Sikhs know how to make Delhi bend. This was as true of Bhai Baghel Singh as Kartar Singh Sarabha, the Punjabi Suba movement and now the anti-farm law movement, just to name a few instances.
Though the movement against the Narendra Modi government's farm laws wasn't a Sikh movement, it was started by Sikh farmers from Punjab in August 2020 and led by them since then. A vast majority of the over 700 farmers who died during the protest were Sikhs, including those who were mowed down by a vehicle allegedly belonging to a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister's son at Lakhimpur Kheri.
This is not to take anything away from the leftist or centrist farm unions, Jat farmers of Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh or leaders like Rakesh Tikait, who were also integral to the success of the movement.
Kisan union leaders like Balbir Singh Rajewal, Joginder Singh Ugrahan, Dr Darshan Pal, and others led the entire movement with a great deal of maturity and never lost focus despite the government's might. Similarly, had it not been for Tikait and the mobilisation by Hindu Jat farmers, it would have been difficult for the movement to withstand the post-26 January crackdown.
But one needs to admit that Sikh values of fighting against injustice and tales of valour and martyrdom motivated lakhs of protesting farmers. One must also admit that Sikh institutions like Langar and the closely knit support systems of Punjab's villages helped sustain the movement for over a year – through peak summer, winter, rains, police crackdown and a raging pandemic.
SIKHS ACROSS THE WORLD CAME TOGETHER TO SUPPORT THE PROTEST
The people at the protest sites weren't the only ones driving the movement. Sikh society as a whole was protesting – from farmers tending the fields of those who were at protest sites, to singers and artists producing new songs and poetry to pump up the movement, Gurdwara committees and organisations like Khalsa Aid and Hemkunt Foundation providing shelter and logistical support, doctors setting up camps providing medical treatment, and lawyers volunteering to give legal aid.
The Sikh diaspora stepped in as well, mobilising international public opinion. British Sikh MPs like Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi and Preet Kaur Gill and Canadian leaders like Jagmeet Singh were at the forefront of making the farm laws an international issue. Even the famous tweet by Rihanna is said to have been the result of aggressive lobbying by the Sikh diaspora.
Just like the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act movement united Indian Muslims, the protest against farm laws brought the Sikh community closer than it has been in decades – Panthic Sikhs, leftists, Khalistan sympathisers, ex-servicemen, Akali supporters, Congress supporters, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supporters – almost everyone was on the same page on this issue.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that some individual protesters also had an inward journey towards Sikhism – a few young protesters chose to take the Amrit and some who had cut their hair, started growing it back.
Old alliances were renewed: Hindu Jat farmers joined the protests in huge numbers, predominantly Hindu Arhtiyas supported the protests, Muslims of Malerkotla travelled with the farmers and set up langar at protest sites.
Punjab and Sikhi were the soul of this movement.
THE SPIN BEING GIVEN
The spin being given by a section of journalists and commentators is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi withdrew the farm laws in the "national interest" to "undo the alienation of Sikhs" and to prevent a "1980s-type uprising".
The second aspect of the spin is that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) influenced the government to take this step in order to preserve relations between Hindus and Sikhs. The fact that the PM made this announcement on Guru Purab is being cited as evidence for this theory.
Now, whether true or not it is a fact that this spin is coming from the government, BJP, and RSS.
Take for instance the change in stance by pro-RSS ideologue Ratan Sharda. Barely half an hour after PM Modi's announcement, he had tweeted, "Will it not give a message that streets can decide policies not elections or Parliament?" and that it will enable "goons to set the agenda".
The same evening, Sharda had softened his stance and tweeted, "I would suggest that both upset BJP supporters and triumphalist opposition to wait for next 2-3 days to let situation unravel. Such a step back will have many layers. UP is not the issue. Punjab is. Khalistan is".
By that time, pro-BJP journalists had also begun saying, "Modi bowed so that the country doesn't have to bow".
Now, was the repeal really driven by a need to address the alienation of Sikhs and prevent some kind of a "Khalistan uprising"?
DIDN'T THE GOVT REALISE 'ALIENATION' OF SIKHS DESPITE SO MANY INSTANCES?
One can concede two things here. First, that the repeal was a necessary, though not timely, course correction for the government from the perspective of farmers.
Second, one can concede that the government was indeed aware that the farm laws have caused alienation among Sikhs.
The suspicious part here, is the timing.
Why was the decision to repeal taken now, barely two months before crucial Assembly elections?
Didn't the government figure out the alienation when Shiromani Akali Dal ended its 23-year-old alliance with the BJP in September 2020?
Didn't the government realise the alienation when Parkash Singh Badal, who called the SAD-BJP alliance 'Nau-Maas da Rishta' (as close as the nail and flesh), returned India's second highest civilian honour, Padma Vibhushan, in December 2020? Or when BJP's 'back-up plan' in Punjab, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, returned the Padma Bhushan and Sikh sportspersons returned their awards around the same time?
Didn't the BJP realise the alienation when its own leaders in Punjab like Anil Joshi and Malwinder Singh Kang quit the party?
Where was the concern for Sikh sentiments when the Centre was calling the protesters "Khalistani" or when the Haryana police thrashed protesters and the state's BJP CM called for a "tit for tat policy" towards protesters?
Where was this concern when it the government intervened with Australian authorities to secure the release of Vishal Jood, accused of hate crimes against Sikhs protesting the farm laws?
How is it that the realisation that Sikhs are being alienated miraculously dawned upon the government just two months before elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Punjab?
With hundreds of farmers dead, four of them allegedly mowed down by a BJP leader's jeep, what really is the "goodwill" in this so-called "goodwill gesture" towards Sikhs?
TO INVOKE 1980s TURMOIL BETRAYS IGNORANCE ABOUT PUNJAB AND SIKHS
Those who say that the farmers' protest would have led to a "1980s-type uprising" or that it would harm "relations between Hindus and Sikhs" know nothing about Sikhs or Punjab.
There has been not one communal attack on a Hindu in Punjab during the farmers' protest. If at all, Punjab's Hindus and Muslims have actively backed the protests as have the Hindu Jats of Haryana and West UP.
None of the protesters – leaders or lay protesters at the protest sites – have called for Khalistan. Anyone who knows the history of agrarian politics in Punjab would know that the farm unions have consistently been on the anti-Khalistan side.
Yes, a few people during the current protests did carry posters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale but then his portrait is there even at Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar. The Akal Takht declared Bhindranwale a martyr in 2003, when the BJP was in power in Delhi. So it's not as if there has been a sudden surge in Bhindranwale's popularity in the last one year. The Sikh narrative around Bhindranwale has always been different from that of the Indian state.
The farmers were protesting peacefully, using constitutional means. They would have expressed their anger in the elections as well, by voting against BJP and for parties like Congress, AAP, Akali Dal or BSP, all of whom are firmly committed to the Indian Constitution.
If at all Sikhs were being alienated, it was from the BJP.
But even this pre-dates the farm laws. Several surveys have shown that PM Modi has consistently had a poor appeal among Sikhs, mainly because he's seen as a majoritarian leader. As a line in an anti-Modi Punjabi song goes, "Chehra muddatan pehla assi parh gaye" (We understood your face ages ago).
Yes, the farmers' protest made Modi's unpopularity a lot worse and reduced BJP to the status of a pariah in Punjab politics.
THE REAL FEAR IS OF POLITICAL MOBILISATION BY SIKHS
The 'goodwill gesture for Sikhs' spin is being given to hide the fact that the BJP may genuinely have been afraid of losing ground electorally, especially after the Lakhimpur Kheri incident.
But the elections are also only one part of the story. Yes, Sikhs did play on the government's mind, but in a different way than is being spun.
The repeal and the subsequent spin being given need to be seen as part of the broader Hindutva approach towards Sikhs, which fluctuates between hostility and appropriation.
These come from different ideological strands within Hindutva. While the RSS has tried to appropriate Sikhs as Keshdhari Hindus, those from an Arya Samaj background often get influenced by Dayanand Saraswati's negative comments about Sikhs.
However, both the strands are united in their distrust of political mobilisation by Sikhs. Even a big section of liberals is in this category and it's not surprising to see some of them also propagating the 'Modi wanted to prevent an 1980s-type Sikh uprising' narrative.
All these strands had opposed the Punjabi Suba movement of 1947-66 and completely threw their lot with the Indian state in the context of the 1980s turmoil. The problem with these sections is that any political mobilisation by Sikhs, even on secular matters like farm laws, is seen from the national security point of view.
This is a dangerous line of thinking. Because if the national security rationale can be given for a compromise, it can also be used to justify a brutal crackdown as it has been in the past.