Since November 26, 2020, farmers in India, mostly from the Punjab and Haryana have been protesting on the outskirts of chilly New Delhi (four degree centigrade). The government tried to block their march to the country’s capital. The elderly and young farmers were brutally beaten. Water cannons were mercilessly used. Many farmers caught cold and later died. Till 17th December, 24 farmers have died, including a Sikh priest who committed suicide saying in a death note that he could not see the farmers in distress.
Many countries have a vibrant Sikh community who held peaceful demonstrations to express solidarity with their Sikh brethren at home. The government was irked at the sight of Paramjit Singh Pamma among the London protesters. A union minister, Raosaheb Danve, saw China, Pakistan, and pro-Khalistan people’s hand in the movement. However, he was rebuffed by Shiv Sena of Maharashtra.
The opposition parties had earlier opposed hasty enactment of farm laws. They are still supporting the protest.
The three farm bills – the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020– and the labour bills were passed by Parliament during the recent monsoon session.
Many political parties, including the long-term NDA ally Akali Dal, the Opposition Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Trinamool Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal, supported the nationwide strike call given by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), All India Farmers Union (AIFU), All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) and All India Kisan Mahasangh (AIKM), among others.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal (December 17) “attacked the Centre saying the farm laws have been made to ensure poll funding for the BJP and not for the benefit of the farmers”. He tore copies of the three farm laws during the House proceedings to protest against the controversial agricultural legislations.
Interestingly, even the farmer wing of Rashtraya Swayemsevak Sangh is also supporting the protest despite some reservations.
The government expected the movement to peter out due to severe cold and lack of food and shelter. But it was in vain. The farmers are determined to stay put. They understand that if they disperse, they may not be able to re-join anytime soon. They consider it a nightmare to return to their abode empty-handed.
Widows march to the front
Aside from the death of 24 protesting farmers, thousands of farmers commit suicides each year due to financial distress. India’s home ministry has reported in its report titled National Crime Records Bureau’s Accidental Deaths and Suicides that 11,379 farmers died by suicide in 2016. This translates into 948 suicides every month, or 31 suicides every day. The actual figure could be higher as a large number of women who work on farms are not characterised as farmers.
Read more: Indian Farmers Hurt by Stubble Burning Ban
According to NCRB report, in 2019, some 10,281 people involved in farming died by suicide. Of these, 5,957 were farmers and cultivators, while 4,324 were agricultural labourers. This category accounted for 7.4 per cent of all suicides in India.
Over two-thirds of suicide victims in 2019 earned less than Rs 1,00,000 annually or below Rs 8,333 per month. This comes down to Rs 278 per day, which is sometimes less than the minimum wage rate under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Only 30 per cent of the suicide victims had annual earnings in the range of Rs 1 lakh to less than Rs 5 lakh.
At least 2,000 widows of indebted farmers, who had committed suicide in the past, raised their voices against the central farm laws.
The interviewed widows wished that they abandon farming as it does not assure them of even subsistence level life. `The three laws brought in by the Modi government will kill us and take all our land from us. We want these bills scrapped. Farmers are already in debt and dying by suicide. If these bills are not repealed, more farmers will commit suicide.’
Protesting farmers blocked the highways connecting Delhi with Amritsar, in Punjab, and Meerut, in Uttar Pradesh, and also the one between Punjab and Haryana. In south, traffic was affected on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu highway due to the protests.
Farmers are protesting as they fear the farm Bills will result in abolition of the Minimum Support Price (MSP).
Several US lawmakers, UK parliamentarians, Canada, Brazil, and even UN secretary general supported agitating farmers and urged Modi to allow them to protest peacefully.
India has called the remarks by foreign leaders on protests by farmers as “ill-informed” and “unwarranted” as the matter pertained to the internal affairs of a democratic country.
Some Sikhs, settled abroad sent the protesters several quintals of almond. Local Sikhs provided them with fruit, pulses and flour. One Galaxy Brar announced, “I had announced through social media that people can approach me for free fuel as a corpus fund has been created. People from Punjab, Rajasthan have contacted me so far. I get their fuel filled online through my BPCL card and payment is done from my side. One trolley is given 1,000 litres of fuel for coming and going, as Jathas keep replacing each other.
The massive majority of estimated 600,000+ Sikhs in the UK (last census said 432,000) are of Punjabi background. Punjab is known as “the bread basket of India” for its lush farming lands.
The agricultural wealth their generations have worked for will soon be sifted off into corporations.
“Many Sikhs support Khalistan and have advocated for it peacefully and legally for decades in the West. Being a Khalistani does not mean supporting terrorism. Issues such as India’s current treatment of farmers are just another reason there is support for Khalistan. But Modi government is giving a terrorist taint to the movement as a `terrorist’ Paramjit Singh Pamma participated in Sikhs’ protest in UK.
Pamma is wanted in connection with the 2010 blasts in Punjab’s Patiala and Ambala and also for the killing of an RSS man in 2009. He is also suspected to be associated with banned groups like Sikhs for Justice.
Pamma was arrested in Portugal in 2018 under a Red Corner Notice issued by the Interpol. However, India’ request for Pamma’s extradition from Portugal was turned down and he was subsequently released.
Supreme Court’s intervention
India’s SC has restrained the Modi government to implement the farm laws until a decision. Some farmers consider it a moral victory. But others consider it a ploy as the SC has admitted a petition for ending road blockade.
Many points out that the court is too politicized. It did nothing in regard to abolition of special status of Kashmir, dabbled in religious matters (Ram Janmabhoomi), triple talaq, and so on.
The protest is in a state of flux. Now even credibility of the SC is at stake. Modi’s strong man image stands shattered.
Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been writing free-lance for over five decades. He has served federal and provincial governments of Pakistan for 39 years. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies and magazines at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of eight e-books including The Myth of Accession. He knows many languages including French and Arabic. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.