2nd December 2020   •   article
Why Panjabis around the world are fired up about farmers protests in India

by Barfi Culture Team | @barfi_culture.
As tens of thousands of farmers in Panjab clashed with Indian police last week, they found a key ally to amplify their voices: the western Panjabi diaspora.

When images and videos of elderly Panjabis being attacked by batons and water cannons started reaching them on social media, the reaction was swift. Everyone from presenter Lilly Singh and poet Rupi Kaur to Bhangra artist Jazzy B and cricketer Monty Singh have been tweeting, sharing and calling on everyone to support the farmers.

"We are witnessing a major moment of agitation and protest. Like those we could only read about in the past. And we are witnessing it as it happens," says Jaskaran Singh Sandhu, former executive-director at the World Sikh Organization in Canada.

But it's more than just revolutionary fervour that has got the diaspora involved.

"It's also our family and friends out there, people we care for deeply at a personal level. We worry for them, are inspired by them, and advocate for them," he adds.

Why are protests taking place?

The Indian government says their aim is to help farmers by reforming the agricultural sector. The bill would 'cut out the middleman' ('mandis') by allowing farmers to sell directly to corporations, and would bring in more corporate investment.

But farmers say the impact would be devastating. The vast majority of farmers in Panjab and neighbouring state Haryana are small landowners, and rely on the MSP (minimum support price) to survive. The new bill does away with that system and puts farmers at the mercy of big corporations, who could drive the 'mandis' out of business by undercutting them one year, and set their own prices next year. It would put already indebted farmers at the mercy of large corporations. Even the EU doesn't do that.

The reforms would also allow companies to hoard grains, which they aren't currently allowed to do. Allowing big companies to create large stockpiles would also make it easier for them to artificially control prices and drive small farmers out of business, forcing them to sell their land.

The diaspora gets involved

The strong familial and cultural links among Panjabis across the world has made the farmers protest now a global issue.

The Canadian Panjabi diaspora, perhaps the most influential and politically powerful, were quick to raise the issue on social media and in their national politics.

Last week several Canadian MPs condemned the Indian government's extreme response. That anger is now gathering pace. More Canadian MPs have been speaking out and yesterday, Justin Trudeau raised the stakes by wading in too.

British MPs have also joined in. Several are writing to the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to raise their concerns over the heavy-handed approach of the authorities.

The rallying cry for Panjabi farmers isn't being felt just in the corridors of power in London and Ottowa.

Even ordinary Sikhs are trying to find ways to speak up. Jagjit Singh, an educator at the Khalsa Foundation, says the protests inspired him to do a video aimed at middle class Indians.

"I feel our elderly Punjabi farmer should not be sleeping in the streets in winter days during covid crisis. The Indian media is demonising them because it’s owned by the oligarchs."

The farmer protests are most noticeable from Panjab, given it's known as the breadbasket of India, but they have had support from farmers across the country.

Panjabi farmers already have the highest suicide rates in the country, mostly because of falling or stagnant prices and indebtness. The MSP has not stayed level with inflation, slowly eroding the income of farmers over decades.

The Panjabi diaspora has raised the international profile of the protests, but these may still be early days. Most farmers are planning to protest for the medium term - this may be their final stand.
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Barfi Culture is a news-magazine on people of South Asian heritage living in Europe and North America. We don't cover South Asia directly.
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