“Zindabad!” The celebratory rallying cry is being sounded by hundreds of millions of farmers protesting in the streets of Delhi — and it rings out from growing car parades and rallies in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland over recent weeks. More are planned.
The cheer is translated by some as “Long live!” and has been chanted in freedom movements throughout South Asian history — including by those in independence and labour movements.
Hundreds rallied last week in Vancouver and Surrey as India plummeted into a nationwide general strike over controversial agriculture reforms — reforms the country’s far-right government says are necessary to “modernize” the sector.
Before that, large numbers turned up across the Lower Mainland for several days of local solidarity protests on Dec. 2 and 5, waving signs such as, “Justice for Farmers.” From Surrey to Richmond and Granville Island market, pickup trucks have been seen sporting the placards, too.
And as massive protests continued to blossom on India’s streets, “Zindabad!” echoed inside B.C.’s own legislature last week with the election of Burnaby-Edmonds MLA Raj Chouhan as Speaker — the first South Asian in such a role in North America.
Nearly one-in-ten British Columbians have South Asian ancestry, according to Statistics Canada; over half live in Surrey. Of them, two-thirds are Sikh, a faith with origins in India’s northeastern Punjab state — called the country’s “breadbasket” as it plays an outsized role in Indian farm output.
Forty years ago this year, Chouhan helped found Canada’s first labour unit for farmworkers, the Canadian Farmworkers’ Union — sparking a series of certification victories and legislative reforms, and enthusiastic visits from U.S. farmer hero César Chávez.
“I never, ever thought that one day I would be in this position when I immigrated to Canada in 1973,” said newly-elected Chouhan in his first speech Dec. 7. “In the ’70s, when we organized farmworkers, I was not alone…. Thank you… Zindabad!”
Chouhan raised his fist as he spoke, which “choked up” Delta single mother and communications professional Mita Naidu. Chouhan gave “a beautiful tribute to his farmworker and labour union roots,” she said. The moment was emotional for all South Asians, she added, since Chouhan is the first South Asian elected to the position in Canada.
B.C.’s farmer and farmworker rights movements are decades old, but today the struggles continue here, experts say, and they are related to global trends. Given the strong and complex connections between B.C.’s large South Asian population and events in India, The Tyee offers this explainer.
Just how big are the protests in India?
They’ve been called the “largest protests in human history,” with media reports of between 200 to 300 million people taking part in demonstrations in late November, according to India Today and Slate.
The so-called “Dilli Chalo” (“Let’s go to Delhi”) rallies last month saw authorities dig trenches in a failed attempt to stop crowds from multiple states entering the capital — culminating in police attacking elderly participants with batons and water cannons, sparking outcry from human rights organizations.
Those were followed by a massive national general strike Tuesday, Dec. 8, with the support of the country’s massive trade unions.
One of the British Columbians watching keenly is author Shauna Singh Baldwin, who told The Tyee she is both inspired — and incensed by the Indian government labelling farmers as terrorists and separatists.
“What seems to be the largest protest in human history is taking place in India,” said the author of the Giller Prize-shortlisted The Tiger Claw and Commonwealth-winning novel What the Body Remembers. “Farmers all over India are protesting laws suddenly passed by the government of India — in favour of Indian and transnational oligarchs.”