On the Front Lines of the Global Food Crisis

The Seeds of Violence
Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 8 2008 7:09 AM

On the Front Lines of the Global Food Crisis

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The seeds of violence.

Bhagat Singh. Click image to expand
The spirit of Bhagat Singh lives on in today's Punjab

MUKTSAR, PUNJAB, India—On a numberless district road between Muktsar and Jaitu, my driver slows the car down to a crawl, again. It's another police roadblock. Rows of sandbags reduce traffic to a single lane. Tractors, open-backed trucks loaded with people, camel carts, and cars are backed up in both directions. It's slow going, slow enough for the dozens of khaki-uniformed policemen massed on both sides of the road to get a good look at each vehicle. Lee-Enfield rifles slung over their shoulders, most sport manly mustaches and menacing glares. Their superiors slouch in grimy plastic chairs under a nearby tree. The police seem particularly interested in the trucks loaded with people, but they give our car a penetrating look as well.

It turns out I've chosen to visit Punjab during a period of renewed tension between the Indian state and militant Sikh separatists who want to turn Punjab into an independent nation named Khalistan, a goal unlikely to be realized. The Indian state, which has long struggled against separatist movements in Kashmir and in its northeastern territory, has zero tolerance for any movement that threatens the integrity of its national boundaries. The government crackdown on the Khalistan movement in the 1980s and '90s was brutal and effective. Most of the leadership was eliminated or forced into exile. The appetite to join the cause was dampened when thousands of young Sikh men were tortured and "disappeared," atrocities for which no one in the Indian government has been held accountable. The militants engaged in their share of violence as well. Among their more headline-grabbing deeds: halting buses, separating the Sikh passengers from the Hindus, and gunning down the latter.

It was a lot of violence to stomach, especially in the state that suffered most during the bloody partition of Pakistan from India back in 1947. Partition sundered the historic region of Punjab in two; one part ended up in India and the other in Pakistan. At least 1 million people lost their lives during Partition, the largest and most violent migration in human history. A large part of the mayhem occurred in Punjab.

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Sheer weariness with sickening violence was one factor in the Khalistan movement's decline. Since elections in 1997, the state has enjoyed relative peace. The naming of Sikh Manmohan Singh as India's prime minister, after national elections returned the Congress Party to power, was widely seen as the final healing touch to relations between Punjab and the Indian state.

This symbolic gesture is lost on the new generation of Khalistan militants, who are splintered into a plethora of distinct groups. There is the Khalistan Commando Force (known as KPF), the Babbar Khalsa International, the Khalistan Liberation Force, and the Bhindranwale Tigers Force of Khalistan, named after Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who died in 1984 at the hands of the Indian military when it attacked the Golden Temple in Amritsar. In March of 2008, two BKI militants were arrested in Jalandhar, Punjab, on their way, it is alleged, to kill Baba Piara Bhaniarewala, a charismatic religious leader whom they consider to be a heretic as well as a competitor for the hearts and minds of Punjabi Sikhs.

It may well be that the decade of relative peace is about to end. In March, Prime Minister Singh warned the government of Canada, where thousands of Sikhs have emigrated, that it needed to pay closer attention to Khalistan-movement activity there. The Indian government is concerned that members of pro-Khalistan groups in the Sikh diaspora will get their organizations removed from terrorist watch lists.

A large percentage of the Sikh diaspora in Canada and in the United Kingdom is composed of small farmers who were pushed off their land and propelled out of Punjab in search of a better life by the fallout from the Green Revolution. They have done well. Many retain strong ties to Punjab, with close family members still living at home. Many still hold titles to land from which they could no longer make a living yet that they can't bear to let go. Their sense of rootedness in Punjab often eclipses any sense of India, a more abstract entity, as their homeland. They understand firsthand the damage done to the land and the people of Punjab by Green Revolution agricultural practices, and while the vast majority would never engage in terrorist acts, it is easy to blame the Indian state that reaps a disproportionate share of the Green Revolution's benefits while Punjab's residents live with its negative effects.

India also believes that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency is providing cross-border assistance to Khalistan militants and fanning the drug trade. The drug trade has emerged as potentially the most destabilizing factor in Punjab. One morning, I woke up to find the front-page headline of the local English-language newspaper screaming the sensational news that the head of the youth wing of Punjab's ruling party had been arrested on his way to the Amritsar airport with 22 kilos of heroin in his car. That the drug trade has apparently penetrated to this level is worrying.

The heroin in Punjab originates in Afghanistan, a country that for all intents and purposes has turned into a narco-state. It is then funneled through Pakistan. From Punjab, it is transported to Canada or the United Kingdom, where it is distributed by diaspora drug mafias.

Local demand is growing as well. Legions of poor youths, with no job prospects and no desire and little ability to survive by farming, are susceptible to being recruited to work as couriers. Addiction has reached epic proportions, with one recent report putting the portion of addicted Punjabis between the ages of 15 and 25 at 40 percent.

Such epidemic despair bodes ill for Punjab's future. Perhaps the state will be able to keep producing record-breaking harvests of wheat and rice right up until the moment when the last drop of water is used and the last villager drops dead from cancer. Then what?

Wheat Fields. Click image to expand
Wheat fields as far as the eye can see

Punjab is a microcosm of the success and the failure of industrial agriculture in the developing world. There is no doubt that, with enough water and enough chemicals, privileging production above all else can boost yields dramatically. But the damage to the land and the people that make that production possible is profound. It is a model that is not sustainable, as a report published this spring by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, a joint effort of the World Bank and various U.N. agencies, so strongly argued. Ultimately, it will fail. It is failing now, just as the world is desperate to find a way to feed a growing population in a time of climate uncertainty and resource scarcity.

After my trip to Punjab, I came to believe that Umendra Dutt is right: Farmers who switch to natural farming techniques are engaging in a truly revolutionary act. Instead of Bhagat Singh's pistol, they are wielding plowshares, with no less profound consequences for the future of India than the shaking off of British imperialism decades ago. India's new nonviolent revolution, against incredible odds, is in agriculture. It bears watching.

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