California Sikh Farming Diaspora Celebrates Vaisakhi, Reflects On India Protests Central California is home to a large population of Sikh Punjabi farmers who say this year's harvest festival, Vaisakhi, holds complicated feelings amid months-long farmer protests in India.
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For Calif. Sikh Farmers, India Protests Cast 'Dark Cloud' Over Vaisakhi Festival

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For Calif. Sikh Farmers, India Protests Cast 'Dark Cloud' Over Vaisakhi Festival

For Calif. Sikh Farmers, India Protests Cast 'Dark Cloud' Over Vaisakhi Festival

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This week Indians far and wide have been celebrating festivals to mark the harvest season and the New Year for many. For Sikh farmers from Punjab, Vaisakhi is the biggest celebration of the year, but for many in the Sikh diaspora, this year's holiday brings up complicated feelings as some of their relatives in India take part in months-long farmer protests. NPR's Jonaki Mehta has this story from California's Central Valley.

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: This gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in Fresno would normally be teeming during Vaisakhi season.

GURJAP GILL: You know, right now, as we see, there's still quite a few people are here to celebrate. But usually it's a little different - well, I would say a lot different.

MEHTA: That's Gurjap Gill (ph). He runs a trucking business and farms almonds with his father on the side. He says the Central Valley reminds him of home in India.

GILL: You know, when you look around, all you see is the farms and barns. And, you know, this is how Punjab is. This is how where we are from is. It just feels the same.

MEHTA: It even sounds like Punjab here. The third most spoken language in some Central Valley cities is Punjabi. Out on the grass outside the temple, a small circle of kids are performing gatka, an ancient Sikh martial art.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MEHTA: From the temple drift the sounds of kirtan, or spiritual songs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in non-English language).

MEHTA: But despite those familiar rituals, Gill says this year's festivities are different not just because of pandemic restrictions but because many of the prayers and conversations he's hearing at the temple these days - they're centered on the farmer protests back home in India. He points to a bumper sticker on a car we're standing next to in the gurdwara parking lot.

GILL: This one right here shows, I stand with farmers - no farmers, no food. I have it on my car, too. So, I mean, it does affect our lives here as well whatever is going on back home, especially when it's related to farming.

MEHTA: In September, the Indian parliament passed three laws by a wide margin that deregulate Indian agriculture. Hardeep Dhillon of Harvard's history department studies Indian emigration patterns. She says Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration sees these bills as benefiting farmers.

HARDEEP DHILLON: The Modi government literally describes these bills as protection shields for farmers. The government alleges that the bills allow farmers to sell their produce and crops anywhere by negotiating a better price.

MEHTA: Indian farmers don't uniformly oppose the laws, but hundreds of thousands have turned out for months to protest what they see as laws passed without their input, laws they worry could further threaten their livelihoods.

DHILLON: Farmers feel worried that these new bills will introduce an even greater sense of precarity.

MEHTA: Farmers from India's wheat belt, including Punjab, are among those most opposed to the new laws. So Dhillon says she's not surprised to see solidarity among Punjabi farmers in California's Central Valley.

DHILLON: Because it's one of the farm belts of the world, and it's also home to a very large Punjabi diaspora that has been deeply vocal about the agricultural laws.

MEHTA: Sikh Punjabis here in California, like Gurjap Gill, have been sending money to relatives in India to help support protests there. And there's growing political momentum here in the U.S., too. Just last week, an assembly member in California's House of Representatives introduced a bill expressing solidarity for those protesting India's new farm laws. And Gill and other organizers plan to petition the White House to do the same. I also saw billboards vouching support for Indian farmers as I drove to meet another organizer and local farmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SINGING)

MEHTA: Fifteen miles west of Fresno, I met 28-year-old Simran Jeet Singh (ph) out on his family's 80-acre almond and raisin farm. The almonds aren't ripe yet, but he cracked one open for me anyway.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Open it all the way, and then you can see the almond inside of it.

MEHTA: That's pretty good.

SINGH: Yeah, a little bitter.

MEHTA: Singh says his parents came here from Punjab about three decades ago. One of their motivations was to escape persecution in India, especially following the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.

SINGH: Sikhs in India, like, I feel like are not safe. Like, my dad wore a turban, and he had a beard back home when he was growing up. And, like, that was the demographic that was being targeted the most.

MEHTA: Since then, there have been improvements. India's had a Sikh prime minister, for example. Still, Singh sees the new agricultural laws as an infringement of Sikhs rights and farmers rights. He's helped a Sikh youth group, the Jakara Movement, organize large car and tractor rallies around the state to draw attention to the issue, like this one in front of the Indian consulate in San Francisco in December.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No farmers.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No food.

MEHTA: Singh thinks this kind of international pressure is essential.

SINGH: If there were any international pressure being put on Modi and the Indian government right now, this protest would have been probably over a long time ago.

MEHTA: And although much of the Sikh diaspora has rallied around these protests, there are times when Singh feels discouraged and helpless.

SINGH: Vaisakhi - like, it's kind of like a celebratory time. So, like, now, like, with this dark cloud looming almost with the bills and stuff, like, you know, people are feeling hopeless. But, like, at the same time, like, our history, like, our culture, Punjabi Sikhs - like, we've had a lot of bad, dark times, you know? And, like, we're still here, you know? Like, we're still doing it, and we're still living how we're supposed to be living.

MEHTA: Back at the temple, Gurjap Gill tells me he senses concerns in his community, too, but he has faith in their collective resilience.

GILL: If you look at the history of India or Punjab, there's a lot of revolutions that Punjab leaded. So I'm really hopeful that we will win. The farmers will win this thing.

MEHTA: As Gill points to the field surrounding the gurdwara, he reminds me farmers know all about patience. And he says sometimes that's what it takes to win. For NPR News, I'm Jonaki Metha.

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