Farm Protests And Dr Swaiman Singh’s Year Of Living Dangerously
Doctors like Swaiman Singh have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with farmers through this long, hard protest, writes Priya Ramani.
The day Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his government would repeal three contentious farm laws, Dr Swaiman Singh, 35, was wearing a special tee-shirt, one that represented the past year of his life when “every night was a new story”.
The last time he wore that tee-shirt, it ended up doused in a farmer’s blood.
The protestor, a farmer, who had told Singh just the day before that he was a fan, was building a hut when the bamboo cutter he was using sliced his arm into two. He was rushed to the doctor who immediately took off his tee-shirt and tied the man’s arm, before driving him to a hospital.
“He took the tee-shirt home, washed it, and returned it to me,” Singh tells me over the phone. “I found out recently that his arm now has some movement.”
Singh says he also identified with the man because they both have three-year-old daughters. Singh’s toddler, Samya, has told him on more than one occasion on their long-distance calls that he loves farmers more than her.
When the New Jersey-based cardiologist and president of the 5 Rivers Heart Association came to India in early December 2020 it was meant to be a short trip to offer medical assistance to a close family friend who was at the protests. But he kept postponing his return, and before he knew it, he had stayed put for a year to run a free clinic headquartered at the Tikri border, financed largely with crores of personal money. If you start something, you should finish it, he once tweeted.
In ‘before’ images, Singh has nicely-styled short hair and a trendy stubble. He looks carefree and smiles a lot. But those images are from a different life, before he became among the most recognisable faces at one of the world’s largest democratic protests. Now he has a proper beard, wears a turban, and has the look of a man who has lived through a lot. He certainly has seen the best and worst that India has to offer.
Singh’s experiences of this past year certainly shine a light on the energy, resources, and staying power required of participants in any successful democratic struggle. The farmers’ movement also highlights the importance of the cohesiveness of the network that dissenters build to advocate their cause.
(Photograph: Swaiman Singh)
“Not a single person on my team was paid. They just did it for humanity,” Singh says. The clinic treated everything from Covid, trauma wounds, and mental illness to hypertension, diabetes, diarrhea, and skin infections (Singh suffered from the last too). Singh says the deaths of 700 plus farmers were the hardest to bear, especially the day when seven people died. It smarted when Modi never mentioned those who had died.
“If you fight together you can definitely win no matter who the opposition,” Singh says. “But if you start selling your vote and you don’t respect your vote you will have people in power who don’t respect you.”
He will never forget the soundtrack of Jan. 26, 2021, when the farmers’ decision to drive a convoy of tractors to the national capital ended in violence. “Our doctors’ team was attacked as we were serving the CRPF,” Singh says.
“There were men dressed as police but they didn’t have name tags, people mingling with the crowd trying to create a ruckus,” Singh says. “I’ll never forget the sounds of steel against steel, stun guns, smoke bombs…One man on a tractor got hit with the smoke bomb right on the face, half his face fell off, all the skin was shattered. There were burns all over another farmer’s back.”
“It literally felt like we were not in New Delhi, like it was a scene from a CNN video on Iraq. You didn’t know what would happen next,” he adds.
Police confront protesting farmers at the Inner Ring Road in New Delhi, on Jan. 26, 2021. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)
In addition to learning to live without basic necessities, the last year has certainly taught Singh a few lessons about the unpredictability of life. “I think it’s definitely been a humbling experience to no longer take for granted little things like having a shower with clean water, a clean blanket, a bed, and feeling protected while going to sleep, knowing that nothing can go wrong,” he says.
“My wife and I would plan that next year we will do this, five years from now we will do that,” Singh says. “But here I understood there might not be a next year.” If all goes well, he should return home by Dec. 20.
A colleague tells me Singh is usually very busy and hence very distracted but I’m lucky, we speak when he’s in a car on the way to Lucknow to attend a mahapanchayat organised by farmers who have said they won’t stop protesting until all their demands are met.
Doctors like Singh have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with farmers through this long, hard protest, and Singh believes that the slogan, ‘Kisan-Mazdoor Ekta Zindabad’ should be modified to include doctors.
Singh says the majority of India didn’t speak up about the farmers’ protest and didn’t even bother to educate themselves about the contentious laws.
An Indian flag, placed by protesting farmers, flies on barricades at a highway in Ghazipur on the outskirts of New Delhi, on Feb. 6, 2021. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)
Yet, one of the biggest life lessons on basic humanity, reinforced during his time here, came from the variety of Indians who showed up at the protest sites for farmers. “If there’s a fight anywhere in the world where somebody is losing their rights and one group is oppressing another, you should speak up,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be just ‘your people’.”
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.