Delhi isn’t the only capital where protesting Punjabis critical of the Indian government’s new farm laws have ensured their voices are heard. The impact of the protests has been felt far beyond India, in places like Hong Kong, Toronto and Paris.
One rally in California, home to the largest concentration of Punjabi Sikhs in the United States, saw 10,000 cars drive across the Bay Bridge on December 5 between San Francisco and Oakland, according to toll plaza estimates.
“It took us two hours to get across the bridge — a commute that takes only 20 minutes — and there was so much support from people who weren’t involved in the rally. People were honking, giving us the Black power fist, and cheering us,” said Damanjit Singh, a PhD student who attended the rally. “There were so many people who showed up for the protest, and we were all uniting over our land, our heritage of farming, and the threat of losing it. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he added.
The rally was organised by the Jakara Movement, a grassroots Sikh organisation in California that sought to support farmers, primarily from Punjabi, who have been protesting the new laws for the last few months – including blocking several roads leading into the Indian capital over the last two weeks.
The protesting farmers say the news laws will make it easier for large corporations to exploit agricultural workers, who make up over half of India’s workforce. The state of Punjab is known as India’s breadbasket, contributing around 13-14% of India’s total food grain production. It also contributes to a huge portion of the Indian diaspora around the world, including many who showed up to the rally in California.
“The turnout was astronomical. People responded to the call to action, and there was an outpouring of love and support that we sought to convey to our apne (own) in India,” said Manpreet Kaur, communications director at the Jakara Movement, a grassroots Sikh organization in California that planned the rally. “We are very closely watching what’s happening in India, and we want to let the Indian government know that international eyes are on them.”
Kaur said that the diaspora is spiritually and emotionally connected to the protestors. “Some like my truck-driving veere (youngsters) are also financially connected, as they are the children of kisaans (farmers) and are income earners for their families in Punjab. So people have increasingly been in touch with the Jakara Movement to find means of support while being so far,” said Kaur.
“We are sitting so far away from what’s happening on the grounds, but feel every emotion as though we are there — we cry with those crying, we smile with those dancing and singing folk songs, we laugh with those creating witty jokes and songs. We’re sitting on the edge of our seats, inspired and in awe.,” she said.
Punjabis are a huge subsection of the Indian diaspora, with the Sikh diaspora making up a significant subset. While Canada is home to the largest Sikh diaspora, the UK is home to the largest Punjabi diaspora with over 700,000 British Punjabis, making up the largest ethnicity among British Asians.
There are over 250,000 Punjabi Americans and Punjabis make up almost 2% of Canada’s population. Political leaders in Canada and the UK have been tracking the protests in India: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and conservative Opposition leader Erin O’Toole both expressed their concerns over the protests last week, which the Indian government termed “ill-informed.”
On December 9, UK parliamentarian Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi brought the protests up and demanded that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson convey the diaspora’s “heartfelt anxieties” to Modi.
Social media has helped spread the messages of solidarity and encouraged wider engagement much faster than traditional community organising in the diaspora once did. . Punjabi youth and activists around the globe have taken on the responsibility of using social media to spread awareness, create art and music, and sell merchandise to raise donations.
Sukhmane Gill, 19, and Samit Bains, 28, started one such Instagram account in October after the farm laws were passed in September. Their account, @kisaani.co, has nearly 10,000 followers and has been sharing information on the farm laws, protest sites, and how to support the farmers with donations.
The account has also been selling merchandise, including hoodies, jackets, joggers, shorts and caps, and forwarding the proceeds to the non-profit Sahaita, which works with farmers in Punjab. As of December 7, they had raised over 20,000 Canadian dollars, around Rs 11 lakh.
“Farming runs in my family, and so we’ve been following what’s happening,” said Gill, an entrepreneur in Abbotsford, Canada. “Our Instagram page is focused on spreading information and news to those who need it, including those who aren’t from the Indian community.”
‘Not about religion’
“This isn’t a religious issue or a Punjabi issue, it’s an Indian issue,” said Bains, a software engineer. “In fact, it’s an issue for farmers globally. We don’t want to give the Indian government an excuse to paint this as a religious movement, and we don’t want to mess it up for protestors in India… We’re happy that Trudeau spoke up — he’s acknowledging our right to peaceful protest here in Canada,” he added.
Surrey in Canada has the largest Punjabi settlement outside of Punjab, where Punjabis make up roughly 42% of the population. After Parmbir Singh, a teacher, attended a rally there, he decided to start an instagram account to educate members of the diaspora – and non-Punjabis about the issue.
Gurpreet Singh, a secondary school science teacher in Yorkshire, UK, pointed out that while agriculture is tied to Punjab’s identity, even some in the diaspora might not be in-tune with reality on the ground.
His research-based organization Saving Punjab raises awareness on significant farmers’ issues in Punjab, like debt, water contamination, and the dangers of pesticides. “We all know that these protests are beyond religion, they’re about the rights of farmers,” he said. “These issues don’t begin overnight, there’s a deeper rooted problem. And agriculture is at the center of it.”
‘Ethos of resistance’
Protestors in the UK also asserted their rights to peacefully protest. Arvind Kumar, a student and independent journalist based in London, said that central London came to a standstill because of the protests.
“I went for the protest on Saturday as well and can confirm that there were not more than 50-80 people. On Sunday, I believe there were more than 5000 people and a few thousand cars that rallied in support of the farmers in India,” he said, adding that police dispersed crowds only for them to gather at Trafalgar Square instead.
While it is largely Punjabi groups and Sikh coalitions who are spearheading protests abroad, organizers are adamant that it is not simply religious or regional solidarity.
“They say that a person who is willing to help others is usually a person who has gone through a lot themselves,” said Parmbir Singh, 28, who is a teacher in Canada. “This isn’t just about religion, but the Sikh people have gone through a lot. We know the danger that comes from twisting the narrative, and that might be why you’re seeing so many Sikhs get involved. We don’t want this to turn into another massacre,” he said.
Writer, activist and professor Simran Jeet Singh said that the Punjabi diaspora is tied to their homeland of Punjab not just because of their cultural affinity but also theirexperience of marginalization, as many members of the diaspora left India in the 1970s and 1980s and remember being targeted for their identity.
“This community has experienced such violence from the state, and therefore has developed an ethos for resistance against that type of violence,” said Singh, who is also author of the bestselling children’s book Fauja Singh Keeps Going. “They know what it means to be targeted and they know what it takes to organize around that. This history and tradition of pushing back has become a point of pride among Punjabis.”
“Part of what we’re seeing here is a reaction to the feeling that this identity is under threat,” he added.
History of resistance
This history of resistance within the Punjabi diaspora finds its roots with the Ghadar Party, which was formed in 1913 by a coalition of Indian migrant workers in California who aimed to overthrow British colonialism in India through armed revolution.
Punjabi Sikhs made up nearly 90% of its membership, and members were encouraged to share the party newspaper, which the British immediately banned. Between 1914 and 1918, the Ghadar Party mobilized nearly 8,000 Indians abroad to return to India to fight the British, who were quick to arrest hundreds of members.
Members of the diaspora also politically and financially supported the Khalistan separatist movement, which sought to create a separate homeland for the Sikhs. The movement came to a head in India in 1984 with Operation Blue Star, when the Indian Army invaded the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out armed militants, and Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards, which led to anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.
That heritage has led the labeling of diaspora protests by many – including the Indian government – as Khalistani efforts, whether they are connected to the movement or not.
Damanjit Singh, a PhD student at UCLA, said that there are usually two kinds of reactions to the word “Khalistani”: people either see it as a point of pride, or distance themselves from its stigma.
“Calling people Khalistani implies that they are anti-national bodies, and basically means that the state has the right to enact any kind of violence on them,” he said, referring to the thousands of who “disappeared” in the years after 1984. The memory of this persecution is still alive for members of the diaspora today, and labelling the protestors “Khalistani” could have resulted in those fears resurfacing.
For many immigrants, swapping nationalities is sometimes necessary — but swapping homelands is not. Many members of the diaspora therefore feel more connected to being Punjabi.
Aatish Taseer, a writer whose mother is Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and father was former Pakistani Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, says the same. “For me, at least, national identities have been difficult. When people ask me if I’m Indian or Pakistani, the truest and easiest thing for me to say is that I’m from Punjab,” he said. “When it comes to nationalities, people have told me that I’m not Indian or I’m not something else, but nobody can say I’m not Punjabi.”
And what does it mean to be Punjabi? At the very least, it’s a connection to a centuries-old identity, says writer and professor Simran Jeet Singh.
“There are all sorts of caveats and pitfalls around how people interpret Punjabiyat and Punjabi identity in the modern Indian context, but this, at least, is true. There is a longstanding cultural identity of being Punjabi and a deep sense of pride that extends far beyond the nation state and stretches back historically before India was even a concept,” saidSingh.
“It feels almost like a base level of identity. In these moments, it’s so powerful: you’ve got people in England, in India, in Canada, in America, and they might be confused over their nationality but they have no doubts about their core Punjabiyat,” said Taseer.