British Punjabis rally in solidarity with Indian farmers

Many Britons of Punjabi origin say India’s new agriculture laws threaten their ancestral lands, which they fear could be swallowed by corporate interests.

Rupinder Kaur attends a socially distanced car protest in London, held amid the coronavirus pandemic, in solidarity with the Indian farmers [Courtesy Rupinder Kaur]

London, United Kingdom – As they demonstrate against new laws which could devastate their livelihoods, thousands of Indian farmers, mostly from the northern states of Haryana and Punjab, are taking to the streets to protest.

The ripples from the largest mass resistance against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are being felt in the United Kingdom, a country with significant Punjabi diaspora communities.

Many here say the laws threaten their ancestral lands, which they fear could be swallowed by corporate interests.

“Many of them still have land out there, or close family and friends who are farmers,” Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, a member of Parliament with the main opposition Labour Party, told Al Jazeera. “My parents and my grandparents were farmers in Punjab. My uncles and cousins, they are out there [in India] protesting.”

A survey by the Sikh Council UK in October found 92 percent of Sikhs in the UK have ties to agricultural land in India, and 84 percent were personally concerned about the effect of the new regulations.

Earlier this month, thousands of British Punjabis gathered outside the High Commission of India in central London, in support of the striking farmers, or “kisaan” as they are known in Punjabi.

Enraged by reports of police violence against the New Delhi protesters, 39-year-old Rupinder Kaur, from Surrey, joined the socially-distanced car demonstration with her daughter.

Kaur’s uncle and cousins, meanwhile, have joined protests in India.

“I feel like we’ve been stabbed in the heart,” Kaur told Al Jazeera.

“That’s how much we are tied to that ancestral land. If you’re a farmer, [the land] is in your blood. It passes through the generations, even if you’re not there.”

The laws passed through India’s parliament in September.

More than 420,000 people in England and Wales identify as Sikh in the UK, the majority of whom have Punjabi origins [Handout/Sikh Press Association]

Farmers say they were not consulted and claim they compromise the state-regulated “mandi”, or local market, system.

For decades, Indian farmers were assured of a Minimum Support Price (MSP) – a guaranteed rate for certain crops which could be sold at government-regulated wholesale markets.

Under the new laws, farmers can sell their produce anywhere, including to big corporate buyers. But their rights to dispute challenges in court will be restricted, a move which Indian farmers say could devastate their livelihoods while favouring corporations.

“The farmers have their own concerns,” said Dhesi, the member of Parliament. “They feel that major corporations will move in as a result of agriculture laws. My issue is that everybody should have a right to peaceful protest.”

As Indian police clash with protesters, officials have said they will not revoke the laws. They offered a compromise – to legislate minimum prices for some crops, but this was rejected by the farmers.

“The very fact that the world’s largest democracy thinks it is acceptable to attack their peaceful citizens who are protesting legislation the government have implemented without consulting them, that is a human rights issue that we should all be raising our voice about,” Kaur said.

“Anyone that doesn’t agree with the Indian government isn’t a patriot [or] a nationalist. If you’re from the Punjabi Sikh community, we’re automatically labelled as terrorists and separatists. That makes people very hesitant to speak out,” she added.

Britons rally in London in solidarity with the farmers in India [Handout/Sikh Press Association]

As families in the UK become increasingly concerned for the welfare of their relatives protesting in New Delhi, campaigners and supporters are calling on the UK government to voice its concern.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has done just that in a live Facebook discussion; Canada is also home to a sizeable Punjabi diaspora.

In Parliament, Dhesi asked UK Prime Minster Boris Johnson whether the Indian farmers had a “fundamental right to peaceful protest” after footage emerged of Indian police using water cannon, tear gas and violence against peaceful protesters.

But Johnson, a comment instantly mocked on social media, mistakenly referred to the issue as a division “between India and Pakistan”.

“Our prime minister and our government need to convey our heartfelt anxieties to our Indian counterparts,” Dhesi said.

“They need to reiterate that we’re hoping for a speedy resolution as most people would want from this current deadlock. But the farmers need to be able to engage in peaceful protest. That is a fundamental human right.”

The current wave of protests has rippled beyond New Delhi, reaching as far as the southern states of Kerala and the northeastern state of Assam.

Farmers have said they will continue to protest for at least six months, possibly longer, until the laws are repealed.

‘A repeat of that same trauma’

In 1984, anti-Sikh riots erupted across New Delhi leaving nearly 3,000 people dead, after then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

It is a wound 32-year-old activist Shamsher Singh, from Southall in west London, said has been ripped open with the new agriculture bill.

“For me, it’s a repeat of that same trauma, seeing the police beat up our elders who are protesting for their rights,” Singh, cofounder of the UK-based National Sikh Youth Federation, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s a re-articulation of the same trauma that my parents went through in the 80s, seeing Punjabi’s agitating and being met with state violence.”

Most protesters are being held in the Sikh-majority state of Punjab, India’s breadbasket.

Singh said some people in Punjab have historically viewed the government with scepticism over its agriculture policies.

In the 1960s, India’s Green Revolution saw agriculture transition to an industrial system which vastly improved crop yields.

But rapid development came at a price.

Punjab is one of the highest consumers of pesticides per hectare in the country, a factor residents have said fuelled one of the worst rates of cancer in India, earning the region the title of India’s “cancer belt”.

“Decades of unregulated pesticide use has increased cancer so to [Punjabi farmers], this protest is connected to a larger struggle,” said Singh.

Demonstrators gesture during a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near New Delhi, India, December 10, 2020 [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

Intensive mechanised farming has also caused water shortages while land withers away.

“When the Green Revolution came in place, it was massively detrimental to Punjab for a number of reasons,” Singh said.

“One was the introduction of a Westernised style of intensive mechanised farming, the availability of tractors, tube wells, and the increased use of pesticide, which pushed farmers further into debt.

“The Green Revolution also introduced mono-crop culture, as well as non-indigenous crops to Punjab,” he said.

“This was the beginning of market monopoly and privatisation, bringing in multi-national corporations which dictated what farmers were planting and what crops were profitable.”

As prices for seeds and pesticides rose and government-approved minimum prices remained low, Indian farmers turned to banks and private money lenders for loans to keep their farms afloat.

Many are spiralling in debt – caused by both crop failures and the failure to pay off the interest on loans or secure competitive prices for their produce.

And because of this, thousands have taken their own lives.

In 2019, 10,281 Indian farmers and farm labourers died by suicide according to data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau.

Earlier this year, in January, tens of thousands of Indian farmers protested against the government’s economic policies which they believed did little to support struggling farmers, after a rise in farmer suicides.

Meanwhile, there are fears that the coronavirus lockdown in India, which was enforced with little notice, could cause further harm. Strict distancing measures saw farmers suffer massive losses in the first few weeks because they were unable to sell perishable crops.

Source: Al Jazeera