is not coming to a solution and only giving date after date, and it cannot be predicted when these laws will be rolled back.”
Brijesh is now looking after Karamveer’s family, saying “I will make sure they receive the best possible education, although the loss is irreplaceable for them.”
The deceased farmer’s family blames Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government for Karamveer’s death. “I don’t consider him just dead as he is a martyr,” Brijesh said. “We keep his picture next to images of Bhagat Singh. He fought for our soil and eventually returned back to that soil.”
Karamveer’s mother, Bahoti Devi, takes pride in the death of her son. “I have two more sons who will continue to protest against the farm bills with our community till justice is not served,” she said.
But Karamveer is not the only martyr.
Rajbir Singh, a 48-year-old farmer from Hisar in Haryana who farmed wheat on two acres of land, was found dead at a protest site, leaving a suicide note directed against the government. “My father was a small-time farmer, and the new farm laws will make our lives hell, so he thought it was better to end his life,” Manjeet, his 22-year-old son, said.
Manjeet is now responsible for his widowed mother and sister. “I think I have no choice but to stay strong for the sake of my family,” he said. Manjeet was attending classes in Jaipur, India, when he got the news that his father was sick. He reached home the next day to find his father dead.
“I see his smiling face every time in my dreams, and I wish I could have seen him or at least talked to him before his death,” Manjeet said. He said his father would often call him to enquire about his studies.
“He was not like a father but more like a friend to me, which is very rare in our society. But this fascist government snatched him from us.”
Manjeet spoke of his father’s interest in history and how he would tell them tales of Bhagat Singh’s sacrifice for India’s freedom. Rajbir’s children are proud that their father, even with very few resources, managed to provide them a quality education. “I wanted to go for my master’s degree, but it seems it will not be possible now because, financially, we are drained,” Manjeet said. “And if new farm laws are implemented, then God knows what our condition will be.”
Manjeet said he now dreams of securing his sister’s education. “I want to make sure [my sister] pursues her master’s degree even if I have to work hard day and night.”
Like many farmers, Rajbir owned just 2 acres of land in his native village in Haryana. He regularly worked as a volunteer preparing farmers’ food at a community kitchen. His body was found hanging at the protest site with a suicide note left behind, which read: “My last wish is that the government should take back these three laws. … I request my fellow farmer brothers that they should continue the protest and do not let my sacrifice go to waste. This sacrifice is for my farmer brothers.”
Rajbir’s wife, Saraswati, while grieving inside their two-room house, is angry at the government and said since Modi took power, democracy has left India.
“If it were democracy, my husband would not have to kill himself nor would the thousands of farmers been on the roads for month,” she said. “Modi is there because of us as we voted for him for the betterment of the country. Who knew he will be responsible for my widowhood? The curses of the whole society of farmers are on Modi, and the day is near when he and his dictatorship will fall.”
Other deaths have devastated families. Radha Mann, a 60-year-old, was a native of another village of Haryana. He died of a heart attack while protesting at the Tikri Border between Haryana and New Delhi. His mother asked visitors in a broken voice, “who killed my son?”
Mann’s family also holds the government responsible for his heart attack. “If they would not have introduced those bills, he would have been alive today. He had taken a debt of nine lakh rupees [roughly $12,000] for our field as last year we didn’t receive the MSP [the minimum price guarantee that acts as a safety net for farmers when they sell particular crops]. The debt has to be paid back in the next few months, and I don’t know how I will arrange that,” said Jaswant, Mann’s 19-year-old son.
He said his father owned around 2 acres of land, and they barely made any profit as most went into fertilization and transportation. “This is not just our plight but that of all smallholders. I will make sure to contribute to the protest,” Jaswant said.
At the protest sites, minimal medical help is available. The mental health situation of farmers there worsened after Jan. 26, when farmers were beaten by police and portrayed as “terrorists” and “anti-nationals” by India’s mainstream media. Sukman Dhilon, a young doctor who has been volunteering for long shifts at the Tikri Border, said: “We have a team of five doctors who are available around the clock. But we don’t have a psychiatric facility available on the ground.”
Dhilon said they arrange for telephone support from around the world, but depression and anxiety are common. “In a few cases, patients have not slept for days. I have observed that more than 40 percent of the farmers are dependent on antidepressants and sleeping pills.”
Another doctor who worked at the site and spoke on condition of anonymity said: “A few days ago, I saw a farmer with anxiety attacks and an increased heart rate. He was thinking about his debt. He was experiencing suicidal thoughts. I counseled him and connected him to a psychologist abroad for better treatment.”
After the government’s promised concessions, the protests are easing. But the legacy of pain and martyrdom remains.
Shoaib Mir is an independent journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir currently based in New Delhi, India. He writes about conflict, gender, and the refugee crisis. Ahmer Khan is an Emmy-nominated and award-winning independent, multimedia journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir with a focus on South Asia. He covers conflict, humanitarian crisis, human rights, and migration in the region.