Art and Conversations in the Diaspora: The Indian Farmers’ Protest

Ravina Toor, Healing Hug. 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

By Jaspreet Braich and Jasmine Sihra

Jaspreet Braich and Jasmine Sihra are two Sikh-Punjabi women who were both born and raised in Canada in immigrant families from Punjab, India. Jaspreet and Jasmine have written this article as a conversation reflecting their on-going learning about their culture and community within the context of the Indian farmers’ protest, particularly through the work of Edmonton-based Sikh-Punjabi artist Ravina Toor’s digital art prints.

Jaspreet’s anecdote:

Jasmine and I first met in grade 9 in our high school in Brampton, Ontario. Our friendship began in hospitality class where we learnt about baking and cooking. For our final exam, we had to bake cupcakes and I was completely lost. Jasmine was my saviour and helped to make sure that I did not burn them. We became closer and connected on a personal level because of our shared experiences as Sikh-Punjabi women. While being Sikh-Punjabi at our high school in Brampton was the norm, everyone had different experiences of migration to Canada from India. Jasmine’s family moved to Canada in the early 1970s and she was raised in a single-mother household that was much more integrated into Canadian society than my parents. When my family moved to Canada from Punjab India in 1996, they held onto many traditional Punjabi values and maintained strict religious practices as Sikhs.

Like many immigrant families, my parents decided to leave everything they had ever known for a better life for themselves and their children, me, and my brother. My parents wanted to leave the harsh and often violent conditions the Sikh community dealt with in the 1990s. At the time, India became an increasingly dangerous place for the Sikh community — in 1984, the Indian government led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, orchestrated a monumental military attack, Operation Blue Star, on the Sri Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple), the most sacred and holy place for Sikhs. This was the result of rising tensions between Sikh communities for their own sovereignty.[1] Shortly after this, two Sikh bodyguards assassinated Gandhi, who was well-liked by the Hindu majority. Out of their anger with Gandhi’s assassination, many far-right Hindu groups —with the support of the government— instigated the horrifying 1984 genocide against Sikhs, where thousands of men were murdered, women were kidnapped and sexually assaulted, and children were slaughtered. This struck fear across the Sikh community, and many realized India was not a safe place for amritdhari (baptized) Sikhs like my father to raise a family. In the early 1990s, my father jumped at the opportunity to come to Canada, following many others seeking a prosperous future.

Within the past few months, signs depicting farmers, tractors, or the slogan “No Farmers No Food” have been plastered on cars, storefronts, and houses. You may have come across Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, or Meena Harris’ tweets in support of the farmers’ protest and calling out the Indian Government’s actions. In response to Rihanna, Thunberg, and Harris, mostly fascist far-right Hindu groups, publicly burnt effigies of their faces.[2] The farmers’ protest, the largest protest in human history, is the direct result of the Indian government passing new farm legislation. While India is typically lauded as representing the world’s largest democracy, these farm bills were passed completely behind the scenes.[3] No vote was taken on behalf of the people in India; instead, all proceedings were drafted by the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and the owners of Ambani and Adani, multi-billion-dollar corporations owned by two of the richest men in India.[4] In other words, these bills were solely passed through political manipulation, unjust rulings, and internal agreements with capitalist motivations allowing the rich to make larger profits. This new legislation will privatize free markets to allow corporations to earn more money by deeming the minimum price for products, leaving working class people like farmers, at the mercy of the corporations. Through these farm bills, farmer’s ability to make a living and feed their families is impossible. Farmers are already among the poorest in India and known to be at-risk in terms of mental health issues, drug abuse, depression, and suicide. [5]

To fight against these unjust farm laws, farmers from across India began to protest in August 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they continue to protest as I write this article. For more than 180 days, farmers have taken to the streets of Delhi to peacefully protest, but were met with tear gas, water cannons, and baton charges. When I think about the people who are protesting— those who suffered through 1947, who have seen the horrors of 1984 in front of their very own eyes, and now in 2021, protesting to maintain their livelihoods— I feel immense sadness and extreme pride. The farmers are not rich by any means, but throughout the protests they started langer (community kitchen) to feed each other and the less fortunate. They are providing medical care to the wounded and sick, and education to children who were unable to attain it— all while protesting. They took the opportunity to create a better environment for the less fortunate, taking on duties that should have been fulfilled by the government. Day by day, the protest grows with support from all around the world, even as the government continues to sanction violence against protesters and the Indian media spreads false propaganda.

Diasporic Sikh-Punjabi communities all over the world, such as in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, have also protested because they have families who are being directly impacted by these laws.[6] My entire maternal family currently lives in Punjab, and their only way of survival is farming. Like many of my Punjabi brothers and sisters, they have family affected by 1984, and now the Farmers’ protest. Events like these are the reason why many Sikh-Punjabis, like mine and Jasmine’s families, have left to make new homes in places like Canada. These events are also the reason why young people, artists, and activists in Canada create safe spaces for our communities to express ourselves and work through the feelings that come with watching people fight for their rights in India.

Jasmine’s anecdote:

I met Jaspreet when we were 14 years old in our grade nine hospitality class. Jaspreet often tells me that she does not remember talking to me, except for when she needed help making cupcakes for our exam, and I, in her own words, “saved her.” I started to feel angry, sad and disappointed seeing the media coverage about the farmer’s protest and, because of our close friendship, and I thought that writing an article with Jaspreet was the best way to explore my thoughts. This is a sensitive and touchy subject for the Sikh Punjabi community, and I truly believe it requires a certain level of care, love, and attention. For Jaspreet and me, writing this article is a supportive and generative act, a form of healing— not unlike artist Ravina Toor’s Healing Hug, a beautiful, colourful rendering of two Punjabi women dressed in traditional Indian clothing tightly embracing and comforting each other. Ravina Toor is a Sikh-Punjabi artist based in Edmonton, Alberta, and her work is inspired by Sikhism and Punjabi culture. I first came across Toor’s work on Instagram— her work Women are the Revolution (2020) circulated on Instagram posts in support of the farmers. I was completely taken by the image, showing a younger Punjabi woman holding hands with an older Punjabi woman, each with one hand raised in the sky in solidarity. In the foreground, sunflowers stand prominently indicating growth and liveliness, while the background shows women in crowds proudly protesting. Toor’s work points to the most inspiring fact of the farmers’ protest: women are among the leaders and at the very heart of the actions. Not only are they feeding protesters at the frontlines and taking care of children, but they are making their presence known to the Indian government as strong and resilient women who will not be silenced. Of course, Sikh Punjabi men make up a large percentage of the protesters and are often particularly vulnerable to the racial and anti-Sikh violence perpetrated by the police, but alongside men stand resilient women working to protect their families and village’s livelihoods.

Women of different ages have risen to prominence for instigating action against unfair farming laws. 

            At one point during the protests, the Indian government told women at the frontlines to go back home, but many of them resisted these demands.[7] Women of different ages have risen to prominence for instigating action against unfair farming laws. One of these women include Nodeep Kaur, a 23-year-old Dalit Punjabi activist and university student who actively spoke about the importance of women’s labour in farming and the corrupt farming laws. Kaur is Sikh Punjabi Dalit, a member of a lower caste group in Punjab. While Sikhism does not recognize the caste system, it remains a destructive part of the cultural and social order throughout India — even Jaspreet and I have resisted the ridiculous attempts to uphold caste ideas in Canada.[8] But in India where the caste system remains firmly entrenched, Dalits have little power, and the government mistreats them. Sadly, Kaur was arrested at a protest, taken into a jail where she was violently abused, and sexually assaulted by the Indian police.

As 23-year-old Punjabi women ourselves, it’s hard for Jaspreet and I to express the pain, frustration, and disappointment when we think about Kaur because she is so similar to both of us. At the same time though, we are inspired by how she organizes to take care of her community. I have a sense that Toor feels the same way, especially after she created a stunning image of Kaur holding a protest banner in the air as she stares with calm determination back at the viewer while police attempt to violently silent the protesting women behind her. I find comfort in this thoughtful homage to Kaur because Toor refuses a disparaging gaze that might victimize Kaur, and instead chooses one that sees her as an activist and community worker who will use her voice to break down an oppressive system.

            For Jaspreet and me, it has been extraordinary to watch as Sikh Punjabi women support each other either at the frontlines of protests or through their artwork. Oftentimes, the kind of patriarchal and misogynist values that permeate through Sikh Punjabi culture renders the lives of our bibis, nanis, masis, mummis, Bhuas, didis,[9] and moms meaningless. Out of frustration and anger, Jaspreet and I often discuss where we think this comes from— possibly the idea that men pass on the family’s name to their children, or the outdated, sexist dowry/bride price practice where a bride’s family is required to pay a groom’s family when the couple married. Regardless of where it comes from, many Punjabi and Indian women can tell long stories about the excitement around the birth of a son versus the tears that flow when a daughter is born. I remember when my mother and sisters told me about the many family members who breathed a sigh of relief when my younger brother was born after my parents had three daughters. I can tell story upon story of my friends and family members who are expected to cook, clean, take care of their families, or accept excuses about their brothers’ and fathers’ bad behaviour. This disdain for daughters and the obligations that they must fulfill begins long before women are born and become firmly entrenched in how women develop relationships with other women, too.

I have met many Indian women who ignore, mistreat, and gossip about other women in and outside of their families. Quite frankly, my friendship with Jaspreet feels unique; we strive to support and love each other throughout our careers, not spread rumours about one another. I call Jaspreet and confide in her about my problems; she calls me when she needs to feel inspired. That’s why we feel so encouraged when we see women protesting together while uplifting one another. It is indicative of the possibilities of a relationality built on love and care, disrupting patriarchal systems that seep into our relationships and prevents us from seeing ourselves as necessary for our growth. I see this possibility so clearly in Toor’s Healing Hug (2020), a work that envisions two Brown women lovingly resting on each other as they sit in beautifully adorned Indian clothing. This piece reminds me the most of my friendship with Jaspreet when we work together and talk about the many things that concern us— something I wish I would see more often in our community.

Ravina Toor, Knowledge is Power. 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

            To say that the Sikh Punjabi community globally is struggling right now would not even remotely capture the pain and sadness that has been filling us recently. The farmers’ protest is the result of longstanding historical and social issues that continually neglects and oppresses Sikh Punjabi people. It is one of the reasons why my family left Punjab even earlier than Jaspreet’s family. In Brampton, Ontario, where Jaspreet and I attended high school, Sikh Punjabis have been among the most impacted by COVID-19, living in areas where the positivity rates of the infection reached up to 1 in 5. COVID-19 has been even more disastrous for people living in India, many in Brampton and around the world are afraid for their families’ lives. Even more recently, a White man in the United States terrorized a FedEx facility, shooting and killing seven workers including three Sikh Punjabi workers— an attack that many have been suspicious of being racially motivated.[10] I know it has been hard for so many Sikh-Punjabis to continue working when it feels difficult, but I am also reminded of the scholars, like Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, who write to help us make sense of what is happening to our families and friends.

If we push to become aware of what is happening in our communities, post about it on our social media, and find creative ways to ensure people know about our work, then we will be able to make a bit of difference. And as much as we want people to know about the problems our communities face, we also need the wonders of our culture, language, and religion to be known. In our sadness and hardships, we always find resiliency, strength, power, and care from our cultures and traditions. In Sikhism, we call this charhdi kala, meaning always in high spirits. And so, I end this article on a note of positivity: I dream of a space where we can strive to care for others, looking inward to see how we can be in relation to others. I dream of a space that creates more space for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) and other marginalized communities. I imagine that this space looks a lot like Toor’s Knowledge is Power (2020).

[1]. Singh, Simran J. “The Farmers’ Protests Are a Turning Point for India’s Democracy—and the World Can No Longer Ignore That.” Time, February 11, 2021.

[2]. Petersen, Hannah E. “Greta Thunberg effigies burned in Delhi after tweets on farmers’ protests.” The Guardian, February 4, 2021.

[3]. Singh,

[4]. Ibid.

[5] Shivji, Salimah. “Burdened by debt and unable to eke out a living, many farmers in India turn to suicide.” CBC News, March 30, 2021.

[6]. Jones, Ryan P. “Indian community holds drive-by rally in solidarity with protesting farmers.” CBC News, January 20, 2021.

[7]. Bhowmick, Nilanjana. “‘I Cannot Be Intimidated. I Cannot Be Bought.’ The Women Leading India’s Farmers’ Protests.” Time, March 4, 2021.

[8]. “Nodeep Kaur: Jailed Dalit activist, 25, granted bail by India court.” BBC News, February 17, 2021.

[9]. Punjabi words for paternal grandmother (bibi), maternal grandmother (nani), maternal aunt (masi), paternal aunt (bhua), sister (didi).

[10]. Smith, Casey, and Rick Callahan. “Indianapolis’ Sikh community calls for U.S. gun reforms after FedEx shooting.” Global News, April 18, 2021.

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