The Funambulist Correspondents 16 /// Of Materialities and the Making of a Protest in Delhi


Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts

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The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition.”

Hannah Arendt

Protest camps have been written about as ‘third spaces’ which gather people together around a particular cause or issue. Camps are seen in their impermanence and continuities, suggesting new forms of life and living, survival based on patience, temperance and struggle. A lot of literature on refugee camps explains them in relation to legitimate spaces, or the manners in which people inhabiting camps navigate permanent and structural discriminations and delegitimization. This essay presents a protest camp, now running in its eighth month at the borders of Delhi, through a taxonomy of its material forms and materialities that generate its built environment. Here, the materiality of the protest camp produces timelines, events, surfaces, mediums, labors, intensities and continuities of the camp site. The materiality of the protest is both its evidence and its existence.

In her work ‘The Human Condition’, Hannah Arendt speaks of the idea that being able to live in a polis was to be determined by words and not by violence. If one were to imagine Arendt’s ideas at the protest site emerging at the Delhi borders, one would extend this site as a form of a polis, primarily determined by its materiality, and its form. The Arendtian notion of making, fabricating, and building merge with the materialities of this protest site, which has continued with people living on a highway for the past eight months.

September 2020 witnessed the introduction of three new farm bills by the central administration. These farming reforms would relax regulations on private entities in the agricultural market, a move that angered farmers across the nation. Their demands constituted a repeal of the unjustified reforms that fragment and deregulate the market along with a legal guarantee on the minimum support prices for their produce. After protesting for a few months at state and province levels, farmers from Punjab and Haryana (northern provinces located near the national capital) started their journey to Delhi in November. The farmers utilized methods of gherao (surrounding), road blocking, and dharna (demonstrations) across the borders of Delhi. Having traveled till the national capital’s borders (Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur), they eventually set up campsites as their vehicles were halted from entering the city. The protest site began with them stopping their vehicles on the highway. The mode of transport to reach the city became the elementary material on which the protest continues to stand today.

The protest at the Singhu border extends for about ten kilometers on the highway connecting to the Delhi border. A stark difference of material forms encounters us as we walk across the barricading by the Delhi Police into the protest site. Harsh concrete, metal, and barbed wire of the State barricading moves into a differential materiality as we enter the site. Albeit built upon tractors, farmers’ trolleys, and other forms of farm storage and transport equipment, the campsite softens into providing us a distinct affective milieu of objects, machines, and materials generating animate life worlds of the protesters. Living and cooking spaces form the centrality of the protest, which functions as a public kitchen for the protesters at the site. This continuum and presence of life, with the reminder of food, kitchens, and uninterrupted cooking, fuel the central infrastructure of dissent here.

Unlike many other protests across the world, where people walk in rallies or emerge at a particular site only to disperse at the end of the day, the protest site at Singhu border is a live-in, a constant location of making, and a labor of love. The highway completely transforms into a new surface of materialities and acts of work, labor and action through the development of this protest. New forms of dwelling, settling, circulating then emerge to endure the protest against an unrelenting government. The criticality of this protest site is its continuity over time — harsh winter, intense summers, and monsoons — yet it affords a sense of the familial, grafts survival through ordinary materialities, and feels like home. A series of parked farmers’ trolleys, tractors, and trucks form the length of the protest, inhabiting rooms, beds, places of rest, reading spaces, kitchens and courtyards. We attempt to unpack both the material and the built forms that these provide to the site.

Zaidi Singh 2

Attached to a tractor, this trolley is primarily used for carrying farm produce. It is now being used as a sleeping space, a bedroom, a place for people to sit and rest, and for storage. The metal of the trolleys gets quite cold in winters, and hot in summers. Tool kits are sold at the site to fix the trolleys as nuts and bolts loosen with constant use. Cushions, mattresses, tarpaulins, bedsheets, darees, and quilts are set inside as well as across these trolleys, adjusted as per season, in order to make it more comfortable for those who have been sleeping in them. Tarpaulins appeared ubiquitously across the site, bearing Delhi’s intense thunderstorms and dust storms in summers — and now the city’s monsoons. Ropes, jute bags, and a diverse range of reinstating and building materials are constantly merging in the site to hold and build these trolley-homes.  

As a large part of the protest population is older in age, ladders, pull-up handle clutches, and even railings have been built into the structures of trolley-homes. An interesting milieu of technical layouts, with innovative and sometimes provisional forms of making, has been deployed here to create these living spaces. Intimacies of rooms, resonating with conversations on politics and government policies, flow along with the gentleness of cloth and foam adhered smoothly to the hardness of metal, machinery, and the highway.

Zaidi Singh 3
Zaidi Singh 4

Tarpaulin, trolleys, and sides of the trucks generate a sudden room in the middle of the protest. An iron bed is laid out with mattresses and sheets, fitting perfectly between its walls (here, a trolley side) and tarpaulin sheets tied together with ropes and rods for roofing. The trolley wall then begins to anchor everyday domesticities such as a mirror, a multiplug extension board, a place to prop the comb up, packets with utilities, and a protest poster. Carpets, darees, stools, foldable tables, and small benches to sit on generate the living space within this enclosure. Kitchenware, such as steel cups, pots, thermos flasks, jugs, gas cylinders, tea kettles, rolling pins, and serving dishes, begins to cultivate domesticating corners in these spaces. These lived spaces run across the protest site in a way that one is not able to distinguish between the two.

Zaidi Singh 5

The built environments of the trolleys transform incessantly, sometimes becoming courtyards for drying clothes, sitting in the sun (during winters), cooking, chopping vegetables, or simply having tea and conversations. Clotheslines for drying clothes come up to provide a sense of familiarity to the ways in which people use personal spaces. Tied across the edges, corners, and lengths of the trolleys, they hold a sense of stillness and cohesion to the site where moving vehicles — trucks and tractors — succumb to the logic of lived spaces. Often, tarpaulin or cloth draped across the entire length of the clothesline secure compact spaces between trolleys to create privacy for makeshift changing rooms.

The external environment of the protest site sometimes also becomes a street, inviting street vendors to sell specific wares such as socks, sweaters, and blankets in winters, and other seasonal goods across the year. The street, the courtyard, and the home can all mix in an instant as a group of protesting marchers pass by, and those sitting in join them in sloganeering or serve them food and tea from the kitchens.

Zaidi Singh 6
Zaidi Singh 7

Inspired by the Sikh tradition of running large community kitchens as part of their religious practices, multiple kitchens have been set up across the site. Labor, work, and action blend with the religious belief of sewa (serving others) as these kitchens form the spine of the protest. Large sheds have also been set up at the site with huge storage vessels, cauldrons for cooking, firewood for stoves, and places for preparing and serving the food. The gift of food, the originary motif of the protest, moves center stage with the presence of these kitchens. Trolleys with fresh produce are constantly arriving and stored grains are being carried to the kitchens, where everyone offers their time and labor to cook and serve. Dissent is served as a hot cooked meal, as tea, and as a humbling reminder of the work and life of the farmers. Here, materialities build up not just time, labor, and work, but also generate defiance and its continuities in the most manifest forms. This new apparatus of protest, based on fortitude and work, settles for us new infrastructures of thinking and creating the revolution.