Global support for the protesting farmers in India has been coming in thick and fast. Canada was the first, but 36 British MPs from across the political spectrum wrote to the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab seeking government intervention on the protests, stating: “This in an issue of particular concern to Sikhs in the UK and those linked to Punjab, although it also heavily impacts other Indian states. Many Sikhs and Punjabis have taken this matter up with their MPs as they have family members and ancestral land in Punjab.”
Raab will be in India next week, so we shall see what happens then. The letter was reportedly organised by Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who had himself become part of a viral video when he asked a question to Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Parliament regarding the farmers, and whether he agreed that “everyone has a fundamental right to peacefully protest”, and asked to convey concerns about force being used against protestors.
In response, Johnson had – oddly – replied, “Our view is that of course we have serious concerns about what is happening between India and Pakistan but these are pre-eminently matters for those two governments to settle and I know that he appreciates that point.”
The expression on Dhesi’s face after the PM’s reply said it all. But the broad consensus is that the PM – in the midst of national crises: that of the spread of COVID-19, the proper rolling-out of the vaccine, and the stress of failing Brexit negotiations with only days to go – was probably unaware or not briefed about the protests in India.
What Led To 25 Desis Writing To Indian High Commissioner In UK?
It’s not just a Labour MP – Liberal Democratic leader Ed Davey, recognising the countrywide protest, also said, “Use of militarised police against protestors is of some concern to us. In terms of protests, people have to respect human rights. When a government is putting through controversial legislation, in a democracy like India, it upholds the democratic values and that does mean respecting human rights.” He urged Foreign Secretary Raab, who is travelling to India next week, to make representations on the human rights situation for the farmers.
Meanwhile, a large protest was held by UK’s Punjabi diaspora on 6 December, not only in front of the High Commission of India, Aldwych, London, but across several cities. There were media reports alleging the involvement of pro-Khalistani people like Paramjit Singh Pamma and claiming the protest was ‘hijacked’ by their likes.
That led to heartbreak within the wider community, and 25 individuals from all walks of life – with no formal affiliation to any political party or the farmers’ unions in India – shot off a letter to the Indian High Commissioner in the UK, Gaitri Issar Kumar saying: “We all are deeply saddened and heartbroken by the negative role of some sections of the Indian media and Indian Government supporting groups have played in the UK and India. Their sole objective has been to portray an incorrect picture and to damage the image of the entire hard-working Punjabi diaspora in the UK by labelling us all as Khalistani separatists or Anti-India! True democracy is all about freedom to raise valid issues and the right to express opposition to Government decisions within the remit of democratic process. We strongly support farmers’ and labourers’ democratic right to protest peacefully in India, and the Punjabi and Indian diaspora’s right to protest peacefully here in the UK to support our ‘Anna Datte’ (Mazdoor & Kisan).”
‘Palak Paneer More Popular Than Dhokla’
There is rising anger and resentment against the fast-spreading Khalistan bogey that’s coming from various quarters to cloud the farmers’ movement. When I asked property tycoon Mr Tejinder Singh Sekhon – who is also president, Indian Chamber of Youth Entrepreneurs (ICYE), a Tory donor, and a signatory of the letter – if the protest was in any way hijacked by pro-Khalistan elements, he said, “We come from genuine farmer homes and our concern is genuine. Sometimes, my mother, wife and I cry when we watch the videos of the protests in India.”
He explained that the UK protest was not by any organisation, it was an organic one and they were cautious that if any pro-Khalistani elements tried to enter it they would be stopped.
“I have always worked for India and the Indian High Commission knows that, as we have worked together with them. If I am supporting a genuine movement how can you dare to call me a Khalistani? Why attempt to refuel a long dead issue?”
Another signatory, human rights activist Siddharth Likhite, pointed out that “anti-social or anti-national elements are there in every community. You can’t lock, stock and barrel accuse an entire community.”
Undoubtedly the Sikh community in the UK is a successful and highly-respected one. As Likhite pointed out, “In the UK they are respected for their role in World War I and II. The community is our soft power when you represent India. Palak paneer is more of a cultural symbol of India than dhokla.”
Strange analogy, but he had a point.
‘We Are Not Linked To Any Kind Of Extremism Or Khalistanis’
Mukulika Banerjee, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, gave a much more nuanced perspective:
“The recent protests in London in solidarity with farmers in India were peopled by thousands of young British Punjabis, who take their Sikh/Punjabi identity seriously but have also grown up knowing the value of defending human rights that the new farm laws in India threaten. They live in a country where the importance of parliamentary procedures is maintained and laws that affect millions of lives and livelihoods cannot be rushed through parliament, in the manner that the Indian farm laws were. To call these British Punjabis ‘Khalistanis’ and ‘terrorists’ is frankly absurd.Mukulika Banerjee, Associate Professor of Anthropology, London School of Economics to The Quint
Mr Charan Kamal Sekhon, chairman, SEVA Trust UK and a councillor was clear:
“We are not linked to any kind of extremism or Khalistanis and we can never support any breaking up of India. We are ordinary Indians with genuine concerns. We are all connected to farmers’, labours’ and soldiers’ families. It really hurts when you start labelling ordinary citizens as extremists.”Charan Kamal Sekhon, Chairman, SEVA Trust UK to The Quint
Who would not agree with that! He said that he and others had been appealing to all in the community to be vigilant and not to let any political group or Khalistani group enter. In the letter they wrote: “If extremists supporting groups or individuals joined the protests, it doesn’t mean the whole protest was focused on separatists’ agenda. We strongly condemn any groups linked to the Khalistani agenda or any political parties who are trying to use farmers’ protest for their own agendas.”
How Punjabi & Sikh Diaspora In UK Are Getting ‘Alienated’
They have gone further to request the “High Commission to take swift action to stop any further polarisation here in the UK. We must inform you, this approach of labelling everyone as ‘separatist’ may cause serious damage to the Indian High Commission’s relationship with the Punjabi diaspora. We feel this may cause irreversible damage and deep divisions.”
There is an obvious concern that such insinuations would alienate the community.
Amidst all this, the Oxford India Society – on behalf of students, faculty, staff and alumni of the University of Oxford – has extended its unconditional support to the demands of protesting farmers in India. In a statement it said that they “are further appalled by the manner in which these laws were passed by the Indian Parliament in haste during a global pandemic, and in brazen disregard of parliamentary procedure and the caution that opposition parties sounded. The government’s offer to amend these laws fails to account for the dominant concern that farmers will lose negotiating power in private markets.”
Further, they condemned the “Indian government’s use of force against peacefully protesting farmers, infringing upon their fundamental right to express their opposition to these laws,” and demanded “that the Indian government withdraw the criminal cases registered against peaceful protesters and release them with immediate effect and without making their release illegally contingent upon other factors.”
‘NRI-Funding’ Accusation: Another Bogey
While there is genuine growing concern for the farmers in India, it is unfair to make a situation volatile by using the Khalistan card. Also, a lot of commentators ought to refrain from using the term ‘NRI-funding’ in a derogatory manner, as the beauty of India lies in migration and diaspora, and how they send money back home – be it a labourer migrating from Bihar to Maharashtra or India to UK.
As for speculation that the farmers’ protest is an ‘NRI-funded’ event, Dhesi put it simply: “This is an India-wide protest, initiated by farmers and farming unions. It is laughable to suggest that this is a conspiracy of NRIs or other external forces.”
It’s time to hold back on useless, yet dangerous conspiracy theories.
While the government in UK is doubling down under the pressure of COVID-19 and Brexit and maintaining a stoic silence on world affairs, the UK’s support for the farmers in India is growing. But what is needed is discourse – not publicity campaigns. The Khalistan bogey has failed; publicity stunts won’t succeed.
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)