The Narendra Modi government on Tuesday 12 January accused in the Supreme Court that “Khalistanis have infiltrated” the ongoing farmers’ protests against three controversial farm laws.
The Centre made this assertion through Attorney General KK Venugopal, who said the government would be submitting an affidavit containing inputs from the Intelligence Bureau.
Earlier, this allegation was made by Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, right wingers on social media and a few news channels.
Till now, the only proof given to support this are a handful of protesters carrying posters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the comments of one protester about the assassination of former PM Indira Gandhi.
But how true are these allegations?
First and foremost, it is important to understand that like any popular movement, the protests against the farm laws have attracted a diversity of people – supporters of parties, including the Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Left – Sikh organisations, artists, students, Muslim organisations, Khap Panchayats and yes, also those who sympathise with Bhindranwale.
But the driving force of the movement are 30 farmers’ organisations. It is they who are calling the shots in the movement – both in terms of decision-making as well as mobilisation. And not one of these organisations or any of their top members have said anything in support of Bhindranwale during the course of this movement.
In fact, all these organisations have a history of being opposed to Khalistani elements. During the 1984 farmers’ protests, supporters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale were disallowed from farmers’ protests, even though both were agitating against the then Union government.
Despite this, the ‘Khalistan’ bogey is being created around the protest, which begs the question – what aim does it serve besides, of course, deligitimising the protest?
There is a very important historical parallel here – the protests by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) between 1978 and 1984 and how Operation Blue Star and the subsequent crackdown by the government harmed farmers’ mobilisation in Punjab.
BKU Protests from 1978-1984
The green revolution brought prosperity and its own particular kind of challenges for farmers. A major political consequence was the sidelining of Left-backed farmers’ unions and the emergence of the BKU, dominated by relatively well-to-do farmers, as the driving force behind farmers' protests by the late 1970s.
Farmers’ politics also changed from being a political alternative to a pressure group that was willing to oppose or negotiate with any political party.
Between 1978 and 1984, BKU Punjab conducted a number of major protests in the state, raising a demands such as higher procurement prices for wheat and paddy, subsidised electricity, diesel and fertilisers and waiver of loans.
In the 1984 protests, the main demand is said to have been on farmers' indebtedness. Notices were put outside villages, preventing entry of recovery staff without permission and saying that recovery of loans without proper accounting is illegal.
On 10 May 1984, the BKU gherao-ed the Punjab Raj Bhavan in Chandigarh and this continued for a week. The Centre had begun to panic.
Since the protesting farmers were predominantly Jatt Sikhs, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), as the main political representative of the community, also often supported such agitations.
On 23 May, the then president of the Akali Dal, Harchand Singh Longowal, announced that the next phase would be to stop the sale of foodgrains to the Food Corporation of India. With Punjab being the grain bowl of India, this, in effect, meant the stoppage of supply of foodgrains to much of the country.
Many say that the government of the day saw this not as a bargaining tactic by dissatisfied farmers but as a security threat.
The government of the time, rather unfairly, didn’t see the farmers’ demands in isolation but as part of the larger “Punjab problem”.
Operation Blue Star and Eight-Year Ban on Protests
This also happened to be the time when the Indira Gandhi government's negotiations with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale broke down.
On 3 June, just 11 days after Longowal's announcement, the government sent the army to Punjab. This brought the BKU's protest to an abrupt halt as all mass political gatherings were banned.
Two days later, it carried out Operation Blue Star, sending the army into the Harmandir Sahib complex, where Bhindranwale and his followers had gathered with arms.
The military operation at the holiest places for Sikhs – Harmandir Sahib – as well as the seat of its highest temporal body, the Akal Takht, was a traumatic event for Sikhs.
It had another additional and important consequence for farmers – the ban on political mobilisation continued for eight years, until 1992, having a debilitating effect on farm unions in Punjab.
In contrast, the BKU's chapters in other states were free to carry out protests on demands very similar to that of their counterparts in Punjab.
For instance, in 1988, BKU-led by Mahendra Singh Tikait carried out one of the biggest protests Delhi has seen, right on Rajpath.
In Punjab, the ban on protests was only the tip of the iceberg.
The period saw an intense crackdown by the security forces in the state, including encounter killings and forced disappearances. Most of the victims were themselves farmers or sons of farmers.
What happened between 1984 and 1992 shows how national security was used to break any form of political mobilisation by a community, even if it was for completely secular demands like agrarian issues.
Present Protests and What Lies Ahead
- The Khalistan bogey being created around the present protests serve the same end – to deny farmers their legitimate demands and target their right to protest.
- If the past is any indication, this could even provide the pretext for a crackdown on protesters. In that sense, presenting protesters as anti-national would be in line with what the government did in Bhima Koregaon and in the anti-CAA protests.
- Presenting the protests as Khalistani would also work towards alienating Punjabi protesters from allies and supporters.
- It is no coincidence that the ‘Khalistani’ allegation came from Haryana CM ML Khattar. It can be seen as an attempt to drive a wedge between the protesters from Haryana and those from Punjab.
- The aim could also be to make it difficult for parties like the Congress and the AAP to openly help the protesters.
The historical precedent needs to be kept in mind as the protests go into the next phase – with the government refusing to concede to not just the protesters’ demands but also their choice of venue and the latter also rejecting the Centre’s offer of protesting at the Burari grounds. If the impasse continues, those creating the ‘Khalistan’ bogey may intensify their efforts.