It all started on Facebook.
On the night of Wednesday, February 3, Raj Sodhi-Layne and her friends were chatting and sharing their concern about the ongoing farmers’ agitation in India. One of the friends suggested creating an awareness ad to run during the Super Bowl LV.
“I thought it’s casual talk, but they were serious!” Raj, a longtime resident of Fresno, California who is of Indian origin, told indica News.
“The next morning they called the local CBS Television station and got the cost idea, signed an MOU for a 30-second ad, and set up the Gofundme page to raise the cost of the ad,” Raj,
They raised $10,767.37 of which $1,000 would go to to Seva4, a nonprofit, she said. The advertisement ran in Fresno on the Sunday Super Bowl watched by millions, and went ‘viral’ on social media.
Fresno City community put that ad during the Super Bowl. This is great work by community to aware people regarding Farmers Protest. Thank you Fresno Sikh Community. #FarmersProtest #ReleaseDetainedFarmers pic.twitter.com/S81A9x49ut
— Kisan Ekta Morcha (@Kisanektamorcha) February 8, 2021
It was part of a number of spotlights that have shone from America on the raging protests in India against three new farm laws enacted by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
From mayors to Rihanna to The Daily Show, everyone’s found out about the protests. The Indian government has not been too pleased and its foreign ministry has hinted at a coordinated campaign to malign India internationally.
The firestorm of attention has not been easy for Raj either.
“Since I have signed the MOU, the contract and have set up the Gofundme account, my life hasn’t been the same,” she said. “All of a sudden I got over 20 emails, they were doubting me, questioning me and saying I was stealing their money.”
She told her friends and one of them advised her to just focus on the city of Fresno and forget the rest of the country.
“She helped me get through my struggle. It was very hard for me,” Raj said. “People were questioning my integrity and my motive.”
Raj took pains to explain that she had no other motive other than creating awareness.
“As a person, I was taught never to steal and always tell the truth, and follow a hard work ethic,” said Raj, who last year retired after 36 years as a banker.
She said all of her clients were somehow related to agriculture, so she understands what farmers sitting in the cold of Delhi are going through.
She said her parents Mohan and Juginder Sodhi migrated to the United States from the United Kingdom when she was 16, and since then has been a California resident.
Raj said she had been observing the protest in India and the rallies in California, and wanted to involve mainstream Americans. She organised a prayer session for the farmers on February 6 at the Sikh Institute in Fresno, which over 200 people including Mayor Jerry Dyer and other elected officials attended.
“If 70 percent of India is in farming then why the government is not listening to its people,” asked Raj. “It’s been long, months, and it needs to be resolved.”
She said that though her last visit to India was in 1999 with her parents carrying her grandfather’s ashes, she feels attached to India.
“I still have Indian roots and still my blood is Indian,” said Raj. “I can’t imagine what’s happening in my country.”
Many in the diaspora still own farm land in India, she said, so though issue resonates here as well among the community.
“It’s not just an India problem,” said Raj.
Sharing her thoughts on what government could do, she said if the farmers want to repeal and start over, bring them to the table make them feel they are being heard.
“My message to the Indian government, you don’t want this to become an international,” she said. “We don’t want more violence and we have a democratic right to peaceful protest, and the right to media and the internet.”
Raj also said since the ads were aired “people from across the world are saying please don’t stop the advertisement.”
So now they are working on a national ad, which would cost around $850,000.
“The support I received is from all over the world… people are so frustrated,” she said.
She also cited the arrest and alleged custodial torture of a 24-year-old activist, Nodeep Kaur.
“The world should be screaming, she is somebody’s daughter. We have to bring her home,” said Raj.
Gurpreet Singh Mann, secretary at the Sikh Institute in Fresno, also contributed to the advertisement’s cost.
“People sitting in the cold is not fair,” Mann told indica News.
The Indian government has alleged that the protests are being driven by anti-India separatist forces who want a separate Sikh State of Khalistan.
Asked if being called Khalistan supporters offended them, Mann said: “Very much. These are the vested interests and whether here, the US, or Canada and India, they want to hijack the farmers’ agitation.”
Mann also said he believed strongly in peaceful protest.
“The day people turn violent no one can support you [farmers],” he said.
He accused Prime Minister Modi of “playing politics.”
“I want the average citizen of India to be aware and woken up. It’s about you, humanity, and oneness. You want to help farmers that is okay, talk to them, bring them on the table and try to mitigate,” said Mann. “Here, we can just show support on a humanitarian basis.”
Dr Jasbir Kang, a California-based doctor, said what was most distasteful was that “they [the government] are creating fake news.”