British Columbia·Opinion

Farmers' protests in India are not just about land rights. They're about our very identity

Hundreds of thousands of farmers are vigorously protesting new Indian legislation that they say will push them off their ancestral lands. Raji Aujla and Jagdeesh Mann, both Punjabi-Canadians from B.C., share why the issue matters deeply to the Indian diaspora.

These protesters are defending their culture — and the issues they're fighting have global implications

Protesting farmers shout slogans as they clash with police while attempting to move toward Delhi, at the border between Delhi and Haryana state on Nov. 27. Thousands of farmers in India faced tear gas and baton charges from police after they resumed their march to the capital against new farming laws that they fear will give more power to corporations and reduce their earnings. (Altaf Qadri/The Associated Press)

This is an opinion column by Raji Aujla and Jagdeesh Mann, both Punjabi-Canadians who live in B.C. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Over the past couple of weeks, you may have come across news stories of farmers protesting in India or local support protests in other countries, including Canada.

The farmers, the majority of whom are Sikh, have been protesting legislation in India that deregulates agricultural markets and opens them to private corporations. The farmers fear these "reforms" will lead to the eventual elimination of government price protections, which in turn will push them off their ancestral farmlands.

As descendents of Punjabi-Canadian farmers, we support this protest because the consequences of these bills are far greater than the loss of land assets. They threaten the essence of our culture and identity.

To understand why Punjabi identity and culture are rooted in the land, consider Raji's mother, Gurbakhash Kaur Aujla.

She was raised on her family's land near the Himalayan foothills, as her ancestors were before her. The matriarchs in Raji's family anchored large households and worked shoulder to shoulder with the men on the family's wheat and dairy farms. For them, owning and working the land was integral to living within a culture that holds self-reliance, independence and living in tune with nature in high esteem.

After Raji's mother married, she and her husband immigrated to Canada and, like many other Sikh migrants, carried on their farming traditions. They settled in the Okanagan Valley and helped revive B.C.'s flagging fruit-farming sector, tending to orchards that grew apples, cherries and pears.

Raji Aujla at her family’s apple orchard in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. (Submitted by Raji Aujla)

These farming traditions are passed on to subsequent generations. Although I, Raji, left the farm shortly after high school, I regularly feel its absence, especially at the times of year when the seasons turn. It's a twinge that, I suspect, is similar to what my parents felt when they arrived in this country — a disconnection from the natural world where everything has its own place. 

This rootedness to Earth runs deep in our homeland of Punjab, a lush, fertile, agrarian region intersected by five large river systems. Agriculture is more than a livelihood; it is the bedrock of the region's language, culture and, in our case, our religion.

Guru Nanak — the founder of Sikhism, which emerged from Punjab — tilled his own fields. Metaphors of cultivation, harvests and seasons breathe through every chapter of the Sikh scripture we follow. The coda to Japji Sahib (our morning prayer) contains a homage to nature: "Pavan Guru Pani Pita, Mata Dharat Mahat." This translates to: "Air is the teacher, water the father, and the earth is the great mother." 

Knowing this context is crucial to understanding the depth of anguish and desperation among the tens of thousands of farmers marching on India's capital, New Delhi.

Their sense of identity — economically and culturally — is at stake.

Households in the diaspora have been glued to the news, watching helplessly as this conflict unfolds. Okanagan farmers have reiterated how crucial the land is to their sense of self.

"Their attachment to their land is nothing less than a child's attachment to its mother," said the group that organized a recent rally in Penticton, B.C.

Even now, I, Raji, identify as a farmer's daughter before anything else, accountable to land, not politics. My favourite childhood memories include working alongside my paternal grandfather and my parents during the autumn harvest. 

Gurbakhash Kaur Aujla, right, and her daughter, Raji Aujla, come from a long line of farmers in both India and Canada. (Submitted by Raji Aujla)

So our hearts break when we see Sikh elders — seniors like Raji's grandfather — being attacked with water cannons, tear gas and batons while protesting peacefully in India.

These elders are the freedom riders of this protest, with little to gain personally but with everything to give to the next generation: their plots, their traditions, their humility and their centuries-old way of life that was bestowed upon them.

This standoff between family farmers and multinationals in India is also a standoff between diversity and monoculture, between living locally and living unsustainably.

Our country has long protected its agricultural sector and in doing so protects its local economy. So, when you scroll social media feeds and see videos of the turmoil in India, know that this isn't a local and distant squabble. It's a global issue extending to Canadians as well.

We consume the benefits of these farmers' labour, from the cotton of our crewnecks to the spices in our lattes. Turmeric, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, black pepper, pomegranates — we have Indian farmers to thank for this supply. 

This land is at the heart of Punjab's culture, and without it, Punjab's traditions are imperilled. There is no "market price" that any corporation could ever offer to adequately square the demise of these or any other family farming traditions.

Protesters gather outside India’s consulate in Vancouver on Dec. 2 to protest the proposed regulations affecting farmers in India. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

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Raji Aujla is the founder of Willendorf Cultural Planning and Newest Magazine, focusing on better representation and inclusion of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour voices in Canadian arts, media, and culture. Follow her on Twitter: @goodbeti.