Punjab’s Kisaan Under a Modi Government

Haadiya Ahmed, Editor

Punjab’s kisaan movement is the largest general demonstration in human history. An estimated 250 million people took action, that is 1 in 4 working persons. [1] And the protests continue to this day. 

In September 2020, Prime Minister Modi passed the Indian Agriculture Acts of 2020, or the Farm Bills, as an attempt to deregulate markets and “ensure a complete transformation” of India’s agriculture sector. [2] However, the impact of these policies is severe for small farm holders who control more than 86% of India’s farmland. By limiting the bargaining power of small farmers, the state puts them at risk of exploitation when negotiating their produce to larger companies. Currently, Indian farmers have the right to sell their products to the government at a ‘minimum support price’ which safeguards the farmer to a minimum profit if the open market sets a lower price than the cost incurred. New farm bills dismantle this MSP system, forcing millions of farmers to sell products to agribusiness corporations. [3] 

To contextualize the issue, we must observe the role of organized mandis in the state of Punjab. Mandis are government-controlled, physical sites for transacting agricultural produce, or large wholesale markets, that serve as a focal point for farmers to sell commodities at assured floor prices. New policies can lead to a dismantling of these mandis as private buyers are able to demand produce at fluctuating prices. Although farmers in other states, like Bihar, already sell to private players, the bills set a national framework that all farmers are forced to abide by. Multan Singh Rana, a farmer from Punjab, states, “First, farmers will feel attracted towards these private players, who will offer a better price for the produce. The government mandis will pack up meanwhile and after a few years, these players will start exploiting the farmers. That’s what we fear.” [4] Another farmer, Sukhdev Singh Kokri, echoes these concerns by saying, “This is a death warrant for small and marginalised farmers. This is aimed at destroying them by handing over agriculture and market to the big corporates. They want to snatch away our land. But we will not let them do this.” [5] Evidently, poor farmers face immense costs and hold legitimate frustrations towards the Indian government.  

Demonstrations initiated in late November of 2020 when farmers from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana set out to converge in New Delhi. Millions of farmers, including women, children, the elderly, all united in protest against the state’s corporatization of their lands. However, the Indian state was quick to intercept them from entering at the city’s borders, denying them of their right to gather and protest. Protestors were confronted with repeated acts of violence and aggression by state law enforcements who fired tear gear and water cannons, injuring thousands in the process. Social movements in the past year reveal the repressive nature of democratic states like the United States and India— calling for solidarity amongst Black and Brown communities worldwide

These protests transcend mere complications between farmers and the Indian government. It is necessary to underscore a key characteristic of the movement: the majority of farmers protesting are predominantly Punjabi Sikh and are fighting against a government that promotes a nationalist agenda based in Hindutva ideology. Arguably, these anti-farmer bills are a tool for Modi to suppress minority rights in India and promote religious nationalism in what is supposed to be the largest secular democracy in the world. The state’s immediate brutal response to the movement through police brutality demonstrates the fundamentally anti-democratic, and thus anti-Indian nature of Modi’s government. Religion and politics are central to this movement and fuel the large mistrust and suspicion citizens hold against the state’s action; this must be addressed to advance any effective change.

Community-centered support and collective action from Sikh communities has been instrumental in sustaining these protests and protecting protestors in the face of state reprisal. Seeing that major Indian actors are silent on the matter, the Sikh diaspora has taken the lead in raising awareness of the movement via social media. [6] Sikh Punjabis worldwide are calling out community members who regularly consume Punjabi culture, yet fail to stand up for their rights. Ramanpreet Kaur, a Sikh Punjabi woman from New York, says this fight is for her “grandparents and parents who have lived through so many hardships and kept the farming culture alive in our families to provide for us.” [7]

Well, why else does this matter? The Kisaan movement is an international phenomenon that affects you too. India is the world’s leading producer of agricultural products; everyone, including you, depends on the Punjabi kisaan in their everyday life. This movement challenges Modi’s government and prompts immediate action on part of the state and the international system. It is our global duty to fight against the exploitation of the communities that feed the nation and the world. Take action with the following organizations to play your part in this movement:

Sahaita: https://sahaita.org/ 

Khalsa Aid: https://www.khalsaaid.org/news/farmers-protest-2020 

United Sikhs: https://unitedsikhs.org/category/farmersprotest/

[1] Ravi Agrawal, “Why India’s Farmers Are Protesting,” Foreign Policy, December 10, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/12/10/india-witnessing-biggest-protests-history-modi-farm-reform/. 

[2] Jariel Arvin, “Why Tens of Thousands of Farmers Are Blocking Roads into India’s Capital City,” Vox (Vox, December 2, 2020), https://www.vox.com/2020/12/2/21726648/india-farmer-protests-strike-action-new-delhi. 

[3] Kaushik Basu, “India’s Farm Laws Are a Global Problem,” Brookings (Brookings, February 19, 2021), https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/indias-farm-laws-are-a-global-problem/ .

[4]  “Farm Laws: ARE India’s New Reforms a ‘Death Warrant’ for Farmers?,” February 16, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-54233080.  

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Mayank Bhardwaj and Manoj Kumar, “Sikh Diaspora Drums up Global Support for Farmers’ Protest in India,” Reuters (Thomson Reuters, December 18, 2020), https://www.reuters.com/article/india-farms-protests-diaspora/sikh-diaspora-drums-up-global-support-for-farmers-protest-in-india-idUSKBN28S0Y6. 

[7] Alisha Ebrahimji, “Thousands of People Are Protesting with Farmers in India. This Is Why You Should Care,” CNN (Cable News Network, December 12, 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/11/world/farmer-protests-india-protests-hnk-trnd/index.html. 

Image: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/farmers-protest-across-india-against-laws-liberalizing-agricultural-markets-n1250343