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Why the Plight of India’s Farmers Should be a British Cause Too

Minreet Kaur speaks to those living in Britain, with land and families in India, about the impact of the Modi Government’s controversial agricultural reforms on them

A protestor in India in February 2021. Photo: SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

Why the Plight of India’s Farmers Should be a British Cause Too

Minreet Kaur speaks to those living in Britain, with land and families in India, about the impact of the Modi Government’s controversial agricultural reforms on them

Footage of Indian farmers protesting over three new agricultural reforms being introduced by Narendra Modi’s Government, and their suppression, has gone viral around the world.

In the UK, the issue has been raised at Prime Minister’s Questions, although the Government has failed to respond. But, the UK diaspora of the former British colony – the Empire’s ‘jewel in the crown’ – want their voices to be heard.

More than 250 million Indian workers have been participating in nationwide strikes to protest against new laws which will change the way India’s farmers do business. Taken together, the reforms will loosen rules around sales and pricing – rules that have protected India’s farmers from the free market for decades. 

Their stand has captured the hearts of many around the world – from the climate activist Greta Thunberg and pop star Rihanna speaking out on social media, to those taking to the streets in their own countries to register their support.

In the UK, British Indians have been watching the acts of violence against those standing up unfold. Activists have been sexually assaulted, others arrested for speaking out. Farmers have gone missing.

Sunita Hayre, a data analyst in Hertfordshire, says her distance from India has intensified her urge to protest more loudly in solidarity with the farmers, including around her concerns about the Indian Government’s anti-protest propaganda.

“I am the granddaughter, niece, sister to farmers in Punjab – some with very little land,” she told Byline Times. “Families in India already struggle with healthcare and education fees. These laws will force most farmers into poverty and they will only benefit the rich corporates: their greed is killing farmers and their families.

“Seeing elderly farmers bravely sleeping on the frozen highways of Delhi hurts. I see them like my own grandparents. It affects me seeing the injustice, violence, media censorship and constant tarnishing of them. The poorest farmers are protesting for their livelihoods, yet the Government has funded hate campaigns to tarnish their efforts.”

Gurdev Singh, a 70-year-old former farmer who came to the UK in 1967 and lives on a farm in Northamptonshire, has family land in India – not an uncommon set-up for Indians living in the diaspora. He says that farmers “are self-sufficient in Punjab and yet the Government wants to take that away from us”. 

“In Punjab, the land is ours and it gives us freedom,” he told Byline Times. “Once the land is taken away from us, we are helpless. The land is in our blood. We are being stripped of our wealth. I have 23 acres of land in India and this will affect me in a big way. I feel proud of how we Sikhs are protesting; we can’t be oppressed.”

Suffolk-based farmer Kuldeep Singh, who owns 20 acres of land in Punjab, told Byline Times that he is worried for his brother, a farmer in India, who is “heartbroken” at the proposed reforms and what they have led to.

“Hundreds have died and many are sleeping in freezing nights on the roads,” he says. “The Government has also shut down electricity, internet, water and people are struggling to find toilet facilities while protesting.”

The UK diaspora is determined to continue pushing its Government to offer support to India’s farmers. A petition – urging Boris Johnson’s administration to call on the Indian Government to ensure the safety of protestors and press freedom – will now be debated in Parliament, having attracted more than 100,000 signatures.

“India is the world’s largest democracy and democratic engagement and freedom of the press are fundamental rights and a positive step towards creating a India that works for all,” it states.

Two British Indian men have been camping in their back garden since December to show solidarity to the farmers. Meanwhile, billboards with the message ‘Do You Know About the Farmer’s Protest?’ are being erected in London and the Midlands.

Sarabjit Singh, an Indian-born farmer now living in the UK, owns 25 acres of land in Kharer. He told Byline Times that his family’s livelihoods in India “will be ruined because of these farm bills”. 

“During World War Two, my grandfather went on the frontline and his family received additional land after he was martyred during the war,” he says. “My elderly family still farms and so do the younger generation. They have other jobs but still keep the family tradition of farming alive. It hurts me to see my family in this pain.”

Happy Chhokar, who lives in London and whose family has land in India, says the “sadness in my father’s voice echoes in my head at night”.

“I feel useless and trapped,” he told Byline Times. “My mother’s emotions are like a rollercoaster. She is hurting, we are all hurting. We visited Punjab almost every year when I was a child. I have so many fond memories. We didn’t have much, but it was always enough. Knowing that the Government of India is taking away the small amount some of these farmers have has left me feeling helpless.”

Labour MP Preet Kaur Gill, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, is lobbying several MPs to raise awareness of India’s farmers’ protest and a cross-party letter signed by 100 politicians has been sent to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. The letter asks Raab to meet them and set out the UK Government’s plans in response to the protests.

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