Anshu Malhotra is Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair of Sikh and Punjab Studies and professor in the Department of Global Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. She earlier taught at the Department of History, University of Delhi. Her latest book is Piro and the Gulabdasis: Gender, Sect and Society in Punjab (2017).
In the ever-expanding vocabulary that stigmatizes people and popular movements, the Indian right political formation has weaponized another term—andolan-jeevi (addicted to protests)—that connotes contrariness for its own sake. This adds to the arsenal of words that taint, often deployed preliminary to punishment, a list that includes urban naxals, leftists, and anti-nationals. The word was oratorically coined by the prime minister in Parliament to discredit the ongoing Kisan Morcha, or farmers’ protest on Delhi’s borders, and its sympathizers. This followed after barricades, barbed wire, and nails on the ground did not deter the massive assemblages of farmers, from Punjab and elsewhere, who have been camping for over two months in the cold, to demand the repeal of three farm laws they consider inimical to their interests and will leave them at the mercy of “crony” capitalists.
As one winter of discontent has followed another since the second term of the Modi government starting in May 2019, the state response has been to portray protest as illegitimate and as undermining the democratically elected government, whose overpowering majority in the Parliament apparently gives it the power to diminish and devalue other expressions of democracy. In this contest to gain not so much the hearts as the mind-space of the people who constitute the “nation” under the present dispensation, the recall of history has been salient. While history is used to delegitimize challenge, it can equally legitimize protest. Here, I will show why history is always at stake and why the past is a resource, as well as a tool.
In this contest to gain not so much the hearts as the mind-space of the people who constitute the 'nation' under the present dispensation, the recall of history has been salient.
Though seen to not brook any challenge to its power, the response of the government to the farmers’ protest has been less coherent and more confused. While on the one hand initiating dialogue, which the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (United Farmers Front) composed of 40 farmer trade unions claim is more univocal than dialogic, the government, at least initially, sought to also appease the farmers. The PM’s visit to the historic Rakabganj Gurdwara in the heart of Delhi in December 2020 to observe the death anniversary of the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur, executed by the Mughal state in 1675 and cremated at this site, was to demonstrate respect for this revered figure of the Sikhs.
By remembering the sacrifice of the guru, the messaging was to recognize the sacrifices of the Sikh community, whether as annadatas (food providers), pointing to the Punjabis’ contributions during the Green Revolution that gave India a food surplus and made it famine free, or as soldiers. Punjabis and Sikhs historically have had important careers in soldiering, as the British colonial state recruited them in large numbers, designating them a “martial race.” This trend continued into the post-colonial state where Sikhs and Punjabis are represented in the army in excess of their demographic strength, a singularly “nationalist” career choice.
Simultaneously, and as the obduracy of the farmers on their demands became apparent, the government and the godi media (lapdog media) also hinted at the capture/sponsorship/infiltration of the farmers’ movement by “separatist” elements, raising fears of the reincarnation of separatism among the Sikhs of the 1980s and early 1990s for a breakaway homeland called Khalistan.
Such branding of a popular protest as 'anti-national' was not new by a government that has proffered itself as more nationalist than anyone else in its almost seven years in power.
Such branding of a popular protest as “anti-national” was not new by a government that has proffered itself as more nationalist than anyone else in its almost seven years in power. It was playing to the script that had unfolded in winter 2019-20 during the anti-CAA protests led by the women of Shaheen Bagh, who feared disenfranchisement of Muslims in India. The farmers’ movement was anti-national, it was suggested, hinting at support from abroad (read the United Kingdom and Canada). It was anti-national, pointing to the farmer recalcitrance in the face of government pliability (holding the farm laws in abeyance for 18 months). Anti-national, in the tweeted support for the farmers from international celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, as well as the arrest in India of a young climate activist with “foreign” (read Khalistani) links.
Most provocatively for the government, anti-nationalism was on display when on January 26, 2021, India’s Republic Day, a group of protesters managed to reach the symbolic seat of state power, the Red Fort, to hang the Sikh nishan sahib pennant on its ramparts. The historical parallel was the ostensible thwarting of a weakened Mughal power by Baghel Singh and Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, the Sikh misal chieftains in 1783, establishing their sovereignty over Punjab and the subjugation of Delhi. While the bulk of the farmers remained peaceful in their parallel tractor parade, in the counter-optics to the state’s official parade and display of military might, it was an opportunity for the authorities to highlight the Sikh farmers’ supposed separatist proclivities.
Through this multi-pronged governmental strategy to reveal the hidden support of anti-nationals for the farmers, the farmers themselves have mostly maintained their peaceful and non-violent demeanor, condemning the violence of January 26, 2021, and embracing the path of Gandhian ahimsa or non-violence. Gandhian non-violence has historically been an important aspect of the Sikh and Punjabi tradition. It was a peaceful crowd that General Dyer fired upon on April 13, 1919, killing 379 people, though sporadic violence had preceded that day as Punjabis protested against the Rowlatt Act that devised to curb various freedoms—extending wartime regulations into peacetime and exposing the colonial government’s paranoia with regard to demands for autonomy. Non-violence was also adopted in the 1920s when the Akalis agitated to wrest control over historic gurdwaras from mahants (temple priests) supported by the colonial state whom they considered corrupt. The present protest against one’s own government—which has attracted many ordinary people, including Punjab’s women farmers and even agricultural and industrial workers—has developed through speeches, slogans, and seva (the Sikh ideal of service as when food or langar is served to all) molded in that tradition.
Through this multi-pronged governmental strategy to reveal the hidden support of anti-nationals for the farmers, the farmers themselves have mostly maintained their peaceful and non-violent demeanor.
Significantly, separatism of the 1980s and the present agitation both stem from agrarian crisis, where marketization is not seen as a solution by the farmers. While the Green Revolution initially transformed food productivity through high-yield crops; in time, rising costs, declining water tables, high pesticide use, and mono-cropping brought diminishing returns on middle- and small-sized holdings, besides spelling climate disaster. As the farmer protests have grown, incorporating Jat farmers from Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh in its expanding arc, one may look into the Jat ethos of the movement. The attachment of the Jats and Jat-Sikhs to land is crucial: a desire to hold onto land for its productive potential as for its centrality to Jat identity. Both soldiering and migration, historically and contemporarily, can partially be understood as familial strategies to hold onto land in the face of adversity. Farm laws can be seen to challenge that crucial link between land, sustenance, and identity, and so resisted.
In his short stint as prime minister between 1964 and 1966, and in the first flush of the Green Revolution and a war with Pakistan, Lal Bahadur Shastri coined the slogan “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” (Victory to Soldier and Farmer), twinning the nationalist identities that are celebrated by many, including the Jat-Sikhs. Rather than excavating a separatist link and condemning a democratic protest that has a perspective, the government will do well to revive Shastri’s slogan and listen to the farmers’ viewpoint, instead of inventing new verbal salvos.