Group identity, and individual humanity — musings on the Farmers Protests in India
No matter where I turn, I can’t look away: Punjab Farmers Protests — nine months and counting. 300 deaths. Weathering storms, censorship, abuse. Yet, they still stand united. I see images of men in their 60s — maybe older. Men who look like my grandpa, and my friends’ grandpa. Mustering all the resilience they have left to stand with their neighbours, their families, their friends, as they fight for their livelihood.
A darker train of thought creeps in and I follow it. A train of thought which remembers the discriminatory messages and behaviour I experienced growing up, that was couched within my Punjabi background and culture: Never understanding the asymmetrical expectations between myself and my brothers; being warned by my grandmother ‘not to get too educated’ in fears that I would never get married; told not to go out into the sun as my skin would become darker and I would be undesirable; The confusion at seeing my family’s nonchalant response to the fact that my grandpa used to be highly abusive.
All of this — chalked up, and laughed off as “it’s just the culture”. But at it’s core, it is sexist, patriarchal, and dangerous. And I can’t shake the ambivalence I feel towards my culture and my people. And for this reason, I have trouble feeling any connection to the struggles of the farmers in Punjab.
I sit with these troubled feelings for months. Reading, learning, writing quietly. I support the struggle intellectually. But emotionally, I am not there. Emotionally, I am torn.
Today, I was split open and the emotion cracked in. I went for a walk in the city I grew up, which has a dense Punjabi population. I walk to a field where I sometimes jog and I see an older man in his 60s — maybe older, with three young children who look like his grandkids. They have a tiny football and divide into teams of two and begin throwing the ball around. The grandpa, dawned in a knitted vest, slacks, and a cotton t-shirt, speed walks animatedly, covering his grandson from getting the ball. The littlest one flails his arms as his grandpa softly tries to block the pass to him. My sight lingers on this beautifully wholesome scene. I see a genuine smile on the grandpa’s face, his eyes crinkle and his mouth wide in a smile. He is laughing as he tries to run after his grandkid, as if he too, is 8 years old and experiencing a childhood he never had. And my heart is full.
I may not be able to empathize or feel anything for my Punjabi culture or background, but I can see this older man and recognize his goodness in this moment. I can appreciate the importance of his individual humanity. I can be warmed by seeing a genuine expression of joy in his life. And I can remember that he too, feels all things — joy, happiness, grief, and pain — just like I do. And with this I can see the Punjab Farmers Protest in a new light — as a group of individuals who feel all things — joy, happiness, grief, and pain — just as I do. And as the protests drag on — empathize with how much they experience pain.
We are in the midst of civil unrest around the globe, and we are in a time where political views are at the forefront of who we are. At times, it feels like in the noise of “my group” and “my oppression” we have forgotten that we are all individuals who feel pain the same way. But maybe for anyone else having trouble reconciling group politics with their individual identity — by remembering we feel all things the same — we can empathize with the individual people who are struggling, regardless of the group, and let that empathy guide our response, our support, and our conduct in the face of each of our struggles.