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For many Sikh Americans, India's new farm laws hit close to home

Sikhs in the U.S. often come from farming families who will be hurt by the policies that can lead to loss of land and income — so activists are protesting.

When Aasees Kaur was growing up, she often saw bounties of wheat, cauliflower and tomatoes on her family's farm in Amritsar, a city in the Indian state of Punjab, where her Sikh family has been farming on the same land for nearly two centuries.

She now lives in Cincinnati, but she still has many relatives there whose main source of income is agriculture.

So when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government enacted three laws in September to deregulate the sector, scrapping guaranteed minimum prices for key crops and removing the government as the middleman between farmers and distributors, she joined her family abroad in protest. Kaur, 25, worked with local Sikh activists to organize a car rally this month in Cincinnati, which, despite below-freezing temperatures, drew nearly 1,000 people.

"Farming is everything we are," said Kaur, a community services manager with the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the U.S. "It's afforded us an education and opened up a world full of opportunities. If we were to stay on the sidelines now, that'd just feel so wrong."

Mirroring protesters in India, where hundreds of thousands of farmers have marched to the capital, New Delhi, young Sikh American activists in more than a dozen states have been leading socially distant car caravans to raise awareness about the strife of farmworkers — many of whom are their relatives and friends.

People partook in a car caravan to protest India's new agricultural laws in Denver on Dec. 13, 2020.
People partook in a car caravan to protest India's new agricultural laws in Denver on Dec. 13, 2020.Courtesy Harshwinder Kaur

The Sikh diaspora has been at the forefront of the December demonstrations, because many members trace their roots to Punjab, India's bread basket, and were farmers themselves before they immigrated to the U.S.

Harshwinder Kaur, 26, a law student, helped coordinate a weekend caravan in Denver that brought out more than 250 vehicles. She said organizers routed the march past local news stations to catch reporters' attention. Like many Sikh Americans her age, Kaur has cousins in Punjab who depend on farming to survive and have been protesting since September. Under the new laws, they could lose their lands to agribusiness corporations.

"Being first-generation in America, being proud of being American and having the right of protest has sparked this desire to spread the word about what's happening to our people," said Kaur, whose parents were co-founders of Colorado's first gurdwara, or Sikh house of worship.

Agriculture is integral to India's economy, employing nearly half of the country's workforce. The country has been hurtling toward an agrarian crisis for decades, triggered by ecological and environmental changes. Skyrocketing agricultural costs have forced more farmers into bankruptcy, leading to a spike in suicide rates. For many, the new laws, coming during a market-crippling pandemic, could be the straw that destroys their livelihoods.

"Delhi is solidifying a new economic caste-like system," said Mallika Kaur, author of "Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict." She said the privatization of entire sectors in India, such as health care and education, indicates that corporate interests are expanding at such a pace and scale that they could soon erode most government safeguards.

"The sense that this is a historic moment of enormous unity in the face of the government agendas has inspired many people to join the protests," she said.

About 10,000 people drove across the Bay Bridge from Oakland to the Indian Consulate in San Francisco on Dec. 6, 2020, to show support for Indian farmers.
About 10,000 people drove across the Bay Bridge from Oakland to the Indian Consulate in San Francisco on Dec. 6, 2020, to show support for Indian farmers.Courtesy Sikh Coalition

For some young Sikh Americans, inaction isn't an option when their relatives in India are risking their lives — enduring police violence and sleeping on hay in tractor-trailers — to protect their lands and dwindling earnings.

Young people are uniquely positioned to mobilize the diaspora because they've spent "their whole lives as cultural brokers and are best able to provide fresh perspectives and bring in new groups" of supporters, said Naindeep Singh, executive director of the California-based Jakara Movement, a grassroots organization for Sikh youths.

The group organized a recent protest in the San Francisco Bay Area, where about 10,000 people drove across the Bay Bridge from Oakland to the Indian Consulate in San Francisco. The rally wasn't just for Sikhs — the event featured a diverse list of speakers, with prominent slots for women and leaders from marginalized backgrounds.

"We wanted to get as many people involved as possible," said Singh, who has landowning relatives in Punjab.

In addition to the solidarity rallies, activists have also been putting pressure on elected officials to condemn Modi's government for using water cannons and tear gas against farmers. In the past week, several congressional leaders have written letters to the Indian ambassador addressing excessive use of force against dissidents.

Rupinder Singh, an organizer who helped coordinate a caravan in Washington, D.C., that drew more than 2,000 people, said the laws have triggered such a fevered reaction from the diaspora because they not only pose an existential threat for farmers but also could trigger a hunger crisis.

"They give such unprecedented control of India's food supply to corporations that they'll threaten the food security of all Indians in the country," he said. "It'll have a ripple effect on family members living all across the world."