The recent and current media fever about India is, rightly, related to the country’s vicious yet losing battle with the covid pandemic. Headlines continue to expose the grave health crisis and its disastrous handling by the Indian government. All for good reasons too, as India’s total COVID-19 caseload surges past 25 million, the world ought to care.
This new media frenzy, however, has had one severely damaging effect. In turning the world’s attention entirely to India’s pandemic, the media zeitgeist has quickly abandoned and forgotten about the unfinished struggle preceding the pandemic. The world has stopped caring about India’s farmer protests. Let’s not neglect that these protests drew more than 25 million participants worldwide.
If you do not yet know what the “farmer protests” are referring to, allow me to briefly explain.
India’s BJP Government is currently trying to rid the country of its agriculture business safeguards, which are mechanisms previously set up to protect nearly 25% of the country’s workforce—120 million farmers. These safeguards maintained a system in which farmers were allowed to sell their output directly to the government at a fixed price. Without the system, farmers would instead have to enter and compete in the open market. With this privatization, many expect companies to coordinate to repress the market prices of crops and produce. This probably future scenario will drag farmers, many of whom are already just barely getting by, into extreme poverty.
Although many politicians claim that this privatization will create further opportunities for farmers, economic analyses by professional economists show that removing these safeguards will be ruinous for India’s farmers and agricultural workers. Top Indian economist and former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Kaushik Basu, is urging the BJP to stop the movement towards privatization.
The protests have spread beyond the borders of India and into the Western World. Many Indian Americans and Canadians have taken to their own streets to show solidarity to the farmers and stand in opposition, even if thousands of miles away, to the BJP. When watching farmer protests, whether they be in the ones in India, or the ally-protests in Canada or the United States, you will not see a single Indian flag. Why is it so? The Indian government is the villain for the protesters. Instead of an Indian flag, you typically see most of the protesters waving the Nishan Sahib, the flag of the Sikh religion.
Why, then, is the Sikh flag being flown at a protest about the agriculture business? The answer lies in the question of who is the main driving source for India’s agriculture business? India’s breadbasket, the state where the significant majority of its farming occurs, is Punjab. Punjab has a majority Sikh population (the only state where this is the case). As a result, Sikhs make up a significant portion of India’s farming community and have been at the forefront of the farmer protests. Quite simply, the policy change and these protests that ensued are major issues for the Sikh community. You would be hard-pressed to find a Sikh in India who does not know someone in his relatives who is not a farmer. But that is not to say that these protests are an Sikh-only- issue, as people of all backgrounds participate in India’s agricultural workforce.
The BJP, India’s right-wing and ultranationalist ruling party, continues to treat Sikhs as “not real Indians.” As Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, continues his “Hindutva” philosophy, attempting to redefine India along strictly Hindu lines, Sikhs have felt the brunt of its effects, the hatred and vitriol directed against minority groups. In these protests, many think that Modi makes the farmer protests an issue of Hindu pride. The government has become extra reckless in its handling of the protests, mostly due to the fact that they are filled and led by many Sikhs.
The government continues to draw to racism to discredit the farmers. It asks its racist, nationalistic base to hate on and alienate the protesters, not because they are some of the hardest working people in India, but because they are Sikhs. India’s BJP-friendly national media has even referred to the protesters as “terrorists.” The government is trying to shift the narrative from a worker-exploitation one to a Hindu-Sikh one. It has gotten so bad that many Sikh protesters fear violent attacks by the BJP and its affiliates.
These protests would have been handled differently had those protesting been all-Hindu. Although the government would have opposed such protests as well, it is more probable that they would be more open to bargaining and negotiations. It would not have deployed the force and violence it has deployed against the protesters. Violence would have become a last resort, not a first preference like it is now.
That is why the world needs to keep an eye on these protests. That is why the world needs to know that there is more to India than its pandemic. Without global support in solidarity with India’s farmers, Modi will feel encouraged to accelerate his revisionism because the world is not watching or listening. For Modi, this is an issue of pride. He does not want to lose his spiritual battle and will not give up. The world needs to send a clear signal to the protesting farmers that we have their back and want them to keep fighting. Modi needs to know that everyone is watching his every move.