Nodeep Kaur Has Nothing To Lose

How a Young Labor Activist Became the Face of India’s Farm Protests

By Shigraf Zahbi

Photos By Akanksha Narang

A city hides its ugliest truths near its borders, where wide avenues, glittery shopping malls, and well-guarded residential areas fade into factories, rows of grey buildings, and dust. On a busy, yellow Thursday in March, I booked a cab for myself from my apartment in New Delhi to the Singhu border — once a national highway, now a sprawling camp of hundreds of thousands of farmers protesting new laws introduced by Narendra Modi’s pro-corporate, Hindu nationalist government that would increase the power of the private sector in India’s agricultural markets. 

All the way to the border, through metro lines and traffic jams, army vehicles and barren fields, sewers and police barricades, I kept tapping my feet nervously. I had never met Nodeep Kaur before, had never seen her thin, sharp face except in pictures, had come to know her only recently through headlines like: “Nodeep Kaur: The jailed activist Meena Harris tweeted about” or “Will Stand Till the End: Out of Jail, Nodeep Kaur Visits Singhu.” A young labor rights activist thrust into the spotlight by social media uproar over her arrest at a protest, she had suddenly become the face of a movement where farm and trade unions were rallying around a common cause for the first time in decades.  

By the time I reached Singhu, I already had a slight headache. The spectacle I beheld there dazed me to complete blankness: a sea of people, rows and rows of tents and parked tractors, slogans blaring through loudspeakers, open kitchens welcoming all, old, wrinkled hands offering me tea, wary voices asking me which magazine I worked for, and if Modi was getting news of the protests, smiling glances, questioning glances, glances saying, “Look we are here, and we shall not budge;” an entire settlement of resistance. 

It took me another hour to locate Kaur’s tent. A single passage, just enough for one person to squeeze through, led to a small arrangement in the back, hidden behind tarpaulins and scaffolding nets. Inside, Kaur sat on a low charpoy flipping through the pages of a bright red notebook, her brows furrowed in concentration.

Kaur’s story begins in rural Punjab – the only Indian state with a majority Sikh population – where she was born on February 11, 1996, into a poor Dalit family. Dalits have long been called “untouchables,” and placed on the lowest rung of India’s caste hierarchy, which, in the words of prominent scholar and public intellectual Suraj Yengde, is the “oldest system of human oppression, subjugation, and degradation.” As a child, Kaur witnessed her grandmother’s suicide. A landless farmer, she had been heavily in debt and had found taking her own life a less difficult path to choose. For many years, Kaur’s father, Sukhdeep Singh, worked in bondage on the farms of dominant-caste landlords. 

“We never saw our father,” Kaur told me, the red notebook still in her hand. “He left early in the morning, when nobody had yet woken up, and came back late at night, when everybody had already gone to sleep. How overworked he was you can guess by the fact that he didn’t even know the names of his children.”

Debt bondage, when a laborer is forced to work to pay off a loan, is prohibited by law in India but sanctioned by its caste society.  The system exploits laborers (who are predominantly Dalits) to the extent that even after working their way out of it, they find themselves at the very spot from which they had set out. When Kaur’s family debts had finally been settled and their house had been freed from mortgage, Singh migrated to Telangana (then a part of Andhra Pradesh, now a state in the south-eastern region of the country), where he started operating combined harvesting machines for a living. To make ends meet, Kaur and her siblings often skipped classes at the government-run school they attended and joined their mother in picking cotton or sowing crops.

“Rajveer has always been a prodigy,” Kaur said, describing her elder sister, a PhD student at Delhi University and a member of Bhagat Singh Chhatra Ekta Manch (bsCEM), a leftist student organization. “She scored astoundingly well despite having to work in the fields with the rest of us. All day, we would be bent knee-deep in water, which, by noon, would be hot enough to cause blisters on our feet.” 

Things went on like this until 2014, around the time Kaur matriculated. Her mother, Swaranjit Kaur, was an active member of Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (PKMU), an association of landless farm laborers in Punjab. She became a thorn in the sides of the local landlords, who resented her for the example she set by refusing to suffer at their hands in silence. That year, according to Nodeep and her sisters, a minor Dalit girl from their village was raped by dominant-caste men, who, notwithstanding the heinousness of their crime, roamed free. Swarnjit, along with other members of her union, mobilized demonstrations demanding their arrest, but the police, complicit in caste violence since forever, arrested the protesters instead. This sparked another wave of anger and the protests only grew. Thanks to public pressure, the rapists were eventually tried and convicted.

But repercussions for Kaur’s family followed swiftly. Calls urging people to cut off all ties with them were delivered from Gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship) through loudspeakers. Kaur and her sisters were singled out as “girls who sit on strikes,” they told me. In a matter of months, they were forced to flee their home and join their father in Telangana.

Because Kaur’s education up until then had been in Punjabi, a language alien to Telangana, she had to discontinue her studies and sit idle at home. It was during these long hours, in the tiny place they had rented for 4,500 rupees a month (approximately $60), that she learned the songs of revolution by heart. She read Bhagat Singh and Lenin, Pash and Che Guevara, Hindi translations of books from Progress Publishers in Moscow; found inspiration in Gorky’s Pavel; wrote poems by the stove as she cooked because “one needs to expend one’s thoughts somewhere;” and, above all, yearned to go back to Punjab and do something for her people. 

“It cannot be that you read and ideas do not burn you through and through,” Kaur, who writes poetry and speaks lyrically as well, told me as we rummaged through the neat pile of books kept in a corner of her tent. The subject of our conversation had attracted about a dozen listeners. In no time, they were sitting in a circle around open pages, reciting their favorite passages, sharing anecdotes, listening to the Hindi version of “Bella Ciao,” and watching clips from Charlie Chaplin movies. A young factory worker borrowed my pen and my notebook and wrote in beautiful, round Devanagari the names of the two books he wanted me to read: An Appeal to the Young by Peter Kropotkin and Statism and Anarchism by Michael Bakunin.

Protesting farmers camped out at the Singhu Border in Delhi for months.

I will always remember 2019 as the beginning of our political disaster. Not coincidentally, it was also the year in which Modi came to power for a second term after a landslide victory in India’s general elections. That August, Modi’s home minister deprived the occupied region of Kashmir what little autonomy it had before placing it under one of the longest clampdowns in history, blocking cell and internet access for months. In December 2019 he introduced a bill, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which, under the guise of offering protection to persecuted religious minorities from neighboring countries, sought to render millions of Muslims, Dalits, and Indigenous Adivasi people living in India stateless. 

The same year, financial hardships drove Kaur and her family back to Punjab. Her eldest sister, Binder, a single mother in her late twenties, had been living in Singapore since 2017, where she worked as a domestic helper. The situation became so impossible that Kaur’s parents insisted she join her sister there. They got her passport ready and started arranging money for the visa and the tickets. Only, Kaur said, her heart was still, and always, “in the revolution.” So she ran away to her other sister, Rajveer, in Delhi, convinced that she would find something for herself there.

When she arrived in Delhi, the city was engulfed by protests against the CAA and its associated proposal of a National Register of Citizens (NRC), which the state tried to repress with a violent crackdown on students, activists, and journalists. Kaur managed to secure a job at a call center, and in her free time participated in the anti-CAA stir along with members of her sister’s organization, bsCEM. They went to Muslim colonies in Old Delhi to encourage women to come out in the streets, organized marches and strikes, and “got into fights with the conciliators, the Congress-wallahs” — a dismissive reference to supporters of the Indian National Congress party — “and the right-wingers alike,” Kaur said.

“It came to us from our mother,” Rajveer Kaur told me during one of her regular visits to the Singhu border, her lips inadvertently curving into a proud smile, “She taught us to speak up against injustice no matter what. People asked us, ‘You are not even Muslims, why are you here?’ They didn’t know that we have been brought up this way, that our hands have been holding banners since we were small.” 

The anti-CAA protests were soon crushed, first by the state-sponsored pogrom unleashed against the Muslim community in Delhi, and then by the advent of the novel coronavirus. Not only did Modi’s government see the pandemic as an opportunity to eliminate all forms of dissent, it imposed an unplanned lockdown that fell hardest on the poor, forcing migrant workers to flee the cities where they suddenly found themselves without employment. To add to their absolute abandonment, Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), relaxed labor laws in several states it governs. For instance, the northern state of Uttar Pradesh enacted an ordinance exempting businesses from most labor laws for three years, ostensibly to “create new investment opportunities.”  

“The lockdown pulverised our already broken bodies,” I heard a factory worker say, addressing one of the weekly meetings Kaur held at the Singhu border camps. “The government did nothing besides boast about those terrible ‘laborer-trains’ meant to send us back to our villages. I call them ‘death-trains.’ Why can’t they let us travel in normal trains? Because there are only two ‘general’ compartments, for the poor, and the rest are ‘reserved’ for the rich?’ Are we any less human than them?”

By the time the lockdown had been lifted in most parts, Kaur’s family was struggling. Her mother pleaded with her, “Do the work of your choice, but send us some help back home.” In utter desperation, Kaur took the advice of a friend and went to look for employment in the Kundli Industrial Area (KIA) near the Singhu border. She was hired at a factory assembling indicators for auto lights — a process which required her to be on her feet all day and cost her all her fingernails. Among the first things she did there was join Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (MAS), a labor rights organization operating in the KIA, which, she proudly informed me during one of our conversations, was “perhaps the only workers’ body in the country to have blocked roads and obtained free rations from the government during the Covid-19 lockdown.” 

During our first meeting, Shiv Kumar, the cheerful and easy-going 25-year-old founder of MAS, handed me a card from his organization, the back of which read, in Hindi: 

They are scared

What are they scared of

Despite their abundant wealth

And their cannonballs and bombs and their police force

They are scared

That one day

The unarmed and the destitute

Would stop being scared of them

—Gorakh Pandey

Sensing my interest in the poem, he told me that he had himself chosen it for the card, adding that he didn’t like beautiful poems. “Do you understand what I mean?” he asked me. I nodded and he went on to narrate a story from his adolescence. “I was once asked during a class what I wanted to become. ‘A rebel,’ I told them. Of course, they laughed, and I laughed with them too. But was I joking? No.” By 2017, Kumar and his comrades had already established MAS as an important workers’ organization. Since then, it has fought with limited means against the powerful nexus of industrialists, their paid goons, the police, and the state. Along with demanding better working conditions and equal pay, MAS has undertaken campaigns for a new bridge for workers who had to commute along a treacherous road, and forced companies to pay wages they have increasingly withheld during the pandemic. Many industrial workers in India lack formal contracts and wage theft is common. A worker told the Indian site Article-14 that MAS had helped her get paid simply by writing her demand on their letterhead. At other times, their tactics escalated to protests and pickets outside factory gates.

Open kitchens fed protesters, and MAS set up a hotline to help laborers who passed through the camps on their way to work.

When Kaur arrived in the KIA, she saw a picture of exploitation similar to what she had experienced in her childhood. Only the setting differed. According to Kaur, Kumar, and other factory workers I spoke with, most of the laborers in these factories were Dalits and Adivasis who had migrated to the city in order to escape caste violence and poverty. Here, the workers and activists I spoke with told me, they were made to work seven days a week, nine hours a day, for salaries as low as 7,500 rupees (around a hundred dollars) per month. Female factory workers were often raped, with no consequences for their attackers. If a laborer lost a limb or died, no compensation was given to their family; in fact, most of the time, their underage children had to take up their strenuous and often dangerous jobs. “Up until then, I had seen the condition of laborers working on the farms of rural landlords,” Kaur said, “Life took me there to show me the condition of laborers working in the factories of the unknown higher-ups.”

Kaur knew that MAS members had been threatened for as little as distributing pamphlets outside factories, so when she began her activism with them, she was aware of the danger involved. But since “a laborer has nothing to lose,” she said, she joined the group as it organized strikes and demonstrations and waited for a chance to shake the system that was oppressing her by its roots.

Referring to Modi’s past occupation, a joke circulates locally: “The tea-seller is now selling the country.” There is so much more to this slightly classist one-liner than just barbershop humor. Several times during the pandemic, his government reiterated its plan to privatize all the public sector enterprises in the country. Last September, in what was billed as a “watershed moment,” it made yet another offering to its corporate masters in the form of three new farm laws. These reforms, brought forth with the promise of ensuring “greater prosperity” for Indian farmers, meant to give away the agricultural sector to the free market by ending the decades-old system of minimum support prices (MSP) and by allowing private entities to hoard essential commodities and control production.

In November, farmers’ unions from Punjab and Haryana, the core states of India’s Green Revolution, began their iconic march on the national capital. The demonstration coincided with a general strike of trade unions against Modi’s anti-worker policies, bringing an estimated 250 million people to the streets in what is conjectured to be the biggest protest in human history. The strike was a mostly symbolic, time-limited affair, but the farmers were there to stay. Braving brutal police force, tear gas, and water cannons in Delhi’s bitter winters, they blocked its borders and pledged to stay put until their demands to revoke all the three farm laws were met. 

There are rich, dominant-caste, land-owning farmers. There are small, poor, farmers who are dominant-caste. And there are landless farmers. And there are farm laborers. They are all protesting together now. Members of MAS were fully aware of the potential power of farmer-worker unity visible in the moment of convergence of the farmers’ march and the general strike; Kaur understood the connection instinctively. “When the land-owning farmer eats daal-roti,” (lentil soup and chapatis), “we survive on namak-roti,” (salt and chapatis), she told me. “If they are reduced to penury, wouldn’t we, who are connected to them through land and produce, be the first ones to starve?”

When the protesting farmers reached the bleak, factory-riddled Singhu border, Kaur led a rally of more than 2,000 laborers in support. As a consequence, she lost her job and moved to the tent MAS had pitched for its activists to camp alongside the farmers.

“What does it mean for Nodeep Kaur, a labor rights activist protesting against unfair wages to the working class, to join the ongoing farmers’ protest?” asked Pragati K.B., an editor at the leftist online magazine DeCenter. “It means struggles are interconnected. Such outpouring of support from across movements is the fruition of many years of organizing and alliance building.”

After they joined the farmers at the border, MAS activists continued their work by hanging a poster outside their tent. Meant for laborers who crossed the area on their way to work, the simple, hand-written poster read: “On non-payment of dues by company owners or contractors, contact,” followed by a cell number.  In a single week, they say they received more than three hundred complaints. 

On January 12, Kaur was demonstrating outside a factory with a group of laborers who had been deprived of their rightful wages. The factory owners called in security to scare them away, and when that didn’t work, they called the police, who assaulted Kaur and the other demonstrators the minute they arrived. Kaur told me that the workers came to her defense. “When they saw male police officers drag me by my neck and hair, they fought back. But we were being fired at, we couldn’t hold together for long. They shoved me into their van, which they stopped at a deserted place just to beat me, and then took me to the police station where they sexually assaulted me and beat me again.”

As they attacked her, the policemen used caste-slurs against her, Kaur recalled. “Instead of doing the work that has been assigned to you people, you have become a leader,” she said they shouted at her as they beat her. “See how we will make you a leader now.” In jail, too, work was divided among inmates on the basis of their castes; who cooked, who cleaned the toilet, who got to rest was all determined by the same anti-human institution which pervades every aspect of life outside. “You are one of the lucky ones,” Kaur said another young incarcerated woman told her. “There’s hardly anyone here who hasn’t been raped or whose body is without dislocated limbs and stinking wounds.” 

Kaur was charged with attempt to murder, extortion, and theft; authorities claimed she had attacked the police with sticks and threatened to kill an officer. They denied her allegations of abuse, but she only received a medical examination after she had spent two weeks in custody, by which time her external injuries had largely healed. Kumar was also arrested and charged with the same crimes. He also says he was tortured, but his case has received much less attention. On February 26, after wide outcry, Kaur was granted bail, though the charges against her remain active. 

She had spent more than a month in jail, turned 25 behind bars, and, as a gift for her birthday, asked for clothing and other basic necessities for the other people jailed with her. As soon as she was released, she went straight to Singhu to sit with the protesting farmers. “They arrested me because I raised the voice of the most oppressed,” she told me before stepping into a meeting. “Next time you see a laborer, notice his eyes. There is fear in them. What is he scared of?” Then, without waiting for my reply, she walked ahead with the workers accompanying her to greet the farmers who had been waiting for her outside a large tent bedecked with banners on all sides. “Long live farmer-worker unity!” they greeted each other, and for a while, the hot, dusty air seemed to carry a message of hope. 

Before her arrest, when she was agitating with the farmers while also handling complaints received by MAS, a factory employee threatened Kaur. He told her she should stick to the farmers’ protests, as she was from Punjab. “I am with them, yes,” she told him, “and I am also with the workers.” He replied, “Be here or be there. You cannot be in both camps.” After she was arrested, the police officers, too, insisted that she was “a girl who keeps 40 men with her to extort money,” and denied her connection to the ongoing farmers’ protests. Her opponents’ insistence that she “be in one camp” betrays what makes Kaur so formidable to those in power: the fact that she is leading a movement to create solidarity across several boundaries. As historian Ravindar Kaur wrote in a recent article, this solidarity is what “keeps farm protests going.” And indeed, they have been going fearless and going strong, even at a time when India struggles to breathe as Covid-19 cases surge for a second time. When mornings bring New Delhi balconies and rooftops covered in ashes from funeral pyres, hope — and even help — still comes from its borders. 

Shigraf Zahbi is a writer based in New Delhi.