Month on, women hold the fort at India farmer protests

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Women farmers pray during a gathering in protest against new farm laws at the Delhi-Haryana state border, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020. From students, teachers and nurses to housewives and grandmothers, women are now holding the front lines at the massive protests that have blockaded key highways leading to India's capital for more than a month, demanding the repeal of new farm laws. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI – The men arrived first. And they arrived with a bang.

Tens of thousands of them, marching like an army, driving trucks and trailers, prepared to choke key highways that feed into India's bustling capital.

But once the male farmers hunkered down and laid a siege of sorts around New Delhi, something remarkable happened over the weeks that followed: A stream of women, young and old, started jostling through a teeming crowd of men.

First, it was a trickle — a dozen or two of them, draped in yellow and green scarfs, accompanying a legion of male farmers who arrived each day at the protest site. Then their numbers slowly started to swell. From students, teachers and nurses to housewives and grandmothers, the women appeared in cars and buses. Some even drove tractors with flags mounted atop bulky metal bonnets that called for a “revolution.”

Now a month into the protests, these women are on the front lines, smiling, laughing, singing songs of revolution and resolutely demanding a rollback of new agricultural laws passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government that farmers fear will favor big corporations and make family-owned farms unviable, eventually leaving them landless.

The highway is their new home, and they are forming the backbone of the protests and making their voices heard.

“After all, we are the ones who toil the most in the farms and feed the country,” said Ramandeep Kaur, who was at the very front column of the protest site that stretches for miles. “Our men are here to fight. We will stand with them as long as it takes.”

On a normal day, Kaur, 45, would spend long hours teaching science in a government-run school in the city of Bathinda in the northern state of Punjab. At day's end, she would do the household chores and then work on the family farm, feeding the cattle, milking them and turning their dung into fuel cakes.