Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi announced the repeal of the three farming laws that had been the source of peaceful protests for the last year. These protests were led by farmers, at the forefront of which was the Sikh community who have deep-roots in the agricultural industry.
The Farmers Protest started in August 2020 as a result of the three new farming acts introduced into the Central Indian Government. These acts allowed the removal of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) that the farmers received if their crops couldn’t be sold, and allowed the industry to open up to privatisation and in turn exploitation. Moreover, these acts explicitly took away the right for a citizen to file a suit, seek prosecution or choose to move forward with legal proceedings against the Government, thus leaving many vulnerable and defenceless.
These farming bills were masked as economic boosters and paraded for their practicality, yet they were designed to subdue and exert control over farmers, a group that makes up 58% of the country's population. At the heart of them, they were created to oppress the already oppressed.
The bond between a farmer and their land is unmeasured. I witnessed this first-hand through my grandfather, my Nana, who like many other Punjabi men, is a farmer. I remember vividly recalling the pride my grandfather used to have each time we went to India. He’d take us on his little scooter to see our fields. He’d stand there with such quiet pride, beaming a smile that had a few teeth missing whilst looking over the fields with his kind eyes, saying “putt eh haadi zameen ah” (kid, this is our land). Gazing into the fields, while I simply saw a field, he saw before him stability and insurance for his children’s future, his grandchildren’s and his people’s.
However, as much as he loved his land, that love was never reciprocated. The hard work and long hours never properly compensated, receiving pennies for the blood, sweat and tears he poured into it. Yet he got up every morning and went back to the fields.
The farmer’s protests were led by people like my Nana. Elderly men and women, whose faces scarred from the years of hard labour, were bearing the burden of fighting a dehumanising system. A system that chose to retaliate to peaceful protests through water cannoning, tear-gassing and brutal beatings. A system that left 686 dead. Some at the hands of our hate-filled ministers spurring violence. Others from suicide due to the despair and desperation that surrounded them.
A paramilitary policeman swinging his baton at an elderly Sikh man. Source: BBC News
The Loss From 10,522km Away
To put it plainly, for many people like me, who were able to sit thousands of miles away and live their life whilst, watching this brutality unfold and seeing photos of people dripping with blood, there was harrowing pain at not being able to help - to just sit back and continue to let this happen.
Man with a smile on his face despite sustaining a head injury during the protest. Source: Indian Express
All we could do was try to spread the word about the issue through social media and rallies. Chanting “No Farmers, No Food” and “Kisaan Ekta Majdoor, Zindabad'' (Long Live Unity Amongst Farmers), through the streets of cities like Vancouver, New York and Sydney, in crowds of hundreds, was empowering. Yet the thought that the thing bonding us was the shared pain of our people, never escaped any of our minds.
Protesters holding up signs reading "No Farmers No Food" and "I Support Farmers" in Toronto, Canada. Source: CBA News
This continued for 471 days. Each day brought news of another death, another protester jailed and another day in limbo. It was heartbreaking, only being able to witness through a screen, an ocean and a pandemic between us that halted us from being able to be by the side of our people.
Then on the 18th of November 2021, the laws were repealed.
I always thought that I would be elated to hear the news of this victory but instead, it was a confusing experience. Why was I feeling this sense of unease running through me? As I started receiving calls from family and friends, congratulating each other on the victory that was announced the day before Gurpurab, one of the holiest days in Sikhism, it dawned on me. It was a calculated political manoeuvre. A means of creating good grace with a community they had labelled as Khalistanis, as “terrorists” for the past year. All for the sake of being re-elected.
Protesters in India holding up "We Are Farmers Not A Terrorist" sign. Source: The Star
Then the anger set in. These protests had been purposely dragged on. The torture and loss of life that was preventable, was instead maintained so we could be political pawns in their game of chess. If they wanted, this could’ve ended in August last year, before it descended into bloodshed and chaos.
For years these farmers had been buckling under the debts and bankruptcies, living off lower than the Indian Average Salary in abject poverty, and then having to fight because ultimately it was a “do or die situation”. They weren't even spared the mercy of the baton during this, that would beat them mercilessly and then accept the food they would offer.
This “gift” doesn’t guarantee better conditions in an already over-exploited industry. This victory does not promise us that many farmers who were already buckling under the weight of their “zamane gane pai” (land being mortgaged) will be able to survive. It does not promise us the 10,000 plus lives that are lost each year to suicide in the farming sector due to the debt of this gruelling work. It does not promise us any changes from an already horrible present. It simply removes the reality of an even worse future.
Elderly Punjabi farmer hit by tear gas canister fired by police. Source: Ravinder Singh
Whilst we are left to pick up the pieces after everything, to cremate those that passed in this fight, to celebrate this repeal, we know it is a long road before there is systemic change. We know it’s a long road before we are compensated for our work. We know it’s a long road before the government starts taking our livelihood seriously. Like Vir Das, “I come from an India that will not shut up, and yet I come from an India that will not speak up” and in this case the silence is deafening.
Arshdeep Cheema is a Policy Officer, Public Speaker and Activist.