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Hundreds rally in Canton Township in support of Indian farmers

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Canton Township — Hundreds of members of Michigan's Sikh and Indian community gathered Saturday to protest controversial new laws imposed by the Indian government that they claim are stripping away the rights of farmers and devastating the industry. 

Relatives and supporters of Indian farmers gathered for a forum and rally in Canton Township's Heritage Park bearing signs that read "I stand with farmers" and "Don't bite the hand that feeds you," while sharing personal stories and prayer.

Jas Sidhu, of Plymouth, leads a forum at Heritage Park in Canton Township in support of farmers in India fighting for the repeal of government laws that they claim harm the farming industry

The event was held in solidarity with international demonstrations across Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States amid a deadlock between the Indian government and farmers in New Delhi.

"What we are seeing is systematic repression of human rights," said Jas Sidhu, of Plymouth, an organizer of the forum and descendant of farmers who said he also formerly farmed in India.

"This is the only thing our ancestors did, and now their whole future is in jeopardy because slowly and systematically they're creating these laws that are eventually going to kill all the farming in India."

The group in Michigan came together after protest leaders in India on Saturday rejected the government's offer to amend some provisions of the contentious new agricultural laws, which deregulate crop pricing, maintaining the demand for a total repeal.

Amrinder Grewal, a Canton Township resident whose parents and grandparents were farmers in India, said he still has relatives and friends there and the laws are "ruining their lives."

The Indian government, he added, has targeted peaceful protesters with tear gas and water cannons.

"The government is suppressing their voice," said Grewal, an immigrant who has lived in Canton for about five years. "I have a fear the government is going to use some force on them."

Indian farmers look at a mobile phone at the site of a protest against new farm laws at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border, India, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.

Indian farmers are vowing a nationwide strike on Tuesday and an escalation of actions that calls for supporters to occupy toll plazas across the country on strike day if the government doesn't abolish the laws. 

The two sides are scheduled to meet Wednesday for further talks.

The divide has prompted protests that have blocked key highways on the outskirts of the capital for more than a week, with thousands of farmers arguing the reforms could devastate crop prices and reduce their earnings. 

Anmol Gill joined with cousins Saturday to support the fight, saying she commends her extended family in India for their "courage and passion and bravery" and knows that "it's not a fight that they are just going to give up on."

"It's going to be a long haul, but it's going to be one that they see to the very end," said Gill, a 17-year-old senior at Canton High School. "People are ready to put themselves out there no matter what the cost might be."

The farmers say the laws will lead the government to stop buying grain at minimum guaranteed prices and result in exploitation by corporations that will push down prices.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has insisted the reforms will benefit farmers. It contends the changes allow farmers to market their produce and boost production through private investment. But farmers argue they were never consulted.

"If it's a bill for the farmers, they should talk to farmers," Grewal added. "Farmers know better what's good for them." 

Saturday's discussions between Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and 35 farmer leaders were the fifth since the laws were passed in September.

Halfway through, farmer leaders held placards asking the government to answer “yes” or “no” to their demand for repealing new farm laws.

The farmers have been protesting for nearly two months in Punjab and Haryana state. 

The situation escalated last week when tens of thousands marched to New Delhi, where they clashed with police. 

Relatives and supporters of Indian farmers gather at Heritage Park Saturday to rally against new agricultural laws that they contend hurt farmers

The new regulations compound tensions there, with farmers long complaining of being ignored by the government in their demands for better crop prices, additional loan wavers and irrigation systems to guarantee water during dry spells. 

With nearly 60% of the Indian population depending on agriculture for their livelihoods, the growing farmer rebellion has rattled Modi’s administration and allies.

Modi and his leaders have also tried to allay farmers’ fears about the new laws while also dismissing their concerns. Some of his party leaders have called the farmers “misguided” and “anti-national,” a label often given those who criticize Modi or his policies.

Sidhu said Saturday that those who dare to question the Indian government's intent are labeled as "misled" and "separatists." 

"I am not misled. You are not mislead. We are all not mislead," he told the crowd. "We are doctors, we are engineers, we are businessmen, hard workers and above all, we are farmers because this is in our blood."

cferretti@detroitnews.com

The Associated Press contributed