For many Sikh Americans, India’s new farm laws are hitting close to home

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When Aasees Kaur was growing up, she would often see bounties of wheat, cauliflower, and tomatoes on her family’s farm in Amritsar, a town in the Indian state of Punjab, where her Sikh family has been farming on the same land for nearly of two centuries.

She now lives in Cincinnati, but she still has many parents whose main source of income is farming.

So when the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enacted three laws in September to deregulate the sector, removing guaranteed minimum prices for major crops and removing the government as a middleman between farmers and distributors, she joined her family in the stranger to protest. Kaur, 25, worked with local Sikh activists to organize a car rally this month in Cincinnati, which, despite sub-zero temperatures, drew nearly 1,000 people.

“Agriculture is all we are,” said Kaur, a community services officer for the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the United States. “It gave us an education and opened up a world full of opportunities. If we were to stay on the sidelines now, it would feel so bad.

Like protesters in India, where hundreds of thousands of farmers marched to the capital, New Delhi, young American Sikh activists in more than a dozen states led socially remote caravans to raise awareness the public to disputes between farm workers – many of whom are their relatives and friends.

People took part in a caravan to protest India’s new farm laws in Denver on December 13, 2020.Courtesy of Harshwinder Kaur

The Sikh diaspora was at the forefront of the December protests, as many members have their roots in Punjab, India’s bread basket, and were themselves farmers before immigrating to the United States.

Harshwinder Kaur, 26, a law student, helped coordinate a weekend trailer in Denver that brought out more than 250 vehicles. She said organizers took the march past local news stations to attract the attention of reporters. Like many Sikh Americans his age, Kaur has cousins ​​in the Punjab who depend on agriculture for their survival and who have been protesting since September. Under the new laws, they could lose their land to agro-industrial companies.

“Being the first generation in America, being proud to be an American and having the right to protest sparked that desire to let our people know what is happening,” said Kaur, whose parents were the co-founders of Colorado’s first gurdwara. , or Sikh House of Worship.

Agriculture is an integral part of the Indian economy, employing almost half of the country’s workforce. The country has been rushing into an agrarian crisis for decades, triggered by ecological and environmental changes. Soaring agricultural costs have forced more farmers into bankruptcy, causing suicide rates to skyrocket. For many, the new laws, coming during a pandemic crippling the market, could be the straw that destroys their livelihoods.

“Delhi is solidifying a new caste-like economic system,” said Mallika Kaur, author of “Faith, Gender and Activism in the Punjab Conflict”. She said the privatization of entire sectors in India, such as healthcare and education, indicates that corporate interests are growing at a rate and scale such that they could soon erode most government guarantees. .

“The feeling that this is a historic moment of enormous unity in the face of government agendas has inspired many to join the protests,” she said.

About 10,000 people crossed the Oakland Bay Bridge at the Indian Consulate in San Francisco on December 6, 2020, to show their support for Indian farmers.Courtesy of the Sikh Coalition

For some young American Sikhs, inaction is not an option when their loved ones in India risk their lives – enduring police violence and sleeping on hay in semi-trailers – to protect their land and reduce their income.

Young people are particularly well placed to mobilize the diaspora because they have spent “their entire lives as cultural brokers and are best placed to offer new perspectives and attract new groups” of supporters, said Naindeep Singh, executive director of Jakara, based in California. Movement, a grassroots organization for young Sikhs.

The group staged a recent protest in the San Francisco Bay Area, where about 10,000 people crossed the Oakland Bay Bridge at the Indian Consulate in San Francisco. The rally was not just for Sikhs – the event featured a diverse roster of speakers, with important slots for women and leaders from marginalized backgrounds.

“We wanted to involve as many people as possible,” said Singh, who has landowning relatives in the Punjab.

In addition to solidarity rallies, activists also pressured elected officials to condemn Modi’s government for using water cannons and tear gas against farmers. Over the past week, several congressional leaders have written letters to the Indian ambassador denouncing the excessive use of force against dissidents.

Rupinder Singh, an organizer who helped coordinate a caravan in Washington, DC that drew more than 2,000 people, said the laws sparked such a feverish reaction from the diaspora because they not only posed an existential threat to farmers. , but could also trigger hunger. crisis.

“They are giving companies such unprecedented control over India’s food supply that they will threaten the food security of all Indians in the country,” he said. “It will have a ripple effect on family members living all over the world. “

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