“The violence and disturbances unleashed in Delhi today, the sacred Republic Day, are extremely painful and deplorable. Especially the unfortunate act at historic Red Fort is an insult to martyrs who sacrificed their lives for freedom and national integrity,” Suresh Joshi, the second-in-command of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, posted to the organisation’s Twitter account late in the evening on 26 January. Joshi, often called Bhaiyyaji, appealed to “all countrymen to rise above political and ideological differences and to strive for peace.”
Earlier in the day, a group of young Sikh farmers had hoisted the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag, atop a pole on the historic Red Fort’s rampart. The group was part of thousands of protesting farmers who participated in a tractor rally in the national capital. The farmers had been observing sit-ins on the borders of Delhi for over two months, to demand the repeal of three recently enacted laws that would impact their livelihoods. The tractor rally marked this protest. While thousands of farmers had carried out the rally on a pre-sanctioned route on the periphery of Delhi, at least two groups deviated to enter the heart of Delhi. The Delhi Police met them with heavy deployment—the farmers that hoisted the flag had breached barricades and clashed with police to enter the Red Fort premises.
By that evening, government-backed media had already peddled the false claim that the flag represented Khalistan—a separate Sikh state. TV channels painted the farmers as violent separatists and terrorists. Several media organisations later fact checked this claim as false.
Sikh and Punjabi journalists and historians, while condemning the violence, later called the flag’s hoisting an expression of “popular visual culture” of Punjabis, an “articulation through the ethos of Sikhism” and an “assertion to be counted,” among others. None of them saw it as a challenge to India’s integrity or sovereignty. Instead, they saw it as a mere expression of the protesters’ cultural identity. Giani Harpreet Singh, the head of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhs, called the violence unjustifiable but said that it was “not right to criticize Nishan Sahib.”
Joshi’s description ran counter to these ideas. He indirectly labeled the protestors as secessionists whose purpose was to insult upholders of “freedom and the national integrity.” The extrapolation is fortified by the views of other senior RSS functionaries, who were far more direct. They openly castigated Sikh farmers, terming them terrorists and traitors.