Home News Californian Sikhs turn state gaze on Indian farmers' protests

Californian Sikhs turn state gaze on Indian farmers’ protests

California’s Sikh and Punjabi communities have not forgotten their roots. 

Thousands rallied across the state in support of farmers in India who are fighting fascism to preserve their livelihood. 

Allies from the Golden State teamed up to form the California Kisaan Majdoor Ekta Rally that made its mark in December. Jeeps, trucks, and even the odd tractor powered through California’s famed highways. The movement indicated international support for the Indian people’s struggle against the oppressive practices of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose frontman is Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

What are the farmers protesting?

The Modi government aims to implement farm laws that work in favor of the private sector rather than the farmer themselves. Working as a trio, the new laws eliminate the minimum support price on crops sold in wholesale markets. They also allow produce to be sold widely and to large corporations.

If the laws are enforced, farmers fear that these corporations will ultimately hold all the cards. They could prevent farmers from getting an assured base price on their crops. Since November 2020, farmers from all parts of India, especially from Punjab (viewed as the country’s breadbasket), gathered in New Delhi to form the largest demonstration in recorded history. Their grit in terms of braving police violence, the biting cold, and the pandemic–underscored by the efforts of women and the elderly–became emblematic of the unified power of the working class.

In January, the Indian government offered to pause the passing of the laws for 18 months. But the umbrella farmers’ union called the Samyukta Kisan Morcha are now fighting for its complete removal. The vociferous nature of the protests caused global eyes to fall on them, mounting further pressure on the BJP.

Strength in unity

California’s Sikh population does not plan to slow down. A robust reason for this is the Jakara Movement, a Fresno-based Sikh youth group with chapters across the state. They helmed the December rallies and more await in the pipeline. 

“The BJP’s strategy is to limit this to a Punjab or a Sikh issue. But this is a rural issue that touches upon the future of South Asia because so much of its identity is tied to the rural,” informed Naindeep Singh, Jakara’s executive director.

Women at Jakara’s car rally (Photo credit: Jakara’s official website)

Misinformation ruled numerous television news outlets and social media accounts over the course of Indian Republic Day on January 26. New Delhi witnesses a grand celebratory parade every year. But this time, farmers stole the official thunder with a tractor parade of their own. False news spread like wildfire when many media channels reported that some farmers took down the Indian flag on the Red Fort and hoisted the flag of Khalistan. Khalistan is the name of the hypothetical sovereign state (independent of India) that Sikh separatists are fighting for. 

But, upon fact-checking, neither of these claims were true. The tricolor was neither replaced nor did the protestors install the Khalistan flag. In actuality, they raised the Sikh religious flag called the Nishan Sahib. “The hoisting of the Sikh flag means that the people of the nation want to assert their identity as well,” writer Amandeep Sandhu told The Wire. He continued: “They want to be counted. They want the rulers of the nation to not take them for granted.”

A paramilitary policeman swinging his baton at an elderly Sikh man. Photo credit: Ravi Choudhary for the Press Trust of India (PTI).

Jakara’s Naindeep Singh even mentioned camaraderie from other Indian communities. “When there was a big fear of state-sponsored violence against the farmers, it was the Kisan Union leaders from Uttar Pradesh who asked people from their state, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh to come help. I think that pacified what would have been the worst instincts of the Modi-led government,” he said.

The BJP campaigned on religious extremism to secure back-to-back victories in the Indian general election. They sharpened hypernationalism using a rogue brand of Hinduism called Hindutva, subsequently painting Muslims as enemies. Large swathes of middle-class Indians and upper-caste Hindus pledged allegiance to Modi’s government. In fact, Indian Americans are a major pool of support for India’s right-wing powers. Organizations like the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) and NRI4NaMo.org act as examples of the party’s strong skills in foreign mobilization. 

Fighting against the brutality inflicted on Indian farmers isn’t Jakara’s first brush with Hindutva sentiments. “We know that Mr. Modi has had a powerful influence over affluent segments of the Indian American diaspora since he oversaw the pogrom [the organized massacre of a particular ethnic group] against Muslims in 2002,” said Singh. “This is not something new that we’ve seen only once he came to national prominence. It’s an older story,” he went on.

Naindeep Singh of the Jakara Movement (Photo credit: Jakara’s official website)

In 2005, the group found themselves working with other minority communities to curb the influence of Hindutva in California’s school textbooks. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is the BJP’s parent party. Their presence permeated the U.S. through a nonprofit outfit called the Hindu American Foundation (HAF). The RSS-backed HAF launched a mission to present Hindu mythology as an absolute fact through California’s school literature. It caused alarm bells to ring on a global scale because the BJP had already successfully transformed the school curriculum in an Indian state like Rajasthan to reflect the RSS’s vision.

“We had to unite with Dalit-led, Muslim-led, and progressive Hindu organizations. We also had friends in Asian-American Pacific Islanders, Latinx, Jewish, and African-American groups who rejected the Hindutva mythology that they [HAF] sought to creep into our school books,” Singh mentioned. The combined effort proved to be successful in blocking HAF’s motives for now.

Why should Americans care?

History is cyclical and it knows no geographical bounds. Farmer oppression took place closer home in Mexico in the 1990s. In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton introduced the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in a bid to make the United States, Canada, and Mexico (an emerging market) more globally-attractive for trade purposes. Even though trade between the U.S. and Mexico tripled, the benefits were disproportionate. NAFTA was introduced when Mexico was in the throes of a recession. It resulted in the loss of almost two million jobs because of liberalized trade and competition from the highly subsidized American agricultural industry. In Mexico, the gap between the rich and the poor widened and stubbornly stayed put for years to come.

Moreover, Hindu right-wing power leeched into American politics as seen in the latest presidential election. Indian American BJP-sympathizers were quick to support leaders like Tulsi Gabbard (who is not of Indian descent but practices Hinduism) in the hopes that she would further India’s cause in Congress. Gabbard publicly cut ties with the Indian right-wing, but reports evidenced her private connections with them. 

Hindutva raised its head even on the local front. Democratic candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni faced the ire of the Emgage Political Action Committee when they refused to endorse him in the race for Texas’s 22nd Congressional District. The RSS allegedly backed Kulkarni’s campaign, which caused his downfall in this regard. Last year, on Indian Independence Day, the San Francisco consulate hosted a demonstration organized by the RSS that supported Modi’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act.

Another reason to care? This is a human rights issue centered around the backbone of India. People cannot be fed without the efforts of farmers, be it in India or outside. “We completely support the farmers and even pray for them every day in our gurudwara [the Sikh temple of worship],” said Sarbjeet Singh, a priest and tabla player at the Hollywood Sikh Gurudwara in Los Angeles. “We are alive because of their work,” said the Amritsar-native. “Whatever they’re doing is right. Nothing will belong to them if the farm laws pass,” added Mohan Singh of Guru Ram Das Ashram, which is also based in LA.

Some of California’s non-Indians think so too. One such person is Dolores Huerta, the American labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with Cesar Chavez. Her organization, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, vocalized how “serious threats of use of force by the Indian government are increasing.” In fact, several photographs and accounts of the Indian police attacking farmers went viral on social media. 

Naindeep Singh and Jakara hope that these campaigns to raise awareness and support cause global leaders to call out against Modi and his party. “There is a rising understanding of global wealth and inequality. If the common people were to imagine another type of world, then we must stand together to fight these neoliberal reforms and fascism. In Mr. Modi, we see the combination of both these elements,” he said. As they buckle down to gain support from local Californian governments, the people’s struggle in India faced hurdle after hurdle.

Along with regular internet shutdowns (the most prominent instance occurred in Kashmir during the abrogation of 2019), on February 1, the Indian Center requested Twitter to suspend hundreds of accounts. A noticeable pattern emerged: all these accounts had criticized the government in support of the farmers. Some profiles included that of the Kisaan Ekta Morcha and The Caravan, an investigative magazine that consistently held the Modi government accountable for their actions.

“At 3:10 PM, Twitter Legal sent us an email saying that Twitter received a ‘legal removal demand’ that claims our account ‘violates the law(s) of India.’ It said that Twitter is in communication with the authorities who issued this demand,” announced The Caravan’s Instagram page in a series of stories.

It goes on: “This notification leaves unanswered questions. Twitter policies state that when the company receives a request to withhold an account, it has to notify the account in question. Additionally, the account has been withheld in many countries–not just India–even as it continues to be available in some parts of the world.”

The move caused Twitter to come under fire as many saw it as the muffling of the free press. Hours later, the social media giant reinstated the newsroom’s account.

Now, Naindeep Singh and Jakara also consider President Joseph Biden a possible ally. When asked of their expectations, Singh mentioned: “At this point, we are cautiously hopeful that the Biden administration will hold Modi and his fascist RSS/BJP regime to account.” He went on, “We hope that they and most importantly communities across the world force the regime to respect the dignity and human rights of all communities – be they farmers (kisaans) or farmworkers (mazdoors), Sikhs or Muslims, Kashmiris or Assamese, Dalit or Adivasi, and especially those that toil the land and serve in informal sectors.”

Bulbul Rajagopal
Bulbul Rajagopalhttps://bulbulrajagopal.contently.com/
Bulbul Rajagopal is a data and investigative reporter with a special interest in minority issues, soccer, and politics. Her extensive coverage in India and Los Angeles rewarded her with an affinity for crime reporting. During her downtime, Bulbul enjoys exploring her passion for food and its cultural impact amongst other things.
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