Why We risked Covid-19 to Support Protesting Farmers?

Author: Jasdeep Kaur

Photo Credit:  Bhat Burhan for https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/11/28/india-farmer-modi-agriculture-law-protest/


Last month, our nephew, who is closer to us than a son, and part of our ‘bubble,’ asked us to have our children join him for some relatively safe outdoor winter sports. We balked at the proposition, prompting a gentle reproach from him: ਮਾਮਾਜੀ ਏਨਾ ਡਰੋ ਨਾ (Uncle, don’t be so afraid). He wonders why this week we would avoid downhill skiing during Covid-19, but on the other hand expose ourselves to strangers in taxis and planes as we make our way to join people we don’t know, camped out at the borders of Delhi.

A fair question, indeed. 

We have become increasingly familiar with the farmer morchas over the last six months or so. We first heard the rumblings of them regarding road and train blockages in Punjab, and then more recently the action moved outside of Delhi. Our limited information came through snippets of news, social media posts and conversations with family members and friends, some of whom had joined in the picketing. 

At first, it was difficult to sort through the noise. News is often unreliable, especially since most outlets ingratiate themselves with the government. Instead of speaking truth to power, they spew the state’s propaganda. On social media platforms, a space that generates more heat than light, separating information from rumor is also not easy. However, as the demonstrations grew outside Delhi in the last eight weeks, with help from people we know, a picture began to emerge that defied belief. 

The courage and resilience of the Punjabi farmers was not surprising. However, the extensive cooperation, unity, and camaraderie amongst groups that historically have fought has been amazing. Punjabis are more often thought of as bad-tempered and rarely do we see them so disciplined and organized–especially over such a protracted period. Over thirty farmer groups have been cooperating and doing so for months. Instead of sparring with each other, as they historically have over issues like water rights, farmers from Punjab and Haryana are working together in these protests. 

We were incredulous of reports of amity where friction would be expected. A common slogan heard at the protests (“Kisan-Mazdoor Ekta Zindabad!” (Hurrah for farmer-laborer unity!”) champions unity of farmers and laborers, groups that may often have competing interests. In a world riven by communal passions, seeing videos of Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, the odd Christian and communists sharing a stage, rallying around a common cause, is so unusual. We even heard a few reports of people bonding across caste lines, and shocking news of one farm leader championing the cause of landless laborers. We wonder: how can this fellowship be real? 

Though the protests are unmistakably Sikh in character, the expression of Sikhi seems more about bringing people together, and less about being preachy or parochial. The Sikh farmers who lead the movement have been disciplined, keeping the focus on issues that face all farmers, irrespective of their religious, political or geographical affiliation. One Sikh farm leader explicitly asked that Sikh symbols and expressions be toned down. Instead, Sikh values are manifesting through the courage and service of the protestors, most notably through the langar (inadequately translated as ‘free community kitchen’). Seeing Sikhs serve food to the very armed forces that assaulted them with water cannons and tear gas was a powerful and emotional illustration of Sikh scripture: ਨਾ ਕੋ ਬੈਰੀ ਨਹੀ ਬਿਗਾਨਾ, ਸਗਲ ਸੰਗਿ ਹਮ ਕਉ ਬਨਿ ਆਈ (I see no enemy, no one a stranger, I feel kinship with everyone). Though Sikhs have always historically crusaded on behalf of others without seeking or receiving meaningful recognition, this time so many people are acknowledging that spirit. It’s remarkable to see non-Sikhs shouting Bole So Nihal’ and Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh at the protest sites. 

Most powerful for us has been the videos of so many women, and a few children, passionately and clearly articulating themselves. Their leadership and confidence is inspiring. As parents of young girls, we just had to see this for ourselves. 

As parents, we wrestle with the question: how do we raise thoughtful girls who are confident and have a strong sense of self grounded in their traditions? We are always looking to increase the odds that they resist the inevitable temptations of the modern world to betray their heritage. What might we do that makes them better than their parents at living Sikh values, especially sticking up for the dispossessed and the less fortunate? How do we live up to the noblesse-oblige demonstrated through much of Sikh history, with the possible exception of the last seventy years? 

Noblesse-oblige is the idea that with privilege comes responsibility. It is the “unwritten obligation of people from a noble ancestry to act honorably and generously” towards others. In dynamic and ascendant communities, the noble and privileged take risks, leading from the front to benefit all. Guru Gobind Singh, of course, is a paragon of this principle, and following his lead so many Sikhs of privilege have taken personal risks to lead their community. Whenever that has happened, our community has made tremendous progress (something incidentally true for any community or people). Over the last seventy years, very few privileged Sikhs have taken the risks of leading, leaving activism to the less fortunate. Even now, I doubt we will find many affluent Sikhs or farmers protesting outside Delhi. Given our family’s blessings, what is our responsibility and what examples must we set for our daughters? We struggle every day to answer these questions, uncertain about our own parenting. 

These protests seem to demonstrate so much of what we care about and we had to ask ourselves: will exposing them to this historic event increase the chance for them to keep a strong sense of their roots? Is it prudent to risk getting infected by the virus to take that chance? We reached out to our network for advice and got a range of responses, most counseling caution and a few that encouraged us to risk participation. We had to sort through many messages like: “you don’t need to go… follow it on the news… the girls are too young… wait till you are vaccinated… you don’t have to go, I will take the girls…,” and a few comments at the other end of the spectrum: “living history has a different impact, inspiration compared to reading about it… such an experience will have a lasting impact on the kids… they can’t develop empathy and connection unless they have face-to-face interactions….” One suggestion was profoundly moving: “I think it’s a risk worth taking and it would be an honor to meet these brave farmers that are truly out there ready to give their lives if need be. I would touch their feet and give each one of them a hug if I could. My day starts with an Ardas (prayer) for them and it ends with one. I don’t know whether it’s possible to love a people or place but I do with each and every heartbeat… I think this will be something the girls will never forget, and it will become a part of them.”

We head to the border in an hour or so.