As the world’s largest democracy and one of the fastest growing trillion-dollar economies globally, India is a key player on the international stage. Although the country has been in the spotlight before due to controversial policies, the recent backlash to three agriculture bills passed in September 2020 have garnered unprecedented media coverage. These laws were an attempt by the Indian government to bolster the economy by creating a free market system, but it eliminated the minimum support price (MSP), equivalent to a minimum wage in the United States, making it more difficult for farmers to compete with larger companies. More than half of India’s population works in the agricultural sector, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in protest in different major cities after the bills passed. As the largest strike in human history continues, some of the loudest voices who have been trying to educate, fundraise, and amplify the protests have been young people.
As the most well-educated, racially, and ethnically diverse generation yet, Generation Z is known for their digital activism, calling attention to the changes they want to see through social media, mass movements, and entrepreneurship. In the case of the farmers’ protests, many Indian American teenagers, college students, and recent graduates have been using their platform to call attention to how and why this movement in India impacts life in the United States.
Kavita Rai, a 19-year-old student at the University of Southern California, is a teen activist, writer, and co-founder of Justice in the Classroom. Rai first learned of the protests in mid-November 2020 via social media, and said what first struck her about the protests was its ties to the green revolution in the 1960s. Rai has written extensively about the protests in an effort to educate others, publishing articles in Brown Girl Magazine and the Daily Trojan.
“There have been issues related to the government and the agriculture system at large in India in the past,” she explained. “It isn’t just a farmers issue, it’s a global food chain issue. It affects producers, suppliers, and consumers around the world.”
This sentiment is echoed by 18-year-old Harvard University student Tarina Ahuja. “Cotton, wheat, turmeric, chili, rice, so much of it ends up coming from farms in India, from Punjabi farms. If you are someone who has consumed these products, you are also being touched by what is happening,” she emphasized.
To help the movement, Ahuja helped organize the Kissan Youth Benefit, a virtual event that brought students and colleges together from across the nation to raise over $25,000 for Sahaita, an organization that has a farmers’ support project. A government and philosophy major, Ahuja explained how the connection between the U.S. and India’s agriculture is why some members of Congress have publicly spoken about the protests. “In the midst of a new administration, a new Congress, we are starting to see many U.S. officials raising their voices about this, especially in California where farming is big,” she said.
Ikjot Singh, a recent graduate of Augusta University in Georgia, also strongly believes that Indian agriculture impacts the U.S. Although he was born and raised in the U.S., he follows the Sikh faith with pride, demonstrated by wearing a turban and keeping a beard. He’s also visited his family in Punjab many times, where most of his cousins are farmers or sons of farmers. For the 24-year-old, the protests are an agricultural revolution.
“Farming isn’t just a profession, it’s deep-rooted within our faith as well as our culture. For example, we celebrate Lohri every year to welcome the new harvest,” Singh said. “With these new laws, it’s almost as if they are allowing for a whole piece of our culture to die.”
Diplomatic relations and trade
Another key reason the farmers’ protests are relevant to the U.S. is because of the diplomatic relationship it shares with India, essential for international agreements that mutually benefit trade, health care, and other issue areas. Although former President Donald Trump and current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared a famous friendship, newly elected President Joe Biden has not yet commented on the farmers’ protests despite already speaking with Modi.
“I feel like Biden, as a newly elected president, should really call Modi out on what he is doing,” said 16-year-old teen activist Komalpreet Kaur.
A student at Olathe East High School and co-chair of the Olathe Teen Council, Kaur has organized three rallies in her hometown of Kansas City, the most recent of which was attended by approximately 200 people. She and her friends also make educational brochures on the protests to hand out to drivers and pedestrians. She says that her Punjabi background is a key reason why she’s been advocating for the movement.
“If not for my grandparents farming and my parents farming, I would not be here. That’s what paved the path to give me the life I have now,” Kaur said.
For recent graduate Suhavi Kaur, who was born in India but now lives in the U.S., seeing the farmers’ protests unfold reminds her of the 1984 Anti Sikh genocide, where almost 3,500 Sikhs in India were killed in an organized massacre in retaliation to the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
“[The farmers’ protests have] evolved into something that shouldn’t have been,” she said.
The 22-year-old, who majored in economics and international studies, noted that the protests will impact trade relations between India and the U.S. Due to a current trade deficit in the U.S., where Americans are importing more from India, India’s agriculture bills will benefit America. However, she said “the laws ultimately hurt the farmers and the sovereignty of the land. It does no good for anyone if we take that away, especially with climate change.” She thinks other young people should support the farmers.
A call to action for young people
While young U.S.-based activists like Ahuja, Rai, Singh, Komalpreet Kaur, and Suhavi Kaur are doing what they can to amplify the protests in India, they want others to get involved as well.
“You should care because it’s the food on your table,” Ahuja said. “These are people that are fighting for us every day, so it’s time that we fight for and with them.”
Singh agrees and adds that “the great thing about our generation is that we are really proactive. We care a lot.” He wants other young people, South Asians in particular, to get involved because of how the protests are impacting people across India. “No matter where you were born or where your family came from, your identity starts with India—it’s your battle, too.”
For Rai, her call to action is to have conversations with friends, family, and loved ones like she’s been doing. “When we talk about progressive ideas in the U.S., how can you have those conversations here and not look to transnational dynamics of human rights in other countries?” she asks.
Suhavi Kaur is also taking the time to have these conversations, educating her colleagues at work about what is going on. Despite the bleak nature of the protests, what fascinates her about the movement is that she’s “never, ever seen the Punjabi-Sikh community in the U.S. be so connected, especially our generation.”
“Our generation needs to speak up,” Komalpreet Kaur said. “It’s powerful because there are so many of us talking about the protests all over the world—U.S., Canada, U.K.—and we just need to keep amplifying our voices if we really want to preserve our roots.” Kaur said that seeing photos of toddlers at the protests in India inspired her to continue her activism. “Now is your time to use your voice to push for change. You are not too young.”