What Christians can learn from Indian Sikh farmers’ desperate protests

The protesters’ cause and community have shown a way for people of all faiths to go forward in a post-pandemic world.

Indian farmers participate in a tractor rally in a protest against new farm laws at Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, on Jan. 7, 2021. India’s top court temporarily put on hold the implementation of new agricultural laws and ordered the formation of an independent committee of experts to negotiate with farmers who have been protesting against the legislation. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File)

(RNS) — For months, farmers in India have been protesting new agriculture reform laws instituted in September 2020, which leave them to the mercy  — or lack thereof —  of corporate giants.

Almost immediately, farmers in Punjab, many of them Sikhs, began protesting locally, but in November, hundreds of thousands of farmers surrounded New Delhi in the largest mass protest India has seen in decades. Although these protests are largely leaderless, millions of farmers across the nation are united in their struggle for human dignity.

What can we learn from the protesters?

Humans have a right to a dignified livelihood. 

Globalization and the so-called market economy — which is built upon making money with money, not generating wealth with labor — have destroyed the livelihoods of numerous working-class people around the world. In India, globalization has wreaked havoc on the masses. 

RELATED: Farmers’ protests against India’s new agriculture laws follow long Sikh tradition

One effect has been to force Indian farming communities, which comprise 70% of India’s people, to grow nonessential crops for unsustainable compensation. In the state of Bihar, where the new agriculture laws were implemented, many farmers have become destitute. The dynamics that are starving farmers are also worsening India’s already dire water crisis.

Every person desires the right to dignified labor and compensation, the right to which was given to humanity by God, as recorded in Genesis:

And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ …The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.

Though human work eventually became corrupted by the sin of the first man and woman, work gives us a sense of worth and purpose. 

Indian farmers, created in the image of God, take pride in their profession. They know their work is neither a low kind of labor nor anything to be ashamed of. Their protests declare they will not be the servants of those who would try to take advantage of them.

Humans have a right to property. 

One of the most precious resources God has given humanity is land. Genesis makes clear that God placed the first people in a garden and not in a desert.

Yet, the new agriculture laws in India are propounded by a misplaced philosophy that holds that the ultimate value in life is profit, regardless of consequences and methods. India is not against global trade, but this toxic form of globalism negates the human right to property and home. 

Indian farmers protesting new agriculture laws hold a meeting at the Delhi-Haryana state border on Nov. 30, 2020. While trying to march toward New Delhi, the farmers, using their tractors, have cleared concrete blockades, walls of shipping containers and horizontally parked trucks after police had set them up as barricades and dug trenches on highways to block roads leading to the capital. (AP Photo/Rishi Lekhi)

Farmers in the state of Punjab are aware the agriculture laws will end up depriving them of the little land they have for farming and survival, even if it’s just a few acres. They know they will eventually have to lease their land to wealthy corporations, which will then produce what they want on the land and determine the prices the farmer will be paid, even as the companies sell their produce for higher prices in local and international markets. 

Many farmers across India bear an intolerable burden of loans, and hundreds of thousands are dying by suicide because they are unable to repay them. Their families become impoverished and other exploitation then begins to take place.

Human dignity demands doing away with racial, caste and religious divides. 

Many of the farmers who are protesting the agriculture laws are Sikhs living in Punjab. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that originated in Punjab in the 15th century. Sikhs highly value their relationship with their holy book and their relationships with others.

Sikhs also believe people of all faiths have access to God and Sikhs are proponents of freedom of religion. They are against all forms of societal hierarchies. Although there are a significant number of Dalit Sikhs who are conscious of their low-caste status, there are not the same kind of atrocities, rapes and attacks against Dalit Sikh women as there are against other women in India. 

In images of the protests in the news and on social media, farmers of all faiths and castes can be seen joining together in their struggle. Many Sikh women who are farmers are now in the streets protesting alongside their husbands and others. Young girls are also on the roads in biting cold weather.

My heart aches for a similar expression of unity among Christians. Our tendency to fight among ourselves does not make our faith attractive. Do we really think our fights over nonessential doctrines of faith will mean anything in the kingdom of God or our love?

The Sikh “langar” meal is intended to bring people together. 

The Sikh practice of “langar” has also precipitated the most outstanding examples of charity and sustenance for the protesting farmers, whether they are Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims or Christians, which has built a community around food to sustain the protesters.

Sikh men and women have made chapatis, pizzas and sweets on the streets to feed hundreds of thousands of protestors for free, with donations from Sikh villages and temples.

Originally a Persian word, “langar” translates as “an almshouse” or “a place for the poor and needy.” In the Sikh tradition, it refers to a community kitchen, where everyone in need is provided with food, irrespective of caste, class, religion and gender.

These acts of immense generosity are not lost on India’s people. This is not foreign-funded aid but personal contributions from neighbor to neighbor.

We Christians observe Communion without practicing the community meal. We should, like the protesters, be eating together as brothers and sisters.

As we see in Scripture, Jesus regularly ate meals with his disciples. Jesus instituted the Holy Communion around the Last Supper. After his ascension, believers continued to gather to break bread. It is the basis of our worship.

Perhaps it is time for us to rethink how we do church in the post-COVID-19 world. The pandemic has shown us the incredible needs of children, women and men, regardless of faith and caste. The post-COVID world has shown us the incredible need for human community, which digital communities cannot replace.

We have come through a tough year. May we learn from this great struggle for human dignity in India, and may this be the year where we strive to heal what has been broken.   

(The Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and president of the All India Christian Council. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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