‘This has to end peacefully’: California’s Punjabi farmers rally behind India protests

In northern California, home to a large Punjabi population, residents join backlash against laws ‘shoved down people’s throats’. THE GUARDIAN has has the story

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Sukhcharan Singh on his walnut farm in Yuba City, California. Photograph: Salgu Wissmath/The Guardian
By Summer Sewell | The Guardian |

Sukhcharan Singh grows walnuts in Yuba City, California, about 40 miles north of Sacramento. Like many Sikh farmers in this small Central Valley city, Singh’s thoughts are occupied by the ongoing protests in India.

“I lose sleep over this. When I was there, it was a poor country, yes, but it was a good country,” said Singh, 68, flipping through notes he has taken on the latest news out of India. “Last night I finally slept at 11.30.”

Since the end of November, hundreds of thousands of farmers, mostly from the agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana, have been protesting on the outskirts of Delhi, making the nation’s capital inaccessible for miles. They are demanding that the Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, repeal three laws passed hurriedly by parliament – “shoved down the throats of the people,” as Singh puts it – in September that farmers fear will eliminate regulation, leaving their earnings and livelihoods vulnerable to private investors.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Singh said, looking down past the tip of his long white beard. “On one hand I feel glad I’m here, on the other I feel guilty I’m not there.”

The ties between there and here are self evident. Outside of India, Yuba City is home to one of the largest groups of farmers from Punjab, the birthplace of Sikhism. Roughly half of the 500,000 Sikhs in the US live in California, with the largest concentration living in Yuba City. Nicknamed “Mini Punjab”, the city elected the US’s first Sikh mayor in 2009, and the country’s first female Sikh mayor in 2017. In the first week of November, the city hosts an annual festival honoring the birthday of the first Sikh prophet, attracting over 100,000 people.

It’s no surprise, then, that the largest rally outside India in support of the farmer protests took place not far from here. On 5 December, people from Yuba City and other Central Valley cities including Fremont, Fresno, Stockton and Manteca beat drums, shouted over bullhorns and waved flags that read “No farms, no food”. Thousands of big rigs, cars, and trucks departed from Oakland and snarled traffic for hours on the Bay Bridge, before arriving at the Indian consulate in San Francisco. Other large rallies happened in Washington DC, New York, Chicago, Texas, and Michigan that week; throughout December and January, solidarity demonstrations and caravans of various sizes occurred in at least 16 US states.

Naindeep Singh, executive director of the Jakara movement, a youth-focused non-profit organization that advocates for the Sikh community, spearheaded the protest. “I feel inspired. I see elderly people, my own family members, sleeping in the cold and they’ve been there for months. I feel a deep will to support the efforts in any which way I can,” he said.

Community members have also raised funds to support billboards drawing attention to India’s protests throughout the Central Valley, where Punjabi is the third-most spoken language, after English and Spanish. And there are further plans to advertise on the sides of 500 big rigs.

“I went to the rally in San Francisco in December to show my support for my brothers there,” said Kulwant Johl, 70, a Sikh farmer in Yuba City who leases out his farmland in Punjab. “The farmers [in India] say they don’t need any money, so right now it’s just moral support and talking to local politicians here and seeing if they can help.”

He constantly watches Indian news coverage of the protests on satellite and social media, like many of his neighbors – it has consumed conversations in the community. “That’s all we talk about now,” Johl said.

An estimated 95% of peaches and 70% of prunes in Yuba City are grown by Punjabi Sikh farmers. Johl farms peaches, prunes, pomegranates and almonds. His 800 acres are quite an expansion from the 20-acre plot of his grandfather Nand Singh Johl, who is believed to be one of the first Punjabi men to have settled in Yuba City.

 

Read the full story, ‘’This has to end peacefully’: California’s Punjabi farmers rally behind India protests’ (The Guardian, 8 Feb 2021), here.

 

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