A John Deere tractor is driven in to a rally in support of the farmer protest in India outside of the Consulate General of India in San Francisco on Dec. 5, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
For more than a week, hundreds of thousands of farmers have been protesting outside India’s capital of New Delhi. Support for the farmers extended worldwide, including the Bay Area.
On Saturday, Dec. 5, a solidarity protest rolled through the Bay Area — first to Oakland, and then across the Bay Bridge to rally in front of the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, and then back to Oakland. Organized in part by the Jakara Movement, people riding in the car caravan waved flags, honked horns and held signs in solidarity with farmers in India.
There was a tractor as well — one featured in social media posts and photos from the protest, drawing curious looks from many. Bay Area dwellers are used to seeing protests, but the tractor was an unusual sight for most.
As Kaur said, Sikh Americans — often quickly identified by men who wear turbans, “have been an active part of California’s economy and culture for more than 125 years, and many of the 500,000 Sikhs who reside in the United States can trace their immediate families back to one state in India: Punjab ... many to conflict-era roots, which led to asylees and migrants in California.”
Many Sikh Californians were on the Bay Bridge Saturday, delaying your commute for sure, said Kaur, but they were doing so "in solidarity with millions sleeping on cold concrete outside New Delhi, worried that their farms, their lives will soon become even more desperate than before.”
KQED asked Kaur to explain more about what this movement means for farmers in India, and Sikh Americans.
KQED's Lakshmi Sarah: For a Bay Area audience who may not have an understanding of what’s going on in India, what is happening?
Mallika Kaur: The protest outside India’s capital, New Delhi, is a protest against new farmer laws passed by the central, think federal, government in India. These laws privatize agriculture in unprecedented ways. They are seen as an existential threat to marginal and small farmers — the majority of farmers.
Farmers are now living on the roads, camping behind barbed wires and trenches set up by the government, to block the farmers from entering Delhi. At first, they were met with brute force; tear-gassed, water-cannoned in frigid November; beaten — but these images and videos went viral soon, and the state has stalled use of force. For now.
The farmer caravan started in the Indian state of Punjab, and swelled while traveling through the neighboring state of Haryana, and is now at the Haryana-Delhi border. It’s been growing over the course of the past week.
A young woman protestor and student, Harpreet Kaur, told me on the phone yesterday that the camp at one of the five entry points to Delhi is now 20 kilometers long (over 12 miles), across a four-lane highway.
Even before the new laws, the farmers faced dire ecological and economic circumstances due to long-standing Indian government policies. But farming is their only source of livelihood.
Why is this important to you?
Here is a dangerous and deeply sad truth: The farmers are protesting to return to a status quo in which thousands of them kill themselves out of desperation already. One expert I have worked with estimates 5,000 farmer suicides in Punjab a year. That was without the pandemic pressures or the new laws. I’ve followed the lives of widows of such farmers for a while now, over a decade. Back home in Punjab, in many of these villages, women tell the story of the life, the depression levels, the high rates of addiction, the domestic violence, that come with the farming plight.
The men may keep a stoic front, the stereotype required of them, but I’ve witnessed countless of them cry on being asked about their situation and hopes for the future. Those desperate tears fuel these protests in fact. As much as the collective sense of solidarity and strength does right now. The nuances of the new laws aside, for economists to debate, the protests find synergy with non-farming Indian citizens, too, because of the way these laws have been passed — in the midst of the pandemic; the way in which the stakeholders most affected, farmers, were never consulted; and in the way their protests, since September, but in their home state of Punjab, away from New Delhi, have been entirely ignored.
The Modi government has easily shrugged, saying farmers are resisting needed changes for the often touted “development” in Modi’s story of India. But what the government is not saying is that the changes are only pro-business, and are too drastic and too high-handed to be pro-farmer.
You've written a book, so you are very knowledgeable on these topics, but why in the Bay Area and why now?
An estimated 10,000 Sikh Americans traveling from as far as Yuba City to Los Angeles converged on the Bay Area for an in-vehicle, socially distanced caravan protest to bring national attention to the ongoing human rights crisis playing out in Delhi. Organized largely by youth — Jakara and Sikh student organizations in California — the caravan attracted people of all walks, including people who resonate deeply with (Black Lives Matter) caravans they were part of just months ago.
These protests are reflecting long pent-up traumas and desperation. My book released last year, on the human rights defenders through the bloody Punjab conflict of the '80s and '90s, that unfolded worst for Sikhs in rural Punjab, is subtitled “The Wheat Fields Still Whisper.” Many of those whispers, the inter-generational traumas, are being loudly heard now, even by the youngest protesters camping outside New Delhi today. The spark might be the new laws, but the pain and outrage is decades old and due to devastating policies that have taken too many lives the state considers expendable.
The new laws have poked at a deep trust deficit. They allow big corporations to be unfettered buyers against whom small farmers believe, for very good reason, that they’ll have very little negotiating power. But on top of that, the laws introduce a dispute resolution system that bypasses civil courts. So this new legalized impunity is perceived as a very cruel joke.
How you suggest people get involved or educate themselves further?
Very telling, (is how) photos and videos of the protests at the doorsteps of New Delhi show how peaceful it is, yet how the protesters are in a precarious position. Share their stories, their voices on social media and with your local government representatives. And keep pressure to ensure there is actual discourse and not retribution against protesters, whether now or later.
We’ve seen too often how protests can turn sideways, with disastrous consequences.
You can put to good use what you’ve learned this year about the importance of preserving the right to protest and conscientious citizen-activism.