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Young Canadians Aren't Just Watching The Indian Farmers' Protest. We're Living It.

Many diasporic Punjabis like me are only one generation removed from the same agrarian life the farmers are fighting to save.

An old Massey Ferguson farm tractor sits on our driveway. Decades have weathered its bright red paint into a muted, rusty hue. Mechanically, it is in great shape and starts on the first turn of the key. It is very similar to the tractors my father remembers seeing around our small, rural village in central Punjab, India — the kind, at the time, my family could never afford. Here in Canada, it is ridiculously impractical for all the reasons we tell ourselves we need it — mostly cutting grass and plowing snow — but that tractor serves as an important reminder of my family’s heritage and work ethic.

We grew out from under the dirt.

This tractor reminds the writer of his family's farming roots.
This tractor reminds the writer of his family's farming roots.

My father’s youth was largely defined by poverty. He was the eldest of five brothers, and tasked with supporting them, his three sisters and parents. Thankfully, his family had a few acres of farmland to help keep food on their table. Like so many other Punjabis, when my father immigrated to Canada, his first job was also on a farm. He spent his paycheques pulling his family out of poverty. Eventually, my father sponsored his brothers and sisters to come to Canada, where they started businesses of their own. We continue to farm that very same land to this day, and continue to send support. With luck, we will do so for generations to come.

Similar family narratives echo through the Punjabi diaspora in Canada. For the most part, young diasporic Punjabis like myself are only one generation removed from a purely agrarian life — something my parents make sure I never lose sight of. This is why our community is so impassioned by the farmers’ protest happening in India right now. As our family members march against India’s contentious new farming laws, their government engages in violent protest suppression and strategic dissemination of misinformation. Over 200 protestors have died, 150 have been illegally detained, and over 100 are reported missing. We feel each loss personally, regardless of where we find ourselves in the world.

For many Young Canadians, this is their fight

Farming plays such a vital role in our growth, identity and family stories, that our moral obligation to defend and support these farmers’ concerns transcends generations and geographies. As such, the diaspora is not only watching the world’s largest protest, we are living it, day by day — our families in the streets of Delhi, and the rest of us taking to social media platforms globally.

Indian farmers gather next to their tractors as police stand guard at a road block to stop them from marching to New Delhi to protest against the central government's recent agricultural reforms on Dec.1, 2020.
Indian farmers gather next to their tractors as police stand guard at a road block to stop them from marching to New Delhi to protest against the central government's recent agricultural reforms on Dec.1, 2020.

Younger generations find themselves at the forefront of an online fight against the spread of disinformation at the hands of Indian state actors, and tasked with the burden of clearly and concisely articulating the Indian farmers’ plight to global audiences. This is because our generation is the only one suited for the job — the youngest among us are often the first in their families to attend post-secondary education, and in many cases the first to graduate high school. Publicly taking a stand for India’s farmers comes at a personal cost, however, as online harassment campaigns indiscriminately target protest supporters ranging from regular people to the likes of Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and Kamala Harris’s niece, Meena Harris.

“Protecting the sanctity of fundamental democratic principles will always be a Canadian issue.”

South Asian students and young professionals have spent the last few months struggling with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair. We have been living through a global pandemic and social isolation, and now we face added fear and anxiety as doomscrolling bombards us with unending imagery of our families being brutalized by police, and disgusting sentiments shared by prolific Indians that challenge our very identity and existence. This is particularly harmful for members of the Sikh diaspora, who carry with them the inter-generational trauma of the Sikh genocide in 1984.

This will surely have a lasting impact on the mental health of many young Canadians who are at risk of trauma through repeated exposure to traumatic material. I have spoken to South Asian students in law schools across Canada who all feel absolutely debilitated by having to juggle entering a competitive job market for the first time alongside everything thrown at them by the farmers’ protest. Friends in other professional settings shared similar experiences: PhD candidates struggling to focus on their research; medical professionals — already overworked by the pandemic — losing even more sleep; and young teachers struggling to support their students.

People attend a demonstration in support of Indian farmers protesting new agriculture laws on Dec. 5, 2020 in Vancouver.
People attend a demonstration in support of Indian farmers protesting new agriculture laws on Dec. 5, 2020 in Vancouver.

Schools and institutions have responded to the mental-health pressures associated with the pandemic and isolation, but up until recently, the farmers’ protest has been largely ignored. Our fears and anxieties feel invalid, and feelings of isolation abound. It is difficult to find support among our families and friends, because they are facing their own, nearly identical struggles. More over, South Asians have long grappled with a stigma attached to mental health that has left community resources underdeveloped.

When we branch out of our immediate circles for support, we are met with apprehension: “The farmers’ protest isn’t a Canadian issue!” This attitude seems to be a result of Canadians having a vague idea of “what” the farmers’ protest is about, but not understanding “why” it is an important issue worthy of their attention. Western reporting has narrowly focused on surface-level issues (if at all), and has failed to fully capture the diaspora’s vested interest.

But protecting the sanctity of fundamental democratic principles will always be a Canadian issue, no matter where in the world these principles are being threatened. We need our government leaders to continue to be assertive and unapologetic in their support of our very Canadian interests. Canadian institutions need to familiarize themselves with why this protest matters to those affected. We need official responses from universities and organizations that show us they have heard our pleas and are here to meet our specific mental-health needs. Finally, we need you, our fellow Canadians, to familiarize yourself with the issues: engage with both sides of this protest, connect with the Punjabi diaspora, and think critically.

Resources for South Asian mental health are available at Soch Mental Health and Taraki (U.K.).

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