Understanding the underlying dynamics of the farmer protests in Delhi
Sometimes, fables exemplify human wisdom better than scholarly sermons. The false alarms raised by the village boy crying “wolf, wolf” ultimately cost him his life because when the wolf finally did attack, no one was ready to believe his frightful yelling anymore.
The brazen use of the Khalistan bogey to discredit the massive number of Sikh farmers certainly reminds us of this fable. These farmers have braved one of the bitterest winters on record to continue what is now a two-and-a-half-month long peaceful agitation along the Delhi border (after having failed to attract the centre’s attention to their protests in Punjab).
To brand them Khalistanis reflects not only a lack of sensitivity about the ethno-nationalism of a proud community but also displays an element of thoughtless politics. One must not forget that Sikhs are disproportionately large in the Indian army.
A serious matter
It is true that of late, under dramatic circumstances, farmers from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (UP) have outnumbered the Sikhs. Yet, the request from a non-Sikh leader to non-Sikh farmers that they physically protect their Sikh counterparts underlines the potential danger of an anti-Sikh backlash.
All the same, so long as this “Khalistani” misdirection was confined to small-time BJP leaders it may not have mattered. But when no less a personage than the 90-year-old KK Venugopal, India’s Attorney General, defended the government’s procrastination by blaming Khalistani elements, the matter became serious.
And they reached a crescendo when a Sikh “farmer protester” dared to climb atop the city’s Red Fort and hoist the Sikh religious flag, Nishan Sahib (which is not the Khalistan flag). One can readily acknowledge that among the tens of thousands of protesting Sikh farmers, there may indeed have been some sympathizers of the erstwhile Khalistan movement, which had rocked the Indian nation only 40 years ago and cost 20,000 Sikh and Hindu lives, including that of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
But to discredit an entire movement on the basis of unproven aspersions against a small minority of participants is not only bad politics, it is outright bad statecraft.
The Khalistan movement of the 1980s did pose a threat to India’s territorial integrity and its international connections were real. In March 1980, the Khalistan flag was even hoisted atop the Kesgarh Sahib Gurudwara in the city of Anandpur, which later came to be associated with the famous Anandpur Sahib Resolution and carried with it the ominous echoes of the Pakistan Resolution of 1940.
By that time, Jagjit Singh Chauhan, a Canadian national of Punjabi descent, had already proclaimed an independent Khalistan in Canada. During his visit to Punjab, Chauhan threw his weight behind the extremist faction of the Dal Khalsa. The issuance of Khalistan passports and seals soon followed.
The slide to separatism did not, however, happen overnight. Starting in 1978, the Congress had used future Indian President Giani Zail Singh to expand their influence in Punjab politics. But the Dal Khalsa that Zail Singh had set up to poach into the Akali support base itself soon came under the influence of extremists like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (another figure originally promoted by the Congress).
The denouement to these machinations is well-known. But that history teaches us a valuable lesson: Machiavellian politics not only has its limits, but it also has a tendency to spin out of control. Although it is largely true that all politics is local, it is also true that what begins small can still cast a long shadow and eventually engulf in darkness everything around it. There is much the BJP can learn from the Congress’ experience, albeit in the reverse order.
Politically speaking, three things are at the root of the present agitation. One, Punjab is essentially an agrarian society with a history of farmers’ movements. This has become even more pronounced after the Green Revolution, which has made them much richer than India’s average farmer.
The sartorial smarts on display at the Delhi border may well confuse an average Indian used to seeing farmers in old-fashioned attire, but the confusion should not extend to believing that these Sikhs are culturally un-farmer-like.
Two, they possess a strong sense of sacrifice, secularism (see their langar [free food without social distinction] culture), and community consciousness -- characteristics that are an amalgam of Guru Nanak’s piety and Guru Gobind Singh’s militant nationalism.
Three, the movement is essentially federalist in orientation. It rejects the ruling BJP’s political scheme of one nation, one market, and most provocatively, one culture -- Hindu culture.
A history of movements
The first farmers’ movement in Punjab took place as early as 1907. As an extension of the swadeshi movement, it came to be symbolized by the slogan Pagri Sambhal O Jatta (O, Jat Sikh, defend your turban, ie, your honour). The reverberations of the movement were felt in the Gadar Movement (1914-15), in the activities of the Kirti Kisan Party and Bhagat Singh’s Naujawan Bharat Sabha (1920-25), and later, in the Mahatma Gandhi-led Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-32).
These movements have all been informed by Sikhism’s fundamentally inclusive philosophy; a philosophy that is enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib, which is a brilliant distillation of the best from many traditions and religions.
Although traced to the ideas and sermons of Guru Nanak, it was given its written form by the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Dev, who compiled the teachings of his predecessors, translated them into the Punjabi language, and wrote them down in the Gurumukhi script.
According to Gope Ahuja (Economic and Political Weekly, August 2019): “Guru Granth Sahib contains 5,894 shabads (hymns) that include 938 shabads from non-Sikh saints, sufis, and disciples all across India. These saints, in addition to Punjab, lived in what are today Sindh, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. In addition to being spread out geographically, they spoke different languages and belonged to different castes. But their message and principles conveyed the unity of society under one god.”
Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, however, as politics across India came to be increasingly seen in sectarian terms (the Muslim League was formed in 1906 and Hindu Sabhas began to emerge in Punjab at the same time), Sikhs too started to assert their ethno-religious identity.
In 1905, the Guru Singh Sabha succeeded in removing all Hindu images from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Nonetheless, when the constitution of India was promulgated in 1950, in many respects, Sikhs were bracketed with Hindus. For example, in the context of Hindu Law or that of reservation for Scheduled Castes, they were treated on par with Hindus.
But the community’s emotional integration into the Hindu fold did not happen, pushing back against that curse of most post-colonial societies: The assumption that one should join the so-called “mainstream.”
The Indian state is a social contract to which the Assamese, Bengalis, Sikhs, Tamils, and all other communities have subscribed. Its most tangible testimony is the constitution of India. The use of the phrase Union of India, instead of the Federation of India, ensured that the right to secede was not an option.
At the same time, regional identities were not only to be tolerated but actively encouraged. The political scientists Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph were correct in arguing that India is a nation of regions.
One last point
It is elementary political science that the state should not yield to every agitation. But it is equally elementary that every agitation must not be handled with an iron hand. There are ominous dangers in such a response. After all, winning battles does not necessarily mean winning the war.
What is important is statesmanship, not sheer politics. The longer the central government takes to resolve the problem, the more consolidated will the Sikh identity become. The farm acts are not a life and death question for the Indian nation, but a volatile Punjab can certainly become an Achilles Heel, especially in the context of an increasingly complicated neighbourhood.
In that context, it is surprising that India’s External Affairs Ministry (MEA) has given a response to the international pop superstar Rihanna’s tweet in the farmers context as if she is representing a state. In the process, India has unnecessarily exposed itself to the possibility of internationalizing the agitation, which was completely avoidable.
Even the dullest student of international relations knows what constitutes interference in another’s internal affairs. The MEA would have served India’s interest better by advising Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to so completely identify India’s domestic political interests with those of then-President Donald Trump.
Please note the distinction:Modi sought to align India with Trump, not the United States. Now that Joe Biden is in power, such statements cannot be wiped away from the institutional memory of the White House. Given Biden’s commitment both during his campaign as well as now, to “shared values,” India would be well advised to play its international card with extreme caution. World politics is now on an extremely slippery ground and any misstep could be dangerous.
“Politicians change their colours like chameleons,” so goes the old adage. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the most ardent champions of Trump’s re-election. He was also among the first to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory, even as Trump was still forcefully contesting the election results.
But even Modi has been put to shame. Who could have imagined that within a week of Biden’s inauguration, BJP would start likening its bête noire, Rahul Gandhi, to Donald Trump? As soon as the farmers’ tractor march went astray on January 26, no less a party eminence than Ram Madhav tweeted: “After peddling all sorts of falsehoods about farm law reforms n [sic] provoking farmers into aggressive action, the Indian versions of Trump like Rahul n [sic] ilk are now demonstrating pseudo-indignation at violence.”
Partha S Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Formerly, ICSSR National Fellow, and Professor of South Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. E-mail: [email protected]