In deference of dissent: Indian farmers’ protests and voices from the Oxford Indian community

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Image description: Oxford students holding placards at protest

In light of the recent farmers’ protests ongoing in India, a group of students from the Oxford South Asian Society (OxSAS), and Oxford India Society (OIS) decided to organise a solidarity protest on Saturday, 12th December 2020. On behalf of The Oxford Student, I have decided to speak to several individuals involved, to gain personal insight from the important voices of Oxford’s Indian community.

The representatives from OxSAS I have spoken to are Gayathree Devi KT (President), Sameer Rashid Bhat (Treasurer), and Nikita Azad. From OIS, Jagyoseni Mandal (General Secretary), Mihir Rajamane (President), and Anvee Bhutani have also kindly offered to share their experiences and opinions.

How did the idea of organising a protest come about, and what had motivated you to organise and take initiative? 

Team OxSAS: Farmers across India are currently protesting against 3 agricultural laws that the Indian Parliament enacted recently. These laws have the undesirable effect of leaving the pricing of farm produce, and consequently, the livelihoods of small farmers at the mercy of big private corporations. These laws were adopted without consulting farmers (especially women and Dalit farmers who face intersectional challenges) and in utter disregard of standard parliamentary procedure.

The new farm laws are yet another attempt to suppress people.

This is not the first time that the current government has tried to bulldoze its way through, impinging on the fundamental rights of vulnerable groups. In 2019 alone, India withdrew the special autonomy that the state of Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed and banned Kashmiris’ access to the internet. The Indian Parliament had also passed a severely inadequate Transgender Rights Bill that denies self-identification, and enacted a discriminatory anti-Muslim citizenship law that sparked global protests.

The government has also unlawfully arrested several human rights activists under anti-terrorism laws, to quash political dissent. The new farm laws are yet another attempt to suppress people. All of these instances, we believe, are a clarion call for Indians everywhere to voice their opposition to this government’s policies and express their solidarity with vulnerable groups. This is why the three of us got together to arrange for this protest in solidarity with Indian farmers.

Do you have any family members or friends in India affected by the new reforms and if so, would you mind sharing a little about it? 

Team OxSAS: Nikita has a personal stake in the issue. Her close family members are small farmers in Punjab, India. The fact that the new laws deny them a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their farm produce, and leaves pricing to market forces is one of their biggest concerns. Several residents of Oxford, and in the United Kingdom, also have family members in India who are affected by these laws. Even those of us who have no direct personal connection feel the need to speak up, because this is very much an issue of human rights and we cannot remain silent spectators to the exploitation of the people who feed us.

Anvee: I don’t personally have family members or friends affected by the new reforms, but historically, my family is Punjabi and a lot of my aunts, uncles, and cousins live in Punjab and Haryana, which are two of the states that have mobilised the most during these protests. While no one I know is directly impacted, my roots in these places means that the communities as a whole have been affected, and this is something I felt compelled to protest in support of.

Small farmers are the lifeblood of India, and the new laws passed by the Indian Parliament strike at their livelihoods.

What do you think were the main aims of the solidarity protest, and what do you hope to have achieved from it?

Team OxSAS: The aim of this protest was to stand in solidarity with protesting farmers in India and express our unconditional support to their demands. Small farmers are the lifeblood of India, and the new laws passed by the Indian Parliament strike at their livelihoods. Through this protest, we wanted to join Indian farmers and their unions in demanding that the Indian Parliament repeal these anti-farmer laws. We also wanted to convey to the Indian government that we unequivocally condemn its abhorrent response of using force against protesting farmers. As students at the University of Oxford, we hope to use our position of privilege to raise awareness and bring this issue to the attention of local representatives, so they can put pressure on the Indian government to repeal these laws. We were also keen on building international solidarity on such matters of human rights, which by any measure, are a matter of global concern.

Mihir: The Oxford protest is in unequivocal solidarity with the farmers who have been protesting for the last few months in India. Our solidarity is all the more necessary, considering the undemocratic nature in which the law was passed in Parliament, with no complete consultation stage, and a denial of a vote by division amidst chaos (only a voice vote was conducted, with the Opposition unable to record dissent). The protestors have also been met with water cannons and were not allowed the freedom of movement to the capital, where they planned to protest- rights inherent to all citizens in democratic India. As a show of solidarity, we hope to add to the momentum of these protests, especially with the media attention and privilege that Oxford carries with it. We also hope to increase awareness in general about other issues in India.

Among us protesters, there was a sobering recognition of the anti-democratic actions of the Indian government and yet a strong conviction to voice our dissent.

As someone who was present at the protest on Saturday,  how would you reflect on the experience?

Team OxSAS: All three of us agree that it was an incredibly positive experience. Although it was a student-led protest, we saw several residents of Oxford in attendance. The Secretary of the Oxford Singh Sabha, and members of the local Oxford gurudwara (Sikh place of worship) joined us in solidarity, especially as Sikhs have been at the forefront of the farmers’ protests in India. Among us protesters, there was a sobering recognition of the anti-democratic actions of the Indian government and yet a strong conviction to voice our dissent. It was equally an opportunity for us to raise awareness. Several onlookers enquired about the protest and expressed their support, after learning about the actions of the Indian government. The most poignant moment came when an 86-year old woman joined us along with her 6-year old grandson, and sat through the hour-long protest. The protest truly united people of all ages, religions and colours – there was a deep sense of community.

Jagyoseni: I was present at the protest on Saturday. It was held at University Parks and maintained all social distancing rules. Through the protest, Oxford students wanted to support the Indian farmers’ concerns that have hence led to the biggest organised strike in global history, with an estimated 250 million participants.

Anvee: I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout and was happy to see how united everyone was. Despite people coming from various places in India, and some people not even being ethnically South Asian, everyone gathered on the common ground of trying to raise awareness and show compassion. I think this solidarity was really powerful.

Since these have been mostly peaceful across the country, it only gives me hope for a progressive form of dissent and a vision for the future

Mihir, since you happen to be in India at the moment, how do you feel about being physically present nearby where the protests have been ongoing? 

* Being in India, the main effect I have felt is the closure of a few businesses on some days during strikes, though not many in my city, in the South, where protests have not been as intense. There have been various processions and demonstrations with many farmers involved in my city and surrounding areas, regardless. Since these have been mostly peaceful across the country, it only gives me hope for a progressive form of dissent and a vision for the future as the protests show solidarity in fighting against not just the farmer laws but the many other laws that form a part of the current government’s radical plan to overhaul India.

*This specific statement is independent of affiliation with OIS.

Are there other ways you would encourage Oxford students and the general public to support and show solidarity with the farmers in India?

Team OxSAS: Donating to organisations like the All India Kisan Sabha, who are providing support on-the-ground to Indian farmers can help. The local Oxford gurudwara also has plans of collecting donations – do contact them and keep an eye out for their call for donations. Please also feel free to write to us if you have more questions.

Jagyoseni: I would encourage everyone, not only Oxford students, to spend some time learning about the issue and why the farmers are protesting. I truly believe that they will be motivated to extend their support to the farmers in India if they do so. Our farmers are the basis of our society and they need us. The seemingly small act of showing solidarity will keep the farmers motivated and might make a big difference.

Mihir: Members of the university and its students have a privileged position by virtue of association to the university. Approaching your democratic representatives to consider making a statement in any capacity on the issue will also put pressure on the Indian government to act.

Anvee: I would definitely say people should read more about the issue. I would also recommend people who have spare money to donate to farmers’ aid groups in India and abroad, as they are able to make a direct impact with these donations.

The OIS and OxSAS statement can be found here.  You can read more about the issue here.  

Image Credit: Anvee Bhutani

 

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