Camping out in the freezing cold on the highways and outskirts of Delhi, hundreds of thousands of farmers are peacefully protesting for justice as the government push through three new laws intended to open up the country’s agricultural sector—which provides the livelihoods of over 60 percent of the country’s working population—to corporate profiteering. As the largest protest in history, the demonstrations are gaining worldwide attention.
Since the protests began, Narendra Modi’s far-right government has pursued a line of violent suppression accompanied by the censorship of social media accounts which speak out about what’s going on. The closure of Delhi’s entrances and exits and the cut-off of water and food supplies has been accompanied by an internet blackout. Farmers have been going missing, and there are claims that at least one woman activist was sexually assaulted while under arrest.
The result is that the need for those outside India to be vocal about the protests is more important than ever. In the UK, British Asians have been watching the events with horror.
My father Rajinder Singh—also known as the ‘Skipping Sikh’—was born in Punjab in 1947 into a farming community. His extended family, who still live in India, are currently at the protests fighting for justice.
‘I’m hurt to see videos of protestors dragged across the floor, beaten, and tear gas being fired,’ he says. ‘This is cruelty – it’s not how a government should behave.’
He adds that farming is the bread and butter of Indian society. ‘How can such laws be passed, especially during Covid? The government are treating the protestors like they are nothing. This violence needs to stop: there needs to be support from the UK government. This is cruelty to innocent people.’
According to British government figures, people with Indian heritage comprise about 2.5 percent of the total UK population, making us the biggest BAME ethnic group in the country. Concern for friends and family back in India is therefore widespread; despite that, the British government has staunchly refused to speak up.
It’s not a question of visibility: in a PMQs session in December 2020, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Labour MP for Slough, directly asked Boris Johnson to intervene and protect the safety of farmers. Johnson’s response, quite amazingly, was that ‘This is an issue between India and Pakistan.’
Earlier that month, Dhesi had written a letter signed by 35 cross-party MPs (including two Conservatives) to foreign secretary Dominic Raab demanding that the UK government make representations to the Indian government on the farmers’ behalf. There has been no movement since — although a petition asking the British government to make a statement has since been submitted, signed by over 100,000.
The petition was set up by Lib Dem councillor for Windsor and Maidenhead Gurch Singh. ‘This issue is of particular concern to me although I recognise myself as a British Sikh. I have an Indian heritage with strong ties to Punjab and farming,’ he told Tribune. ‘I’m appalled by what’s happening in India right now – to see peaceful protesters being openly attacked by officials, in public, is shocking, and these actions should be condemned.’
For many, though, the British government’s quiet compliance will not be a source of surprise. As Amrit Wilson noted in her piece for Tribune, Modi’s BJP has allies in the cabinet—including Home Secretary Priti Patel and Chancellor Rishi Sunak—and the scrabble for a UK-India post-Brexit trade deal also cast the likelihood of any statement on the protests into the realm of the unlikely. Beyond international relations, the Tories’ record on both workers’ rights and protest domestically does not fill British Asians with hope.
The silence on the farmers protests mirrors the silence on the case of British national Jaggi Johal, who was arrested while in India for his wedding in 2017, and is being detained on suspicion of conspiracy to kill right-wing Hindu leaders. Last month, Johal told the BBC he had been tortured. Dominic Raab claims to have raised the issue with the Indian government, but Johal’s brother says he is still waiting for a meeting with the foreign secretary.
Alongside their fears for friends and family, cases like Johal’s mean British Indians are increasingly conscious that their UK citizenship will not protect them against the increasing authoritarianism of Modi’s India.
In response, British Asians are tapping into their history of grassroots organising to provide both material and moral support where their government falls short. UK-based groups like Khalsa Aid, the Sikh Assembly, Midland Langar Seva, and United Sikhs have been organising to aid the protestors for months.
Support comes in the form of money, food, blankets, flasks, and any other supplies that can be donated and sent. There are food vouchers being given to use at the Kisan Mall, a resource centre set up on the Delhi border; organisers have provided an ambulance, medical care, coffee machines, and even juicers. One UK organisation, Recognise One, has raised nearly £400,000 for those families who have lost loved ones.
In a special live event organised by young Punjabis, Jagjit Singh from the World Sikh Parliament hailed the start of a new era of political engagement in the Indian diaspora:
Many young and old from the diaspora have become activists due to these protests. They clearly see the injustice of 250 million people losing their livelihoods for a policy designed to benefit two super-rich benefactors of the Modi BJP regime. It’s a classic case of the small person versus the large corporation, but the small person now has millions of educated and informed activists in the global diaspora supporting them.
The protestors know the Modi administration has been unable to debate the argument on the three laws, so it’s doing everything it can to twist the debate into saffronised nationalism which its media allies revel in. But the diaspora recognises this as fascism.
My father has experienced hardship in Britain. He was a first-generation Indian immigrant in the 1960s, and faced racism because of his turban and the colour of his skin. He couldn’t find a job until he cut his hair.
But his contributions to the country he calls home—which this year included raising money for the NHS—mean that he expects more than acquiescence in the face of abuse. This government is failing in that duty – and many British Asians share his pain.