If you have been on Instagram in the last five months, it is likely that you would have seen Indian Australian youths posting about farmers in India under headings such as ‘Farm Bills’, ‘Farmers’ Protest’ and ‘Farmers’ Movement’, or using hashtags such as #IStandWithFarmers and #KisaanMajdoorEktaZindabaad.
From content creation including poems and music videos, to sharing links, infographics, and personal views, youth around the world have created awareness as well as demonstrated and utilised the power of social media to shed light on issues from across the world.
The power of social media has allowed young people to create a ripple that stretches across the globe on this topic of the Indian Farmers’ Movement. From Australia to the UK, USA, and Canada, the consistent sharing of updates has created so much awareness that international celebrities and activists such as Rihanna, and Greta Thunberg have taken note and joined the dialogue.
The social media wave is shining a spotlight on the Indian Government for mainly two reasons. Firstly, the Farm Bills themselves and the way in which they were enacted are a point for discussion. Secondly, there is much criticism about subsequent treatment of Indian citizens who have tried to exercise their democratic right by peacefully protesting the Bills on the streets of India’s capital, Delhi.
The bills – what they are, and what they mean for farmers
The ‘Farm Bills’ are three Bills that were passed in September 2020 by the Indian Government: the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill 2020, the Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill 2020. The aim of these Bills are to ‘deregulate farming’ by facilitating direct relationships’ between farmers and corporations.
The Indian Government has touted these Bills as ‘transformative’ for Indian agriculture through opening doors to private investment and wider trade opportunities, as well as free will to negotiate pricing. However the reality is that the effects are far from prosperous for farmers. The removal of minimum support pricing, which essentially guaranteed pricing for farmers and afforded them a minimum wage, allows corporations to set their own low prices for products. This limits farmers’ bargaining power against large corporations, who will be able to buy crops with no minimum price to pay. Additionally, allowing the trade of farm goods outside the ‘mandi’ or market means that small farmers will sell even less, due to the lack of ability to travel to sell.
Farmland comprises about 60% of India’s land mass, where India is the world’s largest producer of food staples including milk, ginger, and bananas. The country is also the second largest producer of wheat and rice. 70% of rural households are completely dependent on agriculture as their primary source of income, with a further 82% of farmers categorised as ‘small’ or ‘marginal.’ However, when these Farm Bills were enacted in 2020, they were passed in the midst of a nationwide strict COVID-19 lockdown in India. This occurred without union consultation, without being voted on, and without acknowledgement of the opposition party’s request of deliberations in the parliamentary committee. The Bills have been dubbed as having been passed undemocratically, with fingers being pointed at the Indian Government.
Since mid-November 2020, farmers from across India, but predominantly from the states of Punjab and Haryana, have travelled to Delhi in protest of the Farm Bills. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of peaceful protestors have marched to New Delhi (see the #DelhiChalo hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube) on an agreed route to exercise their democratic right of free speech. Protestors have been met by the use of barricades, tear gas, and batons. Police and supporters of the bills have been violently assaulting protestors, destroying makeshift living areas and halting essential services including water. Images and videos of the brutality against protestors have been shared across social media causing the enforcement of a regional internet shutdown on 26 January 2021 by local government to create a social media blackout and limit the dispersal of news from the protests, reportedly impacting 50 million subscribers. Indian police have also unlawfully arrested and detained peaceful protestors, activists and journalists, as well as their family members.
Visible on social media include the stories of Nodeep Kaur, and Disha Ravi. Kaur is a 24-year-old labour rights activist and union worker who was arrested on 12 January 2021. She was detained for over six weeks and was allegedly sexually and physically assaulted while in police custody. Ravi is a 21-year-old climate activist who made minor edits to a Greta Thunberg ‘clicktivist toolkit’ (a Google Doc with information about the protests including hashtags, suggested actions and contacts) in support of farmers. Delhi Police arrested Ravi and thanked Google for helping with their investigation. It is said that over the last few months, almost 250 farmers have died during the protests at the Delhi border. While some died of health issues or accidents while travelling to or from the protests, others have died by suicide. It is reported that one farmer had died during clashes with police on India’s Republic Day protests (26 January 2021).
While traditional Indian media has limited protest coverage, social media has been the primary source of information dissemination across the world.
Youth in Australia
Over the course of the protests, youth across the world have, via social media, witnessed an attack against the fundamental principles of democracy itself. From an ‘Indian’ issue, it suddenly became a global, human rights issue.
Harnessing the power of social media, young Indians across the world have shared information and created awareness about the injustices happening in India. A loud voice amongst these youth, is the voice of the Indian Australian population. From organising rallies to reaching out to media platforms and politicians and organising fundraisers, passionate youth in Australia have taken the plight beyond social media. They have spread awareness so that major news channels such as 7News and media platforms such as Betoota Advocate have taken notice.
Jasbinder Minhas, a 27 year old policy professional, found out about the movement through social media. Her first instinct was to put her profile on public and “share, share, share!”. “No platform is too small to make a difference. I feel that it is my responsibility, not only as a free-thinking individual, but as someone whose ancestors lived, worked, and sacrificed for their land, to speak up for it and its people,” she said.
Not satisfied with the Australian Government’s silence on the issue, Jasbinder contacted her local State and Federal MPs and emailed every “relevant Senator or MP” that she could find. “Out of 16 emails to politicians, and 12 emails to various media groups, I received 2 replies.” But Jasbinder said that those 2 replies were enough to sustain her. “They were acknowledgements of the importance of people’s rights to express their views through peaceful assembly, globally,” she said.
In the spirit of peaceful assembly, Jasbinder attended an official peaceful protest held in Sydney’s Martin Place, outside the Channel 7 building on 11 December 2020. The protest was supported by representatives of global NGO, Khalsa Aid. Khalsa Aid has been nominated for a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for their humanitarian work across the world, including for the Farmers’ Protests, relief work in Syria, and the 2015 UK floods. “The protest was hugely successful, and resulted in coverage during 7News’ prime time evening slot,” Jasbinder said.
Subsequently, the protests have also caught the attention of international celebrities including singer Rihanna, climate change activist Greta Thunberg, comedian and TV presenter Trevor Noah , actor Susan Sarandon, as well as lawyer and activist Meena Harris.
Unfortunately, the minimal support extended by Indian celebrities has left a sour taste in the mouths of many. Jaydeep Mavi, a 20-year-old civil engineering student, commented on the severity of the laws and violence at the protests. “These laws will eventually drive Punjabi farmers out of their land, or the farmers will die trying to repel these laws.” While acknowledging the “staggering” support from celebrities around the world, Jaydeep notes the silence or support for the ‘other side’ by Bollywood actors. “It doesn’t make sense that the industry that culturally appropriates Punjabi culture into Bollywood movies backs off when issues like this arise,” he said.
While Punjab only accounts for 2.2% of India’s population, it produces close to 12% of total wheat grown in India, and almost 13% of total rice. The state is known for farming, and Punjabis around the world have been horrified at the way ‘their people’ have been treated. Tejinder Chahal, 32, who grew up in Punjab until age 14, said “I saw images of people who appeared no different than my grandfather, getting beaten in the streets of a state that we call home.” He said that it shocked him to see the “human rights violations, lost lives, sleeping on the streets in the peak of winter, [and people being] shot dead.”
21-year-old law student Sujneet Johal saw the same human rights concerns once the Indian protestors had reached Delhi. “There were videos of extreme police brutality, water cannons, roads ripped up by police and barricades placed to half peaceful protest,” she said. Following that, Sujneet decided she needed to do something more and helped organise some of Sydney’s peaceful protests and rallies, to show international support for the farming movement. “Sydney Sikh Youth planned the Kisaan Car Rally on 5th December 2020. The rally went from the Bella Vista Metro station to the Indian Consulate in Sydney CBD. This protest saw over 200 cars join. We wanted to create international political pressure on the Indian Government and encourage media coverage,” she said.
Additionally, there was a peaceful protest held on 26 January 2021 at Alwyn Lindfield Reserve in Glenwood, which was part of an international ‘Ask India Why’ campaign “to question the lack of Indian governmental response.” Sujneet notes that this protest had an open speaking list and was organised to see a cross-section of society sharing their views. “This protest saw about 1000 people… and was significantly supported by police, in line with COVID restrictions,” she said. Sujneet notes that she “wants to be on the right side of history”. “This is a human rights issue. The right to peaceful protest is a constitutionally protected right in India… while our elderly sleep through winter nights on the streets of Delhi, we vow to use whatever resources we have to support them,” she said.
Noor, a 27-year-old lawyer, summarises the youth sentiment well. “The #DelhiChalo march was a moment of awakening – being cloaked in the comfort and security of the ‘first world’, it was foreign to see ‘my' and ‘our people’ struggling for the bare right to self-expression…,” she said, citing especially the use of water canons and police force. “The economics of the bill aside, it is clear that rushing through the bills as ordinances without proper consultation and a written ballot… is no way to implement economic reform. It is brutal economic force against people who would be individually powerless and some of the most vulnerable segments of the community,” she said.
Now and Going Forward
Recently, Freedom House, an American NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, downgraded India’s status in March 2021 from ‘free’ to only ‘partly free’ in its 2020 annual report. News platform Al Jazeera said that the report voices “fear that the world’s largest democracy was descending into authoritarianism.” After Indians in India and across the world took to social media, international platforms have taken note. TIME magazine featured female Punjabi farmers on their cover for their March 2021 International Women’s Day issue. The social media wave has been far-reaching.
It is critical to note that the protests are still ongoing. They officially commenced on 25 November 2020, and at the time of writing, have now surpassed their 149th day.
The next step for the Farmers is the march, organised by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (the umbrella body for over 40 farmers’ unions), slated for the first fortnight in May. Peaceful protesters intend on marching, as a “symbolic protest against the contentious farm laws”, from Delhi’s borders to the nation’s Parliament with the date(s) of this protest to be announced.
Youth are still using their voices to create as much awareness as possible, but with the farmers at a stalemate against the Indian Government, it is daunting to think ‘what next?’ The Farmers’ Unions have vowed to continue the protests until the Bills are repealed. However, the Indian Government has rejected this. The future is uncertain, which has only created further anxiety amongst farmers and their supporters.
From transforming from a farmers’ movement to a human rights movement, from a ripple to a wave, in the words of Jasbinder, “in their attempt to silence their farmers, India has catapulted their protest into the international spotlight.”
Tia Singh is a lawyer, public servant and freelance journalist from Sydney.