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So far, yet so near

Zsuzsanna Vári-Kovács | Updated on December 22, 2020

Standing tall: “God gives us the ability to fight back, so we should,” Vikram Chhabra says.   -  IMAGE COURTESY: Vikram Chhabra

The Sikh diaspora has launched into action — collecting donations, organising rallies and posting news updates — in support of the Indian farmer

* What inspires Hayre and her peers across the world to stand up for the Indian farmers is a sense that they are witnessing history in the making one of the biggest peaceful protests of all times in the world’s largest democracy.

* The farmers’ protest has been an opportunity to bring the new generation closer to their roots. Armed with a dual identity and a commitment to protecting human rights in the country of their origin, young Sikhs, often second- or third-generation immigrants but first-generation digital natives, are leading the way.

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Raminder Hayre’s medium of choice is Instagram. This is where the 29-year-old Vancouver-based lawyer breaks down India’s farming laws into laymen terms, and posts sections from the Indian and the Canadian Constitutions that uphold the right to peaceful protest.

We care: Protests of solidarity seen on the streets of Vancouver   -  IMAGE COURTESY: RAMINDER HAYRE

 

“We have a duty to our families who gave us a privileged life we know what it took for them to come here,” she says. Hayre is a second generation Punjabi immigrant and she grew up advocating for minorities and women’s rights at university.

One of her goals is to frame the ongoing protests of farmers in a way that is relatable to her largely Canadian Indian audience. “Culturally, Punjabis are known for farming even in Canada a lot of farms in British Columbia are run by Punjabis and we celebrate Baisakhi,” she says.

She has also reached out to local news stations that broadcast inaccurate data. “Mainstream media in Canada got a lot of complaints for being biased as they rely on Indian State media, but they are better now,” she says. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s public support to the farmers has gone a long way in boosting the morale of those like Hayre.

“We are happy to see our PM to stand up for the right to protest peacefully. He knows how passionate we are about our culture, and for him to stand behind us is heart-warming for many of us,” she says.

What inspires Hayre and her peers across the world to stand up for the Indian farmers is a sense that they are witnessing history in the making one of the biggest peaceful protests of all times in the world’s largest democracy. December 26 marks a month since the farmers began gathering on national highways entering Delhi, blocking several entry points to make their demands heard. Repeal the recent pro-market farm bills passed in the Lok Sabha and make the government procurement of produce at minimum support price (MSP) a legal right, they have been saying, unwaveringly. But despite several rounds of talks with the Centre, the impasse continues.

As cold winter dusk gathers and protesters huddle around fires on the outskirts of Delhi, their allies around the world are launching into action collecting donations, organising rallies, writing poems, articles and letters of advocacy to Indian embassies and disseminating information on social media round the clock. The Sikh diaspora’s commitment to the farmer’s cause might be rooted in the past. But their efforts to secure a brighter future for their brethren anchors them back home. Though they live thousands of miles away, they too are ready for the long haul.

Ties that bind

Farming has been a part of life for the Sikh community for generations. Hailing from Punjab and Haryana where most of the population lives off agriculture, the ties between the land and its people are strong. Over the last century, more than a million Sikhs migrated to live around the world the biggest groups are in Canada, the UK and the US. Their subsequent generations continue to see themselves as children or grandchildren of farmers, and many have family members still working in the fields back home.

Vikram Chhabra, a technology professional who has lived in the US for 26 years, sees himself an American with roots in Punjab. “Punjabis are a truly global community, and this gives us a unique perspective and a greater degree of openness to knowledge. My grandfather fought in World War I and came home with new ideas about mechanisation and the importance of an education for his daughters,” Chhabra says. He also believes that standing up for injustice and oppression is key to the Sikhs’ self-perception. It strengthens the sense the community in the US, as well.

“God gives us the ability to fight back, so we should,” he says, summarising the philosophy.

There is a sense of empowerment in Punjabi culture linked to the egalitarian spirit of Sikhism that inspires the type of action the farmers’ protest has now come to symbolise: Peaceful, confident, bottom-up, a bit like a David vs Goliath struggle.

For many Sikhs overseas, supporting the farmers is more than just about expressing solidarity. While most people generally acknowledge and understand the need for reforms in the agricultural sector, they question the new farming laws and the way they have been implemented by the Indian government.

“The fears of small-scale farmers are legitimate, and crony capitalism is a real danger to an already vulnerable people plagued by debt and suicide,” Chhabra says.

The 1984 anti-Sikh violence — when thousands of Sikhs were killed by mobs in many parts of India — also underlines the need for justice, members of the diaspora stress. “It left wounds which still remain and a request for fairness and accountability for the crimes committed,” he says.“There is no conflict between Hindus and Sikhs, but as a minority, we feel anger and fear seeing the human rights violations against Dalits, Christians and Muslims,” he says.”

Taking back the narrative

It was an unconventional idea back in the 16th century when Guru Nanak said: “He who regards all men as equals is religious.” But now it is principle that holds mass appeal not only with the farmers offering langar to the policemen on Delhi’s streets, but also with the Sikhs living in the West.

On Facebook, Punjabi-language channels and millennial Sikhs overseas are more than happy to take up their keyboards. Gurnam Singh, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Warwick and a presenter at the UK-based Akaal Channel, is at the forefront of these efforts. He shares a curated daily news update and presents information in relatable ways to “take back the narrative” and “make the Indian media’s propaganda machine laughable” by showing that this is not a protest by illiterate, uneducated farmers, but by well-informed and articulate citizens who know what they are fighting for.

The same “mature approach” applies to the rallies, as well. The diaspora firmly pushes back against any insinuation that support for the farmers is rooted in separatist feelings. “Khalistan activists were pushed aside in the Toronto and London rallies by the majority saying that if you bring religious identity to the table, you play into Narendra Modi’s hands,” Singh holds. Though the issue of Khalistan is clearly important for some diaspora Sikhs, in terms of the current protests, those like Singh believe that it has been deployed as a propaganda tool by the government to discredit the farmers movement. He is also keen to point out that “the sophistication of the diaspora is more crucial than ever before in reframing the issue in an articulate and moderate way” for the international media.

Identity beyond religion

Bikramdeep Singh Pannu was seven years old when he moved with his parents to Norway in 1988. Today he supports Unge Sikher or Young Sikhs, an organisation that works with the youth of the Norwegian Sikh communities, many of whom fled the insurgency in Punjab in the eighties. The network helps young Sikhs participate in a dialogue about questions of identity and faith. There are 7,000 Sikhs in Norway and the non-profit is working to raise awareness awareness for them in three languages Punjabi, Norwegian and English with the help of Facebook livestreams, posts, explanatory slides, and a video in the making. On December 6, Pannu supported a privately organised, Covid-19-compatible car rally in support of the farmers during the icy Scandinavian winter. Two hundred cars showed up a huge turnout for a small community spread out across Norway.

The farmers’ protest has been an opportunity to bring the new generation closer to their roots, feels Pannu. Armed with a dual identity and a commitment to protecting human rights in the country of their origin, young Sikhs, often second- or third-generation immigrants but first-generation digital natives, are leading the way. “The protests have stirred a Punjabi identity beyond religions, a sense of unity and brotherhood,” he says.

Some weeks ago Pannu, who works at the accounts department of the University of Oslo, transformed his Instagram account into a dedicated news channel on the situation in India. He spends all his free time gathering information to share and translating it for his followers.

“Informing people is what will allow the movement to keep the momentum going and for us to send a message to the protesting farmers that there is a diaspora who cares about you,” he says.

He grew up hearing family stories about the 1947 partition and the 1984 riots. His great-grandfather was a freedom fighter and a poet. “You have to be blessed to take part in a revolution. That chance is not given to everyone,” he would tell his family. For Pannu and many others, this feels like their chance.

Zsuzsanna Vári-Kovács is a writer and development professional based in Yangon

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Published on December 22, 2020
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