“This moment has awakened so many people who were sleeping.”
Since November of 2020, hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers, laborers, and allies have flooded the Delhi border to protest against new agricultural bills that they feel will undermine their livelihoods. Protesters have set up temporary housing camps demanding change through speeches, marches, and strikes. While the protesters themselves have been largely peaceful, the Indian government’s forceful response has caught the attention of observers around the world concerned about significant allegations of human rights abuses.
And yet, despite the reports of police brutality, questionable detentions, and repression of free speech, the protestors remain undeterred. More people continue to join the demonstrations daily, making it one of the largest protest movements in modern history. The protesters have been on the streets for more than two months, enduring the brutal cold of winter in North India — and they have no plans to go home anytime soon.
In a sea of elderly people, one strikingly younger face is a mainstay. With her long black hair pulled into a ponytail, switching flawlessly between Hindi, Punjabi, and English, Dr. Ritu Singh can often be found standing before a camera, giving fiery interviews in support of the farmers.
“This moment has awakened so many people who were sleeping,” she tells Teen Vogue. “It has awakened those who never thought about what we are eating, and that what we have [on] our plates is because of those who work so hard in their fields each day in order to feed themselves and to feed us all.”
While proponents of the farm bills say they will modernize Indian agriculture, opponents say they are “anti-farmer” and likened them to a “death warrant.” Many farmers are concerned that the new legislation will facilitate a corporate takeover of small farms and further reduce the power of agricultural workers. About 58% of India’s 1.3 billion people rely on agriculture as their primary source of income, and farmers comprise a substantial voter block in India, making farming a central political issue in the world’s largest democracy.
The farmers protest has garnered support internationally, from global figures like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, and locally, from Indian activists, artists, and students. “Dr. Ritu,” as she is lovingly known among the protestors, is one of the latter who is using her voice to stand up for the working class.
Dr. Ritu is a psychologist and social activist who approaches advocacy by working from the ground up: attending farmers meetings with men, speaking with women farmers about their needs, and sharing their concerns through YouTube videos and media interviews. “As an activist, my primary role is to make people aware of the negative impacts of these newly passed farm laws,” she says. “That’s why I need to be connected with the farmers.”
Dr. Ritu has been connected with farmers her entire life. Although she currently lives in New Delhi, she hails from a farming family and agrarian community in Tarn Taran Sahib, Punjab. These personal roots drew her to the farmer protests as they spread to India’s capital in November.
“I had been closely following the farmer protests in Punjab, and when I found out that they were coming to the borders of Delhi to protest the farm laws, I wanted to go be with them,” she says. “I went to the Singhu Border just to experience the moment and to stand in solidarity with them. I was so moved that I have been joining them regularly ever since.”
Dr. Ritu immediately became a notable presence at the Delhi protests. Many of the farmers are older men. She’s a young woman with advanced degrees and is unrelenting, unapologetic, and unwilling to take sh-t from anyone — especially from the government.
She attributes her outspoken activism to being raised in a feminist household. “From the beginning, my parents have always given us full freedom and full confidence. They would tell us often that it’s our responsibility to fight for our rights and raise our voices against injustice.”
Dr. Ritu was born into a faith, Sikhism, that advocates for gender equality; she was also born into a culture that is deeply patriarchal. While her family’s staunch feminism fits within Sikh worldviews and practices, it runs counter to how many in her community perceive and treat women.
When she was born, some family members lamented to her parents how disappointed they must be to have a second daughter in their home. Frustrated with the sexism and gender norms, her father pushed back: “My daughters are girls, but they are boys too.” He announced that they would carry the middle name “Singh,” a name predominantly reserved for Sikh boys and men.
“So that’s why my name is Ritu Singh Gill. My father said, ‘She’s a girl and boy also. She’s my daughter and my son.’”
Through childhood, her family insisted on excellence at school, seeing a strong education as a ticket into a better life. Even then, she had a hard time imagining a future in which she could pursue a professional degree. Very few of her peers had the means to look beyond farming, and higher education was especially uncommon for women — but young Ritu’s family insisted that they would do whatever they could to support her.
Eventually, she landed at the prestigious Delhi University. Attending school in one of the largest and most populous cities in the world was transformative. Dr. Ritu found herself challenged by the differences she encountered and inspired by the activism she saw. Here, she saw people from marginalized communities — like Dalits, Muslims, and women — fighting for their own dignity and rights, and also for the equal treatment of others. As her horizons broadened, Dr. Ritu became active in justice efforts as well.
“I started imagining a very different world, where people are fighting not just for themselves, but also for each other; fighting for their rights, freedom, space, and environment,” she says. “That shaped a very different version of me.”
Since her time at Delhi University, she has participated in countless movements and agitations aimed at making an equal society, particularly those focusing on women’s rights, women’s education, health care, and marginalized communities.
The price of being a woman activist in any patriarchal society is high; it’s even higher in India today, where right-wing extremism runs rampant. Dr. Ritu has become a scapegoat and political target for threats of Hindu nationalist violence and says threats tend to flare up when a video of her goes viral. “I get a lot of death threats, a lot of rape threats, and many other things. You just have to learn to deal with it. The BJP [nationalist political party] loves to target women, especially if that woman isn’t talking about Modi like he’s a God, and especially if she is criticizing the Modi government.”
“It happens here a lot,” she says. “People think, ‘She’ll get scared after all, she’s a woman.’ They think they can shut up a woman by frightening her, but not me. I’m a very strong-headed woman.”
She urges other young women to recognize their power in numbers and not to “think apolitically.”
“Your very life is political,” she says. “Your bodies and beings are politicized. So, come out of your comfort zone and assert your rights.”
For better or for worse, Dr. Ritu says she has become used to the threats that come with being such a public figure. Rather than discouraging her, the threats give her more fuel to continue with her activism. Dr. Ritu says she sees a similar kind of fearlessness in the woman activists she meets at the protest sites. “I have never seen any kind of insecurity or any kind of fear amongst the women,” she shares.
Their courage is especially striking given that several outspoken women in this movement have faced harsh repercussions. For instance, a young Dalit activist, Nodeep Kaur, was recently arrested in Delhi on what her family says are false charges and was denied bail. Her lawyer alleges that she has been tortured and sexually abused in police custody. Police have strongly denied the allegations. (Kaur has since been released on bail.)
Dr. Ritu speaks of a woman who inspires her, Nirdesh Singh, who has left her own young children at home to join the farmers protests. Nirdesh has opened a school for children at the Ghazipur border, just outside of New Delhi. When her daughter asks over the phone when her mother is coming home, Nirdesh replies softly: “I’ll be home soon enough. You have to understand. I’m not just your mother right now. I’m a mother for all these children whose families are seeking justice.”
Dr. Ritu spoke of Nirdesh with admiration, but she repeated multiple times that Nirdesh is just one example of all the fearless women protesting on the streets for justice. “It’s inspiring to see. More than anything else, it’s people like her who give me the courage to keep showing up and the hope to keep dreaming.”