Yukon-based Bhangra instructor Gurdeep Pandher is breaking his silence on the India farmers’ protest, he says, to share important messages about why the movement matters amid increasing tensions and fears of further violence.
Pandher’s dance videos featuring scenic Canadian backdrops have regularly gone viral. They’re a pillar of his platform, reserved for spreading joy, positivity and hope free of any political commentary or vitriol.
However, Pandher, who considers himself a part of a universal family, has deep roots in India, with family members among those who’ve been protesting new agriculture laws in that country.
His passion, Bhangra, is also rooted in the movement. The dance was created as a celebration of good harvest and promotes a key mantra in Sikhism, called chardi kala, which means eternal optimism.
“Bhangra dance, the type of dance I teach, originated on that very soil of Punjab,” Pandher said.
“We are told it doesn’t matter how rough your day is, how sad your day is, how many struggles you are going through (…) you’re just present, you have forgotten your past, you have forgiven your past (…) that sort of char di kalah is the essence of who we are.”
He says with increasing government crackdowns on farmers, activists and journalists, he felt he needed to say something about the mounting pressure.
“On the one hand, I’ve been working to spread this message to bring a smile to people’s faces and then I’ve been seeing those images coming from the farmers’ protests, like people have been targeted, there’s been violence, I’ve seen blood, I’ve seen people disrespected or demoralized,” he said.
As a man who helps build cross-cultural bridges with Indigenous communities every day, he says he wants people to understand that agriculture in India is a way of life and an identity generations deep.
“This is not just a protest about paying minimum wages, which we call minimum support price, it’s related to saving their heritage (…) farming is your culture, farming is your language, farming is your faith,” Pandher said.
“It’s not just a matter of surviving financially, it’s also a matter of keeping a whole identity, who you are, alive.”
Recounting the horror of the 1984 Sikh massacre
Pandher was born in Punjab and grew up in the village of Siahar. He was just a child when the 1984 Sikh massacre happened.
“I remember that when I was a child, different adults at that time, from my village, they were picked up by the state, by the state police and they were beaten, they were tortured.”
By 5 p.m., lights would be shut off across the village and no one left their homes, only thinking about what might happen the next day, he said.
“I saw that fear as a child on the faces of my elders, on the faces of my other village mates,” he said.
“I think it shaped who I am, that compassion and kindness, which I show through my videos, it has that connection.”
Fears of that level of violence happening again are high, as many Sikh farmers and their supporters are being portrayed as terrorists by some government supporters.
“This word ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist,’ was designed for specific people who are indulging in those sorts of activities, but nowadays I started feeling this word is being used by media, is being used by governments, just to fulfill their own agendas … or just to target minority communities,” he said.
Pandher said he was bothered to see pictures of climate activist Greta Thunberg and pop star Rihanna being burned in India, amid widespread reporting of an alleged conspiracy involving farmer-supporting celebrities to divide the country.
“Greta is a minor. She’s not even an adult yet. It really made me sad that such a beautiful human who’s been working towards climate justice and bringing such positive change in the world, she has been labelled as a terrorist,” he said.
“Which means that anyone could be labelled as a terrorist when you speak about human rights, the earth and Indigenous issues.”
Pandher says he believes there’s a great risk of farmers, Indigenous to the land they harvest crops on, being uprooted from their way of life, which is why they’ve protested with such resolve and have garnered so much support.
He says especially with his close ties to Indigenous communities in Canada, and what he’s learned from them, there are similar sentiments around oppression.
“These people are Indigenous to Punjab, they’ve been living there for thousands of years (…) they are children of the soil and there’s such a big connection with the land, with water, with the sky, with nature,” he said.
“So when I’m seeing this privatization or different mechanisms, government policies, being disconnected from their heritage, I see that connection of colonialism, although this connection of colonialism is by people who are from the same country.”
The farmers’ determination is driven by a desperation to protect a culture and identity for future generations, Pandher says.
Fact-checking information and sources
Pander is also sounding the alarm about the accuracy of some of the information coming from India, namely, from what many describe as “state-sponsored media.”
“Especially my friends in Canadian media, when you need to get your source of information, don’t just rely on the national news outlets from there (…) bring the voices of the people out,” he said.
“Being in media, here in Canada, it’s your responsibility to find the truth (…) trace those stories from the people who are on the ground, not from other media outlets.”
As concerns around misleading information and allegations of censoring content related to the farmers’ protest continue to mount, Pandher says his mission remains filling his own social media feeds with content aimed at sparking joy.
“I believe in positivity, I believe in happiness and I want to continue that mission of spreading joy in the future, but through this, I also want you to reflect,” he said.
-With files from Neetu Garcha