Politics Staff Writer: Zaina Padda
*All information received from personal anecdotes*
Sikhs are on the Forefront, Again
Amidst COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of farmers, a large majority Sikh, are taking to the streets of Punjab and New Delhi to protest against new laws the BJP-led government instituted in India. Although protesters have been met with tear gas, water cannons, batons, and other measures of violence from government police, the farmers haven’t stopped peacefully marching.
In September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government hurriedly passed three laws to eliminate regulations surrounding the agricultural sector in India. Farmers are now being encouraged to sell directly to large companies, rather than to the government. There’s no guarantee that farmers will be able to sell at MSP (Minimum Support Prices), meaning that in the future, crucial crops could be sold for extremely low prices- sending farmers into extreme debt. Small and mid-sized rural farmers don’t have the capacity to take their produce to new places. Instead of the government procuring crops from farmers, which ensures farmers have a “buyer”, farmers now have to find someone to buy their crops. The government is attempting to give crop-purchasing power to private, corporate companies. Though there have been several meetings between protest leaders and the government, no fair conclusion has been reached.
Why is this so important? Why have protests spread beyond India to Surrey, Brampton, Vancouver, Frankfurt, Auckland, and more?
Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Punjab comprised one state that was divided on linguistic basis in 1966. 80% of this population was farming class, and majority of that population was Sikh. Pre-partition in 1947, a large majority of the population in India was farming and living in small villages; there was no industry. Punjab, (“panj”- five, “ab”- rivers) has long been India’s most fertile land, where Sikhism originated.
Although the laws affect farmers across India, it disproportionately affects farmers in Punjab, where the backbone of India’s farming lies. The BJP, a far-right Hindu nationalist group, has been attempting to undermine all minorities in India, including Sikhs, which is clearly presented through their decision to privatize the agricultural sector. After the BJP passed these laws, the farmers know these private, corporate companies will steal their land, which is their history, and their heritage. It isn’t an exaggeration to say every Indian Sikh in the world has some connection to farmers within their family.
Why have these [largely Sikh] farmers continued to fight after two and a half months?
Sikh people have continued to fight due to their cultural backgrounds. Sikhs have a fighting spirit- they’re fighting for their lives where they have the right to, in a democratic state. What began in Punjab, has spread to states across the country- Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), Rajasthan, and Madhaya Pradesh (M.P.) to name a few.
Farmers are ready to protest for the coming months- they’ve established a sense of community through “seva”, a pillar in the Sikh faith. Seva is the act of providing free hospitality to anyone who needs it. During the protests, Seva has been demonstrated through tonnes of free meals (langar), warm blankets, sweaters, laundry, automatic roti machines, you name it, and it’s available. This isn’t provided by the government, it’s from the citizens. Indian citizens have recognized the importance of these protests, rather than sticking with the government’s action to raise crop prices, they’ve come to aid the farmers.
What’s the government’s response?
The protestors have been met with physical barriers, police violence, and opposition from the BJP. Although the government has played off the barriers as protection from COVID-19 from spreading in New Delhi, they failed to use this same logic when addressing the large elections held last month. Though the government shows intention to amend certain clauses, farmers demand the laws be fully repealed and drafted again with farmer leaders’ consultation, so it is beneficial to farmers rather than corporates. The government and its sponsored media has named these protestors as separatists and terrorists, but the farmers and protestors have detached from political parties and remained united.