As It Happens·Q&A

Canadian solidarity rallies give Indian farmers 'immense strength,' says politician

The spokesperson for an Indian political party is thanking Canadians and others around the world who have taken to the streets in solidarity with Indian farmers.

'I would thank the people of Canada, Punjabis and non-Punjabis alike,' says Shiromani Akali Dal spokesperson

On Dec. 5, Sandeep Singh, centre, a farmer from Rauni village in Ludhiana district of the northern Indian state of Punjab, shouts slogans during a rally along a road blocked by police to stop farmers from marching to New Delhi to protest against the central government's recent agricultural reforms. (Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images)

Transcript

The spokesperson for an Indian political party is thanking Canadians and others around the world who have taken to the streets in solidarity with Indian farmers.

Over the last week, farmers in several Canadian cities held rallies in support of Indian farmers who have been protesting for months against new agriculture laws imposed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

The new laws aim to de-regulate the farming industry and bring it into the free market by allowing farmers to set their own prices and sell their crops to private businesses. Until now, Indian farmers have sold their crops directly to the government at guaranteed prices.

But farmers, many of whom run small operations with meagre earnings, say the laws leave them vulnerable to exploitation by corporations that will drive their prices down. 

The laws have proven so controversial that the Shiromani Akali Dal party has left Modi's governing alliance and is now actively supporting the farmers. Party spokesperson Parambans Singh Romana spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Monday. Here is part of their conversation 

Have you ever seen protests like these in India?

Not in my lifetime. Not only in India, but nowhere in the world. The kind of protests that we are seeing today in Punjab and in other parts of the country, which have moved now to Delhi, have to be seen to be believed.

Can you describe what you [saw] on the weekend? 

It's a massive, massive demonstration. And it's not limited only to the farmers. People from all walks of life — be it farmers, traders, students, singers, writers, everybody — have joined in. People from all age groups. I've seen youngsters. I've seen people over 90 years of age. 

They are sitting on the roads for the last almost two weeks, sleeping out in the open in the coldest winter that we are having.

This protest originated in Punjab against the farm laws that the government has brutally pushed through without taking anybody on board.  

They are pushing through laws which directly affect 70 per cent of our population — and indirectly, I would say 100 per cent of the population — without taking the stakeholders on board.

Indian farmers shout slogans as they block a major highway during a protest against new farm laws at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border in India on Saturday. (Altaf Qadri/The Associated Press)

Your prime minister, Narendra Modi, is saying that this deregulation would, in fact, help farmers by letting them market their own produce … and allow more private investment, which you desperately need. There's not enough money going into farming. Even though you say 70 percent of Indians are employed by farming, they don't make very much money, do they? So isn't there a need for modernization in Indian farming?

If these laws are benefiting us as farmers, why do you think in this cold winter, when COVID is at its peak, people are risking their lives in the cold and this pandemic sitting on the roads protesting against these laws? If they are benefiting us, would you think anybody would be there? 

I guess one of the main issues we've heard is that the Indian farmers are very upset that they were not consulted with these laws. Do you think that had the prime minister given the farmers access to consult them, that you would have had different kinds of laws?

When these laws were brought in as an ordinance, we were a part of the government of India…. The Akali had a representative as a minister in the government of India, Harsimrat Kaur Badal. She opposed these laws in the cabinet, and she was promised that when these [were] brought to parliament, the sentiments and the feelings of the farmers [would] be inculcated, the [laws would] be changed when they are presented in parliament for passing.

That was not done. So we resigned in protest against that. The cabinet minister resigned from the government of India.

The only thing we were saying is that at least take the stakeholders on board. You are bringing a law that is going to affect the livelihood and the coming generations of 70 per cent of your population, and you are not willing to listen to them? You are not willing to dialogue with them? Have you seen anything like this anywhere in the world?

Security officers stand guard at the site of a farmers protest on Thursday. (Manish Swarup/The Associated Press)

Do you think that there is a place for reform within India's farming?

Indian farming, any farming, or anything in the world, is always open to reform. But we want to see the reform [that] is already happening in the present system. We don't want to be thrown, you know, at the mercy of the private players. If the government thinks that reform is essential, why doesn't the government bring in reform?

The people of Punjab, the farmers of Punjab, produced foodstuffs and turned India from a food deficit to a food surplus nation. In the process, we ruined the soil. We ruined our water tables. But we stood with the country when the country needed us. We provided food for the country.

Today, when we need the country, the country is abandoning us. They are refusing to hold our hands. Do you think this is what governments are for?

Over the weekend, there were protests around the world, including in Canada, people supporting what is happening with the protests in India. What do you make of that?

We are very grateful to everybody who's supporting us. You know, we are fighting for our livelihood, and as I said, for our coming generations. People will be ruined. Our farmlands will be taken over by [corporations]. We will be left as labourers on the land that we own.

And we are so grateful to the people anywhere in the world who are standing with us in this time of our need.

And especially I would like to say I would thank the people of Canada, Punjabis and non-Punjabis alike, the government, especially the prime minister of Canada, who has spoken for us. You all may be thousands of miles away from us, but the fact that you are with us in this fight for our rights gives us immense strength. I have no words to thank you guys. Your support and commitment to the right of peaceful protest, we thank in the strongest and in the humblest possible way that we can.

A Charlottetown, P.E.I., protest in support of farmers in India took place Tuesday Night. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

But ... when our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, made these remarks — he called the protests clashes "concerning" — the prime minister of India said that this was unacceptable interference.

What matters more — that the people are happy, or the prime minister of India is happy? 

The right to peaceful protest is being crushed. You know, we went there as peaceful protesters. Barricades were set up. We were water-cannoned. We were charged. Pits were dug up so that we [couldn't] reach [Dehli]. Is this the way? It is a fundamental right, you know, given to us in our constitution, that we can protest peacefully. That is being taken away from us.

Do you think that these protests will continue?

This protest is growing by the day. People in India, people across the world, are supporting us.

And we will not rest. This protest is not going to finish. Let anybody not have any doubt in their minds: This protest will finish only when these laws are taken back.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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