Sikhs Share How the Farming Bill Protests in India Have a Religious Component

On 28 December, Bitter Winter released a compelling transcript of an interview between Thierry Valle, President of the Coordination of Associations and Individuals for Freedom of Conscience (CAP), and a Sikh activist by the name of Premi Singh. The topic up for discussion was the Indian Farms Reforms of 2020, a set of agricultural bills which, according to the Indian government, aimed to allow farmers to engage in the competitive market as well as enter contracts. Singh, however, explains that the implementation of these bills can have much more detrimental effects than positive:

“This is to throw the small farmers to the ‘market’ (a word hiding a deliberately created monopoly by large Hindu-owned corporations), and remove all protections as well as the small subsidies that enable these small farmers to survive. The majority of them are already under debts, and the new bills are pushing them further towards bankruptcy. This may result in them losing their lands, homes, and all livelihoods. These will later be purchased by the aforementioned large corporations, some of them owned by far-right Hindu nationalists, either by forced purchases or through opportunistic land grabbing. This is a process that is designed by India’s central government to gain control of historical Panjab land and territories, and achieve political control over Panjab. I see it as a systematic process to wipe out Panjam and its Sikh identity, pushing Sikh farmers to migrate to other countries.

Singh goes on to explain that these bills, in reality, endanger farmers rather than protect them. For example, one of the main obstacles faced by small farmers in India is that the existence of monopolies forces smaller businesses to dramatically decrease their prices in order to remain competitive. These laws do not offer farmers a “any assurances of a minimum purchased price (MSP) for individual crops”, which are the main safeguard of a feasible profit for Indian farmers.

That these new laws are problematic is not a new concept. Both within and outside of India, notable leaders have condemned the bills and their disastrous potential. Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, despite threats from the Indian government of erased trade deals, has steadfastly condemned the government’s actions and offered his own support to the Punjabi people, stating “Canada will always be there to defend the right to peaceful protest.” And as these protests have become increasingly treacherous, more influential people have spoken out. Labor MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi said what everyone was thinking: “It takes a special kind of people to feed those ordered to beat and suppress them. I stand withthe farmers of the #Punjab.” See below some more public outcry:

Mr. Singh is an Indian-Canadian politician and elected member to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario
Mrs. Dhillon is an American lawyer and Republican Party official

During the interview, Singh outlines how the protests broke out and what led to its escalation. Back in September, farmers were initially horrified to see that the bills were expedited through the Indian government and ratified without having every reached a stage of dialogue and discussion with the farmers themselves. In November, as Punjabi farmers began to organize and participate in peaceful protests, they were met with clouds of tear gas, assault with batons, and even missiles. At one point, Prime Minister Modi himself blocked all food and water supplies to the protests, sparking even greater outrage.

In a nation where radical Hindu nationalism prevails and where all discussion of democracy and human rights violations is silenced, the government sees the peaceful Sikhs – religious minorities and human rights activists alike – as a threat. As early as Indian independence in 1947, Sikh identity was rejected by the Indian constitution, which classified Sikhs as Hindus, and by the Hindu marriage act under which all Sikhs are required to register their marriages. Singh concludes that the 2020 farming bills – notably their level of oppression, the violent suppression of protests, and the targeting of farming as a crucial element of Sikh tradition – are just another step towards Sikh identity denial and erasure:

“History suggests that, if you take away the richness and purity of Sikh faith, its strong cultural and traditional ties, and its values from the younger generation, and specially the mother tongue (Panjabi), the coming generation will cripple itself. This is exactly what is happening to Sikhs in India. A slow, systematic political dilution and wipeout of their existence, and of Panjab as a free democratic state.

“It is crucial for the world to understand that Sikhs are only asking for their human rights, farming rights, freedom to use their mother tongue, and share their culture with the world.”

Cover image by Raj Singh on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)