As violent clashes between farmers and police in India continue, members of Canada’s Punjabi communities say they’re growing increasingly worried about family and friends who are taking part in the protests.
“Sitting in Canada, we feel helpless, we feel hopeless,” said Toronto’s Parminder Singh, whose family has owned farms in India’s Punjab region for countless generations.
“I’m from a family of farmers, so this entire situation is hitting very close to home,” he added.
“The Sikh Punjabi community diaspora are so closely linked to this because the majority of us are farmers from back home.”
“They’re family, they’re brothers and sisters, they’re our grandparents,” added Jaskaran Sandhu with the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
“We have family back home, both my wife’s side and my side. Our entire family history is farmers.”
Tens of thousands of farmers from northern India’s Punjab and Haryana have blocked streets and highways outside the capital, New Delhi.
They’re protesting three agricultural laws that were passed in September, allowing farmers to sell their crops directly to private buyers instead of to the Indian government at a regulated price.
The Indian government argues it gives farmers more freedoms, but farmers fear that big corporations would be able to exploit them since they argue the new legislation has no safeguards in place to protect them.
“Essentially it’s a David-versus-Goliath story,” said Singh. “These are small landowners up against corporate greed.”
“It’s the livelihood of my family back home, we just cannot compete with the price gouging that would take place or the undercutting that would take place,” he added.
“There is no hope, there is no future aside from farming.”
The protests in India grew steam in late November and have turned violent in the past few days.
Videos have emerged of police hitting farmers with water cannons, tear gas and beating them with batons during the day — while they camp out in cold temperatures at night.
Punjabi Canadians also have been protesting across the country, including in Toronto, where a convoy of vehicles blocked the Gardiner Expressway during rush hour on Tuesday, much to the anger of many of the city’s commuters.
“Unless you’re inconveniencing someone, no one’s paying attention,” said Sandhu. “The point is to drive attention to the issue.
“Is this an everyday occurrence? No, this is a very specific act.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also defended the protesting Punjabi farmers on Monday, saying, “Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protests,” adding the federal government has reached out to Indian authorities to “highlight our concerns.”
Since then, India’s government has snapped back at Trudeau and other party leaders who have voiced their disapprovals.
“We have seen some ill-informed comments by Canadian leaders relating to farmers in India,” said India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava on Tuesday.
“Such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country.”
But Canadians in touch with families on the front lines of the protest said Trudeau’s words gave them ‘a second wind.’
“It had a huge impact (in India), absolutely huge impact,” said Sandhu.
“It was the trending news for the day, it continues to be trending news there — and for the protesters on the ground, it was a moral boost.”
Meanwhile, the Canadian branch of Khalsa Aid, a non-profit humanitarian organization, have been providing on-the-ground assistance to the protesting farmers.
“Within India, our team has set up camps in New Delhi and the surrounding areas, providing food, clean water, hygiene products and we’ve also put portable toilets there for the protestors,” said Jatinder Singh with Khalsa Aid Canada.
Singh adds that rallies will continue to be held by Canada’s Punjabi communities until an agreement is reached between the farmers and the Indian government.
— with files from the Associated Press