Maybe you’ve seen the “I stand with farmers” bumper stickers or the tweets from celebrities like Rihanna. Maybe you drove past the hundreds of people protesting in Vancouver last December or the thousands in Toronto. Maybe more recently the protests in Brampton or Edmonton have stopped traffic for you. Or, like me, you came across a handful of people holding cardboard signs at an intersection in small town Mission, B.C.
On September 27, 2020, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind approved three bills reforming existing farm laws. His party claimed the bills would liberalize the farm market in India, but the proposed changes were met with immediate and stiff opposition from farmers. After two months of localized protests an estimated 300,000 farmers marched to New Delhi in tractors, on horses and by foot. Police resisted them along the way, keeping them from entering Delhi itself. On November 26, 250 million people went on strike throughout India, completely shutting down some states.
“These controversial agricultural laws open up a gateway for private companies to exploit the market,” said Sukhraj Grewal, a student in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
The farmers are still camped outside of New Delhi, demanding that the government repeal all three bills. Eleven rounds of talks remain inconclusive. Farmers’ organizations, religious groups and NGOs set up langars, kitchens, which feed everyone regardless of caste, class, or religion. There’s a makeshift school for children. Protests remained largely peaceful until January 26, when protesters took over the historic Red Fort in Delhi.
Across political parties and provincial borders, Canadians are caught up in solidarity with the farmers. Prime Minister Trudeau, Erin O’Toole (Conservative) and Jagmeet Singh (NDP) have all publicly responded as have premiers like John Horgan (B.C.).
The three reform bills
In the 1960s, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi introduced the “Green Revolution” to address famine in India. She dramatically increased the growth of rice and wheat, implemented state-regulated agricultural markets (called “mandis”) and a way for farmers to sell surplus harvest at the “minimum support prices” (MSP). Gandhi outlawed stockpiling of essential foods. These laws were meant to make India self-sufficient agriculturally, to protect farmers and to prevent food shortages. And since the 70s, India has been self-sufficient agriculturally. So Prime Minister Narendra Modi feels validated in removing Gandhi’s constraints.
The first reform bill is the “Farmer’s Produce and Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill.” It releases farmers to sell to privatized buyers, but farmers lose their protection in the form of MSP. The second reform bill is the “Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill,” releasing farmers from state law to centralized government for the purpose of making contracts with private businesses. The flip-side is that farmers do not have legal recourse in their state courts. Over 80 percent of India’s farmers own small farms (less than a hectare). They have little economic margin to negotiate contracts. And while the state-run mandis will stay open, any farmer bound into a contract with the private sector is not allowed to sell his produce at the mandi even if the mandi price is higher. Farmers are concerned that individual contracts will drive them further into debt and the loss of land.
The third bill is the “Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill,” which allows for stockpiling goods, a move that is good for traders but not for small farmers.
It’s not to say that everything was perfect under the old laws. Suicide levels among farmers are high, often caused by debt and carried out by drinking pesticides. People’s Archive of Rural India added up the suicides from 1995 to 2019: 296,438. Let that sink in. This struggle is as serious as life and death for the farmers. In fact, to support the protests several individuals have made Indian headlines by committing suicide by poison, gun and hanging.
Many of the protesters outside of Delhi are of the Sikh religion, from the Punjab area. Punjab Canadians, though a minority in our country, are a visible one, including Jagmeet Singh and Harjit Singh Sajjan (Defense Minister), as well as many influencers and coworkers at our workplaces.
“This is not just a protest about paying minimum support price, it’s related to saving their heritage […] farming is your culture, farming is your language, farming is your faith,” Gurdeep Pandher said in an interview with Global News. Pandher is a Yukon-based Bhangra dancer whose videos repeatedly go viral. “It’s not just a matter of surviving financially, it’s also a matter of keeping a whole identity, who you are, alive.”
Punjab is the “bread basket” of India, growing much of the nation’s wheat and rice. In 2019, 65 percent of its wheat was sold at mandis at the minimum support price. Wheat and rice can easily be stockpiled. Farmers from this area will lose the most with the new laws.
There is a Sikh man who I call Mr. Singh and he calls me Maia, neither of us able to speak the other’s full name. Come Summer we both pick strawberries in Oshawa. Last year was exceptionally hot and dry. Seagulls flew inland from Lake Ontario, quenching their thirst on our red berries. I showed Mr. Singh how to pick faster to beat the high noon sun. He offered me cookies and almonds and insisted that I drink water from his cooler when my own water bottle steamed up under the strawberry leaves. He asked if my church serves food. No, I said, just coffee. Is the coffee free? Yes. He grinned. At his place of worship, the gurudwara, breakfast, lunch, and tea were all free. We laughed. (No one should convert to the Christian Reformed Church for the food.)
These memories come back as I read the news. The farmers refuse to share food when they meet with the government. Their mistrust is deep enough to tear the very fabric of social interaction. This is serious.
Canada and India share a strong bilateral relation. Approximately six percent of the Canadian population is of Indian heritage. India is Canada’s ninth largest export market and 10th largest trading partner. The two nations are in the middle of drafting economic and investment agreements.
So on December 4, when the Indian foreign ministry brought a statement to the Canadian high commissioner to India that, “comments by the Canadian Prime Minister, some Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament on issues relating to Indian farmers constitute an unacceptable interference in our internal affairs,” things were not looking well. “Such actions, if continued, would have a seriously damaging impact on ties between India and Canada,” says the statement.
Under the diplomatic unease lies another long history. In the 1980s and early 1990s a Sikh separatist movement threatened India’s unity. Three Sikh separatists assassinated Prime Minister Gandhi in 1984 and in retaliation Sikhs were massacred in New Delhi, the city outside of which Sikh farmers now peacefully protest. In 1985 Canadian Sikh terrorists blew up an Air Delhi flight leaving Montreal, killing 329 people on board. Since then, India has kept a close eye on anti-India sentiment coming from Canada.
Trudeau, who visited an alleged Sikh extremist convicted of plotting assassination while on a diplomatic visit to India in 2018, said in response to the farmers, “Canada will always be there to defend the rights of peaceful protest.” When asked, he did not clarify or retract this statement.
Some Canadians, like B.C. resident and documentary filmmaker Sukhdeep Singh, fear that India is headed to a repeat of the 1984 Sikh massacre, a possibility “when you are asking for your constitutional right and you are being portrayed as an anti-national.”
An ongoing story
My hope, readers, is that you will pay attention to how the protests develop in India, seek out more information and connect with Punjab Canadians in your own town.
As Canadians of multiple heritages, it is our unique privilege to live with and learn from Canadians such as Mr. Singh in the sweaty strawberry field; the joyful Gurdeep Pandher dancing in snowy, minus 40 degrees Yukon; or Jagmeet Singh challenging our Prime Minister at national policy levels. It is our unique responsibility to care for each other and to be aware of the global events that impact our fellow citizens, our government and ourselves.