The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion History shows Punjab has always taken on tyrants. Modi is no different.

Sikh farmers during a protest at the Delhi-Haryana state border in Singhu on Monday. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

This column has been updated.

Rupi Kaur is a poet and the author of “home body.” She lives in Toronto.

My people laugh at tyrants.

Punjabis today say, “When Alexander the Great attempted to invade, Punjab sent him packing. What’s a Modi to an Alexander the Great?”

For Sikhs, dissent against oppression is nothing new. We resisted the Mughals for 300 years. We birthed a global resistance against colonial British rule, including one that stretched from the fields of Northern California to the villages of Punjab, called the Ghadar Movement. My parents’ generation survived the 1984 Sikh genocide and the decade of state-sponsored violence and extrajudicial killings that followed.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi now joins the long historical list of tyrants Punjab has taken on.

In September, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hastily passed three farm bills, with the stated intent of liberalizing the country’s agrarian sector. Farmers see these bills as a ploy to hand over the sector to Modi’s billionaire supporters, such as Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani. On Nov. 25, tens of thousands of Punjabi farmers and farmworkers began marching towards the country’s capital, New Delhi. As they peacefully crossed into neighboring Haryana, they were met with tear gas, water cannons, police batons and road barriers. Now, as winter sets in, not even a bitter, bone-chewing cold has stopped a million protesters from planting their feet at Delhi’s borders.

My aunt, like most members of my family in Punjab, is a small-scale farmer. More than half of India’s workforce is in farming, with 85 percent of farmers owning less than five acres. “They can try to take everything we have, they’ve tried before,” my aunt told us over the phone weeks ago; She had just returned from a protest in her village, “But our spirit will never extinguish.”

Punjab’s tradition of resilient defiance is on full display, and it is a sight to behold.

Protesters have traveled hundreds of miles by bicycle and tractor, many saying they’re prepared to stay for at least six months if they have to. The resistance is intersectional; Mazdoors, landless farm laborers, and members of the Dalit community who have long faced systemic caste-based discrimination are present. Women are leading the way. Farmers from neighboring states such as Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have joined. Protesters from ages 7 to 90 rise from their makeshift beds as the morning cold continues to bite; some protesters are dying of the cold. Those marching are singing spiritual kirtan. Menstrual products are being freely distributed, and efforts to feed the poor in surrounding areas are currently underway.People gather to cut vegetables for langar (the Sikh practice of making and serving free meals). The community has set up blood donation clinics, gyms and book distributions. Through music and poetic verse, protesters call out the Modi government and India’s corporate billionaires.

This protest is beginning to look more and more like a revolution. It has the Indian government shaking. But many of us watching the protests know the ugly reality for minorities in Modi’s India and what happens when they speak up against mistreatment.

Human rights violations have followed Modi his entire political career. He is a lifelong member of the RSS, a right-wing paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization that seeks to turn India into a Hindutva state. In 2005, Modi was banned from entering the United States and Europe for his involvement in the mass murders of 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, during the 2002 Gujarat pogroms, during which he served as the state’s chief minister.

When Kashmiris speak up about their struggles, the government and its propagandist media labels them “terrorists.” When Muslims speak up, they’re labeled “terrorists.” When Sikhs speak up, we’re labeled “terrorists.” Minorities, intellectuals, student leaders and journalists are labeled “anti-nationals” and can be jailed under false allegations for not toeing the state’s line.

The Punjabi diaspora has come out in full force, supporting the current protests with packed rallies throughout the world to amplify farmer’s voices. On Dec. 5, I went to a car rally that spanned 18 miles in Toronto. In San Francisco, thousands of cars took over the Bay Bridge and caravanned towards the Indian Consulate.

As friends and relatives of those currently protesting in Delhi, we are worried about the potential for retribution the farmers will face. Sikhs are venerated when we die for others but are demonized when we stand up for ourselves. Since the farmers started marching to New Delhi, pro-Modi segments of the Indian media have gone into overdrive, labeling peaceful protesters as terrorists and anti-nationals. Thus, it becomes imperative that the international press shows the world what is happening to peaceful protesters and makes an effort to amplify their voices.

Dissent is on its last leg in India. Any hope to restore it is tied to the fate of this farmers’ protest. Their resistance acts as a last line of defense against a government-backed corporate takeover. An elderly protester recently said, “We have faced bigger tyrants than Modi. As long as there is breath in our lungs, we will keep fighting.”

The ultimatum is clear.

Peace and justice for all minorities, or division and polarization?

Democracy or majoritarianism?

Farmers or Modi?

Pick your side.

I’ve chosen mine.

Read more:

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Natasha Behl: Can India’s protesting farmers restore its democracy?

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Jason Rezaian: In India, the pandemic is cover for Modi’s war on journalists