Currently in India, we are witnessing the largest protests in human history. These are economic protests by farm workers against billionaires, a nationalist government and corporate exploitation. On a human level, these protests are for the individual livelihoods of millions of farmers in Panjab, Haryana and across India.
I've previously written about the cause of the protests (and you can read about them here), so today, as the protests develop, I want to clear up three misconceptions; (1) the farmers are illiterate and don't know why they are protesting, (2) these new bills are beneficial, and (3) Panjab is the only state protesting.
The farmers are illiterate
A sentence I've heard time and time again from the media is that the farmers are illiterate and they don't know what is best for them.
Not only is this offensive to our elders and family members, but it's simply not true. The farmers have shown remarkable foresight to see the potential ramifications of the situation over a longer term, rather than short term promises. In fact, their predictions are supported by mainstream economists (like the tweet above), as well as historical precedent.
And let's be honest. The old system wasn't perfect - but the issue was one of corruption. If the government really wants to help farmers it should address the specific elements that allow corruption, rather than opening up legislation that allows small farmers to be exploited by billionaires and corporates.
Firstly, the government states that the new bills will "cut out middle men". Well these middle men are actually Panjabi labourers that work in the markets that procure farmer's crops. With these closed down what happens to jobs and infrastructure?
Well, many say the answer is to retrain. That's easy to say in states where there is substantial industry or investment to provide alternative forms of employment.
As a border state, infrastructure investment in Panjab has been lower than many other Indian states, and therefore the answer isn't as easy as retraining and finding new jobs. These labourers, most of them Panjabi, many of them Sikh, will likely have to leave Panjab for better opportunities.
Secondly, without these markets offering guaranteed prices, farmers will have to sell to corporates. It might be the case that in the first year or two these corporates offer a more competitive rate to outcompete these markets.
But what happens when they close?
The corporates can then push prices down and the farmer has nowhere else to go. In fact, this isn't just a thought experiment, this is exactly what has happened in Bihar.
Farmers will get better prices
In 2006, the eastern Indian state of Bihar abolished the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) which is what the current Farmer's Produce and Commerce Bill seeks to do in other states including Panjab (you can read what this means in my other article here).
The outcome was unquestionably negative for Bihar's many farmers.
A 2019 study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research found that "farmers are left to the mercy of traders who unscrupulously fix lower prices for agricultural produce that they buy from farmers", It further states that the abolition of APMCs "led to a deterioration in public infrastructure".
It's no surprise then that the years following 2006 coincided with a large migration of Bihari farmers to Panjab in search of better opportunities. Panjabi farmers, having heard the stories from the migrating Biharis are understandably keen to protect their livelihood.
The truth is, things could be worse in Panjab as the state is more sensitive to these bills given how much labour is employed in agriculture and in the APMCs.
In a state where almost all farms are small family owned businesses, corporations will find it easy to use the new legislation to enter these markets, negotiate from a position of power, use their capital to hoard crops (something that wasn't previously allowed) and drive down prices.
And while cooperatives like Amul may have worked in other states like Gujarat, the difference is the simplicity of the product where there is only one method of production, packaging and delivery. It won't be so easy to do with Panjab's farmers.
Why only Panjab?
The answer is that it isn't just Panjab - at least seven other states have also risen in protest including; Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Kerala.
But the easy story to tell is one of a rebellious border state with a distinct religion and a culture that runs against the nationalist government's aims to create "one country, one language".
It's why certain elements of the government supported media have aggressively branded the farmers as secessionists and terrorists - a tactic that worked during the years where Panjabis fought for the implementation for the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (which ironically would have provided farmers with greater rights).
However, it hasn't quite gone to plan this time. The availability of social media has meant one side has been unable to monopolise the 'truth'. It's become obvious that this isn't just a Panjabi or a Sikh issue, but a pan-Indian issue and many ordinary Indians are beginning to see through this and are throwing their support behind the farmers.
The diaspora has also played a key role. London, Birmingham, Toronto, Vancouver, Sydney and San Francisco have all held large rallies while other cities in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and Europe have also held protests in support of the farmers.
The truth is this isn't an anti-Indian protest in as much as it is a protest against the power of billionaires (and you can read what I think about billionaires here), corporate exploitation and anger against a nationalist government that seems to be pushing through legislation without the appropriate consultation.
Now if you came here to just read an update on the protests, you can stop here. If you want to find out a little more about the revolutionary history of Panjab and why it has taken the lead in fighting this package of laws, then continue below.
The land of rebels and revolutionaries
For the past several centuries, Panjab has been known as a land of poets, rebels and revolutionaries. One of the most fertile plains on the planet, Panjab has long been a centre of civilisation including one of the first agricultural civilisations (the Indus Valley Civilisation).
But Panjab hasn't always been the rebellious area it is today.
For at least a millennia (since the fall of Harsha kings in the 7th century) and perhaps longer (since the fall of the Maurya Empire in the 1st century BCE), Panjab was ruled by foreign powers. While the aforementioned empires were founded in and around the Panjab area, the other ruling powers came from distant lands. The Gupta's were from the other side of the subcontinent, while there were also the Greeks, Arabs, Turkic Ghaznavids and Delhi Sultanate, and Central Asian invaders that gave rise to the Mughal Empire.
Despite small rebellions by local inhabitants (like those of the Ghakkars), the Panjabi masses were used to foreign rule. Despite inhabiting a land full of natural resources, Panjabi wealth was being exploited by rulers in distant lands. Panjab was the gateway to the subcontinent, and was for years a trampling ground for the horses of invaders.
Then something happened.
In the 15th century, a small movement near the banks of the Ravi river began to empower the peasantry of Panjab. Describing humans as a microcosm of the creative spirit (karta purakh), this movement set out that everyone was equal and people were not to be exploited, and nor should they exploit others. While it gained followers from all walks of life, the traditionally down-trodden where more open to this revolutionary message.
The spirit of the revolution
Sikhi is as much a social revolution as it is a spiritual one. As well as being the tisar panth that emphasises spiritual enlightenment through meditation, it is also the movement that aims to uplift the down-trodden. Sikhi asks followers to naam japo (meditate) and vand shako (share your earnings).
This concept of fairness, justice and equality is a central part of Sikh philosophy that aims to eradicate class distinction and to create a more egalitarian society.
Sikhi grew out of an age where wealth disparity was incredible, and caste distinction was ingrained to a significant degree to create a compliant society. Conquerers, landowners, merchants and even priests were all involved in exploiting the masses to generate excessive wealth for themselves.
Guru Nanak spoke up against the priestly class that hoarded wealth by monopolising a holy language that only a few had access to by speaking and writing in the language of the working class. He spoke against excessive wealth when he decided to eat at the house of a poor labourer called Lalo, which infuriated the local rich merchant, Malik Bhago. When challenged by the rich merchant. Guru Nanak described the importance of earning an honest living (kirat karni) rather than making money through exploiting the poor.
Each Guru following Nanak continued this social revolution. The third guru, Amar Das, refused to give the Emperor Akbar, of the ruling Mughal dynasty, any special treatment when he came to visit the communal kitchen.
This communal kitchen (langar) continues to be an important part of Sikhi where anyone, regardless of background, can have a free hot meal. In fact, not only has it continued, but in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the more recent coronavirus pandemic, langar has been taken by Sikhs onto the streets of the UK and around the world to help the most vulnerable.
Every Guru aimed to empower the masses and to give them the confidence to be able to live a life without being exploited as well as not exploiting others. The Gurus complemented this revolutionary spirit with revolutionary tools (in the form of arms) to ensure Sikhs were able to fight for, and defend, this society of equals.
Following the period of Gurus in human form, the revolutionary zeal provided by them laid the foundation for a revolution in Panjab that allowed for the advancement of some of the lowest classes in the subcontinent. Within a couple of generations the jatt peasantry became aristocrats, creating an environment for greater egalitarianism where men and women of "low" birth were able to rise to real power (e.g. Charat Singh Sukherchakia and Kushal Singh Kaneya).
While the militaristic aspect of the Sikh way of life provides the tools for armed revolutions to succeed, it is when Panjabis unite regardless of religion that revolutions are most successful.
Rebels to rulers to rebels
During the twilight of the Mughal Empire, the Panjabi peasantry through their new found revolutionary spirit rebelled in increasingly greater numbers. When Nadir Shah, the ruler of Persia, invaded India, he found his baggage train was constantly attacked at night by bearded men in turbans as soon as it entered Panjab on its march out of India. On finding out from the local Governor that these were a small band of rebels, the Shah warned the Governor that "the day is not distant when these rebels will take possession of your country".
Ahmed Shah Abdali, the ruler of the Afghans exhausted himself financially and physically in trying to constantly suppress the revolutionary Panjabis, headed by the Sikhs. Even during the period of Sikh rule of the 19th century, the fierce independence of the Sikhs was epitomised by the Akalis (warrior-priests) who would consistently harass Sikh rulers that they thought were not worthy of power. The British writer W.H. McLeod noted this "fierce independence" that bordered on a fanatical belief of not submitting to any political authority.
The earliest revolt against British rule, known as the 'Second Sikh War' was led by a Panjabi Sikh (Chatter Singh Attariwala) and a Panjabi Hindu (Dewan Mulraj). Less than 25 years later, 66 Namdhari Sikhs were executed by being blown to pieces by cannons after leading an armed resistance to British rule.
The movement to bring Sikh Gurdwaras under Sikh possession cost at least 500 lives, while Sikhs constituted about 61% of the 1000+ killed protesting against British rule in Jallianwala Bagh. One statistic suggests that Sikhs made up 71% of Indian freedom fighters hanged by the British and 81% sentenced to life imprisonment, despite making up less than 2% of the total population.
This revolutionary spirit continued into the 20th century where Panjabis protested en-masse for the creation of a Panjabi speaking state within India in the 1950s and 1960s and then during the Dharam Yudh morcha which fought for the Anandpur Sahib Resolution that asked for greater protections for farmers, and more autonomy for states within India.
Today, the same Panjabi spirit has spearheaded pan-Indian protests against three pieces of legislation that aim to empower a small elite of billionaires at the expense of small farmers across the nation.
The Ambani family is one of the top ten richest families in the world, and protestors feel that the new agriculture laws are aimed at providing billionaires like Ambani a free reign in the agricultural market. The exploitation of farmers by rich corporates will likely end Panjabi farming as we know it, and with little investment in other industries, a whole generation (including my family) will find themselves under increasing economic hardship.
You can make a difference wherever you are. You can donate to the All India Kisan Sabha. or you can donate to Khalsa Aid who continue to support farmers currently protesting. If you aren't able to donate, raising your voice and sharing their stories will help ensure their voices are silenced and that the government is held to account.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.