Author: Amandeep Singh
Recent weeks have been witness to considerable socio-political and emotional turmoil in the wake of the ongoing agitations against the introduction of the new farm laws in India. The emerging political situation has been a roller coaster ride, especially after the Jan 26, Republic day events in New Delhi. There has been sudden spike of interest regarding the farmers’ plight and agitation at an international level with celebrities, activists and politicians weighing in their support for or against the agitations.
However, the developing events leave Sikhs by and large in a precarious situation. Although, the broader narrative has bolstered the sections that support the farmers, other Sikhs around the world have also been left dismayed and disconcerted after witnessing the upheaval on the streets of Delhi on Jan 26th. In the wake of these events many are still grappling with a growing disparity between the reality of the events on the ground and the ideals of resistance that protesting farmers’ leaders have tried to stay true to. The display of Sikh symbols like Khanda and flags of Nishan Sahib, which flooded the media during the planned tractor rally on that day, created an impression that the agitation was more of a religious rally of Sikhs than a farmer agitation. This scenario is worth comparing with the multiple instances of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib from a few years ago. At that time, while protests occurred in the heartland of Punjab, one wonders why there had not been proportionate public displays of anger and resentment within diasporic spaces? And one must wonder now why the farmers’ agitation intensified to such high levels that demonstrations in support of farmers have now been witnessed in Toronto, Melbourne, New York, London, and many other cities worldwide?
Interestingly, many Gurdwara management committees in cities worldwide have been openly involved in organizing farmer rallies—even though the Jathedar of Akal Takht declared that agitation against the farm laws is not a religious issue and should be resolved amicably. So, why are particular sections of the Sikh community seemingly trying to diverted the public perception of the farmers’ agitation, pushing it away from a straightforward socio-political resistance against the farm laws and towards a religious identity? To what extent have agent provocoteurs been part of this diversion, effectively leading the farmer leaders into a trap similar to what happened in the early 1980s? Why have the lessons of the 1980s not been learned?
In important ways, the farmer agitations are reminiscent of the numerous agitations in Punjab between the 1960s to early 1980s, relating to agricultural and economic issues such as the distribution of river waters. During those agitations, the issue of river water distribution was politically intertwined with cultural and religious issues such as the Punjabi language and Sikhism in order to mobilize Sikhs around the globe. This was greatly highlighted by the Anandpur Sahib Resolution document which the Congress Government at the time was able to undercut at every stage, for the simple reason that its mode of representation was inflected through the rhetoric of religious identity, which tended to overshadow agricultural and economic demands. In present times, however, despite the perilous reduction of the water table across Punjab (falling at a staggering rate of 25 to 30 cm every year) there has been no social, political or religious mobilization in response—even as this situation is a clear and present threat to peoples’ lives and the economy. The problem has become so acute in recent years that Punjab now has the highest number of deep tube wells in the country and likely requires multiple rivers to replenish the water table fall across the state. This fall in the water table is primarily attributed to local paddy cultivation techniques that require waterlogging conditions for its transplantation. Incidentally, the new farm laws are directed towards undoing the guaranteed procurement of wheat and rice by the government at a fixed price termed as Minimum Support Price or MSP. However, in the event that the farmer demands to repeal the three new farm laws succeed, rice cultivation would continue perhaps indefinitely, further aggravating the already fallen water table.
The obvious next question then is why farmers are pressing for a complete repeal of new laws when they have been cautioned by experts like Dr. S. S. Johl that continuing with ongoing modes of farming would result in the desertification of Punjab in as early as the next 10 years? Why is there a reluctance over an alternative vision to safeguard the future of agriculture for coming generations? Why have Punjabi farmer leaders not tried to think outside the box in order to negotiate and discusses a wide range of alternatives like development of rural infrastructure with the construction of cold storages, flour mills, oil extractors, pulse polishers, etc. in rural areas that can improve crop diversity? Why are the farmers not open to the government proposal of constituting a committee with a majority of their own representatives to suggest alternatives in improving agricultural conditions of the country? Indeed, the answer to these questions, cannot be found in rationalizing agricultural economics but in the underlying politics of farmer agitation that I have discussed earlier (see Farmer Agitations: Will BJP make it to Power in Punjab in 2022?).
A pertinent case study is the revision of the Seed Act of 1966, a bill that has been languishing in parliament for more than a year. If enacted with stringently proposed measures, this act would legislate tough accountability of seed suppliers and ensure an adequate supply of good quality seeds to farmers. It is astonishing to note that no demand for enactment of this bill is put forward by agitating farmers as it would ensure good seed germination, disease resistance, and better yield in the longer run. Regrettably, future-oriented reform measures are not even a part of the farmer proposals.
The relative ease with which farmer leaders’ have been outmaneuvered by the Indian government, and their agenda effectively hijacked by agent provocoteurs allowing the Indian media to tar the agitation with the brush of religious identity (as witnessed by the events Republic Day demonstrations), calls for a more focused inquiry into the dynamics of the history of agitations that inevitably end up bringing ostensibly ‘secular’ issues such as agricultural economy and livelihood into mix with religious and cultural subjectivity. To what extent, for example, has a certain kind of Punjabi cultural psyche catalyzed and inhibited the generative principles of Sikhi by stitching it with agitational politics, caste-structures, and rural economy in order to grapple with political exigencies that require more nuanced approaches?
The politics of caste and agitational politics have produced a peculiar nexus in the ongoing farmer agitation. In the present context, one slogan that has become a mark of social resistance in recent Indian politics (but is conspicuously absent in the farmer agitation) is “Jai Bhim”. This slogan, along with images of Dr. BR Ambedkar which are attributed to the Dalit movement, is invoked in almost every recent political protest against the BJP government including the infamous anti-CAA stir (Citizen Amendment Act) that made international headlines last year. Its absence in ongoing farmer protests points towards negligible participation of Dalits and landless peasants in these protests. Why is it that Dalits are not participating in the farmer agitations? If farmers’ leadership could simply glance over the BJP’s announcement to potentially field a Dalit C.M. candidate in the 2022 elections of Punjab, that can help answer a part of the question. This announcement has produced flutters of anxiety in Punjab’s politics. Many short videos and memes are circulating on WhatsApp groups, building a counter-narrative to farmer agitations projecting it as an attempt to hold Jat-power in the center of Punjab’s politics. Such countercurrents highlight the key issue of disproportionate representation of castes in Punjab politics which have been ignored for more than 70 years, marginalizing non-Jats in political circles.
It is rather imperative, at this juncture, to reflect upon the modes of construction of collective narratives within ongoing farmer agitation exploring the trade-off between Sikhi symbols with political demands in the situation. In short, it appears that the road between Punjab’s agitational politics and agricultural economy is historically detoured through Sikhi. An interesting character of agitational politics is that it always carries a tendency to become out of control and become nihilistic in its historical expression. Similar tendencies are unfolding in the farmer agitation – and the government has tactically tried to turn the narrative upside down.
As the dust after the Republic day rally settles, the political epicenter of farmer agitation has already shifted from Punjab farmers at Singhu and Tikri Border to that of Uttar Pardesh and pan-India farmers. A new leader, Rakesh Tikat has appeared at the center-stage of farmer agitation, while Punjab leaders are swiftly being consigned to the margins. Within this dynamically changing situation, it appears that Punjab farmer leaders have shot themselves in the foot, not only because of the Republic Day fiasco, but more widely because they went to the negotiation table with no alternative agenda or suggestions except to repeal the laws. The new leader has suggested taking a softer stand than a complete rolling back of laws and thus looking for an alternative. The government is also on the back foot because of the pressure from alternative horizons and internationalization of issues. Nevertheless, the net outcome of the emerging situation is yet to unfold, although it is becoming clear that the final settlement would, perhaps, not be a one-way road as dictated by Punjab farmer leaders earlier, opening doors for a historical resentment yet to follow.
Let me close with some further questions. Were the farmer agitations on republic day a political gain or a failed opportunity? Why is it that Sikh politics is more reliant on expressions of raw passions than on an intellectually driven engagement with wider diplomatic input? Is it because by harping on raw passions Sikh doctrines that call for an egalitarian and open society can be crushed under the weight or domineering force of power and ego? As I discussed this cultural subjectivity elsewhere, (Akal Takht: Revisiting Miri in Political imagination pub: Naad Pargaas 2018), perhaps the answers to these questions can also be discovered from the studies of contradictions within popular folklore that often celebrates lasciviousness, violence, caste-pride along with the simplicity of a destitute farmer.