Panjab and the New Politics of Diaspora Solidarity

In the past few months, the global Sikh-Panjabi community has demonstrated the beginnings of a new politics to the diaspora. Earlier it usually revolved around issues such as monetary remittances, familial ties or marriage prospects, and religious tourism. More recently it included large-scale student migration and the cross-cultural music industry. Yet with the ongoing farmer and laborer protest against the BJP government’s attempt to deregulate and privatize the agricultural sector, there has been a significant change in both the outlook and actions of Panjabis and their descendants living abroad.

Global solidarity with this struggle actually began months ago. In June, once agitation started in Panjab against the proposed bills, there were parallel small-scale meetings and events among Panjabis across Canada, England, Australia and the US. It also featured in vernacular newspapers and radio shows, and on social media. These grew as the protest in Panjab expanded when the bills were passed into law in September. After November 26, when protestors pushed through police barricades to march on New Delhi, there were massive rallies in dozens of major world cities. Panjabis along with people from other communities gathered in public spaces, along major roads and in front of Indian consulates and embassies to express support. In San Francisco, the Jakara Movement organized a car rally involving thousands that shutdown the famous Bay Bridge. In addition, there has been an outpouring of Panjabis writing analyses in major media publications, as well as making practical arrangements for supplies and resources despite the COVID pandemic. All of these activities epitomize the principles of farj (duty) and jummevari (responsibility) that partly inform the radical Sikh concept of seva, the self-driven yet selfless labor for the common good.

Due to the actions of the Panjabi diaspora, many politicians in the West have been compelled to critique the conduct of the Indian government. Several US Congresspersons expressed “serious concern” over “ongoing civil unrest,” and advocated productive discussions with the protestors. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went further, saying that Canada would “always be there to defend the right to peaceful protest.” In the UK a group of thirty-six parliamentarians wrote a detailed letter connecting the neoliberal farm laws with British Sikhs. Even the Secretary-General of the United Nations reminded India that its people have a right to demonstrate without fear of violence.

Together this might mark a new era of solidarity for the Panjabi diaspora. Its significance can be seen in at least three dimensions. First, international actions give valuable encouragement to protestors on the frontlines in New Delhi. It is important for people to feel they are not alone in this struggle, and that their fellow Panjabis are determined to support them from abroad. Indeed, there is a long history of Panjabis globalizing causes from the Ghadar Party onwards that defies any attempt to restrict connections and commitments at a border. Second, these actions put real pressure on the Indian government. Knowing the entire world is watching prevents it from engaging in the kinds of violence it has in the past, and helps force it to come to terms with the protestors. This also means people in Panjab can and should stand in solidarity with individuals and groups facing state violence elsewhere in the world. Complaints about “foreign interference” become meaningless once global citizens start to hold world leaders accountable.

Finally, solidarity actions by Panjabis in the diaspora help civilize Western societies. By taking to the streets in such large numbers, many non-Panjabis see and learn about people living in their midst for the first time. In turn, Panjabis settled abroad are better able to claim their rights as well as their place in society. The spirit of solidarity is also transgressive: if one is angered at the video clip of a police officer striking a Panjabi elder, one must be outraged at the video clip of a police officer suffocating George Floyd. As a result, the very notion of a “successful” diaspora can be re-defined. It is not simply a matter of following the routine trajectory of humble immigrants quietly working hard to acquire stability and even prosperity. Instead, we can be active in re-thinking and re-ordering every facet of life in the countries we happen to live in. As Panjabis are teaching the Ambanis and Adanis, there is much more to life than wealth.