Written by: Megh
Edited by: Mayako
Visual by: Kailani
A Sikh boy in an orange turban clutches a photo of a man bearing a striking resemblance to himself. His father stares empty-eyed out of the picture frame, one out of the thousands of farmer who commit suicide yearly due to increasing levels of debt and depression in Punjab. Each of the thousands of women behind him clutch their own photographs, filled with a loved one who is now lost amid agricultural crises and a raging drug epidemic. Their eyes scream with a collective pain.
The streets of New Delhi are now home to a sea of tractors, vibrantly colored turbans, and masses of protestors. Today, 250 million people are protesting in what is now predicted to be the largest protest in the world. Farmers are taking to the highways of New Delhi, India’s capital, in response to groundbreaking new agricultural legislation that they believe to be harmful. One ethnicity in particular, Punjabi Sikhs, have been at the forefront of this historical movement.
Punjab was the land of the five rivers steeped with the blood of warriors. Punjab was the breadbasket of India, the hearth of Bhangra, and the cradle of hospitality.
Now the rivers have dried up and the landscape of one of India’s most prosperous states is littered with syringes and the shells of people that once were. The baskets, tractors and ploughs lie forlornly abandoned by a farmer driven to suicide, leaving his family distraught and empty.
In 2020, farmers in Punjab and other neighboring states of India marched into New Delhi to fight what they believe is exploitative agricultural legislation proposed by India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Farmers say the government failed to consult them and Modi, previously accused of human rights violations against Muslims, now faces scrutiny for trying to suppress a peaceful farmers movement.
These three farm bills have brought to light the harsh underbelly of farmer exploitation in India. All three were passed without any consultation or majority in the Indian Parliament. This is not democratic lawmaking. The government asserts that these laws will empower farmers and liberalize trade, allowing them to sell produce outside markets and avoid “middle-men,” yet farmers remain skeptical. Their main concerns regard the unguaranteed minimum support price (MSP), which leaves prices in the hands of large corporations that have no interest in farmer wellbeing. Furthermore, the bills have no grievance redressal mechanisms and inherently cater to literate, richer, farmers, who are not in the majority, thereby exacerbating wealth gaps. Farmers are unsure of how this bill will truly play out, as several other programs to “double farmer salaries” have been left abandoned. It is evident that the bills should have been made in collaboration with farmers or at the very least, the people that represent them.
However, the current situation cannot be well explained without relevant context regarding the disenfranchisement of Sikhs throughout India’s history.
Punjab houses the largest cluster of Sikhs in the world, a religion that has historically thrived off agriculture. Agriculture is the heart of Punjabi culture, and in the 1960’s, the state blossomed into a spring of cultural innovation, dance, and song that has now diffused into mainstream culture and Bollywood. The media and Bollywood loves to portray Sikh stories, but today, Bollywood actors and actresses remain complacent to the ongoing brutalization of Sikh protestors.
Punjab has been steeped in violence and misfortune since the 1960s, when “The Green Revolution” began. During the Green Revolution, Punjab radically shifted from traditional subsistence farming into producing goods for capitalistic gain and income, causing public health crises due to over-pestidization. In 1978, certain Punjabis decided to fight for the “dignity of labor” and against the capitalist exploitation of vulnerable farmers. This led to a period of militancy, where some Sikhs began to fight for the secession of Punjab from India. To stifle this rising threat, Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, ordered her military to attack the Harminder Sahib, the holiest of Sikh shrines. Think of soldiers marching through and tearing down the Kaaba in Mecca or the Vatican City. In response to what many Sikhs saw as an act of religious violence, two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her, unleashing a wave of retaliation and genocide against the Sikhs that killed thousands in 1984. Although the Indian government asserts 3,350 people were killed, independent estimates suggest the figure to be between 8,000-17,000.
These killings left Sikhs angry and their families, including my own, destroyed and scarred. The once prosperous business of agriculture began to feel the pain of economic uncertainty. Distraught youth turned to drugs, spawning an epidemic that rages on viciously today. Punjab seems to be crying out for help, but is anyone hearing its collective pain?
For the past 15 days, I have watched television footage of farmers and elders being beaten with batons, tear gassed, and even water cannoned by Indian police. It seems harsh and heavy handed for a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.
This issue is far from over. The Indian media builds its foundations on censorship and misinformation. While farmers jump onto the paths of trains to desperately end their suffering, the TV plays clips of them eating pizza and supposedly “living lavishly.” For this reason, it is of paramount importance to stay educated and aware of this issue, as farmers truly make the world go around. Turmeric, cardamom, and cumin are spices used and loved around the world. But what if Indian farmers were appreciated and respected as much as the crops they sow? This is exactly why we need to keep our eyes and ears open. Relevant resources to donate and seek information from is Khalsa Aid, a Sikh organization flourishing across the world in efforts to fulfill their religion’s goal: selfless service. In terms of information, sikhexpo.com and their Instagram page has daily live updates from the scene.
As a Punjabi Sikh myself, I have seen the Indian government commit numerous acts of violence against my people. Upon standing up, I have been called a “terrorist,” and “anti-Indian.” I will no longer let my voice be unheard. Sikhs have been facing disenfranchisement for years silently, but it is now up to everyone to become better allies and advocate for a group of people that has been in the background of every political movement offering free lunch, support, and understanding. The world needs to rally behind Sikhs and uplift their voices for real change to occur.
“How the New Farm Bills Are Exploitative.” Hindustan Times, 29 Sept. 2020, http://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/how-the-new-farm-bills-are-exploitative/story-wIiWHtJWAvQDXrRQ3HVxAP.html.