By Neha Verma
Although India declared independence in 1947, British colonialism and cultural imperialism continue to torment the people and the land. Mainstream thought in India has shifted from community-based values to individualistic and capitalist rhetoric. While India has reached standards of “growth and development” that are prided by countries in the Global North, the State has done so at the expense of many workers, particularly farmers. Ongoing colonialism persists within India’s culture and politics, marginalizing and repressing the farmers of Punjab. To truly liberate its people, India must shift its relationship with the land away from corporate policies to ensure the safety and survival of many marginalized communities.
Capitalist agriculture rooted in colonialism
Shortly after declaring independence, India faced a shortage in food grains due to the aftermath of British colonialism. This resulted in the 1960s ‘Green Revolution,’ a State-sanctioned movement with the intent of spiking food production and industrializing agriculture. Although the Green Revolution did increase food production, many farmers and working-class folk are often left asking, at what cost? The revolution used the framework of capitalist reform that can be traced back to India’s former colonial ruling powers. This rapid industrialization and capitalization failed to center workers and their rights, leaving them to produce more food but make less income. More so, this shift in relations to agriculture has “impacted local politics, economies, and cultural relations with land and labour.”
Understanding coloniality in the context of India, Punjab, and the British Empire is fundamental when starting to fully grasp the context in which farmer and agricultural rights are being contested. The exploitation of agricultural workers can be traced back to the core of the British imperial exploitation of India. This is often referred to as the basis for the dissolution of Indian culture and society.
The recent resurgence of general strikes and protests among Punjabi farmers is a result of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-worker policies. The party Modi belongs to, the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is responsible for the push towards increasing corporate ownership and control of the agricultural sector. These forms of “mass privatization and deregulation”, aligned with global neoliberal policy, further ostracize and dehumanize communities, and particularly harm the working class. The global shift towards this capitalist rhetoric often results in the denial of basic human and labour rights for equity-deserving groups.
The Indian State, and consequently culture and society, continues to move toward capitalist hierarchies and away from its pre-colonial history. One must understand that the mass privatization of the Indian economy is not native to pre-colonial socio-economic relations, and rather, is a reflection of the forced conversion of the global economy towards capitalism.
The myth of development: power, oppression, and repression
Understanding colonialism in the context of India can be incredibly complex: a country emerging from the aftermath of British colonialism has become a colonial power in itself. After British colonialism, the Indian State began to rebuild itself on a basis of economic exploitation, patriarchy, Islamophobia, casteism, and colourism.
The global push toward neoliberal capitalism is often seen as a sign of progress and advancement. But under the guise of “development”, the BJP enacts colonial violence against workers, Muslim folks, women, and other communities facing ongoing marginalization. Post-colonial India could have taken this moment of independence as a chance to liberate itself through forms of community care and solidarity that are deeply ingrained in our cultural background. Instead, the State followed the white man’s rule, striving to be everything that the violent and insidious British empire stands for. Through the myth of development, the Indian government has enacted a variety of anti-worker legislation over years, removing regulations for corporations. This disregard for farmer and worker rights in India is no less than blatant class violence.
Through violent colonialism and globalization, patriarchy and misogyny have become more widespread. Cultures that have historically been matriarchial have been marginalized and demonized, as they are fed myths of Eurocentric notions of gender and gender binary. After India declared independence, the culture was left with harmful forms of misogyny and gender-based violence that did not exist pre-colonization.
In the context of agricultural worker rights, close to 75% of women working full-time in rural communities are in agriculture. Many farmers at the frontlines of protests are also women, and they are repetitively dehumanized and erased by the State. Police have been violent towards the protestors, causing at least 25 deaths last December, and the BJP has even gone so far as to call them terrorists. Police violence in these protests disproportionately harms Sikh women, as they make up a majority of the farmers. Due to the movement towards cash crops, working women often are increasingly exploited in the name of a growing Gross Domestic Product. The global shift towards a profit over people ethic has infiltrated Indian culture, pushing governments to put corporate interests above the humanity of farmers who have played a key role in sustaining the livelihoods of their communities.
Struggling for survival: stories of farmer suicides
The ongoing colonial violence against farmers not only harms culture, land, and labour rights but also has stripped farmers of their lives. Statistics on suicide among farmers are rampant, in 2011it was found that every 30 minutes, one farmer died due to suicide; this translates to 300,000 farmer suicides since 1995. I want to acknowledge that statistics cannot accurately represent the weight of each of these lives lost. Suicide is not a singular event but creates a ripple of harm and trauma within the community. These farmer suicides carry weight for many Sikh and Punjabi people, as there is a blatant disregard for our lives and the State continues to strip us of our humanity.
A root cause for the increasing number of lives lost is the alienation that has come alongside the conversion from community to capitalist individualism. This shift towards capital and away from humanity also acts as a justification for the exploitation of the land and its stewards. Although reformist approaches to the increasing privatization of the agricultural sector could create substantive material changes in the lives of workers, the poor conditions and mistreatment of farmers are a reflection of the failures of capitalism in general.
The Modi government has been particularly harmful to farmers, with its only goal to appeal to corporate interests. Due to the increasing violence against farmers by the BJP, many folks on the frontlines of the protests are calling this a genocide. The blatant disregard for the lives of farmers alongside Punjabi and Sikh people by the State is an act of violence in itself. The State’s silence and refusal to change, driving increasing suffering and loss of life, speaks volumes to what the Indian State values.
Grounding our work in the land
Although this fight for justice and rights for farmers cannot simply be narrowed down to a conflict of land, we must understand the sacred connection our culture and spirituality have to the land. The land is not a source of profit, not a tool to be exploited, but rather it nurtures and holds us. Even when much of our sacred connections to the land feel as though they have been stripped from us, farmers work and fight to continue to be the caretakers and stewards of the land.
As Malcolm X said in his “Message to the Grass Roots” speech, “revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” When I first heard these words, they inspired me to cultivate deep connections with the land; I know that the land is all that I am, and so naturally, I saw the land as a source of our liberation.
When the British arrived, their exploitation and violence against the land directly mirrored violence against our bodies. The justification for violence against our bodies came after violence against the land was justified in their eyes. The exploitation of the stewards of the land, of the farmers, was foundational in the ongoing erasure of our culture, societies, religion, and people. After independence, the Indian government itself continues to perpetuate colonial violence against its people, against its farmers. Capitalist relations to the land, as something to be owned, bought, and sold, have led us to forget the significance of the land. We forget that “land is also the source of culture, religion, of rituals, of insurance, and of inheritance for the next generation.” When we strip ourselves of our sacred connections to the land, we begin to lose every facet of our humanity. The land and our bodies, culture, politics, minds, and communities are all inextricably woven together as the source of richness in our lives.
My land story: exploring my connections with Punjab and the farmers
I write this from a place of passion, and frankly of rage. My family is from currently occupied Punjabi land, although much of my family history has been lost. I know that I am a child of displaced peoples, farmers, and those seeking liberation. Since partition, Punjabi land and the lives of my ancestors have been used as a tool of division and hatred.
Knowing these stories, and understanding my own background allows me to form a deeper connection with my roots. I know that each part of me carries stories of colonialism and violence. Even within my skin, I have come to realize that my fair complexion is not truly native to my people, that my fair skin tone which I am privileged to wear, comes from centuries of rape, violence, and displacement of my ancestors. Colonization shows up in every part of ourselves, and we can never liberate ourselves within this very system that keeps us in shackles.
The anti-farmer and anti-Sikh hatred spread by the Indian State infuriates me on multiple levels. I am angry that instead of truly seeking liberation, colonization lives deeply within our culture and the way we govern ourselves. I am angry that so many of my people have chosen to ignore these forms of oppression and violence that continue to plague our lives. This hatred and marginalization of our own people, the exploitation of the land, and ongoing forms of colonial violence live within our bodies. Our inaction and silence only cause us hurt and suffering.
Steps forward: calls for revolution and liberation
In an interaction between the police and a protestor, the protestor emphatically expressed that “this is a revolution, sir.” Despite this sustained call for workers rights, the Indian State fails to take this situation seriously. The Modi government has more than ever devalued and disregarded demands for farmer’s rights. More so, the voices of middle to upper-class farmers have dominated many protests. It is evident that even within the frontlines of this work, the most marginalized voices are being silenced and erased. This can be traced back to capitalism and white supremacy, which dismisses the voices of low-wage workers who are less likely to speak English, as many folks in the global South are often subjected to standards of whiteness as a measure of their perceived worth.
Similarly, to survive and be seen as successful on the global economic scale, India has sacrificed its culture, people, and land. Neoliberalism, capitalism, and colonialism are not native to Indian knowledge or ways of thinking. A common conflict among many post-colonial nations is that we try to resolve issues that are deeply rooted in our exploitation through reform of the systems which perpetuate the harm. Often, the conflicts we see are only the tip of the iceberg, and through reform, we neglect all that lies beneath. Abolitionist work is neither quick nor easy, but we must begin to cultivate a deep understanding of the systems and ideologies that undergird and poison our institutions. Appealing to colonial thought and narratives of success will not result in the liberation or transformation of India.
There is common rhetoric that India was struggling before the British arrived, that colonization was beneficial for our people. However, we must ground ourselves in knowing that we were prosperous and capable of determining our own futures. Communities seeking liberation must affirm to themselves that we have rich ancestral and cultural heritage and knowledge, and by working with these practices, we will achieve not only sustenance but transformation.
The oppression and repression of Punjabi farmers mirror the acts of violence and exploitation perpetrated by British colonialism. Capitalist “development” has caused devastation and suffering amongst the most vulnerable communities within India and the diaspora. India must shed this system to truly bring safety and sovereignty to the people. I hope that we can begin to recenter radical love, joy, and community within the culture, and begin to piece together what we may have lost by deepening our connection to the land.
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