The New Khalistan Conspiracy

The government is playing the same game that once led Punjab to disaster

27 January 2021
A young Sikh man sits atop a tractor trolley, during the tractor march by farmer protesters on 26 January, in Delhi.
Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
A young Sikh man sits atop a tractor trolley, during the tractor march by farmer protesters on 26 January, in Delhi.
Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

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. 

Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: Farmers' Protest farm laws 2020 Khalistan Punjab Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale Indira Gandhi Operation Black Thunder II Ajit Doval