Homing in on the Harvest:
Punjabi Farmers in the Orchard, at the Border, in the Streets
“Injustice was the way of the world; what mattered was what one could accomplish between its cracks and fissures.” — Rishi Reddi, Passage West
Among the undercurrents of immigrant livelihood only partially realized by most, are the journeys of Punjabi farmers, truckers and detainees throughout the U.S. and approaching its borders.
Though circumstances vary, there is a larger movement afoot gathering these loose threads as they culminate in two cohesive narratives: it’s time to know our people, and to hear our farmers.
There is considerable cause for Americans to tune into India’s farmer protests, ignited eight months ago and peaking at over 250 million participants. For perspective, the U.S. population is around 330 million. The sheer size of this strike — the largest in history — is not the sole reason to perk up, but is worth absorbing.
“Given the increase of Punjabi Sikhs in detention facilities, this is the moment to pay attention to who Punjabis are, their migration journeys and the skills they bring with them,” insists Jaya Padmanabhan (San Francisco Examiner), “It is this knowledge that will help us advocate for and make more informed decisions about the people we give refuge to.”
“Handing over the keys of agriculture to corporations touches a deep and painful nerve for the community.” — Mallika Kaur, author, lawyer and lecturer at U.C. Berkeley
The commotion: Last fall, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rushed three farming ordinances out the door without regard for India’s smallholder farmers, who comprise the vast majority of the agricultural sector. Pitched as bolstering the economy, many fear the bills will prevent farmers from competing with larger companies that would earn unlimited stockholding power.
“Left to the mercy of private players,” farmers and non-farmers alike stand to bear dire financial, environmental and health burdens as consequences of the bills. This, explains Kaur, is why ordinary people from all sectors are “standing up to the government handing over yet another sector to large corporate control.”
The connection: To American farming communities, this echoes a familiar tune. During the Depression-era New Deal, our government protected farmers by setting price floors for crops; by the 1960s, these protections were rolled back as the Green Revolution took hold, releasing large farming complexes into the arena. These factory farms, credited with exploiting surrounding communities, were “the culprits behind mass dumping of dangerous pollutants” into the air and water streams of those regions.
Beyond wreaking environmental and health havoc, explains Rohan Arora (The Hill), “the monopolies within the American farm industry have promoted environmental and financial ruin for family farms” leading to the closure of nearly fifty small farms every day.
“In the summer of 2017, Tamil farmers protested while we were swooning over Despacito and Bahubali 2. The Kisan Long March in 2018 saw 35,000 Maharashtrian farmers swarm into Mumbai but we were busy debating Padmavat. They were marching again in 2019.” — Manu Kaushik, Outlook India
Likewise, we have found no shortage of distractions pulling our focus from the strife of our own communities. The closure of small farms goes hand in hand with that of thousands of rural schools, veterinarians and various support services. Farm bills now set aside multi-million dollar budgets for mental health, as Farm Aid and others establish suicide prevention hotlines.
Meanwhile, India’s farmer protests coincide with the devastating crises of farmer suicides, further exacerbated by the pandemic. Tallied at dozens each passing day, these actions are not only personal; they are part of the collective outcry, a final signal sent out from each forsaken farm.
The corruption: Already under international scrutiny, Modi’s move to “shove [the bills] down the throats of the people” lands as a final straw, leading to a rare ruling in January by India’s supreme court to suspend the laws. Deeply-rooted discrimination, media interference, and cutting communications are no longer enough to halt the influx of Sikh farmers trekking toward the outskirts of Delhi, “making the nation’s capital inaccessible for miles.”
Insists Naindeep Singh, Executive Director of the youth-driven Jakara Movement, “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.”
“Will it be the farmers that break Modi’s authoritarian streak?” asks Singh.
“If you don’t see it or you don’t feel it, then you need to open your eyes. There’s always prejudice. There’s always discrimination.” — Kashmir Gill, former mayor of Yuba City
As our country grew, in its early years, so too did the number of immigrants arriving with generations’ worth of agricultural knowledge. By the late 1800s, just before Alien Land Laws set in, Punjabi farmers were building new lives on American soil, and establishing California’s first Sikh communities.
In Yuba City, CA — “Little Punjab” — Punjabi immigrants account for as much as 95% of peach farming, and fill a gaping shortage of truck drivers nationwide. Nevertheless, as with many minority producers, they have been historically neglected by policymakers in the region.
Punjab, India, is the birthplace of Sikhism, and Sikh men often endure prejudice on account of the turbans they wear. Among other deplorable conditions in ICE custody, mistreatment toward Sikh detainees weighs heavily on their community.
“I’m told to cover my head with a pillowcase or a towel.” — Jimmy Sodhi, 45-year old ICE detainee
“That is very demeaning, very disrespectful.” Sodhi and fellow Punjabi Sikh detainees held at Teller County Jail, TX, remarked in response to being regularly subjected to racial harassment. Among the hate speech slung at them: “Hey sand n****r, go back to Iraq.”
When we debate U.S. immigration, we name four countries: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. Yet according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, India has held “a tight grip on the fifth spot since 2016” when it comes to illegal migrants arriving from our southwest border.
South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which has tracked the rise in South Asian border-crossings, cites a pattern of mistreatment ranging from inadequate language access and medical neglect, to the use of solitary confinement and unjustifiably high bonds.
“Until [a new system] is created that upholds the dignity of all migrants, we will continue to see unspeakable tragedies.” — Lakshmi Sridaran, SAALT
In response to the death of 6-year-old migrant, Gurupreet Kaur, on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019, Sridaran stresses that border militarization and the treatment of migrants “have created an environment where a child, like Gurupreet, can die in a desert, alone.”
SF Examiner’s Padmanabhan implores us, the American public, to “acquaint ourselves with who we detain, how we detain and the histories of those we detain.”
The journey to Mexico’s border can “begin on the plains of northern India and zigzag to Russia, the Mideast, the Caribbean and Central America.” Though incentives for the perilous journey vary and rationale for asylum are debatable, two factors remain indisputable: they migrate in pursuit of a better life, and we can afford them more dignity while they are within our borders.
From the vantage of this “better” life, we can tune in to the struggles of their families abroad, just as Punjabi-American truckers tune in via radio during their long routes transporting our produce across the country.
“Punjab or California or anywhere, Punjabis will never quit farming. It’s in our DNA.” — Karmdeep Singh Bains, 4th-generation farmer
Central Valley communities, where Punjabi is the third-most spoken language, have raised funds for billboards to draw attention to the movement — including on the sides of trucks — while across the seas thousands of tractors do their part to block further roads to injustice.
“Recognizing all of its flaws, the American Government is still relatively receptive to national pressure,” notes Arora (The Hill), “Media corruption has led to the desperate cries of the farmers to be hidden from the mainstream narrative, and thus, the onus to speak up falls on us as Americans.”