Jaskaran Grewal: Hey Canada, This Is Why We Are Protesting Here
You should expect farmer solidarity demonstrations in Canada - the signs, the car rallies, protestors in front of Indian consulate buildings - to continue
February 3, 2021 | 2.5 min. read
By now I am sure that you have heard of the world’s largest protest.
Farmers from across India have poured into its capital city in protest of three new agrarian bills. In solidarity, your fellow Canadians rally in major cities across the country to raise awareness for the Indian farmers’ plight. Similar protests have happened all around the world.
You should expect these demonstrations - the signs, the car rallies, protestors in front of consulate buildings and city halls - to continue.
At this point, some of you are probably annoyed and frustrated. You are tired of seeing the car rallies cause congestion and traffic jams and fed-up with your friends flooding your social feeds with Indian content.
You ask yourself, “why should I care?” And then ask, “why do you care? These are Indian laws. This is not a Canadian issue.”
The Sikh diaspora has a deeply seeded and rich history of community engagement, advocacy, and dissent against oppression. All issues centred around need or injustice, are our issues.
Now, you might view this as an overtly romanticized take, especially in the face of international diplomacy, but I assure you that the issues Sikh Canadians are raising go far deeper than mere laws. Your fellow Canadians are also advocating for two distinct issues at play during these protests.
First, many of us are profoundly troubled by the policy issues created by India’s new farm ordinances.
It is important to recognize that a vast part of the Punjabi Diaspora is only one generation removed from an agrarian life. For many of us, our parents were farmers up until they immigrated to Canada (it is likely their first Canadian job was also on a farm), and our grandparents spent their entire lives farming. More importantly, this means a large percentage of Punjabi Canadians currently have families whose livelihood is directly impacted by these contentious bills. As a result, we have a very nuanced understanding of how farmers do business in India. This understanding has shaped our parents’ experiences and has left its mark on current generations as well.
We want to bring attention to the fact that you cannot analyze the new farming bills in a vacuum.
Some have heralded these bills as a modernizing force that empowers farmers by opening up the market. But the reality is that farmers are not even getting the protections provided under current regulations (such as minimum support prices).
Farmers are worried the new bills open them up to further exploitation. The arguments in favour of these bills assume everyone involved is going to play by the rules, but the farmers know that never happens. Beneath the surface of any law in India, there is a system of corruption, crony capitalism, and complexity that has created deep asymmetries in power - the system has always favoured the wealthy and well-connected.
If these bills are enacted, one of the poorest demographics in the country will have to directly negotiate sophisticated commercial agreements with some of the largest corporations in the world. How would you expect these farmers to retain any negotiating power? Collective bargaining? The unions were tear-gassed, beat in the streets, and then they were called anti-national terrorists.
This brings me to the second issue.
Alongside these policy concerns, your fellow Canadians are also advocating against protestor suppression: the violence our families are being met with for protesting against these bills and the spread of disinformation to malign affected communities.
The Punjabi diaspora understands that Canadians can have differing opinions on policy. The right to dissent is one of the most important rights granted by democracy. The freedoms of thought, belief, opinion, and expression are fundamental to Canadian society. This is why, despite how it may make us feel, we understand that other Canadians are entitled to believe in and support the underlying policy behind these bills as a positive force. However, these same freedoms should also inform every Canadian’s beliefs about the right to protest; protestor suppression is the antithesis of these values.
As such, no Canadian can refuse to recognize the injustices being perpetrated against all those currently protesting in India. The violence and suppression tactics employed against peaceful protestors is not just a Canadian issue, it is an issue that threatens democracy everywhere. Including the recent internet shutdowns and arbitrary detention of journalists covering the protest.
Again, it is important to highlight the historic underpinnings that inform the Punjabi diaspora’s experiences and worldviews. Apart from farming heritage, many expatriate Punjabis also share a much darker commonality - they took refuge abroad to flee the violent persecution of Sikhs in India during 1984. The Toronto Raptors’ very own Superfan, Nav Bhatia, is one of them.
The events of a genocide that transpired just 36 years ago have created deep wounds of inter-generational trauma that continue to bleed into the diaspora. There are generations of Canadians born years after the summer of ‘84 who continue to feel a hollow pain they may never fully understand.
It is utterly disgusting to see peaceful protestors, many of whom are our grandparents’ age, being water cannoned, tear-gassed, and beat by police in riot gear. This violence is brutal in its own right, but for the Sikh community, this brutality is further confounded by a deep history of trauma. We have already seen the dastardly effect of nationalist-populist politics when it is directed against minority groups. How the government and police have chosen to engage with peaceful farmers is incredibly alarming. The State’s use of violence to suppress dissent echoes the same disregard for life and liberty that Sikhs were subjected to only a few decades prior. Today, we are not just scared, we are absolutely terrified.
So again, we recognize you may not care for what you perceive only as “foreign laws”, but every Canadian should care about protecting the core principles of democracy. It is a grave injustice to supress dissenting voices with violence, and in the words of Dr. King, “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
This explains why so many of your fellow Canadians are impassioned by the Farmers’ Protest.
The Sikh Community has a deep history of championing dissent and fighting oppression; although we may live abroad, many of us are directly impacted by these farm bills; and most importantly we are advocating to protect lives and ensure that there is accountability.
I hope you will stand alongside your fellow Canadians and others worldwide, not just in a fight against foreign laws, but a fight to protect the sanctity of fundamental democratic principles.
Jaskaran Grewal is a second-year law student at the University of Western Ontario. He is currently summering at a major Bay Street law firm in Toronto. He holds a Master of Management (with distinction) from the Schulich School of Business, and a Bachelor of Sciences (Biomed) from York University. Before starting law school, Jaskaran was a business analyst in the IT industry. He developed data and infrastructure solutions with experience spanning the public, private, and non-profit sectors. You can find him on Twitter at @JaskGrewal.
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