Sikh Sovereignty as Food Sovereignty: Toward a Sikh Jurisprudence to Fight Climate Change in Punjab

Punjab is the land of the five rivers: An agriculturally rich and fertile region in South Asia divided by the modern-day international border of India and Pakistan.  It was among the last regions in South Asia to succumb to colonization by the British Empire in the mid-1800s.  Sikhs are a religious minority community who follow the religious and spiritual tradition of Sikhi, which originated in Punjab in the fifteenth century.  Sikhs[1] have faced persecution in South Asia for centuries, but prior to colonization by the British, they self-governed Punjab as a kingdom.  British colonization began a process of suppressing Sikh sovereignty through the violent theft of wealth, resources, land, culture, and spirituality.[2]

The British commenced a process of agricultural colonization in Punjab, where they incorporated canal water as a source of irrigation for farmland and benefited greatly from a hydrological agriculture system that generated vast agricultural produce.[3]  When the British left South Asia in 1947, in what would become known as the Partition, Punjab was split into two regions, one became a part of India and the other a part of Pakistan.  Mass sectarian violence broke out as Muslim communities were forced to migrate to the newly created Pakistani side of Punjab, known as West Punjab, and Hindus and Sikhs were forced to migrate to the Indian side of Punjab, known as East Punjab.[4]  On the Indian side, Punjab lost two-thirds of its original territory, and half of its population.[5]  The Sikhs who remained on the Indian side of the border sought to create a culturally, linguistically, politically, and religiously Sikh-majority state, and launched a mass civil disobedience movement toward this end.[6]  Eventually the Indian government agreed to create a Punjabi-speaking state in 1966.[7]  However, the key city of Chandigarh, as well as an important dam, known as the Bhakra Dam, fell outside the bounds of Punjab and under Indian government control.[8]  The Bhakra Dam was completed in 1963 and was built on the Sutlej River, one of the five rivers that flow through Punjab.[9]  The dam and adjoining reservoir store billions of cubic meters of water.[10]  Since its establishment, the dam has been diverting the water of the Sutlej out of Punjab and into neighboring states for irrigation and electricity.[11]

Following the establishment of Punjab as an Indian state, there continued to be widespread discrimination against the Sikh community, as well as a systematic effort by the Indian state to adopt Sikhs within the fold of Hinduism and deny the separateness of Sikh identity.[12]  Sikhs once again mobilized, this time in an armed resistance movement, to seek Sikh sovereignty in the form of an independent state they named Khalistan.  As a result of this movement for Sikh sovereignty, throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, the Indian government perpetrated genocide, ethnic cleansing, state violence, torture, human rights abuses, and extrajudicial execution against the Sikh community.[13]  The Indian state has engaged in a strategy of systematically eliminating the Sikh community through both the perpetration of state violence and the criminalization and incarceration of Sikhs at higher numbers than any other religious community in India.[14]  This, among other factors, has led to an exodus of Sikhs from Punjab in the past few decades, many of whom have sought asylum in wealthier, so-called first world countries.[15]

Today, Punjab, a majority Sikh state, is reeling from the effects of climate change, including pollution, water shortages, high cancer rates, excessive pesticide usage, farmer suicide, and land infertility.[16]  This Essay will examine how a jurisprudence based in the Sikh spiritual and political tradition would address the impact of climate change in Punjab.  Existing scholarship has focused on the impact of climate change in Punjab, Pakistan, or in India generally, but not in Punjab, India.[17]  I hope to make an intervention into climate change scholarship on Punjab, India as well as Sikh legal scholarship generally, by articulating the possibility of using indigenous rights-based frameworks to advocate for Sikh food sovereignty.  This Essay is part of two larger intellectual projects—first to articulate a theory of Sikh jurisprudence by which to advance Sikh sovereignty, and second, to consider Sikh food sovereignty as a form of climate reparations for colonization and imperialism.

In this Essay, I argue that Sikh food sovereignty requires community control over the twin resources of land and water—resources which have been depleted due to a combination of United States imperialism and discriminatory Indian state policy.  A Sikh jurisprudence that is oriented towards achieving food sovereignty should be rooted in a Sikhi-based anti-oppression ethic, which prioritizes the traditional and organic cultivation of food, the equitable distribution of resources, and the practice of Sikh spirituality.  In developing a legal strategy toward achieving food sovereignty, the Sikh community should center the most marginalized Sikhs in domestic legal advocacy in Indian courts.  A special religious minority category should be created for Sikhs and other religious minority communities to advocate for their rights before the Indian state, adjudicate their own legal claims internally, and be free of forced assimilation into the Hindu hegemonic order.  Furthermore, Sikh should use indigenous rights based legal frameworks to argue for self-determination in international legal forums.  Sikh food sovereignty requires both the affirmative acknowledgement of a separate and sovereign Sikh identity by domestic and international governing bodies, and a sustained spiritual practice that is deeply tied to land cultivation and organized community resistance against capitalist commodification of food.

Climate Change and Ecological Destruction of Land and Water in Punjab

In order to understand the impact of climate change in Punjab, it is vital to consider the impact on the twin natural resources of water and land: Resources that comprise Punjab’s ecological wealth and have been essential to Sikh lifestyle, spirituality, and culture.  Water is a “rare, non-renewable natural resource” which sustains life, and clean water is essential for the survival of peoples.[18]  Land, too, sustains people, providing them with livelihood in a “reciprocal and synergistic relationship.”[19]  Water and land are necessary for the production of food, and thus are key to Sikh food sovereignty.

Desertification and Flooding in Punjab

Punjab’s ground water has been depleting over the past few decades, leading to increased desertification.[20]  Punjab continues to be a heavily agrarian society and is the largest contributor of grain to India, particularly rice—a crop which is not indigenous to the region.[21]  Farmland in Punjab is irrigated by an extensive tube-well network, which requires farmers to drill deep into the earth for water.[22]  The water table in Punjab was ten times lower in 2015 than in 1985, meaning it has dropped tenfold in the last thirty years.[23]  The decrease in annual rainfall and increase in warming has reduced the surface river water in Punjab, placing more pressure upon farmers to drill deeper for ground water.[24]  India’s Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), has predicted that Punjab will become a desert state in twenty to twenty-five years.[25]  Additionally, the increase in use of harmful pesticides has resulted in water that is contaminated with nitrate and sulfate: Chemicals which are carcinogenic and have contributed to high rates of cancer for Sikhs.[26]

Climate change has made it harder to predict the Indian monsoon season, resulting in recent floods in August of 2019, which caused the Bhakra Reservoir to flood and led to the evacuation of 300 villages in Punjab.[27]  The Bhakra Dam is managed by a board appointed by the Indian government and comprised of members from multiple states.[28]  In response to the rainfall, the dam board decided to release water from the reservoir, which exacerbated the impact of the flooding.[29]  Allegations have been made that the dam has been mismanaged by the Indian government-appointed board that runs it.[30]  Punjab’s waters—both ground water and river water—thus suffer from depletion, contamination, flooding, and pollution.

Punjab’s river water is another alternative for irrigation—in fact, during British colonization of Punjab, canal colonies that used river water for irrigation were key to Punjab’s agricultural production.[31]  However, the Bhakra Dam diverted river water out of the state and limited the available water supply, making it an unreliable and inadequate water source due to the increase in usage of genetically modified seeds for industrialized farming, which demanded more water.[32]  Famers thus increased their the reliance on ground water for irrigation, since they could no longer rely on river water for to keep up with the demands of capitalist industrialized farming imposed by the Green Revolution.[33]  The Green Revolution was a neocolonial imposition upon Punjab by the United States in order to suppress communism and counter the “Red Revolution,”—it was an imperialist project cloaked as a philanthropic quest.[34]  The United States sought to feed the hungry masses of India in order to suppress revolt.[35]  The Green Revolution accomplished this project by completely transforming traditional small farming practices into mass-production, monocropping, and industrialized, chemical farming.[36]  The imposition of the Green Revolution by the United States, combined with the Indian Government’s limitation of canal waters to Punjab through its mismanagement of the Bhakra Dam, has contributed to the desertification of Punjab.

Pesticide Usage and Land Fertility in Punjab

The contamination of Punjab’s water is the result of the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by farmers, classified as acutely toxic and banned in many countries around the world.[37]  The heavy usage of pesticides in Punjabi agriculture began with Green Revolution’s transformation of Punjabi agriculture from traditional small farming to industrialized agribusiness.[38]  Punjab has long been known as the “breadbasket of India,” for producing food for the entire nation.[39]  Yet the increased usage of pesticides and chemicals to boost crop production has now resulted in reproductive health issues, bone disease, cancer and autism for its people, particularly Punjabi women and children.[40]  Farmers are squeezed by the capitalist demands of producing more in order to make an income that will allow them to survive, yet ironically this has forced them further and further into debt, resulting in farmer suicide.[41]  The Punjab Agricultural University estimates that at least 7000 farmers have committed suicide in the past fifteen years, primarily due to poverty and debt.[42]

Genetically modified crops produced by companies like Monsanto are heavily marketed to farmers, along with pesticides produced by companies like Bayer, adding to the depletion of the land itself.[43]  These products have rid the land of the micronutrients that once made it fertile, killed insects that are friendly to agriculture, led to a growth in harmful pests which require an increased dose of pesticides, and consequently resulted in a pesticide treadmill that farmers cannot remove themselves from.[44]  The soil has lost the ability to sustain mass production of crops and grains due to damaged soil ecology that has eroded plant probiotic microflora.[45]  This in turn affects the quality of the food that is produced by farmers, resulting in substandard, chemically altered, harmful food that is poisoning the people of Punjab.[46]

Sikh Spiritual Tradition and Food Sovereignty

The climate destruction occurring in Punjab is thus deeply interlinked with the health of its people—damaged climate damages life.  True sovereignty for the Sikh community cannot be achieved without food sovereignty.  The lens of food sovereignty views the commodification of food as “central to undermining freedom and autonomy, independence and culture in the food system.”[47]  It demands that people have the right to “safe, nutritious and culturally acceptable food.”[48]  Food sovereignty is deeply political and many food sovereignty activists see the state as “impeding knowledge, action and choice in the food system.”[49]  Thus food sovereignty movements tend to be movements of resistance against capitalist nation-states whose allegiance lies with multinational corporations and societal elites.  Sacred Sikh texts and spiritual political practices support the notion of food sovereignty and provide a vision for food sovereignty that can be leveraged by Sikhs in Punjab today.

Food Sovereignty in Sikh Sacred Text

The sacred Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), aligns fundamentally with food sovereignty.  Compiled in the seventeenth century, the SGGS is a sacred Sikh text with writings from the Sikh gurus and many South Asian mystics, poets, and writers.  The SGGS contains numerous references to the sacredness of the earth as well as to traditional organic farming practices.  One hymn states, “[m]ake your mind the farmer, good deeds the farm, modesty the water, and your body the field.”[50]  Such hymns in the SGGS prescribe the lifestyle a Sikh should live—one of humility, modesty, and community service—while also using care to cultivate the earth.  The heart and the body are often described as a field within which the faith should be cultivated, just as a plant is cultivated in the earth.[51]  The SGGS critiques those who waste life in pursuit of wealth and power and praises those who are considered the lowest of the low in society, in whose company divine blessings are received.[52]

The SGGS is filled with reverence for nature, articulating the importance of seeing divinity in all of nature.  Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Sikh guru, writes that water is the root of all life, describing air as the guru, water as the father, and earth as the mother of all.[53]  The SGGS further describes the interconnected nature of earth and of life.[54]  Reverence for the earth, and for the divine force that inhabits it, is a deep tenet of Sikh spiritual practice, and is necessarily anti-capitalist and resistant to the commodification of food.  Further, Bhagat Farid writes:

Farid, look at what has happened to the cotton and the sesame seed, to the sugarcane and the paper, to the clay pot and the charcoal—the oppressor will suffer this same fate.[55] Bhagat Farid thus articulates the fate that oppressors shall suffer, by using examples of crops that are indigenous to Punjab, such as sesame seeds, cotton, and sugarcane:  Crops that are all crushed or destroyed in some way to yield oil, clothing, or food.  All at once, Bhagat Farid admonishes oppressors, warns Sikhs not to oppress others, and provides vindication for those who have been oppressed.  In this way, SGGS is inherently orienting Sikhs toward an anti-oppression framework that is deeply rooted in the earth, in its cultivation, and in the interconnectedness and sacredness of life.  This framework can be combined with Sikh political tradition to outline the ethic of what a Sikh jurisprudence in pursuit of food sovereignty should be.

Food Sovereignty in Sikh Political Tradition

Certain Sikh traditions, like langar, are key to implementing food sovereignty in Punjab. Langar is the Sikh tradition of the free kitchen, often set up in conjunction with a Sikh temple, or gurdwara. Yet it is also a kitchen that can be set up at anywhere, at any time, by anyone who wishes to cook and serve free food.  Langar is a mainstay at Sikh temples, where all who attend are able to partake in a free meal, sitting together on the floor—regardless of caste, class, race, or any other constructed difference.  Langar is often operated 24-hours a day at many Sikh temples across the world.  It is a key political and spiritual tradition that can be a means of achieving food sovereignty for the Sikh community.  Not only does it allow Sikhs to control what they eat and how they cook, but some Sikh temples grow food for langar in adjoining areas.

Kartarpur Sahib, a historic Sikh temple in Punjab, Pakistan, is the site where the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, spent the last years of his life engaged in organic farming, community organizing, meditation, teaching, singing, praying, and establishing traditions like langar.[56]  Kartarpur Sahib was newly renovated by the Pakistani Punjabi government and a few adjoining acres have been purchased and set up as organic and traditional farms.[57]  The food grown in these farms is then cooked in the kitchen and served to all who visit the temple.  In a letter to the Pakistani Prime Minister, a Sikh cabinet minister wrote that the holy land tilled by Guru Nanak Dev Ji around Kartarpur Sahib should be protected from industrialization and that the water from the historic well there should be sustainably used, allowing for “oneness with mother nature.”[58]  For the first time in over seventy years, Sikhs are able to travel from Punjab, India to Punjab, Pakistan to visit Kartarpur Sahib in what has come to be known as the “corridor of peace”—in the midst of one of the most militarized borders in the world.[59]  The Partition etched borders not only into the earth, but also into the lives of Punjab’s Sikhs.  The Kartarpur Corridor allows Sikhs to move beyond borders to engage in organic farming and land cultivation in conjunction with spiritual practice.  For Sikhs, the right to move freely, the right to cultivate land traditionally, the right to worship openly—each have been historically violated.  To achieve Sikh sovereignty, each must be protected.

The Sikh tradition of emphasizing selfless service, known as seva, as well as the tradition of dasvandh, in which each Sikh is mandated to donate ten percent of their income to the community’s well-being, are important political traditions which can contribute to Sikh food sovereignty.  These traditions, combined with langar, can be implemented by village governing bodies to achieve food sovereignty on the local level.  For example, dasvandh money from villagers can be pooled together to establish organic farming funds, or to loan out as subsidies for farmers wishing to engage in traditional organic farming.  Organizations like Kheti Virasat Mission, “forged by the pain and agony caused by the Green Revolution,” engage in grassroots organizing and education projects with farmers across Punjab, organize organic farmers markets, implement urban farming projects, and seek to encourage organic farming in pursuit of environmental justice.[60]  Such organizations could greatly benefit from dasvandh and could work with farmers to provide organic langar at village gurdwaras.  Organic farming cooperatives currently using WhatsApp groups to organize and deliver to customers[61] can work with gurdwaras to provide organic langar.  Rather than remaining siloed, organic farming organizations and gurdwaras should work collectively, so that organic farming, cooking, and eating—as well as praying, singing, and spiritual worship—become collective acts performed by entire local or village communities.

Food sovereignty was forged in peasant movements,[62]so it is rooted in resistance to capitalist oppression.  It is similar to the Sikh political tradition, in that both Sikh sovereignty and food sovereignty require advocating for fundamental equitable redistribution of resources and power. Food sovereignty movements, such as the Rail Roko movement, have taken hold in Punjab in recent years.[63]  In 2015, Sikh farmers and other Punjabi farmers and farmworkers stopped over 850 trains after a sustained civil disobedience campaign in which they camped on railway tracks for days.[64]  They were protesting the state’s failure to provide debt relief for farmers after state corruption contributed to crop failure, crippling debt, and farmer suicide.[65]  Farmers unions like the Bharatiya Kisan Union, BKU, engage in persistent campaigns of civil disobedience and resistance in rural villages, often led by Sikh women who organize against the state for its failure to assist in subsidizing farmers and for its failure in compensating farmers after acquiring their land.[66]  Protests and acts of resistance by Sikh farmers are often tied to Sikh spiritual and political traditions.  Farmers chant against capitalism and corporate control while invoking the teachings and words of Sikh warriors, saints, and gurus.[67]  Farmer organizers use gurdwaras as spaces for planning acts of resistance.[68] Movements for food sovereignty and Sikh sovereignty in Punjab are thus deeply interconnected—neither can be truly successful without the other.  A Sikh jurisprudence should be rooted in a Sikhi-based anti-oppression ethic which would prioritize the divinity and sacredness of earth, the traditional and organic cultivation of food, the equitable distribution of resources, and the practice of Sikh spirituality.

Legal Opportunities and Challenges to Sikh Food Sovereignty

A legal strategy towards Sikh food sovereignty should challenge the Indian state’s erasure of Sikh identity and denial of sovereignty, advocate for the most marginalized Sikhs within the Sikh community, and use international law forums to file complaints advocating for Sikh sovereignty under frameworks for indigenous rights and climate reparations.

Legal and Policy Advocacy Solutions for Sikhs within India

To date, Sikhs as a whole have not claimed indigeneity in India, nor has any entity claimed that they are indigenous.[69]  The debate over the definition of indigenous people has often focused on African and Asian indigenous peoples.[70]  In Asia, indigenous peoples are often considered to be tribal peoples; however this notion is simply a neocolonial iteration of colonial definitions of aboriginality.[71]  The “tribe” was constructed by the British colonial regime as any community that “did not conform to the colonial pattern of settled agricultural and wage labor”[72] and the criminalization of such communities resulted in the punishing, disciplining, and policing of colonized people who were unwilling to accept the British moral order.[73]  Under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 enacted by the British colonial regime, draconian legislation placed certain communities deemed as inherently criminal under surveillance: Sikhs were among those communities.[74]  The communities labelled by the British as “criminal tribes” were subjected to mandatory registration, confinement, fines and jail sentences for movement without authorization, and forced to engage in agricultural labor.[75]  In 1952, the newly formed Indian state rescinded the criminal status of these communities and instead reclassified them as denotified tribes.[76]  Today, many denotified tribes are included in the Indian state’s affirmative action programs for “scheduled castes,” “scheduled tribes,” and “other backward classes.”[77]  Yet, some denotified tribes are not captured by any of these categories and are left unrecognized, causing them to continue to be criminalized by the state and by a society that engages in contemporary forms of neocolonial violence towards these communities.[78]  In addition to criminalization, denotified communities who are not labelled scheduled tribes or scheduled castes, are not entitled to receive benefits in the form of scholarships for education, entrepreneurship support, affirmative action for jobs and schools, and special courts to address violence.[79]

As of 2009, at least seven denotified groups of Sikhs claim scheduled tribe status, yet are not recognized as such by the Indian government.[80]  Some of these groups are included in the “scheduled caste” category, which inaccurately labels these denotified Sikhs as a “caste” situated within the Hindu caste system, while also forcing denotified Sikhs to compete with numerous Hindu scheduled castes for limited affirmative action benefits and resources.[81]  While “scheduled caste” is an inadequate category for denotified Sikhs, so is “scheduled tribe.”  According to the Indian Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the criteria for becoming a scheduled tribe is: (i) indications of primitive traits, (ii) distinctive culture, (iii) geographical isolation, (iv) shyness of contact with the community at large, and (v) backwardness.[82]  This problematic definition imposes neocolonial notions of “tribes” as “primitive,” “isolated,” “backward,” and remote.[83]  It disqualifies denotified communities who have assimilated and adapted to urban areas from seeking the affirmative action protections granted to scheduled tribes.[84]  The proposal for specifying a particular community as a scheduled tribe must be recommended by a state government and then approved by the Registrar General of India (RGI) and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST).[85]  Administrative expediency and political power have often been the determinative factors for tribal definition, rather than a systematic analysis of oppression, resulting in the exclusion of many denotified Sikh communities seeking affirmative action protections afforded to communities with scheduled tribe status.[86]

Given the current hostility of the Indian government to the rights of scheduled tribes,[87] it is unlikely that a petition for denotified Sikh communities to become recognized as scheduled tribes would succeed.  This is further exacerbated by the fact that although Sikhi is an anti-caste spiritual tradition, casteism is present in Punjab as an oppressive force that results in the marginalization and oppression of particular groups of Sikhs, including denotified Sikhs.  For this reason, it is unlikely that a Punjab government comprised primarily of Sikhs from privileged castes[88] will advocate for more marginalized denotified Sikhs.

Within the schematic of the Indian state’s affirmative action programs, small Sikh farmers who are not members of denotified communities, scheduled castes, or “other backward classes” are left without protections.  The Indian state does not have an affirmative action program for religious minorities, particularly those who have been victims of state oppression in India, outside of “caste” “tribe” or “backward class” paradigms.  In fact, Article 25 of the Indian Constitution denies the existence of Sikhs as an independent religious minority by stating that: “[T]he reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh . . . religion.”[89]  Thus Sikhs receive no formal recognition as a religious minority under the law, nor are they classified as a whole under any existing categories for affirmative action.

Particular marginalized Sikh communities may receive protection under the “scheduled tribe,” “scheduled caste,” or “other backward classes” categories, yet these communities are not receiving these protections as Sikhs.  Sikhi is anti-caste, but marginalized Sikhs are forced to choose between identifying as sovereign peoples who reject colonial notions of caste, tribe and backwardness or receiving material benefits for assimilating within the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy.  Thus, the revolutionary anti-caste orientation of Sikhi is confounded by both the Indian state’s outright denial of Sikh sovereignty and its selective co-optation of particular marginalized Sikhs into state affirmative action programs that are based on caste hierarchies.  This co-optation serves to further assimilate Sikhs into the Hindu hegemonic order.

Besides the possibility of amending the Indian Constitution to explicitly state the sovereignty of the Sikh community, denotified Sikh communities should submit petitions to become recognized as scheduled tribes.  If these lawsuits were approved, they could file lawsuits under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, which makes it illegal to dispossess scheduled tribes of their land or interfere with the “enjoyment of their rights . . . over any land or premises or water or irrigation facilities.”[90]  This act also prohibits the destruction of crops and taking away of produce from tribal communities.[91]  As a legal food sovereignty strategy, denotified Sikh communities could thus argue that the Bhakra Dam board be comprised only of Sikhs, as the current dam board is comprised of individuals who are interfering with the enjoyment of Sikh rights over their waters.

However, Sikh farmers who are not part of denotified Sikh communities would have to seek protections in a different legal forum. Therefore, Sikhs should be given separate protected religious minority status in order to argue their claims before the Indian state, as well as the right to set up Sikh courts that adjudicate Sikh claims internally in Punjab. Separate Sikh courts would allow for the implementation of a Sikh jurisprudence, as well as freedom from forced erasure and assimilation into Hindu hegemonic norms—which would help the Sikh community achieve food sovereignty. Furthermore, the creation of a separate protected religious minority status for Sikhs would stop the erasure of Sikh identity and allow a legal basis from which to make sovereignty claims in Indian courts.

Can Sikhs be considered indigenous according to international law?

Sikhs are listed in the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples by Minority Rights Group International, although are referred to as a religious minority and not as an indigenous group.[92]  The question of whether Sikhs are indigenous peoples is fundamental to the determination of whether the Sikh community can use indigenous rights as a legal framework and basis upon which to fight for food sovereignty in international law.  In a manual produced for human rights institutions on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the OHCHR states that “no formal definition has been adopted in international law” which defines who indigenous peoples are.[93]  The manual further states that indigenous peoples have recognized the need for flexibility in defining indigeneity and for the right to self-define.[94]  The most widely cited working definition of indigenous peoples comes from the Martinez Cobo study conducted by UN Special Rapporteur José R. Martínez Cobo in 1982, which states that:

Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.[95]

The Sikh community fits this definition due to its existence as a pre-colonial nation in Punjab prior to the invasion of South Asia by the British Empire.  Sikhs further consider themselves a separate and sovereign nation, “distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing” on their territory—particularly at a time when right-wing Hindu nationalism has become the dominant ideology of the Indian government.[96]  The Sikh community’s determination to preserve their ancestral territories, ethnic identity, cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system is evident, not only through distinct Sikh spiritual, political, linguistic, and cultural practices, but also through the repeated resistance movements launched for Sikh self-determination, which began in the 1980s and continue today.  Given the systematic social, political, and economic destruction of Punjab, and of the Sikh community that lives there,[97] Sikhs can claim indigeneity under this definition.

Indigenous Rights Based Approaches for Sikh Food Sovereignty

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was voted for by India in 2007; however, the Indian government continues to claim that all Indians are indigenous.[98]  This argument erases the neocolonial violence that the Indian state perpetrates on indigenous communities by lumping all people in India under one ostensibly “marginalized” identity.  It also leaves formerly colonized states “without a suitable concept for analyzing internal structural relationships of inequality that have persisted after liberation from colonial dominance.”[99]  The Indian state is intentional in its erasure of difference within and among communities living in India, in order to deny the oppression that it perpetrates against indigenous peoples.  Furthermore, this erasure precludes the possibility of using indigenous rights frameworks as a source of protection under international human rights law for indigenous communities.

The Sikh community could attempt to use the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to assert their rights as indigenous peoples in India and lodge complaints, both domestically and internationally, on the basis of Article 3:  Namely, that they have the “right to self-determination” and to freely “pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”[100]  Given the lack of control Sikhs have over the natural resources in Punjab, their history of resistance against the Indian state, and the denial of their sovereignty in the Indian Constitution, Sikhs could argue that their right to self-determination is being seized from them.  Sikhs could further file complaints with the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as well as submit reports and complaints to experts in the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council.  Regardless of whether or not these claims would be successful, it is important for Sikhs to use international forums to draw attention to the oppression they face in Punjab.

Sikh advocates could also attempt to participate in negotiations surrounding the text of the Human Rights Council’s resolution on indigenous peoples.[101]  Furthermore, Sikh advocates should submit information for inclusion in reports produced by the Working Group on the Universal Period Review, where the Human Rights Council reviews the human rights record of each UN member state.[102]  Sikhs can connect the ecological destruction of Punjab, the farmer suicide epidemic, and the poisoning of the land and rivers to India’s human rights record by arguing that India is discriminatory towards Sikhs both with respect to its policies that seek to erase the existence of this community and with respect to the state’s allocation of  resources—thus contributing to the ecological death of the community and its land.  The Sikh community should communicate with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination with respect to situations that require urgent attention, like the recent Punjab floods for example.[103]  The more advocacy that Sikhs can engage in with international bodies, the more likely the Indian state is to feel international pressure to accede to the Sikh demand for sovereignty. The Sikh community can also situate its international advocacy in a larger movement for climate reparations resulting from the ecological harm perpetrated by European colonization and U.S. imperialism.


 Today, Punjab is reeling from the effects of climate change.  In order to combat climate change effectively, food sovereignty is essential for the Sikh community in Punjab.  Food sovereignty must be part of the vision for Sikh sovereignty held by Sikhs around the world.  Punjab’s land and water have been slowly destroyed due to capitalist agribusiness practices imposed by the United States’ backed Green Revolution and discriminatory policies that have handed the control of Punjab’s waters to state entities that are hostile to the interests of Sikh farmers and communities.  A food sovereignty jurisprudence for Punjab should be rooted in the Sikh tradition of organic and traditional land cultivation, Sikh spiritual practice, and organized active resistance to the corporate and state sponsored commodification of food.

In developing a legal strategy toward achieving food sovereignty, the Sikh community should engage in domestic legal advocacy within India which centers the most marginalized Sikhs.  Sikh advocates should use indigenous rights based legal frameworks to argue for sovereignty in international legal forums, and consider framing their claims around climate reparations for colonization and imperialism.  Achieving Sikh food sovereignty will require advocacy that ties the erasure of Sikh identity to state-sanctioned violence against Sikhs and the ecological death of Punjab.

[1] I use the term Sikhs to mean Punjabi Sikhs in this Essay, even though not all Sikhs are Punjabi and not all Punjabis are Sikh.

[2] See generally Anne Murphy, The Guru's Weapons, 77 J. of the Am. Acad. of Religion, 303 (2009).

[3] Imran Ali, The Punjab Under Imperialism, 1885-1947, 62-63 (1988).

[4] See generally Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence, (2000).

[5] Ashutosh Kumar, Electoral Politics in Punjab: Study of Akali Dal, 39 Econ. and Pol. Wkly. 1515, 1515 (2004).

[6] Id.

[7] See generally J.S. Grewal, Chapter 25: “At Last a Unilingual Punjab State,” Master Tara Singh in Indian History: Colonialism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Sikh Identity (2018).

[8] Id.

[9] Bhakra-Nangal Dam: History Features and Facts About the Second Tallest Dam in Asia, India Today (Oct. 22, 2018), [].

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] See Cynthia Keppley Mahmood, Writing the Bones, Hum. Rts. Rev. 19, 21 (1999); Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, No. 25, Acts of Parliament, 1955 (India); India Const. art. 25, Explanation II (stating that “the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly”); Iqtidar Karamat Cheema, US Commission on International Freedom, Constitutional and Legal Challenges Faced by Religious Minorities in India, 8 (Feb. 2017), [].

[13] Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, India: Treatment Of Sikhs In Punjab, (2015), []; Human Rights Watch & Ensaaf, Protecting the Killers: A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India (2007), [].

[14] Chaitanya Mallapur, Sikhs, Christians more likely to be jailed than Hindus and Muslims, Hindustan Times, Hindustan Times (Oct. 24, 2015),

[15] Diana Kruzman, Thousands of Indians Facing Persecution Back Home Seek Refuge in California, LAist (Sept. 2, 2019), [].

[16] Vivek Chaudhary, The Indian State Where Farmers Sow the Seeds of Death, Guardian (July 1, 2019), []; Kanwalroop Kaur Singh, A Pattern of Farmer Suicides in Punjab: Unearthing the Green Revolution, KALW Pub. Radio (Dec. 4, 2018), [].

[17] See generally Khuda Baksh, Adaptation to Climate Change in Rain-Fed Farming System in Punjab, Pakistan, 13(2) Int’l J. of the Commons 833 (2019); Uzma Hanif, Economic Impact of Climate Change on the Agricultural Sector of Punjab, 49:4 Pak. Dev. Rev. 771 (2010); Rehana Siddiqui, The Impact of Climate Change on Major Agricultural Crops: Evidence from Punjab, Pakistan, 51:4 Pak. Dev. Rev. 261 (2012); Neil, Padukone, Climate Change in India: Forgotten Threats, Forgotten Opportunities, 45:22 Econ. & Pol. Wkly. 47 (2010); Kavi K S Kumar et al., Economics of Climate Change Adaptation in India, 45:18 Econ. & Pol. Wkly. 25 (2010); Devesh Kapur et al., Climate Change: India's Options, 44:31 Econ. & Pol. Wkly. 34 (2009); Himangana Gupta et al., Mapping “Consistency” in India's Climate Change Position: Dynamics and Dilemmas of Science Diplomacy, 44:6 Ambio 592 (2015).

[18] Susan M. Larned, Water is Life: The Native American Tribal Role in Protecting Natural Resources, 8 Envtl. & Earth L. J. 52, 52 (2018).

[19] Rebecca Tsosie, Property, Power and American Justice: The Story of United States v. Dann, in Indian Law Stories 325, 328 (Carole Goldberg et al. eds., 2011).

[20] Arunjit Singh Miglani, Presentation on Groundwater in Punjab, (2019), [].

[21] Id.

[22] Id. See also Kanwalroop Kaur Singh, Drought and Debt, from Punjab to California: Unearthing the Green Revolution, KALW Pub. Radio (Dec. 3, 2018), [].

[23] Miglani, supra note 20.

[24] Id.

[25] Sunaina Kumar, Hope Runs Dry as Groundwater Sources in Punjab Drop to Alarming Levels, Mongabay (July 5, 2019), [].

[26] Id. See also Gurpreet Kaur, Nilambra Dogra, Sandeep Singh, Health Risk Assessment of Occupationally Pesticide-Exposed Population of Cancer Prone Area of Punjab, Toxicological Sciences (Sept. 2018).

[27] Rachna Khaira, Punjab Floods: Caught Out by Climate Change, Bhakra Dam Officials Act Fast to Save Lives, HuffPost (Aug. 22, 2019), [].

[28] Bhakra-Nangal Dam, supra note 9.

[29] Editorial, Punjab Flooded, Punjabi Trib. (Aug. 24, 2019), [].

[30] Man Aman Singh Chhina, In Punjab, Blamegame over Bhakra Water Intensifies, Indian Express (Aug. 23, 2019), [].

[31] Ali, supra note 3.

[32] Ann Kathrin Schneider, Debunking a Dam Legend: New Book on India's Bhakra Dam, Int’l Rivers, (July 1, 2005), [].

[33] Id.

[34] Raj Patel, The Long Green Revolution, 40:1 J. of Peasant Stud. 1, 5, 6, 11, fn. 1 (2013).

[35] Id.

[36] Id.  See also Singh, supra note 22.

[37] Ankita Rao & Bibek Bhandari, The Poisoned Waters of Punjab, Foreign PoL’y (Dec. 10, 2015), []; see also Chaudhary, supra note 16.

[38] Singh, supra note 22.

[39] Manoj Kumar & Matthias Williams, Punjab, Bread Basket of India, Hungers for Change, Reuters (Jan. 29 2012), [].

[40] Id. See also Rao, supra note 37.

[41] Singh, supra note 16.

[42] Id.

[43] Kanwalroop Kaur Singh, Chemicals without Borders: Unearthing the Green Revolution, KALW Pub. Radio (Dec. 5, 2018), [].

[44] Pesticides Overkill in Punjab Killing Farm-Friendly Insects, CNBC (Aug. 10, 2019), [].

[45] Id.

[46] See Minna Zutshi, 25% Food Samples Across Punjab Fail Quality Test, Punjabi Trib., (June 23, 2019, 6:32 AM), [].

[47] Nik Heynen, et al., Food Justice, Hunger, and the City, Geography Compass 304, 307 (2012).

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji 595, [].  Throughout this essay, I will be engaging in translation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) and this translation may not be wholly accurate as English cannot accurately capture the meaning of what is written in the SGGS.

[51] See id. at 24.

[52] Id. at 15.

[53] Id. at 8.

[54] See Guru Arjan Dev Ji, Var, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji 521, [].

[55] Bhagat Sheikh Farid, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji 1380, [].

[56] Unnati Sharma, The Religious and Historical Significance of Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara, Print (Nov. 9, 2019),

[57] Gurmeet Kaur, How to Preserve the Sanctity of Guru Nanak’s Kartarpur, Dawn (Dec. 16, 2018, 12:00 AM), [].

[58] Sanjeev Verma, Pakistan to Keep 30-Acre Land Tilled by Guru Nanak Dev Out of Construction, Times of India (Mar. 20, 2019)

[59] Helen Regan, India-Pakistan 'Peace Corridor' Opens Sikh Temple to Tourists, CNN (Nov. 7, 2019)

[60] About Us, Kheti Virasat Mission, [].

[61] Singh, supra note 43.

[62] Heynen, supra note 47, at 6.

[63] Amandeep Sandhu, We Have Stormed the Citadels of Badal, Caravan Mag. (Oct. 12, 2015), [].

[64] Id.

[65] Id.

[66] Singh, supra note 16.

[67] Sandhu, supra note 63.

[68] Singh, supra note 66.

[69] This is based on my personal knowledge and experience as a Sikh and on research I have conducted regarding Sikhs and indigeneity.

[70] Asia Pacific Forum of Nat’l Human Rights Institutions & Office of the U.N. High Comm’r for Human Rights, The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: A Manual for National Human Rights Institutions 7 (2013), [hereinafter OHCHR Manual].

[71] Id.  See also The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Report of the African Commission’s Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities 92–93 (2005) [hereinafter African Commission].

[72] Andrew J. Major, State and Criminal Tribes in Colonial Punjab: Surveillance, Control and Reclamation of the “Dangerous Classes”, 33:3 Mod. Asian Stud. 657, 660 (1999).

[73] Id. at 661.

[74] Sarah Gandee, Criminalizing the Criminal Tribe: Partition, Borders and the State in India’s Punjab, 1947-55, 38 Comp. Stud.  South Asia, Afr. & Middle E. 557, 557-58 (2018).

[75] Major, supra note 72, at 658.

[76] Milind Bokil, De-notified and Nomadic Tribes: A Perspective, 37 Econ. & Pol. Wkly. 148, 150 (2002); see also Denotified Tribes, Ashraya Initiative for Child (2016), [].

[77] The Resist Initiative Int’l, Branded ‘Born’ Criminals: Racial Abuses Against Denotified and Nomadic Tribes in India, 2 (2007).

[78] Id. at 2, 8.

[79] Bokil, supra note 76, at 148; Denotified Tribes, supra note 76; About Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes, United Nations India, [].

[80] IP Singh, 8 Tribes in Punjab Match Scheduled Tribe Category, Times of India (Sept. 1, 2009, 13:39 IST), []; Birinder Pal Singh, Ex-Criminal Tribes of Punjab, 43:51 Econ. & Pol. Wkly. Page, 60 (2008).

[81] Id.

[82] Press Release, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Change in Criteria for Inclusion in ST List (Dec. 28, 2017), [].

[83] Id.

[84] Meena Radhakrishna, Urban Denotified Tribes: Competing Identities, Contested Citizenship, 42:51 Econ. & Pol. Wkly. 59, 59 (2007) (stating that states like Delhi argue that no “tribes” can exist in an urban space).

[85] Ministry of Tribal Affairs, supra note 82.

[86] Singh, supra note 80, at 60.

[87] Padmapriya Govindarajan, How Well Has Narendra Modi’s Government Protected India’s Scheduled Tribes?, Diplomat (June 11, 2016), [].

[88] Judge, Paramjit S., Caste Hierarchy, Dominance, and Change in Punjab, 64:1 Soc. Bull. 55, 66 (2015).

[89] India Const. art. 25, Explanation II.

[90] Press Release, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Land Rights of Scheduled Tribes (July 22, 2019), [].

[91] Id.

[92] Minority Rights Grp. Int’l, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - India: Sikhs, refworld (2008), [].

[93] OHCHR Manual, supra note 70, at 6.

[94] Id.

[95] José R. Martínez Cobo, Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations, 50 (1983),; see also OHCHR Manual, supra note 70, at 6.

[96] This is evidenced by the slogan “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” used by India’s ruling political party, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)—implying that India should be a Hindu-only nation, where only Hindi is spoken. See, e.g., Shoaib Daniyal, No Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan? Implemented Fully, BJP’s Hindutva Renaming Will Wipe out a Lot of India, (Nov. 20, 2018, 8:00 AM), [].

[97] See generally, Research Directorate, Immigration & Refugee Bd. of Can., Sikhs Outside Punjab, refworld (Dec. 1, 1992), [].

[98] Cultural Survival, Observations on the State of Indigenous Human Rights in India (2016) at 1, [].

[99] African Commission, supra note 71, at 92–93.

[100] G.A. Res. A/61/295, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, art. 3, at 8 (Sept. 13, 2007).

[101]  See United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Comm’r, Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations Human Rights System 23 (2013),

[102] Id.

[103] See id. at 24-25.