Hartosh Singh Bal

There is a familiar pattern to the right wing’s spin on the events of 26 January: condemning the farmers who reached the centre of Delhi, labeling them “extremists,” “Khalistani,” or simply “anti-national.”

Perhaps it suits everyone to now find a scapegoat in people like the actor Deep Sidhu, who is accused of instigating protesters to hoist a flag at the Red Fort, and the supposed extremist elements who farmer leaders claimed had hijacked part of the protests. But what happened was predictable. The government and the farmer-union leaders would surely have seen this coming, and yet, they did little to forestall it.

The protests against the farm laws have been building up since September, when the laws were passed—for the first month and a half in Punjab and then, since late November, on the outskirts of Delhi. Over this protracted period, the negotiations went nowhere and the cadre became steadily impatient. Partly to appease the cadre, the farmer leaders themselves had built up expectations of a historic tractor match on Republic Day, circling the power centre in Delhi. The leaders and the Delhi Police failed to agree on a route for days. Barely two days before the march, they finally settled on a route that limited the march to Delhi’s outskirts. To no one’s surprise, the decision fell well short of the cadre’s expectations, which the union leaders themselves had fanned.

From the night of 24 January, the disquiet among the younger elements in the protest began to be openly articulated. On the afternoon of 25 January, Sarwan Singh Pandher, the general secretary of Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee—a major union at the protests—announced that their cadre would not follow the designated route. After Pandher’s speech, it was a given that a large number of the protestors would deviate from the route. Given a 15-hour notice of this likelihood, the Delhi Police seemed surprisingly unprepared for it.

The events of 26 January made clear that while the farmer leadership expressed the sentiments of the protesters, it does not control them. This was already evident to anyone following the protests closely. For instance, even the current location of the protests on the outskirts of Delhi is fortuitous, resulting from the youth cadre’s spontaneous decisions. When the unions began to move the protests out from Punjab, the leaders did not have a clear cut plan for reaching Delhi. Upon encountering police barricades on the border between Punjab and Haryana, at places such as Shambu village, many of the protestors took matters in their own hands and breached the blockade. The longer the protests go on without a resolution that is acceptable, the greater the possibility of a further loss of control.

In such situations, any assertion by a great mass of the farmer protestors will find articulation through the ethos of Sikhism. This was again evident from the nature of the protests. While the leadership is drawn from the Left, the cadre is largely Sikh, and regularly articulated issues through the lens of its identity. The imagery of Baghel Singh, an eighteenth century Sikh general, was pasted on every other trolley headed from Punjab to join the protests for Republic Day. Baghel Singh had laid siege to the Delhi of Shah Alam II, the Mughal emperor, and won. He imposed taxes on goods imported into the city, using the funds to build most of the major Sikh gurdwaras of the city.

This imagery of Delhi under siege explains some of what happened at the Red Fort but it is important to note it was not directed against the residents of Delhi. The contrast between the reality of what happened and the perception that is being created is stark. Lakhs of farmers moved through Delhi. There was no assault on private property, nor on civilians. The damage to the DTC bus took place because the police deliberately placed it in the path of the protestors. Beyond these facts are only the events at the Red Fort. Some protesters raised a flag and attacked the police. But even in the aggressive stupidity of those at the monument, care was taken to ensure the supremacy of the tiranga, the Indian flag, was not dwarfed by the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag, hoisted below it. In less than a day, enough has already been written about the Nishan Sahib to substantiate that it is no icon of Khalistan, leave alone of terror.

It is absurd to see the greater visibility of Sikh iconography in a protest dominated by Sikhs as a deviation from the ethos of the country when the cult of the Hindu rashtra is upon us. From a bhumipujan, or foundation-laying puja, for the new building of Parliament, to the prime minister in attendance at a puja to mark the construction of the Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, we are awash in Hindu imagery.

When those who openly espouse Hindutva as a guiding philosophy find problems with imagery from other religions, the majoritarianism that defines the current government only becomes starker. Supposedly liberal commentators who join this echo heighten the perception that secularism is an idea in India that only minorities have to espouse, that the profession of sarv dharma sambhav—equality among religions—in practice only means that some religions are more equal than others.

But while the rest of the country can claim ignorance of the iconography of the agitation, this certainly does not apply to those in the national security apparatus, such as National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who have dealt with Punjab since the 1980s. Given this, it is difficult to gauge why the security at the Red Fort was found hugely wanting on a day where its symbolic value was evident, and when there was ample warning that the route the breakaway faction was to take could easily lead to the monument.

In fact, a day before the rally, the media put out stories quoting Delhi Police sources, who said that “Pakistan-based ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) and ‘rogue elements linked to Khalistani outfits’ are likely to hijack and disrupt the tractor rally.” The sources stressed that “a huge conspiracy has been hatched.” Are we then to believe the Delhi Police and the Indian security apparatus knew of this conspiracy and let it happen?

After the events of Republic Day, the actor Deep Sidhu has been much in focus, and he did have a part to play in the events. All we know for sure, however, is that his entry into politics was mediated through his proximity to Sunny Deol—a BJP member of parliament, but hardly an ideologue. Since then, Sidhu has publicly regurgitated a largely incoherent mix of readings, from Martin Luther King to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the head of the Damdami Taksal, an orthodox Sikh group. But that he finds an echo among many of the young protestors is because the farm leaders have been unable to rein in this cadre’s impatience.

On the back of figures such as Sidhu, the government has sought to revive the bogey of Khalistan. An organisation such as Sikhs For Justice, which enjoys hardly any support in Punjab—as documented in a recent piece in The Caravan—has been designated a terrorist organisation. While SFJ has a clear separatist agenda, it has had no terror links, but has suddenly acquired a prominence that has little to do with its impact.

Meanwhile, the National Investigation Agency has sent out notices over the protests not just to Deep Sidhu, but to figures such as Jasbir Singh Rode, a nephew of Bhindranwale. This makes good grist for the right-wing mill, but a recent column in The Tribune on Operation Black Thunder—the siege of the Golden Temple in the late 1980s—highlighted the current establishment’s familiarity with the very extremists it is now condemning. Quoting Open Secrets, a 2005 book by MK Dhar, a former joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, the column noted that barely two months before the operation, “the IB had quietly begun supplying AK-47s to the then Akal Takht Jathedar Jasbir Singh Rode, who incidentally is Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s nephew. Rode, an IB operative who was anointed jathedar of the supreme Sikh temporal seat, was tasked to create a Trojan Horse comprising a 15-member squad to neutralise the terrorist gangs inside the temple.” Dhar was involved in the IB’s operations in Punjab. NSA Doval was then the agency’s joint director, and has since been credited with an intimate involvement in the operation. At the very least, it is fair to say that Rode and Doval are well acquainted.

This is an old and dangerous game that has been played before by a central government and has most recently been well documented by GBS Sidhu, the former special secretary of the Research & Analysis Wing of the Indian intelligence services, in his book, The Khalistan Conspiracy. Sidhu provides first-hand material on the Indira Gandhi government’s machinations in the early 1980s. He reveals how, even though there were ample opportunities to arrive at a settlement with a moderate Akali leadership before Bhindranwale became the dominant figure in the increasingly violent movement, on several occasions, the government went back on agreed commitments at the very last moment.

The book has been heavily promoted by right-wing commentators seeking to target the then Congress administration. But these very same figures are now setting the country along a similar path by labeling the protests the work of Khalistanis. In hindsight, the demands of the Akalis in the early 1980s, which related to issues such as river waters, to Chandigarh, to the live telecast of the kirtan at the Golden Temple, do not seem to be of a nature that should fuel the decade of militancy that did so much damage to Punjab and the rest of the country.

Through such figures as Doval, this government shares a continuity of thinking with the kind of machinations that had led Punjab to disaster in the first place. It should not be the case that, looking back two decades from now, we are counting the cost of a government’s egoistic stand over laws which have much that is wrong with them—a fact that the establishment has already tacitly conceded, while offering amendments and a freeze on implementation in negotiations with the protesters.
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