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For Calif. Sikh Farmers, India Protests Cast 'Dark Cloud' Over Vaisakhi Festival

Apr 15, 2021

For Simranjit Singh, spending time in his family's almond and raisin fields is "the most therapeutic thing I could ever ask for." He says it's something he could never give up.

Singh is a 28-year-old farmer in a town 15 miles west of Fresno, Calif., called Kerman.

His extended family gathered on the farm last weekend to celebrate Vaisakhi, a farming holiday celebrated annually on April 13 or 14, and throughout the month.

Vaisakhi marks the spring harvest and the new year for Indians far and wide, but for Sikh Punjabis, it holds deeper meaning. It's when the 10th spiritual leader of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, established the Khalsa, formalizing the Sikh religion.

One of the founding principles of the religion is the idea that a true Sikh will always stand up to injustice. The Vaisakhi holiday brings the connection to both farming and what many Sikhs see as a fight for their livelihood into focus for the diaspora, including Singh.

"[When] I see the farmers and the protesting [in India], I see myself. I see my mom. I see my dad. I see my sister," he says. "If my dad or mom didn't come to America, we would be there on the streets of Delhi."

Since last fall, hundreds and thousands of farmers in India have been protesting three agricultural laws that were passed last September by the Indian government. The laws would effectively deregulate wholesale trading.

There has been a long history of tension and mistrust between Indian farmers and the government, which was only furthered when Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government passed those laws without consulting farmers directly.

"Farmers feel that they will be preyed on," says Hardeep Dhillon, who studies Indian emigration patterns at Harvard.

She says they are "worried that these new bills will introduce an even greater sense of precarity to a region where farming families already experience great levels of debt and a series of other political and social issues."

For decades, farmer suicides have plagued rural India, where making a living from farming is increasingly difficult. The Modi government says it sought to help farmers with these laws by allowing them to do business with traders outside of government-run wholesale markets, which have dominated agriculture in India since the 1960s.

But Dhillon says these laws would eliminate the existing legal protections that help shield farmers from corporate interests and volatile markets.

More than half of India's population of 1.4 billion relies on farming for income. The three farming laws passed by a wide margin in the country's parliament, and many millions of farmers do support the laws or do not oppose them. But the issue varies by state and by crop.

Many of the nation's farming unions are dominated by Punjabis. They are some of the loudest voices among Indian farmers at the protests, in part because the new agricultural laws would most severely affect crops like wheat and rice that are grown in the region. The state of Punjab also grows almost 20% of India's wheat with only 3% of its arable land.

Punjabi farmers are an essential voting bloc in the Central Valley of California, too. Last week, an assemblymember in California's House of Representatives introduced a bill recognizing India's recent legislation as anti-farmer policies. State Route 99, which snakes through the Central Valley, is dotted with the occasional billboard of business owners advertising their support for Indian farmers.

Singh hopes to travel to India in the fall to participate in the protests himself, but for now, he says the Sikh diaspora must use their power to amplify the cause farmers in India are fighting for.

Outside of farming full time, Singh works with a Sikh youth organization, Jakara Movement. They have organized large car and tractor rallies all over the state to draw attention to the issue. The Bay Area Kisaan Movement, another organization dedicated to the farmer protests in India, held a protest last weekend to coincide with Vaisakhi.

A car parked in a Fresno Gurdwara, or Sikh temple, parking lot with a bumper sticker showing support for Indian farmers protesting new agricultural laws.
Jonaki Mehta / NPR

Singh thinks ongoing international pressure is essential, especially in the midst of the Modi administration seeking to suspend social media accounts that express support for farmers, or criticism of the government's handling of the issue.

"If there weren't any international pressure being put on the Modi and the Indian government right now, this protest would have been probably over a long time ago," he says, adding that the diaspora's role at the moment is to give a second wind to the protests.

Gurjant Gill, who also comes from a long line of Sikh farmers, agrees.

"Farming for us is not a business, it's basically our way of living, our identity," Gill says.

Gill runs a trucking company that transports agricultural goods, but his family still owns farmland back in Punjab.

Gurjant Gill, a trucking company owner and farmer, visits his local gurdwara in Fresno to pay his respects the weekend before Vaisakhi.
Jonaki Mehta / NPR

Using his connections in the transportation and agricultural industries, Gill has helped organize community groups and leaders to petition the White House to seek support from the Biden administration. Gill says nearly everyone he knows is helping farmers back in India one way or another.

In Fresno, Gill's family and the broader community have been sending money to his village for fuel to get back and forth between Punjab and Delhi to help with protest expenses.

Both Gill and Singh are dedicated to the cause, and Gill says he has maintained his hope for a victory since the beginning.

"If you look at the history of India or Punjab, there's a lot of revolutions that, you know, Punjab [led]," Gill says. "So I'm really hopeful that we will win, the farmers will win this thing."

Singh says his feelings are complicated about the future for Indian farmers, especially during Vaisakhi season, which is meant to be celebratory.

"So now like with this dark cloud looming almost...people are feeling hopeless," Singh says. "If the bills don't get repealed, a lot of bad is going to come out of there, but at the same time, our history, our culture, Punjabi Sikhs, we've had a lot of bad, dark times, and like we're still here, we're still doing it...We're still living how we're supposed to be living."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week Indians far and wide have been celebrating festivals to mark the harvest season and the New Year for many. For Sikh farmers from Punjab, Vaisakhi is the biggest celebration of the year, but for many in the Sikh diaspora, this year's holiday brings up complicated feelings as some of their relatives in India take part in months-long farmer protests. NPR's Jonaki Mehta has this story from California's Central Valley.

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: This gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in Fresno would normally be teeming during Vaisakhi season.

GURJAP GILL: You know, right now, as we see, there's still quite a few people are here to celebrate. But usually it's a little different - well, I would say a lot different.

MEHTA: That's Gurjap Gill (ph). He runs a trucking business and farms almonds with his father on the side. He says the Central Valley reminds him of home in India.

GILL: You know, when you look around, all you see is the farms and barns. And, you know, this is how Punjab is. This is how where we are from is. It just feels the same.

MEHTA: It even sounds like Punjab here. The third most spoken language in some Central Valley cities is Punjabi. Out on the grass outside the temple, a small circle of kids are performing gatka, an ancient Sikh martial art.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MEHTA: From the temple drift the sounds of kirtan, or spiritual songs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in non-English language).

MEHTA: But despite those familiar rituals, Gill says this year's festivities are different not just because of pandemic restrictions but because many of the prayers and conversations he's hearing at the temple these days - they're centered on the farmer protests back home in India. He points to a bumper sticker on a car we're standing next to in the gurdwara parking lot.

GILL: This one right here shows, I stand with farmers - no farmers, no food. I have it on my car, too. So, I mean, it does affect our lives here as well whatever is going on back home, especially when it's related to farming.

MEHTA: In September, the Indian parliament passed three laws by a wide margin that deregulate Indian agriculture. Hardeep Dhillon of Harvard's history department studies Indian emigration patterns. She says Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration sees these bills as benefiting farmers.

HARDEEP DHILLON: The Modi government literally describes these bills as protection shields for farmers. The government alleges that the bills allow farmers to sell their produce and crops anywhere by negotiating a better price.

MEHTA: Indian farmers don't uniformly oppose the laws, but hundreds of thousands have turned out for months to protest what they see as laws passed without their input, laws they worry could further threaten their livelihoods.

DHILLON: Farmers feel worried that these new bills will introduce an even greater sense of precarity.

MEHTA: Farmers from India's wheat belt, including Punjab, are among those most opposed to the new laws. So Dhillon says she's not surprised to see solidarity among Punjabi farmers in California's Central Valley.

DHILLON: Because it's one of the farm belts of the world, and it's also home to a very large Punjabi diaspora that has been deeply vocal about the agricultural laws.

MEHTA: Sikh Punjabis here in California, like Gurjap Gill, have been sending money to relatives in India to help support protests there. And there's growing political momentum here in the U.S., too. Just last week, an assembly member in California's House of Representatives introduced a bill expressing solidarity for those protesting India's new farm laws. And Gill and other organizers plan to petition the White House to do the same. I also saw billboards vouching support for Indian farmers as I drove to meet another organizer and local farmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SINGING)

MEHTA: Fifteen miles west of Fresno, I met 28-year-old Simran Jeet Singh (ph) out on his family's 80-acre almond and raisin farm. The almonds aren't ripe yet, but he cracked one open for me anyway.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Open it all the way, and then you can see the almond inside of it.

MEHTA: That's pretty good.

SINGH: Yeah, a little bitter.

MEHTA: Singh says his parents came here from Punjab about three decades ago. One of their motivations was to escape persecution in India, especially following the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.

SINGH: Sikhs in India, like, I feel like are not safe. Like, my dad wore a turban, and he had a beard back home when he was growing up. And, like, that was the demographic that was being targeted the most.

MEHTA: Since then, there have been improvements. India's had a Sikh prime minister, for example. Still, Singh sees the new agricultural laws as an infringement of Sikhs rights and farmers rights. He's helped a Sikh youth group, the Jakara Movement, organize large car and tractor rallies around the state to draw attention to the issue, like this one in front of the Indian consulate in San Francisco in December.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No farmers.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No food.

MEHTA: Singh thinks this kind of international pressure is essential.

SINGH: If there were any international pressure being put on Modi and the Indian government right now, this protest would have been probably over a long time ago.

MEHTA: And although much of the Sikh diaspora has rallied around these protests, there are times when Singh feels discouraged and helpless.

SINGH: Vaisakhi - like, it's kind of like a celebratory time. So, like, now, like, with this dark cloud looming almost with the bills and stuff, like, you know, people are feeling hopeless. But, like, at the same time, like, our history, like, our culture, Punjabi Sikhs - like, we've had a lot of bad, dark times, you know? And, like, we're still here, you know? Like, we're still doing it, and we're still living how we're supposed to be living.

MEHTA: Back at the temple, Gurjap Gill tells me he senses concerns in his community, too, but he has faith in their collective resilience.

GILL: If you look at the history of India or Punjab, there's a lot of revolutions that Punjab leaded. So I'm really hopeful that we will win. The farmers will win this thing.

MEHTA: As Gill points to the field surrounding the gurdwara, he reminds me farmers know all about patience. And he says sometimes that's what it takes to win. For NPR News, I'm Jonaki Metha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.