How the Sikh diaspora is drumming up global support for farmers' protest in India

Published December 18, 2020
Farmers take part in a protest against farm bills passed by India's parliament on the outskirts of Delhi on Dec 17. — Reuters
Farmers take part in a protest against farm bills passed by India's parliament on the outskirts of Delhi on Dec 17. — Reuters

Thousands of Indian farmers protesting against deregulation of agriculture markets are drawing strength from Sikhs around the world who are urging foreign governments to intercede with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Farmers, mostly from the Sikh-dominated state of Punjab, have been camped on the borders of New Delhi since last month, demanding Modi roll back the reforms intended to bring investment in the antiquated farm sector but which the farmers say will leave them at the mercy of big corporations.

India's winter of discontent: Farmers rise up against Modi

Sikhs living overseas, most of whom have families at home tied to the farms, have picked up the thread in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, demonstrating outside Indian embassies to draw attention.

On Thursday, 250 to 300 Sikhs and other overseas Indians took part in a rally in a Melbourne district to express their support for India’s farmers, said Rajbir Singh, who runs a small transport business in Melbourne.

On Saturday, people of Indian origin plan to carry out similar protests near the state parliament of Victoria in Melbourne, said Siftnoor Singh, a data scientist.

“The new laws will bring economic devastation to our motherland, and we can’t simply close our eyes and pretend that everything is alright back home,” he told Reuters by phone.

The farmers’ fear is that by allowing companies such as Walmart and India’s Reliance Industries Ltd’s retail arm to buy directly from farmers, the government intends to weaken the traditional markets where their rice and wheat are guaranteed a minimum price.

Sikhs and other Indian Punjabis overseas are estimated at 12 million. They form a tightly knit group and are vociferous in articulating the concerns of the community back home.

Since the farmers’ protest started more than two weeks ago in India, members of the diaspora have participated in protest marches — mostly consisting of 400 to 600 people — in nearly 50 different cities of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, protesters and their families said.

The government has declined to comment on the protests overseas. But underlining India’s sensitivity about what it sees as foreign interference in its internal affairs, New Delhi summoned Canada’s ambassador this month to convey displeasure after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the farmers had a right to protest.

'Hand that feeds you'

“I’ve been approached by many concerned people of Indian origin who are based in Victoria to speak about the issue,” Samantha Ratnam, parliamentary leader of Australia’s Victorian Greens party, recently told the state legislative council.

Relatives and supporters of the farmers gathered this month even in the small town of Canton, Michigan, in the United States, carrying placards saying “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” and “I stand with farmers”.

Other protesters staged a demonstration outside the Indian embassy in Washington.

In Canada, home to a Sikh community that is politically influential, residents of Indian origin have vowed to step up their support for India’s protesting farmers.

“We are taking part in regular protests to bring it to the notice of local authorities who can help us amplify our voices,” said Amanpreet Singh Grewal, a resident of Brampton, Ontario, Canada. “We are committed to supporting our farmers in India.”

Many Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) own farmlands in Punjab and fear the sweeping changes that the government plans will hurt them economically.

“Punjabi NRIs are worried that if these laws are implemented, and result in fall in crop procurement prices, it would lead to substantial fall in the value of their farm lands and yearly income from land contracts,” said Avtar Singh Gill, 64, who is now settled in Punjab after four decades in the UK.

Mewa Singh, the chief of the NRI council in the Ropar district of Punjab, said organisations such as his that represent overseas Indians were helping farmers mobilise people in villages, arranging transport for them, and collecting milk and rations for supplying to the protesters sleeping out in the open near Delhi.

Singh said his son, the manager of a basketball team in Houston, Texas, was leading protests there.

“We can’t allow Prime Minister Modi to take away what we have gained over the years through hard work and political struggle,” Mewa Singh said.

In Britain, Sikh groups wield influence and have been making the case for British leaders to raise the issue with their Indian counterparts even if the Modi government baulks at such involvement.

Jas Singh, an adviser at the Sikh Foundation, said the community had written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer to lobby their case.

“Worried by the use of disproportionate force against many elderly protesters, we’ve also reached out to the United Nations to ask India to protect farmers’ right to peaceful protests,” Jas Singh said.

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