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What You Need to Know About the Farmers’ Protests in India

All eyes are on a movement stemming from controversial agricultural reforms. Here’s why the yoga and wellness community needs to pay attention—and what you can do.


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Recently, the farmers’ protest in India garnered global attention after Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and Meena Harris tweeted about it to their combined 107 million followers. “why aren’t we talking about this?!,” Rihanna tweeted with an article detailing how internet access was suspended around New Delhi after violent clashes between police and farmers protesting controversial agriculture reforms.

Later that day, Thunberg tweeted that she stood in solidarity with the farmers. As counter-protestors burned effigies of the teen environmental activist, she continued to show support: “I still #standwith farmers and support their peaceful protest. No amount of hate, threats or violations of human rights will ever change that.” Harris, who is US Vice President Kamala Harris’s niece, shared the post.

Even before the Twitter maelstrom, viral graphics highlighting the farmers’ plight were already circulating in social media feeds within the Western yoga community, especially among South Asian teachers and social justice advocates. Captions implored yoga and wellness practitioners to get informed and stand in solidarity with the farmers.

A Call for Support in the Yoga Community

If you are a dedicated student of yoga, you may wonder why you’re being called to action. For starters, if you practice daily asana, breath, and meditation to get through the day, enjoy turmeric lattes and masala chai, or recommend tulsi tea to your stressed out friends, it means you have benefited from yoga and Ayurveda. As a British born yoga teacher of Punjabi Indian heritage, I believe it’s important to honor the tradition of yoga—and that includes supporting the cultures and peoples from whom this wisdom originates. 

I also believe in yoga’s power to heal. But it’s ultimately up to each of us, as yoga practitioners, to take personal responsibility as agents of sustainable social change and justice. By embodying the principles and ethics of our practice, we can courageously dive into the issues—no matter how much we may want to turn away from all that is political, messy, or far away. When we seek only positive vibes, we are at risk of not expanding our hearts and minds with compassion for the suffering of others.  

I’ve written a guide to what’s happening with the farmers’ protests in India, in hope that we, as members of our expansive yoga community, take action.  

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Why Are Farmers Protesting in India?

The story begins nearly six months ago, when India’s government announced contentious agricultural reform bills. What followed were months of protests calling for repeal of the laws and culminating in recent violent clashes and a humanitarian crisis that commanded worldwide attention. Here, a timeline of events.

 

September 20-28, 2020: How It Started

India’s parliament introduces three controversial farming reform bills, which pass into law during a COVID-19 lockdown without consultation, debate, or majority support. The reform loosens the rules around pricing, selling, and storing produce. Officials argue that a free market will encourage private investments and modernization, which will benefit the agricultural sector. But the move roils farmers, who see it as exploitative, favorable to big business, and a threat to their livelihoods

Most farmers, who make up nearly half of India’s workforce, manage small, inherited land holdings. They survive season to season selling goods to local government markets at guaranteed minimum prices. With the reforms, farmers are free to sell directly to private businesses at any price—but they say without protections they are left vulnerable.

Farmers are protesting the agricultural reform laws in order to protect their livelihoods and shrinking land holdings. Currently, more than one in five farmers live below the poverty line; the laws stoke fears of mass hunger and destitution. Photo: Gaurav Kumar

November 25-30, 2020: March to Delhi

With the aim of rolling back the reforms, 300,000 peaceful protesters, mostly from the northern rural states of Punjab and Haryana, set out on foot and in tractor convoys toward the capital. Thousands of protestors are elders. In an effort to stymie the journey, police fire tear gas and water cannons, dig up roads, and erect barricades.

On November 26, the march is bolstered by a 24-hour strike of 250 million people nationwide—the world’s largest general strike in history.

Upon arrival at Delhi’s border, farmers are once again met with batons, water cannons, and tear gas. While some farmers are eventually escorted to a designated protesting zone in Delhi, many remain along the city outskirts, building encampments with makeshift tents and kitchens, and serving langar— free meals for all, including the police officers.

“We are prepared to stay here for as long as it takes, even in the cold winter,” Ratam Mann Singh, 61, president of the Indian Farmers Association for the state Haryana, tells The Guardian. “The farmers of India have been betrayed.”

 

December 2020-January 2021: Standing Ground

Freezing rains, along with ongoing stressful conditions, weigh on vulnerable protestors. In all, 143 farmers die from pneumonia, heart attacks, and other sickness and ailments; there are an estimated 7 deaths by suicide. 

At the same time, between October 14, 2020 and January 22, 2021, there are 11 rounds of talks with 30 farmer unions. But farmers are determined to hold their position, believing that concessions will still lead to an erosion of their livelihoods. 

On January 12, the Supreme Court temporarily suspends implementation of the three laws.

 

January 26, 2021: Red Fort Riots

Protestors plan a Kisan (Farmers’ Republic Day) Parade, a tractor rally to raise awareness. It’s organized to coincide with Republic Day on January 26, a nationwide holiday celebrating the official adoption of India’s constitution in 1950, following independence from British colonial rule.

Delhi officials approve three parade routes on the outskirts of the city, allowing 5,000 tractors to participate from three nearby camps. However, more than 200,000 tractors arrive with farmers traveling from other states. The vast majority of protesters participate peacefully. 

However, two groups of farmers deviate from the rally and veer into central Delhi. One group enters the ITO metro station, while the other breaches security at the historic 17th-century Red Fort. The police and group clash violently. One protestor, Navreet Singh, is killed; 86 police officers are injured. 

Farmer union leaders condemn the groups involved in violence and immediately call off the rally, saying that agitators had “infiltrated” an otherwise peaceful movement.  


January 27-now: Fallout

Paramilitary troops and police in riot gear are deployed, and what happens in the next few days leads to Rihanna’s tweet. More than 200 protestors are detained under anti-terrorism laws. Internet access is suspended, concrete barricades and barbed wire fences erected, iron nails cemented into roads, and entry and exit points blocked. Most worryingly, water, electricity, and food supplies to protesters are disrupted. To top it off, a media blackout ensues with activists like Disha Ravi (who shared a protesting “tool kit” with Thunberg) , journalists, and opposition politicians accused of sedition, conspiracy, and incitement of violence—all in an attempt to silence dissenting voices.  

In a Tweet, the UN Human Rights office calls on India authorities to “find equitable solutions with due respect to #HumanRights for all.” 

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How Will the Reforms Impact Farmers in India?

Farmers are fearful of escalating state violence, but these men and women are standing ground for good reason. Despite some circulating misinformation, the protests are not about separatism, sedition, and anti-national activities. 

Experts acknowledge that the current system needs reform. The key issue is that the laws benefit big corporations at the expense of the farmers, who are already buckling under the stress of shrinking land holdings and rising debt load. Between 1995 and 2013, 296,438 farmers died by suicide; in 2019, 10,281 farmers and agricultural workers ended their lives.

Currently, more than 20 percent of farmers live below the poverty line. The reform stokes valid fears of mass hunger and destitution. It also leaves farmers vulnerable to being forced into selling their ancestral and family land.

Upon arrival at Delhi’s border, farmers are once again met with batons, water cannons, and tear gas. While some farmers are eventually escorted to a designated protesting zone in Delhi, many remain along the city outskirts, building encampments with makeshift tents and kitchens, and serving langar—free meals for all, including the police officers. Photo: Gaurav Kumar
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Why Are Farmers’ Protests in India Triggering Historical Traumas?

The turmoil around the protests are tapping into historical traumas—a result of colonization, oppression, and religious divisions—within the South Asian diaspora and India’s rural communities in the Punjab. Some fear that nationalists, who are vilifying the farmers, may stoke divisions. The highly charged climate invokes the wounds of tragic events that threaten to repeat themselves.

  • Jallianwala Bagh Massacre at Amritsar (April 13, 1919)

    During Vaisakhi, the Sikh and Hindu Spring festival, British troops fired 1,650 rounds of ammunition into a walled-in park where Punjabi men, women, and children were celebrating. At least 547 people were killed, with other estimates putting the death toll over 1,000, including a seven-week-old baby; 1,500 were injured. The massacre was a turning point in India’s history, marking the moment Gandhi started campaigning for full independence.

 

  • The Partition (August 14-15, 1947)

    Before India claimed independence following 300 years of colonial rule, the British split the subcontinent into two nation states, creating Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The demarcation, the Radcliffe Line, was drawn by a British lawyer who had never before set foot in India.Although the religious communities had coexisted in neighboring villages for centuries, the partition sparked one of the most catastrophic upheavals in world history, displacing 15 million people and provoking horrific acts of brutality. The exact death toll is unknown, but an estimated 200,000 to two million lives were lost in the slaughter, as well as from diseases that ravaged refugee camps.

 

  • Operation Blue Star at the Golden Temple in Amritsar (1984)

    Pilgrims get caught in a poorly planned military raid, which ended up as a three-day siege in an attempt to remove armed separatists. Images of India’s government occupying a sacred site created a diplomatic disaster. It also led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the operation, by her Sikh bodyguards. An anti-Sikh pogrom followed with the killing of up to 17,000 Sikhs and the displacement of 50,000 Sikhs.

 

These events are fresh wounds, especially in Punjab, where the farmer protests started. Many of those farmers identify as Sikh, and farmer elders who witnessed the Partition and the pogroms firsthand still carry the trauma within their own living memory.  

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Why the Western Yoga and Wellness Community Needs to Pay Attention

Yoga as a wisdom tradition and practice originated in pre-partition India (South Asia). Today 300 million people are practicing yoga around the world. And this ancient tradition has become a modern business: In 2020, the global yoga industry was valued at around 40 billion. And we’re consuming the tulsi, turmeric, cardamom, and other herbs and spices grown in India. In fiscal year 2019, India exported $446 million in ayurvedic and herbal products—second only to China. The ayurveda products market in India alone is valued at $4 billion. 

Here’s the thing: We must recognise, honour, and support the cultures and peoples from whom wisdom traditions originate and the lands from which medicinal plants and spices are grown. Otherwise, as the American writer, teacher, and activist Starhawk says, we are “taking the gifts of the ancestors without a commitment to their descendants.”

If you practice daily asana, breath, and meditation to get through the day, enjoy turmeric lattes and masala chai, or recommend tulsi tea to your stressed out friends, it means you have benefited from yoga and Ayurveda,” writes yoga teacher and social justice advocate Kallie Schut, advocating for the Western yoga and wellness community to learn about the farmers’ protests in India. “I believe it’s important to honor the tradition of yoga—and that includes supporting the cultures and peoples from whom this wisdom originates.” Photo: Vichien Petchmai

Honoring yoga’s wisdom invites recognition that political action is sometimes called for to protect and defend the rights of those who have labored, toiled, and suffered to preserve and pass cultural traditions and wisdoms. From his reading of the Bhagavad Gita, Mahatma Gandhi developed the philosophy of Satyagraha (holding firmly to truth), which formed the basis for his anti-colonial Quit India campaign for independence. It also inspired nonviolent resistance in civil rights movements around the world: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Bevel during the US Civil Rights Movement; Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa; and more recently in anti-war marches, the climate change awareness, LGBTQIA+ rights, and Black Lives Matter.

You, too, are being called to take action through the principles of yoga. Attaining consciousness (samadhi) to reach liberation (moksha) is multidimensional. The paths of jnana (knowledge, discernment, or discriminating wisdom), karma yoga (selfless call to action for the benefit of others), bhakti yoga (devotion, faith, trust), and raja yoga (the path of yogic disciplines and practices) lead to liberation for the individual self and the collective Self. We are all interconnected in universal consciousness, and right now our Indian family needs international support.

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Action Items: 3 Things You Can Do to Help

1. Sign petitions

Lending support via your signature can help build a bigger movement. Here are a few to look into: 

2. Use social media #tags

They help raise awareness, and others can find the information you post. Use #FarmersProtest #StandWithFarmers #AskIndiaWhy

3. Explore toolkits

Spend time going through FarmersProtests.Carrd.co. You’ll find media coverage, campaigns, petitions, and donations in your country. Note that this resource—assembled by Kisaan Ekta, a collective of American, Canadian, and British South Asians who support social justice for agricultural workers—is legitimate and not subject to Delhi Police investigation. 

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About Kallie Schut

Kallie Schut is a yoga and dharmic traditions educator who is a lifelong social justice and antiracist activist, advocating for those without a voice or presence in places of power, privilege, and influence. Kallie is yoga teacher of Indian heritage practicing intentional hatha, yin, yoga nidra, meditation and gong.

Kallie is one of the founding members of the UK Yoga Teachers Union. She is also the founder of Rebel YogaTribe YouTube channel, Radical Yogi Book Club and delivers continuing professional development trainings, which delve deep into the legacy of colonialism, cultural appropriation, intersectional oppression, and racism in modern yoga.