In the wake of the farmers’ protests on Delhi’s borders, Narendra Modi and the central government have made efforts to portray that the prime minister has a positive relationship with the Sikh community. These efforts included Modi’s meeting with a group of about 15 Sikh farmers in Gujarat’s Kutch district on 15 December. But according to Sikh farmers from Gujarat I spoke to, Modi had met a BJP general secretary and his companions. Contrary to what was being portrayed, Sikh farmers in Gujarat held disdain for Modi. This was rooted in a policy that was implemented in Kutch in 2010—when he was the chief minister—which diluted their rights over their land.
The Gujarat-based Sikh farmers identified the group that met the prime minister as comprising Jugraj Singh Raju—the general secretary of the BJP’s Kutch unit—and his companions. “Whenever the BJP needs to show Sikh farmers’ support, Raju and his friends appear,” Surinder Singh Bhullar, a farmers’ leader, told me. The farmers spoke to me about the 2010 controversy, which offered insight into Modi’s relationship with Sikhs in Gujarat. In the early 2010s, the Sikh community in the state openly voiced their opposition to Modi regarding the rule—I had documented this while reporting for the Punjabi daily Deshsevak in 2013. Farmers and farmers’ leaders in the state told me that they are now organising to join the sit-ins on Delhi’s borders.
After the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, Lal Bahadur Shastri, the prime minister at the time, allotted semi-arid land in Kutch to 550 farmers from other states to populate the border area and make it more secure. Among them were 390 Sikh farmers. These farmers made the land fertile—tube wells were installed, cotton started to grow and factories came up. In 1973, the Congress-led state government issued a circular—based on the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Lands (Vidarbha Region and Kutch Area) Act, 1958—that only native Gujaratis could buy land in the state.
In October 2010, the collector of Kutch sent notices to more than 700 farmers residing in the district, citing this circular and informing them that records of their land were being frozen. This meant that the farmers could not sell their land, buy land in the state or take any loan with their land as collateral. Bikkar Singh, a Gujarat-based farmer, said that when the lands were frozen, “A long list of people with ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ as their last name were termed as ‘non-natives’ and lost rights on their own land.”
In 2011, the farmers filed a case against the move in the Gujarat High Court and eventually won the case. Instead of implementing the high court’s decision, the state government approached the Supreme Court. The case is still pending in the court. Sikh farmers in Kutch told me that this has left them in a fix. They said authorities were not even doing “inteqal”—mentioning the owner’s name in the land records after the registry—by saying that the matter is pending in the court. “Modi is pretending to be an ally of Sikh farmers. If he was truly our ally, he would not have taken the matter to the Supreme Court,” Surinder told me.
After the collector issued the notices, many Sikh farmers began leaving Kutch and going to Punjab in fear of losing their land. One of them, Raj Singh, told me that he and his brothers owned 150 acres of land in Kutch district, out of which 40 acres were frozen. He said that this caused financial losses, compelling the family to shift to Dabwali, a town in Haryana’s Sirsa district.
In 2013, Sikh farmers complained that local BJP leaders were threatening and physically attacking them. The most notable case was of Jaswinder Singh, a farmer in Loria, a village of Kutch’s Bhuj tehsil. In my reports from November and December for Deshsevak, I wrote that Jaswinder’s family was allotted 22 acres of land in Kutch in 1965. The family had alleged that Hathuba Bhai Jadeja, a local BJP leader, and his relatives got the land registered in their name in 2011. In October 2013, around fifty armed men attacked Jaswinder and his relatives. The family said that the attack was carried out at the behest of Vasanbhai, a BJP legislator at the time. The police had detained 12 individuals as a part of the investigation, but they were released on bail. On 14 November 2013, Jaswinder’s brother Aman Singh claimed he had been arrested in a fake case and was released after the intervention of Ajaib Singh, the deputy chairman of the National Minorities Commission at the time.
My reports also mentioned that Lachhaman Singh, a Gujarat-based farmer with four acres of land, went to Punjab to meet his relatives that year. While he was in Punjab, he said someone else occupied his land. In December this year, another Sikh farmer based in Gujarat, Kashmir Singh, said, that the threat of losing their land persists. “BJP leaders want to threaten us and take them away so that they can take over our lands,” he said.
Sikh farmers of Gujarat told me they were angry with Modi and even the Shiromani Akali Dal. They said that although the SAD is supporting the ongoing farmers’ movement, each time they approached the party supremo, Prakash Singh Badal, for help about the land issue in the early 2010s, they were met with disappointment.
Surinder told me that farmers had met Modi regarding the land policy in the early 2010s. “Most of the Sikhs of Gujarat had been voting for BJP,” he said. “We were hopeful that Modi would speak in our interest. But he showed his real face by making us landless.” According to him, they approached Modi about the issue during the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections. He estimated that there were close to 20,000 Sikh votes in Kutch at that time. “He clearly told us, ‘I do not need your votes. If you have such a big issue, quit farming,’” he said. “At that time, BJP candidate Balo Bhai Sani did not come to his Sikh brothers to ask for votes.” Surinder’s son had also told me, “When we took our issue to Modi in the lead up to the Lok Sabha elections, he angrily said, ‘You burn my effigies in Punjab, why have you come to me now?’” I had mentioned these allegations in a September 2013 report for the Deshsevak as well.
These instances had led Sikhs in Gujarat to say that Modi was not their ally, despite attempts to prove otherwise. Days before the meeting in Kutch, the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation sent nearly two crore emails to its passengers with a 47-page booklet highlighting Modi and his government’s “special relationship” with Sikhs. Modi also made an “unscheduled visit” to a gurudwara in Delhi on 20 December. But Surinder told me, “Modi is not just against Muslims, he is opposed to all minorities.”
Lachman Singh Brar, a farmers’ leader in Kutch, said, “On one hand, Modi abolished Article 370 pertaining Kashmir by saying that ‘now any Indian citizen can buy land anywhere in the country and Kashmir’s relationship with India has strengthened.’ I want to ask Modi sahab, when will the section 370 imposed on Punjabi farmers of Kutch be abolished?” Another farmer, Pirthi Singh, said, “There is an increased greed to acquire land in this area for corporate and real estate purposes due to its industrial development and proximity to the port. Back when he was the chief minister, Modi gave a large part of land to huge capitalists like Adani-Ambani and now he is eyeing our land. Now that he is the prime minister, Modi is trying to implement his Gujarat formula in the entire country.”
Harjinder Singh, a farmer, told me that he had moved from Punjab to Kutch in 2010 because he was impressed by Modi’s Vibrant Gujarat. “Diesel and petrol are very expensive there,” Harjinder said. “There is no strong state-run mandi system there like Punjab. In Punjab, the rate of wheat is about Rs 1,950 per quintal, but in Gujarat the rate is Rs 1,200 or Rs 1,300.” Harjinder said the biggest shock to him was that “even though my land registration was done, they refused to do inteqal. I was told, ‘You are from a different state.’” He added that eventually, he was not even able to afford him tubewell connection. “After suffering from consecutive losses, I had to return to Punjab,” he said. Harjinder is now among the farmers who are protesting at Singhu, on the Delhi-Haryana border.