For the past two weeks, Sikh Americans in at least 13 states have gathered in vehicle caravans and assembled at socially-distant rallies to protest in solidarity with a growing movement of farmers more than 7,000 miles away. Seattle has seen two such recent demonstrations — while the Seattle City Council on Dec. 14 passed a resolution in support of the issue.
What is the #FarmersProtest in India, and why does it matter here at home?
Right now, on the outskirts of India’s capital city, up to 1 million farmers are protesting three laws passed unilaterally this fall by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s federal government to deregulate agriculture. The speed with which these laws were passed — without input from farmers — point to a miscalculation that the farmers, paralyzed by the pandemic, would not organize and protest in any persistent and concerted way.
These new measures will gradually remove the minimum support price for the farmers; dismantle the government-managed markets that support village infrastructure, education and local employment; create alternative private commodity exchanges with very little government oversight; and allow huge corporations to take control of the agricultural industry at the expense of individual farmers. The farmers’ peaceful protest to protect their families’ livelihood has been met with a toxic mix of indifference, intransigence, slanderous defamation and active repression (including tear gas and water cannons in the cold of winter) by the government.
Even before the new laws and the subsequent crackdown, the situation for many of these farmers was desperate. Ecological damage from past reforms and economic stagnation has made the past several decades difficult; many have incurred huge debts with very little income for the crops they produce, and farmer suicides in India are at a horrific rate, as documented by international aid organizations. These new laws, then, have pushed these essential workers to the breaking point — leading to the demonstrations, and work and hunger strikes in solidarity from millions of other Indian citizens.
The issue is of profound importance to the Sikh American community, because for many of us, farming is our history. The Sikh faith arose in Punjab, now a state in India that produces much of the country’s agricultural output. The earliest Sikh immigrants to the United States came to the West Coast specifically to make a living by growing food. Many of us have family and friends still in Punjab, who are now leading on the front lines of this movement.
So why should others care? Many Americans enjoy agricultural imports from India — basmati rice, spices, nuts, essential oils and chai among them — and those supply chains could be interrupted by the changing laws and ongoing strikes. The legal implications of India’s laws are frightening as well: Imagine a U.S. law that would force you to sell your wares to Amazon or Wal-Mart, but then prohibit you from suing your “partner” in a court of law if you were being treated unfairly. Similar measures coming into vogue around the world could be disastrous.
The right to peacefully protest and dissent is a fundamental democratic principle that we all hold dear. Repression of the right to protest anywhere cannot be condoned. It is time for the United States to stand unequivocally with those who demonstrate peacefully against their governments, whether that happens at home or abroad. The Indian Embassy’s silence on the government’s repressive tactics in a note to the City Council about its resolution is telling.
In passing a resolution expressing solidarity with those affected by these laws and denouncing the Indian government’s undemocratic response to peaceful protest, Seattle is leading the way in standing with farmers throughout the United States and around the world. How the people who grow our food are treated — and what happens when peaceful citizens rise up in protest of unfair laws — affects us all.