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For Calif. Sikh Farmers, India Protests Cast 'Dark Cloud' Over Vaisakhi Festival

Farmer and organizer, Simranjit Singh and his goat, Rango, at Singh's family almond and raisin farm in Kerman, Calif.
Jonaki Mehta
Farmer and organizer, Simranjit Singh and his goat, Rango, at Singh's family almond and raisin farm in Kerman, Calif.

For Simranjit Singh, spending time in his family's almond and raisin fields is "the most therapeutic thing I could ever ask for." He says it's something he could never give up.

Singh is a 28-year-old farmer in a town 15 miles west of Fresno, Calif., called Kerman.

His extended family gathered on the farm last weekend to celebrate Vaisakhi, a farming holiday celebrated annually on April 13 or 14, and throughout the month.

Vaisakhi marks the spring harvest and the new year for Indians far and wide, but for Sikh Punjabis, it holds deeper meaning. It's when the 10th spiritual leader of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, established the Khalsa, formalizing the Sikh religion.

One of the founding principles of the religion is the idea that a true Sikh will always stand up to injustice. The Vaisakhi holiday brings the connection to both farming and what many Sikhs see as a fight for their livelihood into focus for the diaspora, including Singh.

"[When] I see the farmers and the protesting [in India], I see myself. I see my mom. I see my dad. I see my sister," he says. "If my dad or mom didn't come to America, we would be there on the streets of Delhi."

Since last fall, hundreds and thousands of farmers in India havebeen protesting three agricultural laws that were passed last September by the Indian government. The laws would effectively deregulate wholesale trading.

There has been a long history of tension and mistrust between Indian farmers and the government, which was only furthered when Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government passed those laws without consulting farmers directly.

"Farmers feel that they will be preyed on," says Hardeep Dhillon, who studies Indian emigration patterns at Harvard.

She says they are "worried that these new bills will introduce an even greater sense of precarity to a region where farming families already experience great levels of debt and a series of other political and social issues."

For decades, farmer suicides have plagued rural India, where making a living from farming is increasingly difficult. The Modi government says it sought to help farmers with these laws by allowing them to do business with traders outside of government-run wholesale markets, which have dominated agriculture in India since the 1960s.

But Dhillon says these laws would eliminate the existing legal protections that help shield farmers from corporate interests and volatile markets.

More than half of India's population of 1.4 billion relies on farming for income. The three farming laws passed by a wide margin in the country's parliament, and many millions of farmers do support the laws or do not oppose them. But the issue varies by state and by crop.

Many of the nation's farming unions are dominated by Punjabis. They are some of the loudest voices among Indian farmers at the protests, in part because the new agricultural laws would most severely affect crops like wheat and rice that are grown in the region. The state of Punjab also grows almost 20% of India's wheat with only 3% of its arable land.

Punjabi farmers are an essential voting bloc in the Central Valley of California, too. Last week, an assemblymember in California's House of Representatives introduced a bill recognizing India's recent legislation as anti-farmer policies. State Route 99, which snakes through the Central Valley, is dotted with the occasional billboard of business owners advertising their support for Indian farmers.

Singh hopes to travel to India in the fall to participate in the protests himself, but for now, he says the Sikh diaspora must use their power to amplify the cause farmers in India are fighting for.

Outside of farming full time, Singh works with a Sikh youth organization, Jakara Movement. They have organizedlarge car and tractor rallies all over the state to draw attention to the issue. The Bay Area Kisaan Movement, another organization dedicated to the farmer protests in India, held a protest last weekend to coincide with Vaisakhi.

Singh thinks ongoing international pressure is essential, especially in the midst of the Modi administration seeking to suspend social media accounts that express support for farmers, or criticism of the government's handling of the issue.

"If there weren't any international pressure being put on the Modi and the Indian government right now, this protest would have been probably over a long time ago," he says, adding that the diaspora's role at the moment is to give a second wind to the protests.

Gurjant Gill, who also comes from a long line of Sikh farmers, agrees.

"Farming for us is not a business, it's basically our way of living, our identity," Gill says.

Gill runs a trucking company that transports agricultural goods, but his family still owns farmland back in Punjab.

Gurjant Gill, a trucking company owner and farmer, visits his local gurdwara in Fresno to pay his respects the weekend before Vaisakhi.
Jonaki Mehta / NPR
Gurjant Gill, a trucking company owner and farmer, visits his local gurdwara in Fresno to pay his respects the weekend before Vaisakhi.

Using his connections in the transportation and agricultural industries, Gill has helped organize community groups and leaders to petition the White House to seek support from the Biden administration. Gill says nearly everyone he knows is helping farmers back in India one way or another.

In Fresno, Gill's family and the broader community have been sending money to his village for fuel to get back and forth between Punjab and Delhi to help with protest expenses.

Both Gill and Singh are dedicated to the cause, and Gill says he has maintained his hope for a victory since the beginning.

"If you look at the history of India or Punjab, there's a lot of revolutions that, you know, Punjab [led]," Gill says. "So I'm really hopeful that we will win, the farmers will win this thing."

Singh says his feelings are complicated about the future for Indian farmers, especially during Vaisakhi season, which is meant to be celebratory.

"So now like with this dark cloud looming almost...people are feeling hopeless," Singh says. "If the bills don't get repealed, a lot of bad is going to come out of there, but at the same time, our history, our culture, Punjabi Sikhs, we've had a lot of bad, dark times, and like we're still here, we're still doing it...We're still living how we're supposed to be living."

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Jonaki Mehta
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.