As hundreds of thousands of farmers stake out India’s capital as part of a monumental protest rejecting agricultural reforms, Canadians are rallying in support.
From the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia to Winnipeg and Charlottetown, hundreds of people have participated in demonstrations this month, driving their vehicles down major roadways with signs declaring “No Farmers, No Food, No Future” and “We Stand With Farmers.”
This largely spontaneous show of strength has helped draw the attention of Canadian politicians, said World Sikh Organization of Canada’s Jaskaran Sandhu.
Canada’s Sikh diaspora — one of the largest in the world — will continue its demonstrations alongside their loved ones in India, said Sandhu.
“We are inspired by the bravery shown by our brothers and sisters, our mothers, our fathers, our grandparents in braving police brutalities,” he said. “They marched in what has become a historic and iconic journey.”
Last week, farmers marched using tractors and on foot from Punjab and Haryana states to New Delhi. Police fired tear gas and water cannons at them, as governments ordered the destruction of sections of highway to stop their progress.
In the capital, police patrolled in riot gear, while farmers blocked key highways and intensified protests by calling for a nationwide strike on Tuesday, supported by 450 farmer unions and organizations and as many as 250 million Indian workers.
“I think it’s important for Canadians to understand why,” Sandhu said. “Why are their fellow citizens and residents of this country so worked up about this issue happening halfway across the world?”
Why are Indian farmers protesting?
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government passed new agricultural laws this year that dismantle decades-old protections for farmers, including guaranteed minimum prices for crops.
Farmers say the reforms favour corporations and will result in low crop prices, making it impossible for them to earn a living.
Modi’s government says change is necessary for India’s development and the new laws give farmers more freedom to sell directly to stores.
While the majority of farmers protesting are Sikh, nearly 60 per cent of Indians depend on small-scale agriculture for their livelihoods.
What’s “absolutely bonkers” is that the Modi government did not get farmers’ input on the reforms, said Sandhu.
“Farmers have been calling for reforms for decades. The issue is that the reforms the national government is bringing is not the reforms farmers have been calling for and doesn’t solve the issues that have been plaguing farming.”
These issues include widespread poverty, ecological damage, climate change and water shortages, all of which threaten food security.
How has Canada’s government responded?
All three of Canada’s major party leaders have spoken out in support of Indian farmers’ rights to peacefully protest.
“The world is watching as farmers from across India, a large number from Punjab, gather in India’s capital, protesting so they can earn a livelihood,” said NDP leader Jagmeet Singh in a video he tweeted last week. He’s the son of Punjabi immigrants.
“The world is watching when those peaceful protesters were met with violence and brutality by the Indian state. And now the world is watching as discussions continue to see whether or not farmers will be respected.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the situation as “concerning” at a virtual Nov. 30 event celebrating the birth of the first Sikh guru. He said Canada has reached out to the Indian authorities to voice those concerns.
“Let me remind you, Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest,” Trudeau said. He reiterated that stance twice in December, including after the Indian government decried his comments as “interference.”
India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement, “Such actions, if continued, would have a seriously damaging impact on ties between India and Canada.”
What bigger issues are at play?
The Modi government has become increasingly resistant to criticism in the last year, cracking down on dissent and passing controversial laws.
Authorities conducted several raids on activists’ homes as well as media and non-governmental organization offices in October, which Human Rights Watch called “authoritarian tactics.”
The United Nations human rights chief criticized India for cracking down on organizations such as Amnesty International India and arresting outspoken critics and activists.
“Constructive criticism is the lifeblood of democracy. Even if the authorities find it uncomfortable, it should never be criminalized or outlawed in this way,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in a statement.
Canadian Sikhs are concerned about how the Indian government might use violence and mass arrests to quell the farmers protesting, said Sandhu. Less than 40 years ago, a military assault on civilians killed thousands of Sikhs and triggered a genocide.
“We have the concern of the violence and history of genocide in our country and then you look at the Modi government acting with a more authoritarian tinge everyday,” Sandhu said.
“We have concern for our brothers and sisters on the frontlines who are literally risking their lives to take part in a peaceful protest for their way of life.”
One way to keep violence at bay is to attract international attention and scrutiny, which is why, Sandhu said, Canadains will continue to demonstrate their support for Indian farmers.
UPDATE - Dec. 10, 2020: This story was updated with recent estimates of the number of Indian farmers staking out New Delhi and workers striking in solidarity.