By Summer Sewell/The Guardian
Yuba City (California) February 9: Sukhcharan Singh grows walnuts in Yuba City, California, about 40 miles north of Sacramento. Like many Sikh farmers in this small Central Valley city, Singh’s thoughts are occupied by the ongoing protests in India.
“I lose sleep over this. When I was there, it was a poor country, yes, but it was a good country,” said Singh, 68, flipping through notes he has taken on the latest news out of India. “Last night I finally slept at 11.30.”
Since the end of November, hundreds of thousands of farmers, mostly from the agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana, have been protesting on the outskirts of Delhi, making the nation’s capital inaccessible for miles. They are demanding that the Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, repeal three laws passed hurriedly by parliament – “shoved down the throats of the people,” as Singh puts it – in September that farmers fear will eliminate regulation, leaving their earnings and livelihoods vulnerable to private investors.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Singh said, looking down past the tip of his long white beard. “On one hand I feel glad I’m here, on the other I feel guilty I’m not there.”
The ties between there and here are self evident. Outside of India, Yuba City is home to one of the largest groups of farmers from Punjab, the birthplace of Sikhism. Roughly half of the 500,000 Sikhs in the US live in California, with the largest concentration living in Yuba City. Nicknamed “Mini Punjab”, the city elected the US’s first Sikh mayor in 2009, and the country’s first female Sikh mayor in 2017. In the first week of November, the city hosts an annual festival honoring the birthday of the first Sikh prophet, attracting over 100,000 people.
It’s no surprise, then, that the largest rally outside India in support of the farmer protests took place not far from here. On 5 December, people from Yuba City and other Central Valley cities including Fremont, Fresno, Stockton and Manteca beat drums, shouted over bullhorns and waved flags that read “No farms, no food”. Thousands of big rigs, cars, and trucks departed from Oakland and snarled traffic for hours on the Bay Bridge, before arriving at the Indian consulate in San Francisco. Other large rallies happened in Washington DC, New York, Chicago, Texas, and Michigan that week; throughout December and January, solidarity demonstrations and caravans of various sizes occurred in at least 16 US states.
Naindeep Singh, executive director of the Jakara movement, a youth-focused non-profit organization that advocates for the Sikh community, spearheaded the protest. “I feel inspired. I see elderly people, my own family members, sleeping in the cold and they’ve been there for months. I feel a deep will to support the efforts in any which way I can,” he said.
Community members have also raised funds to support billboards drawing attention to India’s protests throughout the Central Valley, where Punjabi is the third-most spoken language, after English and Spanish. And there are further plans to advertise on the sides of 500 big rigs.
“I went to the rally in San Francisco in December to show my support for my brothers there,” said Kulwant Johl, 70, a Sikh farmer in Yuba City who leases out his farmland in Punjab. “The farmers [in India] say they don’t need any money, so right now it’s just moral support and talking to local politicians here and seeing if they can help.”
He constantly watches Indian news coverage of the protests on satellite and social media, like many of his neighbors – it has consumed conversations in the community. “That’s all we talk about now,” Johl said.
An estimated 95% of peaches and 70% of prunes in Yuba City are grown by Punjabi Sikh farmers. Johl farms peaches, prunes, pomegranates and almonds. His 800 acres are quite an expansion from the 20-acre plot of his grandfather Nand Singh Johl, who is believed to be one of the first Punjabi men to have settled in Yuba City.
Nand arrived in Yuba City in 1906. He, like many other Punjabi men following an immigration pattern across the Pacific, had worked the railroads and other transient labor jobs down from Vancouver to California. Having come from a region known for farming, many naturally settled into rural areas with fertile land, including the Central Valley.
But those men faced several forms of discrimination. They weren’t allowed to become citizens or bring wives from India; they also could not own land or sign long-term leases due to California’s Alien Land Law of 1913.
One way to bypass that law was to put property in the name of American-born children such as the husband and wife Ralie and Stella Singh. Both Ralie and Stella were born to Punjabi fathers and Mexican mothers – about 100 such marriages occurred in Yuba City in the early 20th century. Mexican women, many displaced by the Mexican Revolution, could find farm work alongside and eventually for Indian men in the Central Valley. The couples shared enough physical traits to be waved through by county record clerks, hence sidestepping anti-miscegenation laws that weren’t lifted in California until 1948.
Over the phone, Stella, 90, recalls eating roti and curry chicken prepared by Mexican women at a Yuba City gathering to celebrate Indian independence in 1947. “In them days,” as Ralie, 92, starts many sentences, “there just weren’t Indian women here.”
After the Luce-Celler Act of 1946 was passed, Indian men were able to bring wives from India to the US, which led to a dwindling of these interracial marriages. The Singhs, who retired from farming 1,000 acres, are two of the remaining few here. “We’re unique now,” Stella said, “and we’ll be obsolete pretty soon.”
Mixed-race children like them enabled the Indian community to put a stake in the ground in Yuba City. Start on five acres, bring relatives to work, get more land, bring more relatives, Ralie said was the way. “In them days, Indian men came here with nothing but they multiplied and they’re very proud.”
‘People are watching’
On 26 January, the protests in India changed shape when some farmers deviated from protest routes, hopping barricades and driving tractors into Delhi. Police responded in the days following by cutting the internet, building stronger barricades, and erecting fences with barbed wire, which affected water and food supply to the protesters. All the while, talks between farmer union leaders and the government stalled and farmers say they aren’t leaving until the laws are repealed.
“Modi has been seen as untouchable. But a lot of people are watching this. You can’t have an authoritarian regime have victory after victory and it go unchecked,” the Jakara movement’s Naindeep Singh said. India’s supreme court ruled in January in favor of suspending the laws, an unusual pushback against the prime minister. “Will it be the farmers that break Modi’s authoritarian streak?” Singh asked.
Then his brisk cadence slowed. “I have family that was affected by the violence in the 80s and 90s. I know the violence that the Indian state can enact, I know how brutal it can be,” he said. “This has to end peacefully.”
Mallika Kaur is an author, lawyer and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who works on human rights issues in south Asia. She said genocidal violence in the 80s and 90s against Sikhs in India – “basically open season on Sikhs, and politicians were at the forefront of the attacks” – including on streets of Delhi, where the farmers are protesting today, had resulted in a decades-long distrust of government.
“Handing over the keys of agriculture to corporations touches a deep and painful nerve for the community,” she said. “For a very poor country, once these things like basic roti and dal corporations are able to set the prices for, there’s pretty mass devastation and desperation that’s feared. That’s part of the reason why the ordinary person, farmer or not, is supporting the farmers and someone standing up to the government handing over yet another sector to large corporate control.” An estimated 250 million Indian workers from various sectors are also striking in support of the farmers.
Kaur said at least 143 farmers had died protesting, with an estimated seven suicides – this in a place and profession ravaged by suicides, which have increased more than twelvefold in Punjab in five years. Pneumonia is a big risk; so are heart attacks and other conditions that come with old age and being out in the cold and rain. Workers in medical tents set up at the protest report baseline blood pressure of 150, Kaur said.
“What we know for sure is there are very desperate times ahead,” Kaur said. “People outside of India should be saying these protests matter because we don’t want to end up with the same kind of disconnect from our food producers.”
The US embassy in Delhi is urging the Indian government to resume talks with farmers. A tweet by the singer Rihanna, followed by Greta Thunberg expressing her solidarity with Indian farmers, upset counter-protesters in India, who burned photos of both women on Thursday.
Sukhcharan Singh said he was “very, very hopeful” about the celebrity support. “I can’t tell you how much respect for people like them, who think about human rights, I have,” he said. But his outlook is bigger than a few important endorsements. “In India, it’s not just a farmer protest any more. It’s infiltrated the lives of common people. When that happens, those in power have to bend. But I don’t know at what cost and I don’t know when.”