Sikh Women Protest for Farming Rights

By Lakhpreet Kaur

Kaur Life stands in solidarity with all of the protesting farmers and laborers in India.

250 million farmers and laborers across Indian have gone on strike and/or are protesting against the Modi government’s agricultural reforms. People have come together and unified over agrarian issues, regardless of caste, state, or ethnicity. Farmers and laborers are uniting over their pursuit of justice. It is heartwarming to see the solidarity.

At Kaur Life, our mission is to highlight the stories of Sikh women. In an effort to illustrate our support for the protesting farmers, it is this perspective we wrote about (in this article) – but it is just a single perspective in a sea of many. Agriculture is the leading source of income for more than half of India’s 1.3 billion people and so, there are many unique experiences and different stories regarding the protests and the new bills. There are different insights we can learn from farmers and laborers of all backgrounds and identities who hail from all across India. We encourage you to also read about the plight of other communities in this fight to understand the diversity.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Kisaan Majdoor Ekta Zindabad⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Long Live Farmer Worker Unity⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Thousands of Punjabi farmers, along with other Indian farmers (from Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan), are mobilizing to protest controversial agriculture bills, traveling hundreds of miles to reach Delhi on tractors, by horses, and on foot to make their voices heard. 

Farmers fear that the recently passed agricultural policies would, among other things, leave them vulnerable to big corporation exploitation and result in greater rates of debt and poverty. The Green Revolution and inequitable agricultural policies have already caused stress and damage to Punjabi’s ecosystems, social structures, and economic base; these bills would exacerbate the issues currently plaguing Punjab

Interestingly, Sikh women have been at the forefront of the Punjabi farmer protests, leading marches, songs, and langars (free kitchens). “Our brothers are behind us and we are at the front,” said Gurdyal Kaur (BBC Punjabi).

Sikh Women Lead the Way

While their numbers might be smaller when compared to the Sikh men protesting, Sikh women are seen at the forefront in many cases. “Women are involved in unprecedented numbers in this campaign,” writes Ravinder Randhawa. “They form a significant proportion of the convoys heading towards Delhi.” One farmer Randhawa interviewed, Harinder Bindu, is herself a full time farmer for over 30 years, who is leading a monumental march of [hundreds if not thousands] of women.

“As a daughter of a farmer, I am involved with this battle with Modi and against his ordinances,” said Mandeep Kaur from Firozpur District, Punjab (BBC Punjabi). “We’ve been demonstrating for the last three months in Punjab….We will stay here [in Delhi] for as long as it’s needed or until Modi listens to us and takes back the ordinances.”

Mandeep’s sentiments were similar to Bhupinder’s, saying, “If our farmer brothers are in Delhi, what are we going to do at home? We will not stay behind.”

Women’s Economic Security

Many Sikh women in Punjab are farmers or depend on farmers for their livelihood. “[The protest] is a matter of preserving farming rights,” said 85 year old Sarjeet Kaur (BBC Punjabi). “If we die there [in Delhi], then our daughters and daughter-in-laws will follow us and replace us. We will not stop.” 

According to Oxfam, 80% of farm work is undertaken by women in India. The recent agricultural bills could increase economic turmoil for these Punjabi Sikh women. Eco-feminist Vandana Shiva argues that in general, “Deepening economic vulnerability of women makes them more vulnerable to all forms of violence, including sexual assault, as we found out during a series of public hearings on the impact of economic reforms.”

This fear was shared by Kaur farmers on the ground. “Bindu also adds that, when the effects of the laws start to bite, not only will women have to start making terrible decisions about rationing food for their families, they may also have to go out and seek work in areas where their safety may be at risk.”

“In the streets of Delhi, our farmers’ voices will echo,” said Sukhdeep Kaur (BBC Punjabi). “We have brought our children, sisters and mothers with us. We have brought everything we need, including firewood, and we won’t need anything else.”

Paramjeet Kaur said, “Even if we have to stay here for 6 months, we are prepared to do it. We will not come back without victory.”

Feminine Agricultural Knowledge

Women hold agricultural knowledge and environmental intuition that has been generationally passed down to them. Many of the women in our families have tended to the care and cultivation of ਮਾਤਾ ਧਰਤਿ (Mata Dharat – Mother Earth). “We are all one and we are all children of One Mother,” said Gurmel Kaur (BBC Punjabi). 

Sikh women farmers have created wealth by enhancing life and diversity. They can tell you the medicinal purposes of herbs, which plants to use for companion growing, how to tell the health of soil, when to rotate fields, where to plant and harvest crops…their wealth of knowledge is endless. “They know the seasonal rotations, the sowing and growing cycles, the harvesting and selling mechanisms,” writes Randhawa

Not only does this knowledge help Punjabis grow food and take care of the Earth, but these experiences also help us understand certain Gurbani passages that reference farming practices, farm animals, or indigenous plants.

As these bills would facilitate corporate takeover of farming, it would contribute to the destruction of feminine knowledge at a personal, family, village, and community level. This not only violates women as experts but, since their expertise is modeled on nature’s system of renewability, it also facilitates ecological destruction of nature’s processes and the economic destruction of rural areas, writes Shiva.

Understanding the women’s role in the farming process and protest Bhupinder Kaur (BBC Punjabi) said, “If we have to fight, then all of the women will join in. We are not scared of anything. We won’t stop until we get our rights….If God is our protector then nobody can kill us.”

Evoking a Punjabi metaphor of being bold and fearless, Gurdyal Kaur (BBC Punjabi) said, “We are carrying our funeral shrouds on our heads …” a common Punjabi phrase signaling she is prepared for any outcome, even death.  

What’s happening? The Backstory: 

The three bills in question passed in September, 2020 were:

  • The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020
  • The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020
  • The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020

These bills encourage private sector firms to invest in agriculture, and while the new system may sound good in theory, farmers anticipate harmful practical ramifications. (You can read more about it in Jeevan Sangha’s article, “Farmer Protests in India: What you need to know.) For instance, these bills remove protections (like the Minimum Support Price) which helped prevent farmers from losing too much money.  Sangha explains that “… if minimum support prices for crops are not promised, it could further push people into debt and poverty.” 

This would exacerbate an already widespread problem in Punjab; according to a 2017 study 85.9% of the farming households in Punjab are in debt. Furthermore, Sangha reports that in the new system “farmers are worried that big corporations will come in, buy their product in bulk and exploit them, because the government is no longer there to regulate transactions.” 

Since Punjab produces a bulk of India’s grains and dairy, these policies would disproportionately affect Punjabi farmers. Coupled with the negative impacts of the Green Revolution, this could be devastating for Punjabi society.

Farmers and laborers from across India have been challenging and demonstrating against these bills since at least September. In early December, the protests swelled. “The farmer revolt comes as some 250 million workers [3% of the global human population] across the country took part in the largest strike in history against the Modi government’s neoliberal labor reforms,” writes Democracy Now. Protestors have been met with paramilitary police who fired tear gas shells and used water cannons to try to beat back the farmers.

Why Should Sikhs of the Diaspora Care?

While on the surface this seems like a purely farmer issue and the agricultural laws are not religiously based, the connections between farming and Sikhs & Sikhi are undeniable.

1) The farm bills affect a majority of Sikhs in the world. 

Simply because most Sikhs live in Punjab (66% to 75% of the global Sikh population is in Punjab) and most Punjabi Sikhs are owners and workers of agricultural lands (about 80%-95% of Punjab’s agricultural land is owned by Sikhs, and about 40% of the working population of the Punjab employed in this agriculture), this farm bill issue affects a majority of Sikhs in the world. 

2). It affects the Sikh homeland 

Given the federal government’s long-standing anti-Sikh orientation, many Sikhs view these policies as having the added layer of negatively impacting Sikh economic security and sovereignty within Punjab.   

Food security and food sovereignty is essential for the development and growth of a community. By undermining the agricultural backbone of Punjab, and therefore Sikhs, these bills strip our community of the basic right to maintain and develop our own capacity to produce basic foods while respecting our cultural and productive diversity. And without meeting basic human needs, our ability to flourish as a Panth is jeopardized

3) It’s the Sikh duty to fight for Justice

Many of the songs and slogans the farmers are chanting call for liberty and equality and connect their cause with the Sikhi pillar of fighting for justice for everyone. 

4). Farming and Sikhi have a long connected history:

Farming and Sikhi have been historically connected for generations. To name a few examples:

  1. According to Janam Sakhis, Guru Nanak Sahib used to tend to his family’s cows and crops. 
  2. Baba Banda Singh Bahadur abolished the Zamindari system (land tenure policies that favored large landlords and marginalized those actually farming the land) and gave farmers autonomy over their land. (A fact many contemporary farmers are bringing up during the protest).  “Agitating farmers fear that the new farm laws will again usher in the era of Zamindari system in Punjab though in a new ‘avtar’ in the form of big corporates as new Zamindars, ” says Surinder Bains.
  3. The Punjabi Suba Movement (a political movement launched by Sikhs, demanding the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state, in post-independence Indian) was led by farmers. 
  4. The Anandpur Resolution of 1978, spearheaded by the Shiromani Akali Dal, addressed farmer issues. The Anandpur Sahib Resolution was a Sikh religious and political statement demanding the Indian central government recognize Sikhi as an independent religion and also lobbied for more Punjab autonomy. One of its purposes was to develop the farmers (kissan) of Punjab. Similar to concerns raised by contemporary farmers in today’s protests, Resolution No. 7 stated that poor farmers were not able to mechanize their agricultural practices due to the high cost of entry and thus, called for the Indian Government to abolish excise taxes on tractors. With the reduced prices, smaller farmers would be able to afford farm machinery and contribute to agricultural production.  Resolution No. 12 called for river water rights and justice along with greater federal investment in sugar mills so that Punjab could “implement its agro-industrial policy.”
  5. The Green Revolution coupled with inequitable agricultural policies have reduced profits for farmers making it impossible for some to earn a living in this field. This has caused many Sikhs to leave Punjab and go abroad to earn money and send remittances back home. The political nature of farming in Punjab directly impacts the Sikh global landscape and community, and the nature of local Punjabi sangats. 
  6. Punjab Sikh farmers are evoking Sikh history when struggling for this cause. 

What can you do?

Educate Yourself

Learn about Punjabi and Sikh farming issues. 

Speak Up! Advocate

  • Share information with your networks.
  • Write to and call your government representatives and the UN encouraging them to denounce India’s violent crackdown on protests and to support farmers.
  • Write articles for your local newspapers on how the bills will impact you and your family. 
  • Sign petitions.


Consider donating to initiatives like:

  • Khalsa Aid – a nonprofit organization that is currently serving langar for protesting famers.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
  • Sahatia – a nonprofit organization with a Farmer Support Project in Punjab.
  • Saanjh’s Adopt a Family – a nonprofit organization which supports a Punjabi Sikh family who’s primary breadwinner has died by suicide.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
  • Punjab Kissan Support Fund – All donations will be given to the Guru Nanak Langar Seva Society to assist impoverished families.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
  • Saving Punjab – a research-based organization which uses both primary and secondary data to identify significant issues within Punjab today. 

Photo is of women farmers at a protest in Punjab in October 2020. Image by Kanupriya via Editor Gol Monitor.

Special thanks to Dr. Mohan Singh Dhariwal for his interview translations.

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