Over the past several days, the Sikh nation has become significantly agitated over the desecration of a Bir of the Guru Granth Sahib. The anger of the nation has proliferated social media, usually accompanied with images of the dead and injured that would make you cringe.
We hang onto every news story, waiting anxiously for the next tidbit of police abuse or sacrilege against the Sikh faith. We go through our Facebook feed, looking for what to share, like, and post. Maybe create a new hashtag. #fuckPunjabPolice.
The visible abuse of our people strikes a chord in our hearts to do something. We must face the tyrant and challenge his rule. We need to stand with our community and face the water cannons and lathis. Maybe this is a powder keg moment. An opportunity to tear down the establishment and build a new future. We won’t make the same mistakes this time. Maybe. Or maybe we already have.
Maybe those emotions, stirred by those images and videos, are as easily torn and placed as those pages from the Guru Granth Sahib.
In fact, maybe the events of this past week are not related to those torn pages at all, but a small, white insect appropriately named whitefly.
Whitefly: small hemipterans that typically feed on the undersides of plant leaves.
More relevant to our conversation is the fact that whiteflies have the unfortunate talent of carrying and spreading disease. So what exactly do whiteflies have to do with water cannons and protests in Punjab?
Every year, the Punjab government buys pesticides, which it then sells at a reduced rate to Punjabi farmers. This year, the state bought a pesticide called Oberon from Bayer Crop Science, a major dealer of pesticides. The problem was that the entire bidding process was bypassed and Bayer Corp was awarded the contract without any bids from other companies.
This is typical for a political kickback scheme. The government orchestrates a fraudulent bidding process (or in this case, doesn’t do it at all) and awards the contract to a pre-determined company. The award is usually for much more than the actual value of products or services and the excess is then funneled back to key individuals in the government.
In this case, the state bought 92,000 liters of Oberon at a price of $55/liter. But the market price was only $46/liter. On completion, some portion of the excess $800,000 was meant to be kicked back to the Badal administration.
It turns out that the Oberon bought by Punjab was watered down and therefore, ineffective against whitefly. The damage was catastrophic. Two out of every three acres of cotton were ruined. Estimates have the losses at $650 million. Many farmers have already buckled under the financial pressures of living expenses, land leases, and costly loans. As of October 8, there have been a reported 15 suicides related to this years cotton harvest. For a political kickback of $800,000, the Punjab farmers lost $650 million in crops.
There are eight districts considered part of Punjab’s cotton belt — Bathinda, Faridkot, Muktsar, Fazilka, Mansa, Moga, Ferozepur, and Sangrur. The sandy soils and climate of these districts make them ideal for growing cotton, with over 1.2 million acres harvesting cotton in the region.
However, in recent times this belt has been more like a noose, with pesticide contaminated water leading to a proliferation of cancer cases in the area. But that’s another issue. It was the farmers of these districts that were hit hardest by the whitefly epidemic. Farmers in Bathinda bought the highest amount of Oberon, nearly 15,000 liters, with the other districts in the belt not far behind. Farmers reported spraying their crops 10 to 12 times in an effort to combat the insect, but to no avail. Each spray costs approximately $50/acre, meaning farmers spent over $500/acre attempting to save their crops.
Farmers have suffered major losses before. But these losses were different. It was not too much rain, or a drought that caused these crops to go bad. It was the excessive, insatiable greed of the Badal administration that caused it. And the farmers would not have it.
Their demands were simple: (again, everything is in US dollars)
· $620 per acre compensation for farmers whose crop got damaged by whitefly attack
· $310 per family compensation for farm laborers
· $70 per quintal rate for Basmati PUSA 1509 variety
· $77 per quintal for Basmati PUSA 1121
· Payments of sugarcane dues by private mills
· Debt relief
· $7,700 financial assistance to the family of farmers who commit suicide
Starting in August, farmer unions organized road blockage and protests. But much like the whitefly’s reaction to Oberon, the Badal administration seemed indifferent to the agitations.
Then on October 7, the coalition of unions organized a rail roko (blocking of trains) in six different locations around the state. Groups of farmers set up tents on the tracks, sat down, and waited. Neighboring villages organized open langars to keep them fed and distributed blankets at night to keep them warm. Wives would take day shifts so their husbands could attend to the daily labours of the farm. “I am visiting the dharna site with my husband, Inderjit, every day. We have lost our entire cotton crop that we grew on three acres but we have received no compensation at all. We have no choice left but to protest,” said Jasbir Kaur of Nathuwala village in Moga.
What started as a two-day blockage of trains, turned into a six-day effort. Over 850 trains had to be rescheduled and diverted. The transportation system in Punjab was completely paralyzed. It became the worst disruption of railway services in the history of the state. On October 10, the farmers got the call they had been waiting for. Badal wanted to talk. A meeting was scheduled for October 12.
There are a total of 117 legislative seats in Punjab, each representing a different geographic segment of the state. The Malwa region has over half of the 117 with 68. Out of the 68, 36 seats are in the cotton belt. In case you aren’t sure, 36 is a lot of seats. Currently, Badal has 24 of those 36 seats.
Whitefly not only devastated the farmers, it also provided the perfect issue for secular parties like Congress and the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Political corruption, economic inequality, low market rates of crops, and farmer suicide dominated the conversation. Whitefly gave Congress and AAP a platform to shine a bright light on Badal’s destructive form of governance and its results. But more than that, it gave them an opportunity to cut into Badal’s most coveted voter base, the farmers of the cotton belt, and chip away at those 24 seats – these farmers had been devastated, they had lost $650 million worth of crops. They could not provide for their families. They were committing suicide. And Badal was to blame.
It’s October 12. Badal told the farmers his hands were tied, the state is bankrupt, and the best he could do is a $120/acre reimbursement. While nowhere near the $620/acre they were asking, the farmers decided to call off the rail roko.
But they were not done. Their demands were not met, so they announced they would resume protesting on October 23 outside the homes of prominent figures in the Badal administration. They had the leverage and they would continue to exercise it. But while the farmers were negotiating for their livelihoods, there was a disturbing, yet seemingly unrelated discovery made in the village of Bargadi. Villagers found torn pages of the Guru Granth Sahib strewn about close to the Gurdwara. Do a simple search on Google Maps, and you see that Bargadi is located between Faridkot and Bathinda, right in the heart of the cotton belt. Obviously, the emotions of the Sikh community were hurt, and the reaction was predictable.
By October 14, the protests had started. Water cannons, shootings, killings, mass arrests, and the destruction of property. It only spurred more protests and more people to come with more emotion than the last one. Social media was on fire. Rumor and rhetoric was rampant. Some even made an open call to arms. Others made parallels with 1984. Popular religious personalities quickly joined, leading their followers in protest. Some were arrested, which only agitated the masses further regarding the latest militarization of the Punjab Police and the abuse of state powers.
What happened to those opposition parties Congress and AAP? They are secular parties and while they denounced the violence and extended their support to the protesters, religious issues aren’t in their scope. The spotlight was turned away from them, and the opportunity to make major political inroads in the cotton belt on their economic platform was, for the time being, over.
And what about those farmers of the cotton belt? The desecration of their Guru happened in their backyard, and they could not turn a blind eye to such blasphemy. The same farmers that backed Badal into a corner with their economic demands were now busy defending their faith from…someone to be determined.
I can’t help but see Badal smiling somewhere. Religion again saved him. Don’t get me wrong, he’s taking some pretty significant political hits. But these are events he can shape. Or at least he is better equipped to. After all, emotions are easy to manipulate.
Maybe, just maybe, the anger and outrage at seeing those pages on the ground were the emotions we were expected to have. Maybe the protests, the speeches, and the meetings are what we were supposed to do. And maybe, just maybe, our acts of rebellion were actually programmed by the same people we thought we were challenging. Perhaps the real objection to the ruling authority would be to turn the spotlight back to those farmers in the cotton belt. To stand with those families who have lost everything and help them rebuild their lives. To demand policy changes so they are provided a sustainable income and opportunities beyond just farming. To make sure their children receive a quality education and are able to build families where Sikh values can be nurtured, not neglected. And if we must protest, let us not protest the desecration of a Bir, but the systemic economic, religious, and political decimation of the Sikh nation.