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Indian farmers’ protests: Why they matter to British Indians

By James Waterhouse

Newsbeat reporter

image copyrightGetty Images

“It’s so heart-breaking. We need these voices to be heard.”

Farmers and their families have been protesting in India for months, camped out in Delhi demonstrating over the government’s new farm laws which they think will ruin their livelihoods.

However supporters of the laws say improvements are badly needed, as thousands of farmers are struggling.

Young Brits of Indian descent may be almost five thousand miles away, but it’s affecting many of them and their families.

image copyrightGetty Images

For Kiren, it was seeing her parents and grandparents glued to the TV, getting angry and upset, which made it hit home.

“That’s our ancestry,” she explains. “We’re not so many generations down the line that we’re not connected to India.

“If we want people to understand our identity, we need these voices to be heard.”

Lots of the protesters have travelled from the states of Haryana and Punjab, which are areas that grow lots of food.

The issue’s been thrust into the global limelight after Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted their support.

What are the new farming laws?

The three new farming laws were brought in last summer.

They loosen the rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce – which means farmers can sell directly to private buyers, instead of government-controlled markets where they get a minimum guaranteed price.

The government says the changes will leave farmers better off by making markets more efficient and attracting more investment.

But in January India’s supreme court put the laws on hold “until further notice”.

image copyrightKiren Dhadwal

image captionKiren regularly visits Punjab to see friends and family

“There’s a real respect in our culture of where you come from,” Kiren says.

“They’re the ones who are providing food internationally­ – the grains, the turmeric, the wheat… a big proportion of it does come from India.”

India’s government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says these new laws are necessary to increase farm incomes and productivity.

The leaders say they are listening and negotiating with the farmers – and that the new laws will double farmers’ income. That’s a promise made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016.

They have criticised celebrities and others outside India for their “neither accurate nor responsible” comments – and top ministers and celebrities tweeted against “propaganda” that threatened India’s unity.

Several Bollywood stars and cricket players have come out in support of the Indian government.

‘There’s a need for reform’

We spoke to a man from Nottingham, who’s Hindu. He didn’t want to be named over worries he’d be attacked online. His parents gave up farming to move to the UK – and says most of his family have since had to sell off land back in Punjab.

“There are middle-men who take a big chunk of profit from the farmers,” he explains.

“There’s a need to protect them from that and to also give them a better deal.”

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionSome people would rather Greta Thunberg and Rihanna didn’t comment on the protests in India

He’s mostly worried about the protest causing religious divisions.

“What worries me is that division filters over here – and as communities, we become divided and that would be really sad.”

More than 40% of people in India work in agriculture.

And Balraj Purewal, 20, says if he was there right now he’d be a farmer.

image copyrightBalraj Purewal

image captionBalraj Purewal says he would have been a farmer if his grandparents hadn’t moved to the UK

“All my family are. It’s just not fair. They’re taking the minimum wage away,” he says.

“My uncle goes back to India every year to check on his crops and check on his team. My cousin has been going to the protests.

“The police have been torturing and beating up our community,” he claims. Many others have made similar allegations but they’re hard to independently verify.

A recent tractor rally by farmers led to violence which left a protester dead and hundreds of police officers and protesters injured. Some demonstrators stormed Delhi’s historic Red Fort on India’s Republic day and occupied it until police chased them away. This was seen as an attack on India’s sovereignty.

‘For the last 50 years it’s not been enough’

image copyrightGetty Images

Manu Khajuria is from a Hindu agricultural family and argues there have been no reforms in decades.

“The land came from an ancestor through his service in the army,” she explains. “It’s also brought food on our tables.”

Manu’s grandfather and dad had to work other jobs on top of being farmers because they didn’t make enough. She says her generation has had to find something else.

From her family home in west London she says: “It is not enough, we need to diversify to get us more money.”

image copyrightTany Dulay

image captionTani Dulay is a third generation Punjabi from Birmingham

Tani seems genuinely angry when we speak to him. “Punjab is very much the motherland of India,” says the 28-year-old.

“This is our Mecca, this is our mother. It’s because of this mother that I’m here today talking to you.

“If you’re coming from an Indian background, this is very much of interest to you, irrespective of whether you’re Sikh, Muslim, Christian or Hindu – this is very much an Indian threat.

“It’s the heartbeat of India. Without Punjab there would be no India.”

Tani believes the new laws would allow farmers to be exploited and has spent the last six months campaigning online.

“Should we not get our own way, it would be devastation. It would be a loss of identity,” adds Tany.

“We would have no heritage to go back to.”

Listen to Newsbeat live at 12:45 and 17:45 weekdays – or listen back here.

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