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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Uttar Pradesh’s ‘Punjabi’ farmers: history, contribution

Lakhimpur Kheri violence: Despite their long association with the land that they have tamed and cultivated, they are sometimes stereotyped as “outsiders”, especially when trouble breaks out.

Written by Kamaldeep Singh Brar | Amritsar |
Updated: October 5, 2021 7:13:09 am
Farmers protest in Lakhimpur Kheri, where four protesters were killed on Sunday. (PTI)

The four farmer protesters killed in Lakhimpur Kheri of Uttar Pradesh on Sunday had Punjabi names — Lovepreet Singh, Daljeet Singh, Nachattar Singh and Gurvinder Singh. This may have come as a surprise to some, but Punjabis have settled in UP and Uttarakhand since Partition when they were allotted land in the Terai region, then a thickly forested region unwanted by locals.

Despite their long association with the land that they have tamed and cultivated, they are sometimes stereotyped as “outsiders”, especially when trouble breaks out.

Districts in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand with a significant population of settlers from Punjab after Partition.

Post-Partition migration

The first wave of farmers who settled in the region were from Shekhpura and Sialkot regions of East Punjab, Pakistan. They were allotted land in the Terai by the Indian government following Partition. In the initial years, they struggled to cultivate the land, then mostly forested and inhabited by wild animals. Later, as they made the land cultivable, it attracted farmers from Punjab, where agricultural land was becoming scarce and expensive. A farmer in Punjab could buy 10 acres in Terai after selling his one acre back home.

Punjab was the first state to adopt novel farming techniques to increase crop production as part of the Green Revolution. Many small farmers migrating from Punjab to Terai grew new high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice with the help of machines.

Sikhs in UP

There are Sikhs in UP who have no link to Punjab. Sikh Gurus travelled through UP and Uttarakhand, and both states are the site of many historical gurdwaras. Many Sikhs today have ancestors who had adopted Sikhism when the Gurus had visited.

Many Sikhs from Punjab had migrated to UP during the 18th century, too. However, mass migration from Punjab only for farming started after 1947. This peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, but never stopped completely.

Political representation

The first Mayawati government acknowledged the importance of Punjabis by naming a district after Shahid Udham Singh of Punjab, a martyr of the Freedom Movement. The district, which has a significant Sikh population, now falls in Uttarakhand.

The Assemblies of both UP and Uttarakhand have Sikh representatives. Baldev Singh Aulakh is a minister in the UP government. The Samajwadi Party had made Punjabi politician Balwant Singh Rammowalia a minister in Akhilesh Yadav’s government.

Proposed eviction

Last year, the UP government had asked police to remove migrants from Punjab from their homes and lands in parts of UP due to land-related issues. Then Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) eventually raised the issue with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

Jasbir Singh Virk, president of Sikh Sangathan, UP and Uttarakhand, says around 33,000 acres cultivated by migrants in 36 villages is at stake. “Most of them were allotted this land during Partition, and now it is being cultivated by the third or fourth generation. Some of them have lost the allotment papers,” he said. “In those days, this was unwanted land and no one had imagined it could be used for farming. These migrants gave their sweet and tears to cultivate this land. Today it is developed. So now government and locals want to grab this land by making legal excuses. We protested and the state government responded to our plea. A decision is pending but we are hopeful that the government will decide in our favour.”

Lakhimpur Kheri

Lakhimpur is the one of farthest districts of UP to which farmers from Punjab migrated. It’s not the first time that farmers from the Terai region have taken part in the farm agitation. On January 26, Navreet Singh from Rampur had died during violence in Delhi. A farmer from Pilibhit had committed suicide on the Delhi border during the agitation.

Navreet’s grandfather Hardeep Singh Dibdiba, who is also a writer, said, “Although migrant farmers responded to farmer unions’ call, the latter disowned Navreet after January 26. They realised their mistake later. The unions must weigh the long-term impact of their actions on farmers who have migrated to UP.”

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