‘Pecha’ and the music of protest
Words by Amandeep Sandhu; Illustration by Samia Singh
Welcome to Punjab: Food, Music and Resistance, a Vittles series on food imagery, themes and lyrics in Punjabi music, from boliyan to protest anthems.
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‘Pecha’ and the music of protest, by Amandeep Sandhu
ਖਿੱਚ ਲੈ ਜੱਟਾ, ਉਹ ਖਿੱਚ ਤਿਆਰੀ, ਪੇਚਾ ਪੈ ਗਿਆ ਸੈਂਟਰ ਨਾਲ...
Khich le Jutta, khich tyaari, pecha pe gya centre naal…
Pull yourself up farmer, be prepared, we are entangled with the centre…
In late 2020, farmers in north India rose up in resistance to the draconian farm bills passed by the Narendra Modi-led BJP government, whose new legislation regulated the agricultural sector and opened its floodgates to corporate control. For over a year, thousands of farmers stood steadfast on the roads leading to India’s capital – through icy winter rains that destroyed their makeshift dwellings at the site, sweltering summers when monsoon flooded their encampments, and the Covid pandemic – resulting in one of the largest and longest agrarian protests in the history of the world.
Their demand was simple: Repeal the laws. Their message was resolute: No farmers, no food.
During all this, singers from Panjab played a key role in drawing the youth to the protest. Kanwar Grewal and Harf Cheema, the singers of ‘Pecha’ – a song that has clocked in more than 15 million views on YouTube since its release – are two such examples. Lines from their song – Khich le Jutta ‘Pull yourself up, farmer’, De system de halq wich faana ‘It’s time to ensnare the system’ – could be heard on mobile phones linked to speakers as tractors lined up to march, and in no time, ‘Pecha’ became a clarion call to protest.
In Panjabi, pecha is an informal word, which, in the most direct translation, means entanglement. It is used mostly in banter – one might hear the word pecha while flying a kite on rooftops, when the twine gets entangled with other kites – Pecha pe gya! The same phrase is used by young people when they talk about falling in love – Pecha pe gya! We have become entangled!
Though pecha broadly means entanglement, there is a subtext to the word that implies a willingness to tangle with what may be oppressive, and it also encourages a spirited response to challenges. In the track ‘Pecha’, the ‘challenge’ is the new agricultural policy, and the ‘entanglement’ refers to the farmers’ issues with the central government’s regime in Delhi. ‘Pecha’ sets up the battlefield – Khet tere e khon nu firde, the song says (The government’s mission is to steal the farmers’ fields). Grewal and Cheema also invoke Panjab’s agrarian history: Khet jo tu padre kite enter naal ‘the lands you flattened with the tractor to sow them’, they sing.
‘Flattened’ land is a reference to the late-nineteenth century, when the British colonial government developed the Canal Colonies to turn Panjab into the granary of the empire. In 1947, when India won independence from the British and was partitioned into India and Pakistan, East Panjab – the Indian side – lost much of its fertile land. With the new Indian nation-state facing grave hunger and lack of foodgrain, enterprising farmers levelled the dunes in south Panjab, using tractors to grow food. But the seeds the farmers were given to plant were dwarf-variety wheat and water-guzzling genetically modified rice – products of the Green Revolution – and as India attained food sufficiency over the next few decades, these alien crops wreaked havoc upon Panjab. Eventually the land, once known for its abundance of water and agricultural produce, became desertified.
As India developed neoliberal policies that informed its economic growth, subsequent governments neglected the agrarian sector. The debt on farmers increased, leading to farmer suicides (there have been over 20,000 in Panjab in the last two decades alone). ‘Why does Delhi use Panjab as a food producing colony and nothing else?’, the singers ask. Ka to wajdi tadi di? ‘Why does Delhi clap on the deaths of farmers and their land?’ And so, Grewal and Cheema ask the farmer to rise up: Uthh kirtiya, uthh we, utthan da vela ‘Wake up, worker!’, they sing. The phrase is an invocation of Sant Ram Udasi, the revolutionary poet of rural Panjab who was writing in the 1970s. ‘Pecha’ repurposes Udasi’s sentiment and posits the farmers as workers of the nation – their protest is one for land, and the dignity of their work.
The song’s call to action addresses both farmers and intellectuals. Hik teri te laun nu firde, it notes: the government wants to uproot your sacred trees and plant them on your chests when you die. In these lines, ‘Pecha’ remembers Panjab’s calls, in the 1970s and 80s, for greater federalism and agency, which were treated as secessionist. It thinks about how earlier protests led to armed action against Punjabis and Sikhs by governments at the centre in Delhi. Like much of the music made during the recent farmers’ protests, ‘Pecha’s’ video embeds itself within the resistance. There are shots of farmers marching aboard tractors, Cheema himself driving a tractor in the caravan; Grewal singing amidst a gathering of farmers; cuts of the creased, concerned faces of elderly protesting women and men, and children carrying the farmer union flags. ‘Since the protests started, we knew it was a matter of land’, the singers said, in an interview during the protests. ‘Land is a mother to us.’
In Panjab, protest for the land-rights is not a new phenomenon. When I started researching my book on the region, the first place I landed was the village Pathrala, near Bathinda, where the farmers were protesting the whitefly infestation of their cotton crops. The life of Punjabi farmers has, for centuries, been tied to their land, and even as the protests mostly fall on the deaf ears of several regimes, it is almost a way of life in the state.
And throughout time, music and poetry have been the crux of Panjab and land struggle. In 1907, when farmers in Panjab revolted against the British government’s similarly oppressive laws, the protest was named Pagdi Sambhal Jatta, after a poem by Banke Dayal: ‘Care for your turban, your dignity, o farmer!’ As the British feared rebellion within the armed forces of the colony, they retreated. Resolute in their resistance, the farmers prevailed.
When they were released, songs like ‘Pecha’, and others like ‘Ailaan’, marked a radical shift from the kind of dancefloor, beats-dominated music Panjab is known for the world over. While much of the music made by young Panjabis in the recent past reflects rampant unemployment and deep angst – plus, often, misogynistic, feudal rage – the tone of protest songs is persuasive and inspiring.
At the very end of ‘Pecha’, Grewal and Cheema make an announcement: Aao, shabbi tareek nu, apne haqan layi milke, saare Dilli nu chaliye, they sing: ‘Come, on 26 November, let us all march to Delhi together’. In the video, the singers tear papers that symbolically represent the laws and walk on, arm in arm.
A year later, under pressure from the resilience of the farmers’ protest, the Modi government was forced to repeal the laws, and tear them up as well – consigning them to history.
Amandeep Sandhu is the author of PANJAB Journeys Through Fault Lines
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.