Fasting farmers in silent protest

New Delhi, Jan. 2: Christmas came and went and 31st night slipped into a new year, but Rajesh Gangwan hasn't had a bite the past eight days.

The 45-year-old has also been sleeping in the open at Jantar Mantar, braving Delhi's coldest spell in decades, to ensure that the protests continue peacefully.

He wants justice for the 23-year-old gang rape victim who died on December 29.

"I want the culprits to be hanged. The first day I came here, I was overwhelmed with the support that this faceless anonymous girl has generated. I couldn't help but respond. I have a daughter, she is doing a post-graduate course. I know how I would feel if something like this happened to her. I am here as a father and as a human being. I will die, but not leave," says the farmer from Bareilly.

Gangwan, whose family had no idea that he was on hunger strike at Jantar Mantar, had his last meal on December 24 when he left home to come to Delhi.

His son is studying to be an engineer and the farmer dreams big for both his kids. The only way they can be fulfilled, he says, is if he "takes a stand now". The cold doesn't matter.

The national capital experienced its coldest day in 44 years with the day temperature plummeting to 9.8 degrees Celsius. The minimum was 4.8 degrees Celsius.

Gangwan isn't the only farmer from the heartland who has stuck it out in the chill.

Babu Singh, a 40-year-old father of two from Farukhabad, has also been refusing food for the past five days.

"I will not give up my agitation. When I came here five days ago, for the first time I experienced the passion of the youth. The students were raising slogans in Bhagat Singh's and Subhas Bose's name. As the day progressed, I saw they were getting agitated. I thought what could I do? I wanted the protests to remain peaceful. I didn't want the government to shut us out because of the violence," he says.

Singh has three demands: one, fast-track courts complete the trial process within three months; two, change the law to include death penalty for rapists; and three, no provision for an appeal by the accused in a higher court once judgment is passed.

"I believe that at least in this case, the judgment should be final, with these men not getting a chance to appeal to higher courts," Singh says. "This case shouldn't be stretched more than absolutely necessary. The government can decide on releasing terrorists within hours, as in the Kandahar case, why can't they amend anti-rape laws quickly as well?"

Singh and Gangwan have the support of other protesters, who have taken turns in creating a protective ring around the two, trying their best to shield them from the freezing winds. Covered by thin blankets, the two are, however, on their own all night.

"What they are doing is a great thing. How often have you seen farmers give up their daily work and come here at the cost of their livelihood? This is what is so vibrant about these protests ' that we have people from all social strata coming together to talk in one language. All these people you see around them are people they have never met. Some are bringing water for them, some blankets. This is the spirit of the protests here," said Ramesh Sharma, who has lent his lap to Singh to use as a pillow.

No government official has come to Jantar Mantar to meet them yet.

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