By Kate Bouchard
CONTENT WARNING: This article contains mentions of suicide, violence and sexual assault.
Malala Yousafzai has been quoted as saying “If people were silent, nothing would change.” This past year has emphasized the power of this sentiment. Uprisings and protests have been happening across the globe - activists standing up against injustice, diverse politicians working to dismantle from within, climate change advocates crying out for the future of our planet.
As 2020 came to a close, the world would turn its attention toward India.
Since September, hundreds of thousands of farmers have been protesting recently-passed laws that prioritize corporate interests and deregulate the farming industry in India. The scale and ongoing nature of this uprising has been monumental, with the protest being called the largest in the history of the world, ever. Drone footage from the Punjab region demonstrates the massive scale of the protests.
Farmers in India have struggled to make ends meet for some time. In fact, it’s been reported that since the 1990’s more than 290,000 farmers have died by suicide in India; taking their own lives due to insurmountable debt and the inability to feed and care for their families. Many fear the new laws will allow big corporations to take control of the market, leaving farming families vulnerable to further exploitation, worsening these tragedies.
These protests have moved activists globally. In Canada, which has a Punjabi population of over 700,000, protests have been organized to show support for farmers and family back home in India. In the United States, Sikh American activists organized socially-distanced car caravans to raise awareness.
The government putting laws in place that could further decrease already miniscule margins feels personal for Sikh farmers, in more ways than one. Since most of India’s Sikh population lives in Punjab, the country’s main agricultural state, a large portion of the protesting farmers are of the Sikh faith. Not only are livelihoods being threatened in an environment where many can barely survive, but this has also been re-traumatizing due to religious conflict and human rights issues from the past.
Sikh people have historically been the target of mass killings at the hands of Congress and government officials. In 1984, the Indian Army was ordered to attack Sikhs in their holy ground of the Golden Temple in retaliation for the revenge assisnation of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. According to the Human Rights Watch “over three days, at least 2,733 Sikhs were killed, their property looted and destroyed. Many women were raped in the capital. Hundreds of Sikhs were killed elsewhere in the country.”
In January 1985, Citizens for Democracy investigated the riots and concluded that the violence was not spontaneous but was organized by members of the Congress Party. The 2005 Nanavati commission also found that the1984 violence against Sikhs was systematic and organized, with those responsible being told not to fear the police and likely receiving assurances that they would not be harmed or held responsible for their acts.
“Male members of the Sikh community were taken out of their houses. They were beaten first and then burnt alive in a systematic manner. In some cases tyres were put around their necks and then they were set on fire by pouring kerosene or petrol over them. In some cases white inflammable powder was thrown on them which immediately caught fire thereafter.”
Decades later, despite advocacy from groups such as Amnesty International, there has been no justice, no formal acknowledgement, and no apology for the 1984 Sikh Massacre. Amnesty notes they receive many reports of human rights violations in the Punjab region to this day.
Today, peaceful protestors at the Farmer’s Protests have been met with barricades, water cannons, tear gas, bullets, and the instigation of violence by police. Thousands have been injured. In addition, food and water supplies have been stopped in an attempt to starve the protesting farmers. In January, the government restricted the internet in an effort to halt communication with the outside world, and false propaganda is being disseminated by state-owned media outlets.
Protestors are reporting that they have been abducted, assaulted, and tortured.
The story of Nodeep Kaur came to light internationally after the twenty-five year old Indian Labour Rights Activist was arrested on January 12th 2021 at a protest outside of Delhi. Nodeep’s older sister told the BBC that she "...was beaten by male police officers publicly and they dragged her by her hair into the police van. The next day when I met her in jail, she told me she was beaten inside the van and at the police station. She was slapped and punched, and hit with shoes and sticks, including on her private parts, resulting in heavy bleeding for days.”
Nodeep was originally accused of attacking the police, and since has been formally charged with the serious crimes of attempted murder, extortian, and trying to take a gun from an officer.
In February, 22-year-old Disha Ravi, was arrested by Delhi police for editing lines of a Google Doc toolkit that was shared on Twitter by climate activist Greta Thunburg.
There have been outcries from within India as well as internationally, that this arrest was another example of India silencing free expression and dissent, seemingly targeted toward young female Indian activists.
The situation in India continues to evolve, with religious conflict, caste systems, gender discrimination, economics, and human rights making for complex and multi-layered issues behind the farmer’s protests. One thing is for certain - speaking out against injustice is the only way to elicit change. If the last year hasn’t taught us that, it hasn’t taught us anything.
What can you do to support the Farmer’s Protests, human rights and freedom of expression in India?
- Read - This statement from Amnesty International “India: Government must stop crushing farmers’ protests and demonizing dissenters”
- Share with others - Educate others once you’ve familiarized yourself with what’s happening.
- Amplify - Share vetted posts on social media and news stories from trusted media outlets.
Additional sources and further readings:
BBC: Indian Farmers and Suicide - How Big is the Problem
Business Insider.com: India has a farmer suicide epidemic — and farmers are protesting new laws…
Vancouver Sun: Farmers’ mass protests in India cut deeply across Canada
Amnesty.org: India - Human Rights Violations in Punjab
Human Rights Watch: India: No Justice for 1984 Anti-Sikh Bloodshed
Time.com: It's Time India Accept Responsibility for Its 1984 Sikh Genocide
NBC News: For many Sikh Americans, India's new farm laws hit close to home
BBC: Nodeep Kaur: The jailed activist Meena Harris tweeted about
BBC: Disha Ravi: India activist arrest decried as 'attack on democracy'
Marketing and Brand Director (she/her)
Kate is Founder + Principal of Armature Collective, where she leads a team of creative freelancers in delivering marketing and branding strategy for clients. She holds a BBA in Marketing Management, and various leadership training certifications from Royal Roads University.
Kate believes strongly in giving back to arts and community services, and has served in numerous community leadership roles on board of directors for non-profits. In 2019, Kate was nominated for the Women of Influence RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award. She is also a writer, actress, filmmaker, and coach, and has been featured in Huffpost Canada, Vitamin Daily, Business in Vancouver, and Mother Muse magazine.