Punjabi Identity In Light Of The Farmers’ Protests

Words: Dinesh Mattu

“No, but where are you from?”

I, like the many thousands of other descendants of immigrants across this tiny, grey island, have often been faced with this question across our lifetimes, answering to varying degrees of hesitancy—from a pleasant openness to educate, to a wariness of unravelling some ulterior motive. Do I start with where I was born? Where my parents grew up? The country my grandparents left? Shall I really go on a 10-minute tirade about race, class, religion and caste discrimination? Probably not.

Identity is complex—no less for a pre-teen caught in an intricate web between British birth, Indian heritage, Punjabi culture, and Valmiki faith. For context, the Valmiki faith is an ethnicity that—amongst the many other ethnic groups within Hinduism and Sikhism—has historically been marginalised and perceived as ‘low caste’ (formerly ‘untouchable’, or nowadays ‘Dalit’) in India’s archaic caste system. Punjab is a Northern region in India, whose rich culture forms the basis of my familial upbringing—from language to food to music—and is a state which is colloquially known as the ‘breadbasket’ of India, and understandably sits at the heart of the recent farmers’ protests.

The controversial reforms passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to the agricultural sector entail changes to laws which may lead to huge deregulation in the market, cutting off potentially life-saving minimum support prices to thousands of agriculture workers. Combated further by the devastating impact the pandemic is having on the Subcontinent, the farmers’ collective struggle and anger are being felt thoroughly, thousands of miles away by the Indian diaspora across the world—especially in the UK, where there is a huge Punjabi community. As the country tackles a second wave of deadly infections, it is increasingly clear that the Indian government has blood on its hands, firstly from the 350+ deaths from the protests, and secondly the thousands of deaths from the pandemic. Lax safety protocols, mass election rallies and huge religious gatherings have brought the country to breaking point. The government’s reaction? To remove tweets criticising their response.

Arguably, no sector is more ripe for economic reform than agriculture, but undoubtedly the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have grossly mishandled the protests, overseeing several human rights violations including police attacks on protesters, limiting food and fresh water supplies, and cutting off internet to create blackouts. And as Rihanna quite rightly tweeted, “Why aren’t we talking about this?!”

In a conversation with Coolie—a British-Punjabi producer from Coventry, whose latest single, “Kisan”, was created in support of the movement—we trade stories on growing up in the Midlands surrounded by a wealth of smells, sights and sounds, enriched by our respective cultural backgrounds as we speak on what being Punjabi means in light of the protests. “When you go to the root of real, honest, clean-hearted Punjabi culture, in their hearts they don’t really see caste,” he says. “Over the last 10-15 years, it has become more progressive—back to the roots of what Punjab originally was hundreds of years ago.”

Interestingly, if you were to follow my subliminal schooling throughout my teens, the word ‘farmer’ is immediately associated with the word ‘Jatt.’ Jatts are an ethnic group belonging to the Sikh faith, traditionally agrarian in occupation, who make up around 60% of Sikhs globally and are typically the landowning dominant class in the antiquated caste system. But as TIME magazine suggests, whilst the farmers’ protests is a movement clearly rooted in Punjabi Sikh experiences, agriculture spans across all castes, faiths, genders and social groups in the country.

Over the past few months, various Indian news outlets have sought to suggest that many protesters are largely Sikh separatists, or part of a plot against the government attempting to denounce the true colours of India, playing heavily into the hands of the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist politics. Coolie feels the Indian government are using the protests as an excuse to push their own agenda. “It's just a low, shameful attempt to try and divide the many,” he says. “India has always been a secular, multi-faith, multi-caste country—if anything, that country was the pioneer for multiculturalism. In Punjab, when you go back to the 1800s, before the British came, there were Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs—from all castes and faiths—all living together. There was the masjid, there was the mandir and the gurdwara. Everything was there for everyone.”

Evidently, the pre-British Empire was far from a utopian paradise, but the tides of democracy may well be turning as many of the country’s oppressed groups, from Muslims to Sikhs to Christians to Kashmiris to Dalits, have pulled together during the protests to hold up a mirror to a government whose chequered past on authoritarianism, propaganda and human rights abuses still have huge questions to answer—amplified even further given the pretext of the pandemic. Seeing how little action and coverage was happening overseas, Coolie took it upon himself to raise awareness to the issue. “I went to the Birmingham and London rallies and I thought, ‘Oh wow! This is really going to do something,’ and then I came back and nothing happened,” he says. “It pissed me off and got me angry. I just felt powerless and frustrated.”

Coolie’s “Kisan” single sees him unite some of the most exciting names in UK rap—JAY1, Temz, Tana, J Fado and Hargo—with British-Punjabi vocalist Jaz Dhami to speak on the issue, with all proceeds going to the UK-based Sikh charity Khalsa Aid, who continue to work tirelessly not only supporting farmers, but distributing food and aid to those so badly affected by the pandemic across the country.

As we come to talk on division amongst Indians, Coolie and I agree that casteism and racial discrimination still exist—in varying measures across the homeland and diaspora—but we feel positive that progress is being made in light of the protests. “We’re seeing footage of Muslims doing namāz, protected by Sikhs and Hindus, and then Muslims getting up surrounding Hindus and Sikhs while they do while they do their prayers,” he says. “The government can try and divide, but it won’t wash. I think this protest has probably brought more unity than maybe we’ve ever seen before.” Admittedly, in my personal experience, I’ve never felt limited, othered, outcast, or held back by my background to the extent that my forefathers did, but I know all too well how casteism proliferates Indian thinking even in today’s world.

Far from being a staunch devotee, faith isn’t something I hold close to my heart on a daily basis and, reflectively, perhaps part of the reason I never shouted from the rooftops about my identity in the way that others so vehemently did. Does anyone really care whether your ancestors were farmers, carpenters, warriors or labourers? Do centuries-old perceived levels of “purity” matter in an increasingly secular world?

A sobering video of the Delhi Border march by the Indian photographer Jaskaran Singh has been doing the rounds recently. It depicts Punjabi singer Kanwar Grewal reciting Sikh, Hindu and Muslim mantras with the crowd reciting back in unison; regardless of your stance on faith, this epitomises a unity through struggle at a trying time for Indian democracy. Stories of forbidden inter-caste marriages and caste-based harassment and discrimination are all too well known in the community, but there is a growing consensus that the system set up to instil fear, hate and division is becoming increasingly obsolete, and we must be the generation to completely dismantle it.

Posted on April 29, 2021