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Indians in Halifax rest as year-long farmer protest back home bears fruit

Government repeals agriculture laws after farmers refuse to leave the streets

4 min read
caption Families of farmers in India protest on Spring Garden Road last year.
Simar Hundal

It was a scary couple of hours for Jaspreet Kaur.

Kaur, a Halifax resident, stayed up for the night on India’s 72nd Republic day on Jan. 26 as she tried to contact relatives who were a part of a rally in Delhi that turned violent.

Police clashed with farmers protesting a government attempt to rewrite Indian farm laws. At least 19 protesters were sent to hospital and police said as many as 300 of their number were also hurt.

The farmers were four months into a protest that would last for a year.

“We couldn’t sleep for a few days. Every night everybody was waking up, checking with each other if everything was OK because the internet was shut down in India,” Kaur said.

Kaur’s family in Halifax breathed a cautious sigh of relief when the Indian government approved a bill to repeal three contentious farm laws on Nov. 24. But her family in Samrala district in Punjab continued their year-long sit-in protest at a toll booth near their village.

“We are not going to consider it until it’s written because it is hard to trust the prime minister,” Kaur said.

In September 2020, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party tabled three farm laws amid chaos in the parliament to bring changes to the existing system of agriculture business in India. The three farm laws sparked criticism and protests from tens of thousands of farmers for a year.

The wait for Kaur’s uncle in India, who supported the cause they were fighting for, was too long, as he died a week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the announcement on the Sikh festival of Guru Purab.

caption A flag of Bhartiya Kisan Mazdoor Ekta, a union of protesting farmers, is shown in Kaur’s home in Halifax.
Shlok Talati

At the same toll booth where her family protests, a 70-year-old farmer died by suicide on Sept. 26 while his wife was protesting at another site near Delhi. According to a study by economists at Punjabi University, 600 farmers died in the protests, most succumbing to harsh weather conditions while protesting outdoors.

Nissim Mannathukkaren, an associate professor in the department of international development studies at Dalhousie University, said that considering the duration of the protests and the number of people involved, the agitation breaks paths.

“It is truly historic, probably it has very few parallels in the world,” he said.

Mannathukkaren believes that any law or policy can be improved. However, he said that the problem with the proposed Indian farm laws lies in the way they were reformed.

In September 2020, the deputy speaker in the Indian parliament steamrolled the bills into law while disregarding the opposition party’s requests to send the laws to committees for assessment and analysis.

In response to a Right to Information request, the agriculture ministry could not provide any record of pre-legislative consultations on the three farm reform laws.

“This is not how a parliamentary democracy works. The government used their majority as a brute mechanism to overcome any kind of discussion, criticism or dissent. So that is a fundamental problem,” Mannathukkaren said.

caption Indian MP Derek O’Brien approaches the speaker’s desk in September 2020 to ask for a vote on the farm laws. The request was ignored.

Mannathukkaren added that one of the reasons the government decided to repeal the laws was because the protests attracted attention from across the world and it drew big support from the diaspora in places like Canada.

The Maritime Sikh Society, with about 1,500 members in Halifax, has been vocal in their support of farmers back home. The community organized protests and rallies last year to spread awareness regarding the laws In India.

Society president Simar Hundal said young people from the community protested every evening for a month last year on Spring Garden Road. After a year of worry and discouragement, she said the community now feels relaxed.

“The incidents over the last year have been very, very heartbreaking. The government did everything to discredit our community, but after repealing the laws, there is some consolation that all of the sacrifices made by the farmers did not go in vain,” Hundal said.

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Shlok Talati

Based in Toronto, Shlok Talati is a 2023 CBC News Donaldson Scholar with experience in radio and digital. He holds a master of journalism from...

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