Taming the Snake in The Sarson: Punjab’s Protesting Farmers and their Global Community of Support

By Ashveer Pal Singh


*Content Warning - mentions of suicide*

“I urge all my agitating farmer companions that today is the holy day of Guru Purab and therefore you should return to your homes, fields and to your families. Let's make a fresh start. Let's move forward with a fresh beginning.”

In a speech on November 19th, Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologized with folded hands for the ‘3 black laws’ and announced their repeal. Whilst defending his government’s “good intention” to improve the condition of farmers, he admitted that there “must have been some deficiency in our penance that we could not explain the truth like the light of the lamp to the farmer brothers.” This apology was directed at the protest movement that has, at its center, a de facto village on the border of Delhi. The news circulated with the speed of hot gossip in a pind.

Many stakeholders have been watching this struggle: the citizens of India, the diaspora, global agricultural capital, the World Trade Organization, transnational media, and the UN, to name a few. We’ve witnessed one year and four months of some of the biggest protests - and labour movement - of not just India but the world, with over 250 million out on the streets. And one of the primary driving forces of this international solidarity was India’s Punjabi community.

But, whilst we can celebrate this historic victory, the snake in the sarson remains. What will be done for the families of those who died protesting? And how will the government proceed in its policies towards the agricultural sector in light of recent events?

Let’s Recap

First, let’s remind ourselves of what was at stake. The laws ushered in deregulation of the farmers market, allowing for the sale directly to private parties such as agricultural businesses, supermarket chains and online grocers. Whilst the government argued this would “unshackle farmers” and bring better prices, many were worried about the removal of the protections offered by government-controlled farmers markets. The security of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and the annual procurement of wheat by the government were hanging in the balance.

Taking the agricultural business in an increasingly neoliberal direction would inevitably put profit over people - that is, the profit for the private players involved and leaving farmers with less take-home income, more debt, and open to exploitation.

Not only were farmer’s livelihoods endangered, but also that of allied agricultural families, including local landless labourers and migrant workers who make the journey from UP and Bihar to Punjab and Haryana. And it was bigger than individuals. We saw how the democratic right to dissent was threatened as tear gas, barbed wire, water cannons, roads dug up, and concrete blocks were all thrown in the path of protesters to prevent movement to Delhi back in November 2020. This was alongside the stifling of media dissent and coverage of the protests. The seams of the fabric of India were unravelling. Just as the policies regarding COVID-19 have shown, the government’s priorities have moved further away from the basic rights, needs and welfare of the people. The laws proposed to farmers, one of the backbone communities of the nation, was no exception to this.

The Hidden Cost

Watching how people have come together globally, but more so how the farmer’s of India never backed down, was a historic feat and one that will go on to influence the agricultural landscape and Indian political affairs for years to come. But there are many hidden costs. The biggest? The human cost. The plight of farmers isn’t something that just sprung up all of a sudden because of these laws but has been an ongoing issue as India as a whole has gone further down the dangerous path that it's on. In 2020, there were suicides of 10,677 persons in the farming sector, that’s up 18% from 2019. And some of those were during the protests because of the immeasurable toll of having your livelihood threatened to this extent on top of the existing debt that many farmers have. On November 10th, 45-year old Gurpreet Singh was found hanging in Sindhu, with no note but the word zimmedar (responsible) engraved on his left hand. Just over a week before the laws were repealed, it’s a painful reminder of how deeply these policies affect people’s lives.

And his death is not in isolation. Singh was the ninth farmer to die by suicide, according to data compiled by Samyukt Kisan Morcha (United Farmers Front or SKM), which also says nearly 700 farmers have died in the yearlong protest as they weathered the bone-chilling cold, record rains, smog and heat. Modi’s government argues there is no record of the farmers’ deaths, but the SKM has demanded compensation for the families who are survived by their loved one’s debt and burdens. Another claim by the government is that mostly “big farmers” were behind the farmers’ protest, but a study by Punjabi University, Patiala found that almost all the farmers who died during the movement were either landless or small farmers who owned less than 3 acres (1.2 hectares) of land.

The Global Punjabi Community

As all this was happening, there have been numerous deadlocks as farmer’s unions and government talks have broken down and failed to reach an agreement. Farmer’s particularly from the “grain bowl states” - Punjab, Haryana and UP - were a continual physical barricade on the frontlines. For Sikhs especially, defending one’s labour is a tenet of integrity, and this is weaved into the Punjab agriculture and the protests against its corporatisation. But as we shouted “Delhi Challo” and gave out money to help organizations like Khalsa Aid, support came strongly from all over the world.

There were numerous protests, lots of social media noise, and solidarity across the globe as Punjabi and diaspora communities looked at what was happening. On December 7th 2020, protesters gathered around the Indian embassy in London and marched around Trafalgar Square. Three hundred Sikhs and other Indians took part in a rally in Melbourne also in December. It became almost a new kind of transnational Punjabi community that was born out of communal kin, a rejection of state policy, and a new politics of solidarity. Punjabis have been on the move from India since the late 1880s, settling around the world. But we carried caste, patriarchy, and racism, too. The more contemporary diaspora was sutured together in the collective violence of the Indian state, in 1984 and the period of militancy in Punjab. The common cause on the global stage seemed to be the Khalistan movement, that bogeyman that the Indian state conjures up any time they want to silence the Sikhs.

We even got a battle of the hashtags on Twitter after Rihanna tweeted about the #FarmersProtest, and the Indian government retaliated with #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda. The fact that this even happened speaks to something wider - social media has more of an impact on governance than it ever has before, and this has rapidly changed just in the last decade. When a state clamps down on its domestic media, which we know to be the case in India throughout the last few years, social media is a forum where videos and photos slip through the cracks of the government’s watchful eye. The ability for live footage to circulate at rapid speed is part of the rallying cry and probably one of the most effective ways of mobilising international support and appealing to the hearts and minds of communities worldwide. But it also means that the nature of propaganda itself has evolved, and governments can use social media as a tool in their arsenal just as much as we can (I mean, they even made up their own hashtags for the occasion).

Going Forward

Nevertheless, this new Punjabi diaspora is linked by a politics of solidarity around the farmer's movement. Caste seemed to melt away, as Punjabis whose communities have no relationship to agriculture joined hands electronically on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, alerting their followers of the potential obliteration our families in Punjab were facing. The moment today is unprecedented. Punjabis today are not marked by our violent past with the state, but as a community that is struggling against the state for our rights, as we refuse to be living at the feet of global capital.

A new green revolution is needed with the support of the state with the farmer at the core. We will fight for the MSP, but India has procured so much wheat at the MSP that much of it can go to waste. Consumption patterns are changing, and a regime built to eliminate hunger 50 years ago should not have the same basic structure today. It's important that the government invests in agricultural research and development to avoid such problems, putting the farmer's interests and food security at its centre. The community that was built up and carried each other forward during the protests will, we hope, remain strong in the ongoing political battle to ensure the farmers’ protections aren’t eroded anymore.

And let’s not forget, the repeal of the laws comes at a time when elections in North India are around the corner. Farming communities and their supporters might take solace in this move. By announcing the repeal on Guru Nanak's Prakash Utsav, Modi attempted to manipulate the celebration of a man whose image hangs in every Punjabi home. But worse is the administration's track record. Bhima Koregaon. The CAA protests. Lakhimpur Kheri. Gujarat 2002. These are all state-sponsored acts of violence that the Prime Minister’s regime has watched happen, or participated in. It’s a fear that the man who was looking at the farmer’s pleading for forgiveness, might have been thinking to himself: the game has just begun.

 

The opinions expressed in our published works are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions of The Lipstick Politico (referred to as TLP) or its Editors.


About the Author

Ashveer Pal Singh is a PhD candidate in the Department of anthropology at Stanford University and a User Experience Researcher at Facebook. His thesis research examines bureaucracy, e-governance, and political culture in Punjab. He has a passion for translating insights gained from qualitative research into action. Most recently, he was deputed as a consultant to the Punjab Government by an Indian think tank on a project to increase citizen's access to government services through tech. He holds degrees from UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago and can be found reading the Chandigarh Tribune in his free time.


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