In early August 2020, when the farmers’ protest began in India, I remember watching the news every morning for weeks. My eyes shifted from the television to my parents every few minutes. I couldn’t help noticing that they kept their composure despite the horrors we were witnessing.

As a child of immigrant parents, I understood how strongly they were attached to the well-being of their home country, even from miles away. Though I wasn’t born or raised in India, I felt overwhelmed by the unfolding events as well.

Growing up as a first-generation Canadian in my family, my parents made sure I knew about my ethnic and cultural Punjabi and Haryanvi roots. Maybe that’s why I understood the severity of the farmers’ protest from its very beginning.

Although the farmers’ protest officially began in August 2020, I recall discussing the social movement more and more once the fall 2020 semester began. It was all I could think or talk about for weeks. I knew that many of my friends’ families and relatives were among the protesters, caught in the middle of injustice.

A few Indian students I knew at U of T were both aware and in support of the protests, but many of my non-Indian friends at U of T either hadn’t heard of the protests, or didn’t know about the purpose behind them.

They weren’t alone. I had thoroughly researched official websites — Canadian universities, colleges, local governments, and the national government — for statements, discussion boards, or panels regarding the protests, but for a long time, I came up short. Why were these institutions taking so long to discuss a major social movement that might be impacting the mental and emotional health of their community members?

Educating people in my social circle is one thing, but it will take a lot more for the impact of this movement to reach the U of T students and faculty. To me, in many instances, it seems that the farmers’ protest is not only unheard of, but is also often misunderstood.

It’s time we change that.

What you need to know

Last year, the Indian government passed three new laws that would change how the agriculture industry operates. Their hope was to reach the competitive global market and involve big private corporations.

Of the 1.3 billion residents in India, 58 per cent maintain an agricultural lifestyle. Previously, farmers had been legally guaranteed a government-set minimum support price (MSP) for their produce. Farmers would sell their goods through the mandi system — also known as the farmers’ market — knowing that they could rely on a fixed rate issued for particular crops from government agencies.

Government representatives would act as middlemen, and depending on the quality of the produce, they could grant farmers a higher price for their goods. Still, farmers were always guaranteed that MSP, which provided the security of a stable income.

But the government replaced the mandi system. Without government middlemen, farmers must negotiate directly with buyers, many of whom are big companies. If farmers are unable to negotiate high prices, they now lack the safety net of the MSP and may need to settle for extremely low prices.

If farmers refuse to sell at said prices, they risk letting their produce go to waste. As a result, companies can financially exploit their labour.

In short, these changes jeopardized Indian farmers’ livelihoods and agricultural lifestyle. They began to protest the new laws, and they are still protesting today.

Many elderly men and women, and youth have participated in the protests. Since September 2020, protesters have been camping out on the streets of New Delhi, India’s capital, demanding a complete repeal of the new laws. Many have refused to leave without putting up a fight.

The protesters, who come from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and more, range from different religious and cultural communities; however, with their shared livelihood on the line, they band together as one.

Although the protesters have remained peaceful, violence has erupted between the protesters and law enforcement time and time again. In November 2020, farmers drove in on their tractors from many parts of India, forming strong blockades at the New Delhi borders. Thousands from nearby areas also marched to the capital in support. They were met with police, who fired tear gas and water cannons at the protesters.

The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, an allied group of 40 farmers’ unions representing and coordinating the protests, has collected data on the number of protester deaths since the agriculture laws were passed. Their data claims that 477 protesters from all states — both farmers and supporters — died in the six months preceding May 2021. An alarming 87 per cent of those deaths were from Punjab alone.

According to those numbers, an estimated three protesters died every day.

The story became international news when Indian emigrants living in Western countries, like Canada and the US, also began to protest in solidarity. Hashtags like #FarmersProtest and #NoFarmersNoFood started trending on social media. Over time, the farmers’ protest became what may be the largest protest in human history.

So, why do I continue to come across people at U of T who have yet to hear about it? Why aren’t we making room for conversations about this in our academic institutions and social circles? Are we doing enough to be there for the Indian community?

The impact on Indian U of T students

I’m Punjabi and Haryanvi, and I major in criminology and sociolegal studies at U of T. My cultural affiliation, combined with my educational background in human rights, has helped me feel close to the protests and understand the depth of the violence that the protesters are experiencing.

But not everyone has this same background. I wanted to know if other Indian students felt the same way that I did.

I sought out a diverse group of Indian students to speak to about this issue. However, finding a diverse group of interviewees was challenging. Very few people came forward to speak with me, and those who did identified themselves as Punjabi. That may have been because of the lack of awareness about the farmers’ protests, or because Punjab is the state that is the most strongly impacted by the protests, but it may also have been because they didn’t want to speak about their opinion publically — I’ve found that people tend to fear the repercussions of speaking up against the Indian government.

Amanat Kaur, who is Punjabi and grew up in India, highlighted this issue. “The protest has been seen as a Punjabi protest. The reason a lot of Punjabis are supporting it is because Punjab is a majority of farmers.”

But she emphasized that other states, such as Uttar Pradesh and Assam, are supporting the protests, and noted that this isn’t only about Punjabis. “The more people label it as a Punjabi movement, the more they [non-Punjabis] don’t feel like they can join it because they don’t feel included.”

Another misconception is that the farmers’ protest is a matter of religion. “One thing that absolutely pissed me off was the fact that the government — or even people here [in Canada] — made this a religious issue. It was like Hindus versus Sikhs… that was not the point,” said Akshita Sangha.

India’s diversity in terms of religion and culture has resulted in conflicts between groups in the past; however, by emphasizing these differences when talking about this social movement, we undermine the obstacles that farmers are truly experiencing as a professional community.

Perhaps the most important thing that each student highlighted is how the protests have a moral significance that goes beyond cultural identity. Sangha attested to this, saying, “I’m standing with [the protesters] as just a normal citizen who believes in what they’re doing and who acknowledges that these bills are wrong.”

Every interviewee was 100 per cent with the protesters, as am I. We had all learned about the protests through conversations with our families, social media, and individual research. None of us were on the ground protesting, but we were bombarded with daily news and clips of targeted violence and hatred which eventually took a mental and emotional toll on us.

I’ve watched many videos and seen hundreds of photographs of the violence perpetrated on the elderly and the youth protesting. I distinctly remember seeing a picture of a young man with blood dripping from his forehead to his chin. In spite of that, strength and resilience glimmered in his eyes.

“It was, quite frankly, very, very scary,” Sangha shared. “I know when the violence started… I couldn’t go on my phone, like I couldn’t open up Instagram ‘cause it was everywhere.”

Like Sangha, Mansi Narula couldn’t handle the violent video clips she was seeing on the internet, but chose to keep herself up to date by reading video descriptions instead.

In my own experience, the violence became very difficult to witness — knowing that I couldn’t do much from here and that the cruelty would only continue.

What is most devastating is that many of the protesters resisting federal abuse are very young and very old men and women. “I could see my grandparents. I could see my uncles. I could see my aunts. I could see my cousins who live in India, and this could be them,” said Sangha. 

“These people are grandparents, mothers, daughters, sons and they’re going out, and they’re protesting, and they’re staying on the streets in Delhi,” she added. Protestors have spent months living in tents and sleeping on dirt roads through the changes of the season.

When asked how they feel about the length of the protests, the students I spoke to used words like “disheartening” and “devastating” — but also words like “courage” and “resilience.”

“They’re still protesting. I think that’s amazing,” Kaur said.

Space for awareness at U of T

With COVID-19 dominating the news, coverage of the farmers’ protest has fluctuated: sometimes it receives attention, and other times it disappears from all international news sources for days.

When Rihanna tweeted about the farmers’ protest this past February, I remember the protests receiving mass international attention. Unfortunately, that moment didn’t last long. Without continued celebrity endorsement, people retreated to their personal lives, even though nothing has changed for the protesters.

As Narula pointed out, even though the peak of news attention is over, the protests aren’t.

A huge concern is the lack of discussion in educational settings, including at U of T. I found myself mentioning the farmers’ protest during virtual classes, in appropriate assignments, and in conversation with any professors and peers who were willing to listen. The students I spoke to feel that U of T hasn’t done enough, even though their faculty includes community members with huge influence.

“There’s no harm in this topic being approached by universities,” says Narula. “Professors are really influential people in the lives of students… students take their word and pay heed to what they say.”

Kaur’s student union made a donation, but she emphasized the need for discussion and education beyond just financial support. “Talk about it, have a conversation. You talk about a lot of things! Talk about these things too once in a while.”

All that these Indian students want is for their academic institution to make space for them. Brief conversations about topics relating to the protest could spark interest and independent research, while providing mental and emotional support for students who may need it.

I still watch the news every morning with my parents. Even though I continue to be concerned for the protesters’ well-being, I have now adopted the composure my parents had from the beginning. I’ve come to better understand the importance of remaining calm and believing that good will come through.

Still, I often remind myself of the elderly men and women who have been sleeping on concrete roads for months, resisting extreme winter cold and suffocating heat. Every wrinkle that covers their spirited faces and hardworking hands represents their histories, struggles, and persisting strength. Who am I to give up in this fight when they haven’t?

“It’s… a fight against injustice. It’s about us supporting a fraction of the society,” Kaur said. “They need you.”

And she’s right. Now more than ever, the protesters in India need us to talk, to share, to post, to educate, and to make sure that this last year of effort is recognized and heard by all people, Indian or not.

Don’t stop the conversation now — and if you haven’t started talking about the protests yet, it’s time that you do.