Coldest night in 15 years, slogan heat, calls to kin keep Singhu warm

Just before midnight, slogans are raised against the Centre for its refusal to repeal the farm laws, apart from "Jo Bole So Nihaal, Sat Shri Akal" and "Kisan Ekta Zindabad".

It’s 11 pm on December 31, the mercury creeping slowly towards 1.1 degrees Celsius, the lowest in the Capital in 15 years. At the Singhu protest site, the farmers are getting ready to ring in the New Year with hymns from the Gurbani, hot tea and some gusty sloganeering.

Hundreds walk to the stage, which has been growing steadily since the protest began more than a month ago, to light candles on its railings. Others sit in front of it, not ready yet to go back to their tractor trolleys for the night, as police personnel keep a watch.

Some march with candles to pay tribute to Guru Gobind Singh, while backstage, 20-30 men and women decorate a palanquin for the ‘Nagar Kirtan’ at 5 am. A little distance away, a group of people decorate a tractor with orange flowers for a procession to be carried out along with the kirtan.

As the hands of the clock creep towards midnight, a few slip into a pensive mood. Gurdeep Singh (40), a former Armyman-turned-farmer from Punjab’s Anandpur Sahib, says he is alone at the Singhu border since his wife and son went back after the latter fell ill. The loneliness is painful, he admits. “My children like to watch TV and eat cake or pastries to celebrate New Year’s.”

Gurtej Singh, however, doesn’t see himself as alone. “We are here for a cause and we will celebrate all the festivals together. There is a sense of brotherhood and all of us hope the new year will bring glory to the farmers.”

Just before midnight, slogans are raised against the Centre for its refusal to repeal the farm laws, apart from “Jo Bole So Nihaal, Sat Shri Akal” and “Kisan Ekta Zindabad”. These give way to bursting of crackers, singing of Punjabi songs, sharing of sweets and bear hugs as the date changes to January 1, 2021.

As many step away to make video calls to families back home, waving to small children on the phone screen, Gurdeep goes to his trolley to talk to his wife, before spreading a mattress and lying down next to his friends.

In one corner, farmers observe a one-minute silence to mark the protesters who died, most of them of natural causes in the biting cold or accidents en route, and two of suicides.

Of the many langars serving food, a few remain open, churning out hot pakodas and chai. Those industrious enough to stock sweets on this big night see these flying off.

As it gets colder, the protest site is dotted with small angithis everywhere, apart from heaters around some trolleys. Till 1 am, there is a constant hum of gurbanis in the background.

Then, slowly, the farmers start retiring to their tractor trolleys, huddling together under blankets carried from home, with plastic sheets covering the vehicles for additional warmth. Blankets have also been distributed by several organisations at the protest site. Those with no vehicles move into the tents set up on the road, footpath or divider. Some more brave just sprawl on the main stage, unmindful of the cold.

By 5 am the next day, the protesters have already started stirring, with volunteers from Khalsa Aid and several youths readying hot water and arranging heaters for the women and the elderly.

Rajbir Singh, 27, from Fatehgarh Sahib, recalling the extreme cold of the night before, says, “The hot water is for whoever who wants to wash themselves. We also make tea and serve biscuits.”

Among those making preparations for a langar for about 500 people is 70-year-old Balvir Singh from Ludhiana. The arthritis patient has developed a cold out in the open, but is more interested in talking about the matar paneer he is making to ring in the new year.

“For us, it’s another day in the calendar. All I want is for others to feel happy; I see sad faces because people aren’t with their families. I made pakodas at 11 pm last night — more than 100 people came to my tractor to have that,” Balvir says, adding that every night, he stocks up on vegetables so that he can start cooking early in the morning.

Across the site, preparations are being made for poori-aloo, sarson ka saag, sweet rice and gulab jamun.

By 6 am, the ‘Nagar Kirtan’ has started, and the protest site is buzzing again. A few farmers sit near the stage to listen to prayers, others head to a makeshift gurudwara that has come up.

Manning a medicine stall are Sarbjit and her friend, who came to the protest 10 days ago all the way from Mumbai. It’s not easy being here, Sarbjit admits. “At 6 am, we walk a kilometre to access a clean washroom. The entire day, we avoid fluids.” However, the winter of a kind the two haven’t seen before, hasn’t dented their resolve. “Last night, we didn’t party, but our josh was high,” she laughs.

At 11 am, farmers take a ‘Palki Sahib’ and the ‘Nagar Kirtan’ into the street. The Palki is decorated with flowers, with the Guru Granth Sahib at the centre.

Dr Rajpreet (40), a dentist from Mohali who has been at Singhu border since November 26 and has carried out over 3,000 tooth extractions at the site so far, says, “It was beautiful. We saw it pass by… This new year has been very different, but I’m glad we’re here.”

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