JALANDHAR: The sociopolitical scenario playing out across India as people struggle to ensure their democratic rights came alive at an annual event in Jalandhar, Punjab that concluded in the early hours of Tuesday.

The heart of the annual Mela Ghadari Babeyan Da at the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall was of course the ongoing farmers’ movement that has gradually grown into a people’s movement across the length and breadth of the country. Alongside this the organizers also marked the centenary of the Babbar Akali Lehar or movement.

The atmosphere was electric. The mela is one of the unique events in India where progressive groups, individuals and organizations converge every year for two days to remember the veterans of the Ghadar freedom movement.

One comes across people from all walks of life reaching the site from all across Punjab, and even from Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, along with their partners and children to witness debates, discussions, theatre and folk music on contemporary political issues.

One of the major attractions at the event is the book exhibition, where one can find good progressive literature from around the globe translated into Punjabi. It is heartening to see people thronging to buy books at a time when reading books has become a dying habit as it gives way to online reading.

This time a stronger presence was marked by publishers selling Dalit literature alongside those known for providing progressive books, some of them selling in photostat versions. Besides many works by EV Ramasamy Periyar, books on BR Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram got a good response.

Another book that did reasonably well was Bihar-born George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, considered by many to be a barometer of the times prevailing in India and abroad. There was also keen interest among people about the Constitution of India.

Many of those present felt that marking the centenary of the Babbar Akali movement had become all the more important in present times as it too was a movement of Punjab’s peasantry against exploitation, imperialism and the British government’s anti-people laws.

It evolved as a militant splinter movement from an Akali agitation on gurdwara reforms. Initially established as a Shahadat Dal (Association of Martyrs) it had in its ranks former Ghadarites and veterans of the First World War. Many members were killed in encounters, sentenced to death or imprisoned.

Those present in Jalandhar felt that remembering the Babbar Akali movement was necessary as it reminded the people of Punjab’s fighting spirit of making sacrifices for a public cause. Accordingly the farmers’ movement and the government’s repeated efforts to crush it were reflected in almost every event at the mela.

The traditional ‘jaago’ that is presented in a sociopolitical colour at this event saw the women participants sing of how the political class is out to divide people in the name of region, religion and caste. They sang these politicians have nothing to do with Ram or Allah, but are out merely to serve the interests of the corporate lobby while filling their own coffers.

The participants carried pictures of politicians both at the Centre and in Punjab, alongside corporate entities which they kept flipping to drive home their point. They sang of how anyone raising a voice of dissent is being crushed.

Jaago is traditionally sung by members of a family where a woman is getting married. It has gradually attained symbolic importance as it is being used to drive home strong political and social messages at events.

As the participants moved to perform a bhangra on stage, they celebrated the valour Punjab’s youth have shown in the ongoing movement. They sang before an enthusiastic crowd of how youngsters braved the water cannons and violence from police on the roads, and how the people have stayed put at the capital’s borders.

The performance concluded with them unfurling a banner containing the photographs of intellectuals and civil society activists imprisoned by the government for raising issues pertaining to Dalits, religious minorities and other marginalized sections of society.

The plays performed too had a different flavour this time, with the artists experimenting with themes of the three controversial farm laws and the targeting of people raising voices for their democratic rights.

The play that received a stupendous response was Dr Sahib Singh’s Dhan Lakhari Nanaka, which covered not only the farmers’ protest but also the people’s fight against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, the Pinjra Tod movement, the targeting of institutions and students, and the throttling of public voices.

There were also individuals like Satnam Singh Daun who stood individually carrying placards trying to generate awareness about the land mafia, which is selling land meant for public projects for commercial education projects at various places. And there were youngsters circulating small pamphlets to help educate people on various issues of public life.

Right at the entrance to the venue stood a big placard listing people’s demands, which everyone visiting the Mela Ghadari Babeyan Da signed in support.

“The farmers’ movement is set to find a place of glory when people’s history is written at the global level. It has major achievements to its credit. It succeeded in uniting people across the barriers of caste, region and religion while bringing women to the forefront as participants as well as leaders. To some extent it has also blurred the dividing line between the landlord Jatts and the farm labour,” said Vijay Bombeli who has been documenting the social, political, economic history of Punjab.

“For the first time there is a national level awareness among farmers on minimum support price. They are also awakened about the ills of the corporate model being imposed on the country and are determined to fight this move,” said Bombeli.

He underlined how a movement “that started from the issue of farming now covers diverse issues. There are issues of students, affordable education and employment. There is the issue of land rights, public health and the threat to the public distribution system. The changes made in the labour laws and how they have become more exploitative are also a part of the people’s narrative.

“The masses are now understanding that the problems do not stand in isolation. They are intertwined and so are the solutions to these problems. They also understand that the people’s struggle does not end with the withdrawal of these land laws. They know it’s a long battle ahead and they are well aware of it.”

The annual mela in Jalandhar succeeded in sending out a strong message, that the people understand how their rights are being trampled upon and are in no mood to compromise.

This was very much reflected in the spontaneous slogans being raised by children and women among others as they sat huddled in the early November chill, watching plays, cultural performances and what the intellectuals had to say.