British Indian Women Facing Backlash for Speaking About Farmers’ Protests

Debate over the changes to India’s agriculture law has reached South Asian communities in Britain – and some young women are being penalised for voicing their opinions.
British Indian Women Facing Backlash for Speaking About the Farmers’ Protests
A farmer holds a burning copy of agriculture laws at a protest in January. Photo: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News.

Farmers in India have been protesting for nearly six months now over new agricultural laws that have been described by some as a “death warrant”.

It all started in September, when the government announced a series of sweeping new agricultural bills that would deregulate crop prices and allow farmers to sell to private firms.

While supporters of these reforms see them as a necessary step towards modernising India’s agriculture, which employs half of the country’s workforce, the farmers feel very differently. They fear the end of minimum crop prices, and argue that selling to private firms rather than the state-controlled markets will leave them worse off. 

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi – leader of India’s right-wing BJP party, which has long been criticised for its ties to Hindu nationalism – denies the farmers’ claims, and has praised the passing of the new laws as a “watershed moment in the history of Indian agriculture”. 

With neither the protesters nor Modi’s government backing down, a stalemate has resulted, leading to military intervention, riots and sprawling camps set up by the farmers at the border of New Delhi. 

To many in India, the farmers’ protests sum up a growing divide between the Hindu majority and India’s marginalised communities – in this case Sikhs, who traditionally hail from farming backgrounds and believe that their needs are overlooked by the government. As the protests continue, a number of high-profile figures in the West have commented on the situation. Earlier this month, Rihanna tweeted a CNN article about the protests and asked, “why aren’t we talking about this?!”, while Greta Thunberg shared a “toolkit” with information on how to support the farmers. 

Supporters of the reforms in India reacted immediately. The United Hindu Front burned effigies of Rihanna and Thunberg on the streets of Delhi, and Disha Ravi, the 22-year-old author of the toolkit, has since been arrested. Images of Meera Harris – her aunt, Kamala, only weeks before hailed as the pride of India – were publicly burned after she tweeted that India’s democracy was “under assault”, and British actor Jameela Jamil told her Instagram followers that she had received rape and death threats for speaking publicly about the protesting farmers. 

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In the past, men have also been reprimanded for questioning Modi’s regime – journalist Aatish Taseer lost his overseas citizenship in 2019 for being critical of the prime minister in a Times article. But women are suffering the harshest penalties for making their views about the farmers’ protests heard. 

And this isn’t just the case for Rihanna and Thunberg. When I posted in support of the farmers on my social media accounts, my dad received messages from mutual followers telling him to keep his adult daughter in check. A number of young British Asian women tell me that they have also been criticised by family members and figures in their community for voicing opinions about the protests, or feel too nervous to even speak out. 

Twenty-one-year-old Roshni says that the older generation’s reliance on “word-of-mouth and Indian news outlets, which aren’t the most well-balanced” for information as one of the reasons why they may not see the farmers’ protests as a human rights issue – as many younger South Asian Brits do. 

“It springs from a strong loyalty to their nation, typically seen within immigrants,” adds Roshni, who along with the other women interviewed for this piece, asked to use her first name. “Anything against the homegrown opinion is thought to be an attack, an act of treason. In this context, if we aren’t against the protests, if we don’t support Modi like they do back home, we’re ‘anti-Hindu’ and ‘anti-India’.”

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Neelam, founder of BAME networking group Don’t Sleep On Us, has also found it difficult to talk about the farming protests with older family members, which she says causes tension and defensiveness. 

Photo: Neelam

Photo: Neelam

“It's almost like we can't love our families, our communities and hold them accountable for things we know are immoral,” she says. 

Both Neelam and Roshni believe that they are criticised more harshly for speaking out because of their gender. “Men are taught to rebel, to be disruptive and courageous,” Neelam says. “It’s encouraged. Men are prepared to be confident. Women have to fight to be.”

Women’s rights activist Vahida Nainer has studied gender in South Asian culture, and in a 2013 paper, goes so far as to argue that “there is no system, structure or relation in [South Asia] that is not influenced, if not based on the patriarchy”. In a culture that values traditional gender roles and adherence to the word of male elders, women who speak out of turn may be criticised or accused of risking a family’s honour. Pakistani artist Remal Harif has addressed this silencing faced by South Asian women in a series of evocative illustrations that show women with hands or blank strips stuck over their mouths.

For many young South Asian women in Britain, the farmers’ protests have highlighted these unequal gender expectations. Roshni says that she is afraid to openly share her views on the subject, for fear of backlash from her community.

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“I’m empathetic towards the farmers but didn't have the mental strength or capacity to be as vocal as I wanted to,” she says. “Young British Asian women already struggle with an identity crisis as it is, I didn't want to be scrutinised any further.” 

Twenty-four-year-old Preena has also been hesitant to talk about the protests.

“Girls are a reflection of their family,” she says. “One of the biggest things stopping me from talking about the protests is the fear that my mum would receive phone calls blaming her for raising me wrong. For not educating me enough about our culture to understand where loyalties lie. The community is watching whatever I do, waiting for me to trip up.”

The farming protest’s most high-profile case of so-called “honour” violence is a stark reminder of the risks faced by women who speak out. Last month, 23-year-old activist Nodeep Kaur was protesting in support of the farmers in Haryana in northern India, when she was arrested and detained by police. She alleges that she has since been refused bail and sexually assaulted. 

“She’s my age,” says Anika, who has been following Kaur’s case in the UK. “It makes my blood boil.”  

Despite her strong feelings about Kaur’s case, Anika says that she doesn’t know who to side with over the farmers’ protests. “I’m still in the process of gathering information and educating myself about what’s going on,” she says. 

But for her and the other young British Indian women I spoke with, the decision she comes to doesn’t matter – so long as she has the right to voice is without fear. 

“Taking away freedom of speech is a breach of this, and of democracy,” Anika says.