An Interfaith Miracle at India’s Farmer Protests
July 15, 2021
From the 26th of November, 2020, a farmers protest has been in existence on the outskirts of Delhi, India’s capital city. For the past eight months, farmers in the tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, have been fighting three laws that threaten the future of agriculture in the country. These laws empower big agribusiness at the cost of independent medium, small and marginal farmers. These laws came into effect last Fall during the pandemic. The ruling National Democratic Alliance, dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party, used its majority in the legislature to push the laws through without any debate in parliament. Farmers had no say in the drafting of these laws either. Always a precarious profession, many farmers fear for their survival. The protests are being led by a coalition of 40 farmer unions under the banner of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (United Farmer’s Front). The protests have been remarkably peaceful, enjoyed substantial support, and have demonstrated an astonishing degree of endurance. There is also a fascinating story of interfaith leadership.
Religious politics in Northern India, is a fraught affair. There are at least three major religions in the region. Hindus constitute a majority, as they do nationally, and are the dominant religious community. There is a substantial Muslim minority, in the capital Delhi as well as in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. Finally,there are Sikhs. Nationally constituting a small minority, Sikhs form a majority in the state of Punjab. Each ofthese communities are further divided into sects, castes, etc. Differences of language, culture, ethnicity, and class further fragment and complicate these divisions. There is a history of religious conflict in the region. Some of it stretches back in time, much of it morerecent in nature. Anti-Sikh riots in 1984 led to the murder of over three thousand Sikhs. More recently violence has flared between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in 2013, and in the capital Delhi, in 2020. The Bharatiya Janata Party is a self-identified Hindu-Nationalist party. The political scientist Deepankar Basu has demonstrated how India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has been governing a country where hate crimes, especially against Muslims have surged under his watch.
The Indian government has tried hard to weaken and discredit the movement. This has included propaganda on pro-BJP media that has tried to suggest that the Sikh dominated protests are merely a front for Sikh separatism. On the 26th of January this year, when India celebrated the71st anniversary of its establishment as a republic, a group of farmers entered the Red Fort, an iconic late-medieval fortress located in the capital. There a small group of Sikhs raised the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag under the national flag of India. The government’s propaganda machine went into overdrive, condemning the act as seditious vandalism. The activists who raised the flag, and the protests in general were reduced to an epithet, Khalistani (Sikh separatist). More level headed analysis from Abhishek Kaicher however indicates that this was no act of religious separatism or seditious vandalism. The raising of the Nishan Sahib under the national flag of India was an act of inscription. The flag inscribed a Sikh identity for India in the context of a political party running the federal government that self-identifies as Hindu-nationalist. It was an assertion of pluralism, not Sikh separatism. It was understood as such by much of the Sikh community, and the protests continued.
There have been many miracles of interfaith leadership at the protest sites. The civil rights activist Harsh Mander has written about Hindu farmers from Uttar Pradesh, who had perpetrated violence against Muslims during Hindu-Muslim riots in 2013 in the state of Uttar Pradesh, reaching out to their Muslim comrades and seeking forgiveness. On the 6th of December 2020, journalist Rana Ayub tweeted a video of Sikh farmers standing in solidarity with their Muslim comrades offering namaz at one of their protest sites. Through the Fall and Winter, the Muslim community of Malerkotla, a district in Punjab, gained attention for the generosity with which they offered Langar (free meals from community kitchens) to the largely Sikh protestors. One of the Langar organizers, Haji Mohammad Jamil was quoted by the news channel Aaj Tak as stating “We are walking shoulder to shoulder with our Sikh brothers.”
How is this possible? While there is no understating the individual initiative of these interfaith leaders, nor the long history of interfaith leadership in the multi-religious Indian Subcontinent, there is little doubt that these acts have been facilitated by the nature of the farmer protests. Fascists and neo-fascists rise to power using a standard playbook. They appeal to the working poor using a class based appeal; pointing out their very real disempowerment and immesaration. Then, instead of building on that argument and pointing out the role of economic and social structures that lead to these and the need to change these structures, fascists and neo-fascists blame minorities (religious, ethnic, etc.) or resort to xenophobia. This model has thrived in north India leading to the rise of Hindu-nationalist politics as well as facilitating religious conflict. The farmer protests have neutralized this playbook by correctly identifying the true adversaries of the working poor; India’s ruling class. It is this identification that has allowed interfaith leadership to thrive.
The American connection – the farmer’s movement in India has received substantial support from the Indian diaspora, in particular the Sikh diaspora in the country. From celebrities like late night television host Lilly Singh to Sikh congregations in California, Indian-Americans have demonstrated solidarity through marches, artistic expression, and simple shoutouts on social media. The US based Barbadian pop star Rihanna, much to the consternation of the Indian government, also expressed solidarity on social media. It won her a fan following in rural Punjab. But the American connection extends beyond the diaspora and Third World solidarity. The war on independent farming has been waged in the United States since the 1980s. Independent farmers in America, like their counterparts in India, have been committing suicides in staggering numbers. The journalist Vijay Prashad has described the meth epidemic in rural America as a form of slow suicide, driven by the same despair. Even if the farmers in India are unable to stop the juggernaut of big agribusiness, their struggle will remain an inspiration for farmers in the United States and elsewhere, to fight another day. If they are successful, it will change the trajectory of the war on independent farms the world over. Either way, farmer protests in India offer hope to farmers in America. For interfaith leadership in the United States, it opens up a world of possibilities.
Aniruddha Bose is Associate Professor of History at Saint Francis University and the author of Class Conflict and Modernization in India: The Raj and the Calcutta Waterfront (1860-1910) (Routledge 2017).
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