Since August 2020, farming protests have erupted across India, opposing new farming laws recently passed by the government; many of these farmers have come from the states of Punjab and Haryana. For months, they have sat outside Delhi protesting: around 200 farmers have died, a number of journalists and activists have been imprisoned, said protesters have been labelled as terrorists and they’ve faced a barrage of violence from the state. To be honest, it’s hard to watch. The suppression of the press and state sponsored violence not only ignites an anger in us, but a deep seated sense of fear, a sense of fear that is driven by the past.
Thirty-seven years ago, something very similar took place. Journalists were imprisoned, issues around land were raised and propaganda against the campaigners was spread. In 1973 the Anandpur Sahib resolution was presented, like now, they asked for greater autonomy over Punjab and better access to resources. Those campaigning for the Punjab were labeled as secessionists and terrorists, just like today’s farmers. The difference is that in 1984 it led to Operation Blue Star; an attack on the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), one of the holiest places in Sikhi. Indria Gandhi, the Prime Minister who ordered Operation Blue Star, was soon assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, which led to a nationwide massacre of the Sikh people that lasted over 10 days – this was encouraged by prominent government figures (several governments have recognised it as a genocide). Thousands were brutally murdered and thousands more are still missing. Over thirty years have passed and many of the culprits have not been charged; we are seeing history slowly repeat itself.
Back then it was hard to speak up, maybe now if we can continue the discussion, this type of massacre cannot happen again.
Many people I know from Indian, Punjabi or Sikh backgrounds are sharing information regularly on social media about the farmers protests. They are asking their followers to help by signing petitions, writing letters and to inform themselves on what’s going on. In the past three months the farmers’ marches to Delhi have been accompanied by marches across the world in places like London, Vancouver and Toronto.
At times, all of this activism feels almost frenzied. I don’t think that’s wrong, but there is a sense of desperation – pleading people to take notice. I think that’s because, as a community, we have been a minority in nations around the world; this includes our homeland. Our community has often been caught in the crossfire, considered an unfortunate casualty. At other times, we’ve been targeted outright. Many times our voices have been overlooked, and in 1947 and 1984 this led to the death of thousands of people. As a diaspora we have maintained a strong connection to our heritage; for many of us the UK may be our home but India, more specifically Punjab, holds a special place in our hearts. We have been constantly reminded that’s where we are from and how much people have given up and endured to make our achievements possible – that’s why we advocate for it so much.
We are hesitant to forget the pain our community has been through in the past. When our grandparents left, Partition was still a recent memory. The violence many witnessed and experienced was still at the forefront of their minds. We were constantly reminded that it was our homeland – Punjab – that was split down the middle. That trauma was part of many peoples family history. That legacy of pain was passed down to our parents and on to us. It was a community trauma. So in 1984 when similar violence took place in India, I can only imagine how my parents felt. They had stronger connections, knew more people there and the stories of violence echoed much of partition. They pushed for people to take notice but no one did. I know they must have felt helpless.
Now with the farmers protests, we see similar trends. If the past is any indicator, we already know how it could play out. We were never allowed to forget these painful moments of history, implored to never forget because if we didn’t remember, no one would. There has been a responsibility to advocate for our community with the wealth of resources we have access to because if we talk about these things enough they can’t be forgotten. We have more knowledge and access to tools that our parents and grandparents ever had. We also see the long lasting effects of witnessing these types of events – it creates a legacy of intergenerational trauma.
Words by Gurjinder Khambay
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