(38) Indian Farmers and the Sikh Community

INTRO: Hi, I’m a Agrita Dandriyal and welcome to Mind Full of Everything, a podcast that cultivates a space for socially and environmentally conscious minds actively striving to achieve greater ecological and community healing for a safer and healthier planet. On today’s episode, I discuss the ongoing Indian farmer protest and the gaps in the agriculture bills approved by the Indian government, which led to public outrage. Most importantly, however, I emphasise on the continued marginalisation of the Sikh community by government that needs to be addressed, by revisiting the history of abuse done against Indian Sikhs. This episode is to raise awareness on the extent to which poor governance can impact minority communities in countries such as India, where conflicts weren’t as widely documented in the past relative to other countries, but also to stand in solidarity with all Indian farmers that want farmer friendly reformation of the Indian agricultural system. 

On the 27th of September 2020, President Kovind passed 3 Agricultural Bills in a bid to revolutionalise India’s agricultural industry. Instead, the governing party BJP received not only national but international backlash for the anti-farmer bills that would affect more than ½ of the Indian workforce that are in agriculture, because these farmer bills seek to privatise the Indian farming industry. The first bill, which has probably received the most opposition, is the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce bill, which allows farmers and traders to have freedom over selling and purchasing outside of the mandi system. The mandi system allows farmers to sell crops like wheat, rice and cereal to the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (the mandis). This committee regulates all agricultural markets in India across every state which is then purchased by the government through the Food Corporation of India and other state level government agencies at a minimum support price, also referred to as MSP. It is MSP that has been an essential support mechanism for the income of farmers, especially those in the state of Punjab. Yet this support is now being removed. In addition, the Farmer Produce Trade bill includes a promotion of interstate and intrastate trade of farmer produce and includes a facilitative framework for electronic trading to reduce the cost of marketing for the farmers. 

The second bill is the Farmer Empowerment and Protection Agreement of Price Assurance and Farmer Services which allows farmers to enter contracts with larger retailers, agribusiness firms and wholesalers at pretty agreed price. It also includes what was mentioned in the first bill, where emphasis has been made on reducing marketing costs through increased farmer access to technology. The last bill is Essential Commodities bill, which looks at removing produce such as cereals, onions, potatoes, pulses and seeds from the list of essential commodities to remove stockholding limits on these items, except under extraordinary circumstances such as war and conflict. The bill also promotes private investment into the farmers sector as well as reducing wastage of farmer produce by creating a competitive agricultural market and introducing modern methods of preserving produce such as cold storage. 

So why exactly are the farmers protesting against these bills that are claimed to “ease” the practice of selling produce for farmers by modernising Indian agriculture? The answer is, it is essentially doing the opposite. These bills will make it much harder for Indian farmers to sell their produce without the safety of the MSP. It is important to know that the MSP is not all perfect. It disproportionately benefits larger farmers than smaller ones, as the latter produce less volume of crops and face higher input costs than larger farmers. The mandi system itself also needs to be reformed; farmers lose between 4-12% of their income through taxes and commissions made by the mandis because of lack of administration, but the system itself cannot be abolished because it provides a safety net for smaller farmers, especially which also includes large subsidies so that farmers know what their minimum household income will be each year. 

The Commission agents (the middlemen) are also beneficiaries of the mandi system. For example, in Punjab they get a commission of 2.5% of total sales from the purchaser, which is the highest commission in the whole country. Therefore, the mandis are also protesting with the farmers to protect the system that provides their source of income. In addition to this, small sections of large-scale farmers have also become commission agents, so again, they’re protesting with the farmers. What’s also important, though, is that many of these commission agents, the mandis, would be the go-to points for financial support for farmers as they would act as moneylenders when commercial banks would refuse farmers to give them adequate funding, or they would charge them high interest rates that they could not afford. 

Essentially, farmers are highly concerned how these bills will play out, the main concern being that at the beginning of the implementation of these bills, private buyers will offer higher, relatively higher, prices than was offered at the mandis prices to attract the farmers away from the system. And once mandis close down, these businesses will begin to exploit farmers, breach contract terms and take advantage of the reduced usage or potential abolishment of the MSP. The government currently is insisting that the mandi system will remain, and so will the minimum support price, but this hasn’t stopped the farmers being skeptical. If everything is going to remain the same, why have these bills being introduced with such heavy emphasis on the privatisation of the agricultural sector. The mandi system and the MSP both help to regulate the farmer industry and these bills, that encourage free trade, destabilise the system already in place. 

Unfortunately, this collective fear of farmers is not new. This fear is a product of the history of mistreatment and marginalization of the farmer community in India, that many Indians like myself have grown up knowing about. Going back to the 1960s, at the start of the Green Revolution that was initiated to tackle the ongoing issue of hunger and poverty, included things like subsidised irrigation and fertilizer usage, rice and wheat variations that required an increased use of fertilisers and also state-led training farmer programs to support farmers during the transition within India itself. The Green Revolution occurred in a few states of India, which included Punjab. To prevent any negative impacts on farmers of the high cost of the transition, state-run mandis that included the MSP was established, although the Agricultural Produce Market Committee was established much later in 2003. 

As many of us know, the Green Revolution, like in many other countries, really disrupted agricultural systems more than it benefited. Whether it was a decline in state support for the new systems, which resulted in surging of prices and debt, the ecological implications of industrialised farming such as degraded soils, biodiversity losses, eutrophication, the falling of groundwater tables, and worst of all, the agrarian crisis of the 1990s that resulted in epidemic of farmer suicides that continue on today

Farmer suicides is a horrific reality that I have grown up hearing about, yet it’s a tragedy that is pretty much being normalised in India, as if it’s bound to happen. Yet many Indians don’t even know what the root cause of the suicides are, which is terrifying in itself. Most people attribute this epidemic of suicides to climate change, and climate change has been linked again and again to farmer suicides. A study by the University of California in 2017 found that up to 60,000 farmers may well have ended their lives over the past three decades due to the scorching temperatures that India has experienced during that time. The study also found that an increase in temperature of just 1°C on a single day during growing season was associated with 67 more suicides. An increase of 5°C in a single day during the growing season was associated with an additional 335 deaths. However, rainfall increases of 1cm each year were associated with the average 7% drop in suicide rate. Therefore, drought-stricken states are worst hit by this epidemic, the main states being Maharashtra, Andra Pradesh, Karnataka and parts of Karela and Punjab.

It has been estimated that more than 300,000 farmers and farmworkers and laborers have killed themselves since 1995, with 2015 being the worst year on record for farmer suicides (around 12,602 reported cases). It’s important to note here though, that this will definitely be an underestimate due to the poor documentation of farmer suicides and the inability of the Indian government of having a set definition of who actually qualifies as a farmer. The farmer registry systematically ignores women, farmers, Dalits (the lower caste) and Adivasis (tribal/Indigenous communities). It also ignores any family members of farmers that have committed suicide as a result of debt. As horrible as the suicides already, the financial struggles don’t end with the farmers life. Often the surviving family have to pay off debt and many adults in that family take out their children from school so that they can start to work to pay off that debt, which can result in other family members ending up in the trap of debt. Or in extreme cases, taking their own lives, and then this vicious cycle continues. 

Climate change and the impact of it on farmers on how it triggers farmers to take their own lives is important. However, a leading cause of these suicides is actually a result of poor governance and a lack of support given to farmers. A 2015 report by Dr Shamika Ravi found that the state of Maharashtra had the highest number of farmer suicides since the 1990s; 86% of them were predominantly cotton farmers. The state government confirmed that 93% of suicides were actually related to debt, but this study pointed out that indebtedness is a weak indicator, and instead we should look at the debt to asset ratios; when these ratios were determined, it showed that poor households had a higher suicide rate than larger asset holdings. So, it’s not just that the suicides are happening, they are repeatedly happening in lower income neighbourhoods. The report also found that sense of burdensomeness towards family is another leading trigger of farmer suicide, and factors causing this can range from illness to debt. But, what’s even more important to highlight here is that this indebtedness is largely a product of privatisation and liberalisation of trade as part of the Green Revolution, where international financial bodies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund encouraged India to adopt these new economic policies to promote rapid economic growth. This resulted in a massive influx of multinationals [to India] but also the abolition of agricultural subsidies that were the backbone of financial support for farmers, especially poorer ones. 

This change in economic policies especially affected Indian cotton farmers that were made extremely vulnerable to crop price fluctuations as India began to transition to cash-crop cultivation and became an export-heavy industry. Many cotton farmers were forced to compete with foreign competitors from developed countries, and one way of competition was turning to highly priced genetically modified cotton crops that promised high yields and resistance to common cotton pests. The infamous example of this is a Monsanto scandal. In 2002, the Indian Genetic Engineering Approval Committee approved the MNC’s BT cotton patented seed and all of its variations that was genetically modified to produce the Baciluss thuringiensis toxin that acts as an insecticide for the cotton pest Bollworm. Many farmers were essentially forced to invest thousands of rupees into these cotton seeds in the hope that it would provide greater financial stability and also competition against these foreign stakeholders. When many farmers had crop failures due to unfavourable changes in weather conditions, the excessive water requirement and pesticide requirement for the BT cotton seed, there was a surge of farmers suicide because farmers just couldn’t pay back their loans for these seeds. Many labeled these mass suicides as a GM genocide, especially when Monsanto refused to be held accountable and wrongfully claimed that other factors such as obligations to marriage of daughters and alcoholism would have resulted in farmers taking their own lives. Not because they were forced to enter this competitive agricultural environment that they were not prepared for and they did not have support for

The ever-changing climate and lack of adequate support from the government has exacerbated the agrarian crisis in India and has perpetuated this effects into the current day. Farmers are protesting because they fear that this horrific history will replay again and they, and we, have witnessed this replay of history with the unjustified reaction of the central government, to national and international backlash of the proposed agricultural bills, particularly through the usage of undemocratic measures to control what is mostly nonviolent protests, whether it was the censorship of the press, internet shutdowns, violent clashes with nonviolent protesters, detention and harassment (as well as abuse and torture) of journalists. This highlights not only major governance flaws, but also the disregard of both farmers and the general public. These measures made multiple human rights violations and yet the Government of India wants to call protesters and everyone supporting farmers as “anti-nationalists”. 

But the reaction of the Indian government to these protests say way more than that. Farmers in Punjab, particularly Sikh farmers and farmers in Haryana, have led the nationwide protests, particularly because the mandi system is very strong in these states, and they also tend to have a higher productivity of crops. This also means that those that are caught in in this clash between police and farmers are more Sikh farmers. The reason why I say that these events are replaying history is because they are mirrored events to the brutalization of the Sikh community.

In the 1970s-80s, there were multiple genocides of Indian Sikhs and the government failed to be held accountable for these horrific events. The first was the attack at the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) in 1984, where innocent Sikhs were caught in a crossfire between the Indian military and extremist supporters of an autonomous national state called Khalistan, that resulted in very violent clashes. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called for the initiation of the Operation Blue Star which was a military crackdown on the Khalistan leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers that sieged Darbar Sahib which compelled the then PM Indira Gandhi to launch the operation. There was a deployment of army tanks, tear gas and 70,000 troops as part of the operation, leading to a blood bath with thousands of Sikhs killed, militant separatists but also the innocent. This is especially painful because June 1st, when the operation was carried out, is when Sikhs across the world commemorate the martyrdom of their 5th Guru, Guru Arjan, who was also the architect of Darbar Sahib, therefore many Sikhs visit the site every year to honour him. Just like every single year, Sikhs gathered in large numbers, many unaware of what will happen within the four days of the operation. Survivors of the massacre mentioned seeing piles of dead bodies, especially women and children, on the ground as the operation played out and it’s unknown just how many were killed. Independent reputable sources have estimated the death toll of at least 10,000, with other sources estimating figures around 20,000, including hundreds of soldiers as well. This operation led to a series of attacks that marked the darkest years in modern Indian history.

On October 31st, in 1984, the same year, Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two of her Sikh bodyguards when she was in her garden in New Delhi, resulting in state sponsored programs just a day after her murder where Hindi thugs, many of whom were young and deployed by senior government officials, went on a murder rampage, killing as many Sikhs as they could find, destroying their properties. These thugs particularly instigated civilian participation as part of their smear campaign against Sikhs. There are so many accounts of the thugs clubbing Sikhs to death, burning down their homes, businesses, their gurudwaras (their place of worship), Sikh women were gang raped. Because these programs were led by government officials, many used property registries to locate where exactly Sikhs were living, where the communities were, so that they could continue on killing them. 

It was a point of time that traumatised all Indian citizens, but of course the Sikh community especially; they had to hide themselves to prevent being killed. They were essentially being held hostage in their own country at the fault of militant separatists. As I was discussing these events with my mum, she told me how she was a first-hand witness of what was happening. She was 10 at that time when the programs happened, it’s still very fresh in our memory. She had to really sit me down to have a very transparent conversation of what really happened. There are a lot of articles on the web that are very misleading in terms of these events, so hearing an eyewitness was very important for me to understand the whole issue. My mum has grown up in New Delhi and you can imagine how bad the situation would have been where the central government was based, where Indira Gandhi was killed. My mom used to live in a neighborhood that was full of Punjabis and Sikhs, so she was very familiar with their culture, their sense of community. She went to school with them, she essentially grew up with them, and absolutely everyone in her neighborhood would live in harmony. The whole neighborhood was very tied together, along with many, many other neighborhoods. So, when she woke up, when the programs haed started, and she saw so many houses on fire, her family decided to take in her Sikh neighbours when they were informed that essentially these thugs were going around to Sikh homes and killing everybody inside. This went on for a few days so the families had to live with them. She told me that these events have left a deep scar inside her mind. Seeing the fear of her fellow sick neighbours and seeing the thousands of innocent Sikhs that were killed, on the news. This is why many Indians just refrain from recalling such a violent history that could have so easily been avoided. Official reports state that within three days of the programs, nearly 3000 Sikhs were murdered at a rate of 1 per minute during the peak of violence. It wasn’t until Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as the next Prime Minister, that these murders were stopped by deplyment of the army.

It’s well enough to say that separatism needed to be stopped to preserve the integrity of the country so that it could function as a multi-state country. As harsh as it sounds, as difficult as it is to swallow, we can somehow, somehow say that the massacre at Darbar Sahib was predicted because encounters between the army and militants will unfortantely kill innocent civilians, and we’ve seen examples of this across the globe. But what Sikhs, and many Indians, complain about is the refusal of the Indian government back then, and even now, to be held accountable for the anti-Sikh violence in 1984. Regardless of who did what, innocent civilians were unnecessarily tortured to death, abused in their homes, and gurudwaras destroyed. And it’s this failure of the Indian government to be held accountable that really exemplifies the bigotry against the Sikh community; had it been Hindus that were massacred the story would most likely be very different. 

Ethnic cleansing is not just something that’s happened in India, but other nations haven’t tried to cut off from their violent histories, and instead used them as examples of what not to do in the future. Countries like Germany, Chile, Argentina, Rwanda, South Africa have all accepted the ethnic cleansing that has happened in their own countries. But India hasn’t. So now when accounts of police brutality are being heard by the rest of the world, non-Indians are shocked at the violence that resulted from peaceful farmer protests. And this is because India fails to acknowledge its dark history, because the Indian government fails to hold themselves accountable for the events. If the government begins to label the 1980s violence as anti-Sikh rather than “riots”, it’ll be the first step towards accountability and justice for the Sikh community. 

Bringing some light into this dark history is very relevant to what’s going on in India right now because it’s no longer just about protesting against the farmer bills. Another smear campaign against Sikhs is starting to emerge with many Hindu fascists calling the protesters “supporters of Khalistan”. All of this is just reopening the old wounds of the Sikh community, especially because members of their community are being detained and killed in the recent clashes. It feels as if history is repeating itself and this is really triggered PTSD for the Sikh Community for sure, but Indian citizens as well. 

Sikhs are one of the most persecuted communities in India and I would say it’s mainly because of their ability to stand up for justice despite the oncoming threat of government bodies. Their commitment in being vocal about their strong disapproval made them targets of oppression for centuries, not just in 1984 or in 2020/21. The reason why I’ve gone into depth about the persecution of Sikhs is because they have always been at the front of farmer protests. They are literally the face of these protests because they’ve always led them so fearlessly, but also because they’ve always stood up for other oppressed communities and farmers that are not just from Punjab.

I can’t help but make the parallel between Black Lives Matter and the farmer protest, that is now becoming a movement. Black Americans and Black people across the world have always stood up against racism for their people and for other people of colour, and so have the Sikhs. But just as we have acknowledged that Black people needed and still need allies to provide momentum to the BLM movement, to bring about systemic change, the Sikh community need the help of other Indians and non-Indians across the world to put pressure on the Indian government to prioritise the safety and well-being of all Indian farmers and to also stop the marginalization of Sikhs. But most importantly, I’ve gone into depth about the persecution of Sikhs because their bloodied histories and the current mistreatment of their community shows how existent the bigotry against Sikhs, by the Indian government is, which is dividing a nation that is very much unified as citizen level. We need to think about the next steps to support the Sikh community and Indian farmers. Which is why I will upload as many petitions, fundraisers, social media accounts and resources I can find on my website mindfullofeverything.com, so that we all can try to help as much as possible. I know we all can feel so helpless when we are so far away, especially during the pandemic where Sikhs can’t be with their relatives, particularly the Sikh diasphora. But we really need to help out as much as possible. 

I think the final thing I would say for non-Indians, especially Indian citizens, which excludes bigots and fascists, are united, and nothing will change that fact. It’s not Hindus that approve of anti-Muslim policies in India or persecution of Sikhs. It’s the poor governance and lack of accountability that resulted in such conflict within the country both in the past and present? I don’t need to explain how unified India is within the Indian public, and will continue to stand up wherever we can for not just our own communities, but every single Indian citizen regardless of their religion, background and cultural differences. 

OUTRO: The Indian agrarian crisis is very close to my heart. As I mentioned in the episode, it’s a crisis that I have grown up knowing about, despite migrating to the UK at the age of 5. It’s a crisis that has been discussed extensively over the years, to the point that the plight of farmers has become normalised and there weren’t any tangible solutions to the problem. With the current protest going on, I had to dedicate this episode just on the crisis and the need for agriculture in India to radically transform so that farmer livelihoods are put before profit. I am still learning, however; this issue is something I will continue on exploring in the future on this podcast, hopefully with an expert in Indian agriculture and how we all can better support the movement for a more just food system in India.

Thank you all for supporting the podcast, I am very excited about the rebrand! I’m finally coming to terms with what the podcast is all about. Please continue supporting the show by leaving a 5* podcast review and purchasing one of my recycled pinned badges to help keep the show running for longer. Connect with me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. You can also connect with me through email on my website mindfullofeverything.com, where you will also find episode resources and transcripts. I hope you are all staying safe and well, and hope to meet you here again in the next episode.