One tweet to feel the pulse of California’s Punjabi Indian Americans’ solidarity for farmers protesting on the outskirts of Delhi, brought out more than 40,000 desis in the largest caravan rally Silicon Valley has seen.
10,000 cars and trucks drove miles through California’s Central Valley farm belt, to protest at the Indian Consulate in San Francisco.
News of peaceful farmers marching to Delhi being subjected to water cannons and lathis, moved the Punjabi Indian Americans to pull out saffron flags, sketch ‘inquilab’ posters, add ‘Punjab Bolda’ by Ammy Virk to playlists, decorate cars, and raise ‘jakaras’.
The Indian farm bills directly impact Californian Punjabi farmers as they have immediate family members, living and farming in Indian Punjab.
“When I See Photos Of Delhi Protests, I Think Of My Nanaji”
Simranjit Singh farms almonds and grapes on 100 hectares in California’s Fresno. His family farms sugarcane and corn on 10 acres of land in Punjab. His relatives from ‘pind’ are part of the farmers who are protesting the new farm bills in Delhi, and he supported them at the San Francisco car rally:
“We wanted to go to Dilli, and felt a sense of hopelessness that we couldn’t participate. This rally was coming up, so I jumped onto the opportunity and stayed up all night to decorate our car. I have been to a couple of basketball games with over 50,000 people, but this rally on Bay bridge – with flags, Punjabi songs, hashtags – the energy was something else. In my 28 years I got to see what our power really means, for the first time.”
Manroop Singh Gondal farms almonds on 300 acres in California’s Yuba City. His family in Hoshiarpur are farmers. He is concerned for the Indian elderly farmers spending chilly nights out in the open in Delhi:
“Here we farm for profit, Indians farm for survival. When I look at the pictures of Delhi protests, I think of my nana ji, my biji. My cousins saw our car rally videos on Twitter, TikTok and felt proud. The kisans feel that their people outside their country are there for them.”
California is home not only to Indian tech professionals, but also to more than 2.5 lakh Indian Punjabis, many of whom are farmers. California is dotted with gurdwaras, thousand-acre farms, and Sikh millionaire farmers.
How Punjabis & Sikhs Braved The Odds In US To Make It A Truly Multi-Ethnic Country
Sikhs were the pioneers of immigration – from India to US – in the 1900s. Even in those times, it was the difficulties that farmers in India faced – colonial land tenure system for small landowners, drought and food shortages – which drove their emigration. Punjabis were the first South Asians to migrate to North America. Canadian steamship companies recruited Sikh farmers.
Historian Dr Navyug Gill of William Paterson University in New Jersey, has worked on labour politics and agrarian studies. He shares that the struggles of the early immigrants ebbed and flowed well into the 1960s:
“Punjabis found themselves moving across oceanic networks. They came at the turn of the century, contributed to making this a viable country, enduring exploitation, building their life, taking racism head on. It was their determination that US is the kind of multiethnic country that it is.”
Between 1903 and 1908, about 6000 Punjabis entered Canada and nearly 3000 crossed into the United States, the majority of whom were peasants from Doaba and Malwa areas of Punjab province.
In 1910, there were over 6000 Sikhs in California working on farms around the Yuba City area, not far from where gold-panners from across the world converged during California’s Gold Rush. The hunt for gold caused a shortage of farm labour, which the desi immigrants filled. The canal-fed valleys of California, with cash crops and fruit, reminded them of their ‘pind’ that they had left behind.
The Punjabi immigrants braved racist, violent attacks from white Americans, who labelled them as ‘Tide of the Turbans’ and ‘Hindus Menace’, when they were in fact Sikhs.
How Punjabis Fought For Citizenship In US
1913’s Alien Land Act of California prevented Sikhs and other Asians from owning land. It was illegal for Indian men to marry white women, but it was legal for brown races to mix. Punjabi men, away from their home and families, married Hispanic women making Punjabi-Mexican marriages common in California. The Hispanic women were allowed to own land. With sheer hard work, these enterprising Punjabi immigrants became owners of huge parcels of land.
US citizenship still eluded them.
In the 1910s, Americans campaigned to end immigration from India, with the passage of the Barred Zone Act. A Sikh spiritual lecturer, Thind had sought to get citizenship on the basis of serving briefly in the US Army.
US citizenship at that time was biased towards whites. In 1923, Thind tried to work around this by declaring that, as a ‘high caste’ Indian of ‘Aryan’ descent he also could claim a common caucasian heritage. The US Supreme Court disagreed. The Sikh response was to fight back. Punjabi Jag Jit Singh, an importer of Indian goods in New York with wealthy clients, started acting as an official lobbyist for Indians. President of the India league of America, he wished to overturn the 'Thind' decision. For years, the Punjabi Sikhs lobbied in Washington until President Truman signed the Luce-Celler Act in 1946, establishing an immigrant quota and enabling South Asians in the US to become citizens. Jag Jit Singh’s granddaughter, Sabrina Singh, served as Kamala Harris’s press secretary during the 2020 election campaign.
Half way across the world from Punjab, these pioneer immigrants continued the practice of their faith. The first place of worship of a South Asian religion to be established in the US, was the gurdwara in California’s Stockton, in 1912, founded by the Pacific Khalsa Diwan Society, which had a few Hindu members as well.
How Punjabis Moved Into The US’s Political Mainstream
The oldest gurdwara in the US is on the outskirts of the San Francisco Bay Area. It was here that the ‘Hindustan Ghadar Party’ was formed to fight British rule in India. It was made up of a group of revolutionary Indians, in and around San Francisco, rallying to promote India’s independence movement, also known as 'gabri babas'. The Ghadar party continued to support Indian independence until 1947 when it was disbanded, and it turned its assets over to the new Indian government. Gadhar Memorial Hall was restored by the Government of India, and is used by the Indian Consulate for events.
The Punjabis moved fast into the US political mainstream. Farmer Dalip Singh Saund, became the first Indian American Congressman in 1956.
It was mostly after 1965 that desis from other Indian states started migrating to US. The credit goes to the Punjabi pioneers who brought about changes in the US immigration laws which paved the way for other desis.
And descendants of these farmer immigrant pioneers are now standing up in solidarity with ‘kisans’ of their home country.
Today, Punjabi Youth In US Understand Implications Of India’s Farm Laws
With easy access to information, the Punjabi American youth understand the implications of the new farm laws for small farmers. They know that the US government provides massive subsidies – USD 22 billion financial package in 2019 – to protect American farmers from price volatility. The desis did not want to derail the message by raising separatist slogans. 20-year-old Gurteg Singh Rana was at the Bay Area protest car rally:
“I am from Yuba city, jo ithe Punjabiyon da pind hai. Dadaji kisan hai. It is not a Khalistan problem, but it is a farmer problem. If the law passes, mandi system obsolete ho jayega. Hona nahi chahiye. Wo gareeb bande hain, wo kya karenge. Assi America te baithe hain, heater mein, gaddi wich. Uththe wo thand mein. Rally should not be hijacked by Khalistan. Uska din aur doosra hoga.”
The diasporic josh ran high at the 5 December 2020 massive car rally organised by the Sikh advocacy group ‘Jakara Movement’.
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)