An Interfaith Miracle at India’s Farmer Protests

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

Aniruddha Bose is Associate Professor of History at Saint Francis University and the author of Class Conflict and Modernization in India: The Raj and the Calcutta Waterfront (1860-1910) (Routledge 2017).

 

From the 26th of November, 2020, a farmers protest has been in existence on the outskirts of Delhi, India’s capital city. For the past eight months, farmers in the tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, have been fighting three laws that threaten the future of agriculture in the country. These laws empower big agribusiness at the cost of independent medium, small and marginal farmers. These laws came into effect last Fall during the pandemic. The ruling National Democratic Alliance, dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party, used its majority in the legislature to push the laws through without any debate in parliament. Farmers had no say in the drafting of these laws either. Always a precarious profession, many farmers fear for their survival. The protests are being led by a coalition of 40 farmer unions under the banner of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (United Farmer’s Front). The protests have been remarkably peaceful, enjoyed substantial support, and have demonstrated an astonishing degree of endurance. There is also a fascinating story of interfaith leadership.

Religious politics in Northern India, is a fraught affair. There are at least three major religions in the region. Hindus constitute a majority, as they do nationally, and are the dominant religious community. There is a substantial Muslim minority, in the capital Delhi as well as in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. Finally,there are Sikhs. Nationally constituting a small minority, Sikhs form a majority in the state of Punjab. Each ofthese communities are further divided into sects, castes, etc. Differences of language, culture, ethnicity, and class further fragment and complicate these divisions. There is a history of religious conflict in the region. Some of it stretches back in time, much of it morerecent in nature. Anti-Sikh riots in 1984 led to the murder of over three thousand Sikhs. More recently violence has flared between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in 2013, and in the capital Delhi, in 2020. The Bharatiya Janata Party is a self-identified Hindu-Nationalist party. The political scientist Deepankar Basu has demonstrated how India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has been governing a country where hate crimes, especially against Muslims have surged under his watch.

The Indian government has tried hard to weaken and discredit the movement. This has included propaganda on pro-BJP media that has tried to suggest that the Sikh dominated protests are merely a front for Sikh separatism. On the 26th of January this year, when India celebrated the71st anniversary of its establishment as a republic, a group of farmers entered the Red Fort, an iconic late-medieval fortress located in the capital. There a small group of Sikhs raised the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag under the national flag of India. The government’s propaganda machine went into overdrive, condemning the act as seditious vandalism. The activists who raised the flag, and the protests in general were reduced to an epithet, Khalistani (Sikh separatist). More level headed analysis from Abhishek Kaicher however indicates that this was no act of religious separatism or seditious vandalism. The raising of the Nishan Sahib under the national flag of India was an act of inscription. The flag inscribed a Sikh identity for India in the context of a political party running the federal government that self-identifies as Hindu-nationalist. It was an assertion of pluralism, not Sikh separatism. It was understood as such by much of the Sikh community, and the protests continued.

There have been many miracles of interfaith leadership at the protest sites. The civil rights activist Harsh Mander has written about Hindu farmers from Uttar Pradesh, who had perpetrated violence against Muslims during Hindu-Muslim riots in 2013 in the state of Uttar Pradesh, reaching out to their Muslim comrades and seeking forgiveness. On the 6th of December 2020, journalist Rana Ayub tweeted a video of Sikh farmers standing in solidarity with their Muslim comrades offering namaz at one of their protest sites. Through the Fall and Winter, the Muslim community of Malerkotla, a district in Punjab, gained attention for the generosity with which they offered Langar (free meals from community kitchens) to the largely Sikh protestors. One of the Langar organizers, Haji Mohammad Jamil was quoted by the news channel Aaj Tak as stating “We are walking shoulder to shoulder with our Sikh brothers.”

How is this possible? While there is no understating the individual initiative of these interfaith leaders, nor the long history of interfaith leadership in the multi-religious Indian Subcontinent, there is little doubt that these acts have been facilitated by the nature of the farmer protests. Fascists and neo-fascists rise to power using a standard playbook. They appeal to the working poor using a class based appeal; pointing out their very real disempowerment and immesaration. Then, instead of building on that argument and pointing out the role of economic and social structures that lead to these and the need to change these structures, fascists and neo-fascists blame minorities (religious, ethnic, etc.) or resort to xenophobia. This model has thrived in north India leading to the rise of Hindu-nationalist politics as well as facilitating religious conflict. The farmer protests have neutralized this playbook by correctly identifying the true adversaries of the working poor; India’s ruling class. It is this identification that has allowed interfaith leadership to thrive.

The American connection - the farmer’s movement in India has received substantial support from the Indian diaspora, in particular the Sikh diaspora in the country. From celebrities like late night television host Lilly Singh to Sikh congregations in California, Indian-Americans have demonstrated solidarity through marches, artistic expression, and simple shoutouts on social media. The US based Barbadian pop star Rihanna, much to the consternation of the Indian government, also expressed solidarity on social media. It won her a fan following in rural Punjab. But the American connection extends beyond the diaspora and Third World solidarity. The war on independent farming has been waged in the United States since the 1980s. Independent farmers in America, like their counterparts in India, have been committing suicides in staggering numbers. The journalist Vijay Prashad has described the meth epidemic in rural America as a form of slow suicide, driven by the same despair. Even if the farmers in India are unable to stop the juggernaut of big agribusiness, their struggle will remain an inspiration for farmers in the United States and elsewhere, to fight another day. If they are successful, it will change the trajectory of the war on independent farms the world over. Either way, farmer protests in India offer hope to farmers in America. For interfaith leadership in the United States, it opens up a world of possibilities.

 

#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with ReligionAndPublicLife.org.

 

more from IFYC

Lessons from Thich Nhat Hanh, the person who nominated Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize and encouraged King to speak out against the war in Vietnam.
What Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh taught me about the power of mindful breathing through art.
A scholar of democratic virtues explains why Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on hope are relevant today.
From covering spirituality in Silicon Valley to writing an online newsletter about her own journey to Judaism, reporter Nellie Bowles keeps finding innovative ways to reflect on religion and technology.
Six ways religious and spiritual leaders can help the internet serve their communities right now.
At the request of his editors at Religion News Service, Omar Suleiman writes about waiting with hostages’ families.
Regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill, the PNBC leaders said they plan to lobby Congress in March and register voters weekly in their congregations and communities.
King’s exasperation at self-satisfied white Christians holds up a mirror that is still painfully accurate today.
A day before the U.S. Senate was expected to take up significant legislation on voting rights that is looking likely to fail, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eldest son condemned federal lawmakers over their inaction.
The congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, is particularly well connected to the larger interfaith community and on good terms with many Muslim leaders.
For Martin Luther King Day, an interfaith panel reflects on the sacredness of the vote and the legacy of Reverend King.
In his new book, Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer reexamines the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel and finds lessons for interfaith political activism today.
King drew criticism from Billy Graham, who told journalists that he thought King was wrong to link anti-war efforts with the civil rights movement.
Some are calling out historical injustices the church has carried out against Native Americans, even as others find their faith empowering.
IFYC’s Vote is Sacred campaign launched on January 13. Faith leaders, public intellectuals, activists, and organizers are joining to advocate for an inclusive, nonpartisan interfaith approach to restoring and protecting our democracy.
One out of five Muslims is in an interfaith relationship, surveys suggest. But few imams are willing to conform the traditional Muslim wedding ceremony to their needs, couples say.
In her popular podcast series, Corrigan invites guests to wonder about 'the elephant in America's living room': belief and religion. 'I hope I have a hundred more conversations like these in 2022 and beyond,' she says.
In his annual address to the Vatican's diplomatic corps, the pope stressed the individual's responsibility 'to care for ourself and our health, and this translates into respect for the health of those around us.'
The very people who have been subject to the worst of the United States have embodied its best.
The Jan. 6 insurrection of the U.S. Capitol drew recent attention to the phenomenon of Christian nationalism, but religious and spiritual leaders acknowledge its existence long before that.
A new interfaith curriculum designed for Christian universities and seminaries recently got a test run. One professor who tried it says it's opened hearts and minds: "The desire is very much there."

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.