My Take: Punjab Farmers Protest

By Suchanan (Rasnam) Thakral

(Collage by Anna Sazonov)

Rihanna recently tweeted “Why aren’t we talking about this?” in reference to the farmers’ protest in Punjab. The uproar and backlash against this tweet in India were massive and polarising. Supporters of the current ruling party in India – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Modi – responded violently. They responded with sexually violent comments, the worst of which suggested her former boyfriend who abused her should have done a better job to silence her. They then took to the streets to burn photos of her. 

On the other end, supporters of the farmers protest praised Rihanna for bringing the issue to light on the international stage. A famous Punjabi singer composed a song for her within 3 hours of her posting the tweet with words of adoration.

The tweet may have gotten people talking about the issue. But to truly understand why the farmers have gained unwavering support from myself and the rest of the Punjabi Diaspora is to understand the long standing struggle between Punjab and the central Indian Government. 

Let’s start by understanding what is happening at the moment. 

The system in place for farmers in Punjab to sell their produce is a government regulated marketplace with price floors, known as Mandis. The new farm laws aim to dismantle these Mandis and create a free market where buyers are to negotiate the price of produce. This sounds about right to those of us who have faith in the free market: 

Laws that set up the Mandis will be dismantled, leading to fewer government intervention, and once the free market is able to function there will be more produce, a thriving agricultural sector with higher profit for the farmers and ultimately – economic growth. If only it were that easy. 

The true impact of the new farm laws are not tough to predict seeing as these farm laws are not the first of its kind. The Eastern State of Bihar has faced the effects of this law 15 years prior. Unsurprisingly, those laws never saw the promise of better remuneration. Instead of $25 per 100kg of rice, farmers from Bihar were forced to sell rice for $16 per 100kg.  

What happens when you send independent farmers to negotiate with large agriculture companies? Let’s spell it out: the big guy steps on the back of the little guy for a quick buck.   

The protestors have happily pointed out who one of these big guys are. Mukesh Ambani – Asia’s richest man. The World Bank predicts that while the Indian economy will shrink by more than 9% this year, Ambani’s wealth is set to increase by $22 billion. This all takes place with the context of India having one of the largest wealth gaps when compared to major global economies (See figure). The new farm laws will serve to increase this disparity which is what the farmers are fighting against.  

Punjab’s rich history spans back to the Indus Valley Civilization, but let’s take it from the birth of India to understand Punjab’s struggle today. Partition divided the state of Punjab in half marking the largest mass migration in human history. Muslims from India were forced into Pakistan, and non-Muslims from the Pakistan side were forced into India. Families were torn apart, 20 million were displaced in a matter of days while riots were rampant. Punjab was left with a majority Sikh population. 

The 1960s saw food shortages across India. The solution – chemical fertilizers, most suitable to be used in Punjab. India transformed from having a shortage and famine, to excess supply earning Punjab the title of India’s Breadbasket accounting for half of Punjab’s GDP. 60 years later and the aquifers and soil are laced with chemicals, threatening food production. Instead of stepping in at this crucial time, the government has stepped in the opposite direction by introducing the farm laws.   

Into the 1980s came arguably Punjab’s darkest period. A fringe group of Sikh’s who called for independence led to a horrific response from the government at the time. The response being a massacre of the most sacred of all Sikh sites: The Golden Temple. After the assassination of President Indra Gandhi, an outburst of violence against Sikhs arose. Sikhs being murdered on the streets, having their houses burnt down, and women being gang-raped. 

The Indian government to this day refuses to acknowledge the Sikh genocide that resulted in deaths of an estimated 8,000-17,000 deaths. What’s more concerning, BJP supporters including high profile celebrity Kangana Ranaut are trying to tie the protestors to the fringe group from the 80s and uphold Indra Gandhi as an iconic figure.

In recent years, Punjab became the center of an opioid epidemic. Approximately two-thirds of Punjab’s households have at least one drug addict. Calls for government action in this state have been met with silence. Geography can explain why this is happening, Punjab is conveniently located in a major trafficking route. More importantly however, is the socioeconomic content. Although Punjab was historically a wealthy state due to agriculture, the sector is stagnating with high unemployment and low rates of industrialization. That coupled with scars Punjab has faced since the genocide. The State’s calls for help falls on deaf government ears.  

Today, the Hindu Nationalist government shows no qualms in oppressing every minority religion in India. The polarized response to the farmer’s protest is a worrisome condition. The government’s reaction may not surprise me due to the long standing struggle Punjab has faced, but it nevertheless saddens me. I’m uncertain and anxious as to how this will all end up, but one thing is true. We do need to talk about this.

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