The symbolism was too profound to be missed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement to repeal the three contentious farm laws came on the occasion of Guru Nanak Jayanti on 19 November. He especially mentioned that he chose the auspicious occasion for the announcement. It may be a coincidence, but on the same day, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat went to a gurdwara in Chhattisgarh’s Raipur and paid obeisance.
The Prime Minister’s announcement has been generally seen and analysed in the context of impending assembly elections in the states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in 2022. The popular theory is that the farmers’ movement was causing damage to the electoral prospects of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the PM was forced to take a U-turn on the farm laws. Even farmer leaders have been saying that. Such analyses were made despite the fact that Punjab has never been an electorally important territory for the BJP, and in UP, the movement was limited to half-a-dozen districts in the western and terai regions, where Sikh farmers were allotted land after Partition in 1947.
It’s true that assembly elections are just around the corner, and the PM’s decision can impact the electoral arithmetic, but I would like to argue that the government’s move is more social, cultural, and ideological than electoral. It has been done to safeguard something that is most important for the Hindutva brigade—the ‘idea of Hindutva’ itself as envisioned by V.D. Savarkar. In effect, the BJP (and the RSS) took the decision to repeal the farm laws to tell the Sikhs that they are not ‘another Muslim’ for them.
Sikhs, Hindutva and Savarkar
Sikhs are very important within Hindutva narratives, and the RSS and the BJP cannot afford to treat them like they treat Muslims. The latter’s othering is not just acceptable, but also essential to the idea of Hindutva.
In his book Essentials of Hindutva, V.D. Savarkar constantly argued that “If any community in India is Hindu beyond cavil or criticism, it is our Sikh brotherhood in the Punjab, being almost the autochthonous dwellers of the Sapta Sindhu land and the direct descendants of the Sindhu or Hindu people. The Sikh of today is the Hindu of yesterday, and the Hindu of today may be the Sikh of tomorrow. The change of a dress, or a custom, or detail of daily life cannot change the blood or the seed, nor can efface and blot out history itself.”
This shows the importance that Savarkar ascribed to the idea that Sikhs should remain within the Hindu fold. At the time of writing this book, his project was to create a grand Hindutva narrative, and he wanted to club the Sanatanists, Satnamis, Sikhs, Aryas, Anaryas, Marathas and Madrasis, Brahmins and Panchamas (‘untouchables’) under the Hindutva fold.
So, Savarkar sounded more progressive than Gandhi, who held puritanical views on caste and varna. Savarkar said, “The system of four varnas may disappear when it has served its end or ceases to serve it, but will that make our land a Mlechchadesha—a land of foreigners? The Sanyasis, the Arya Samajis, the Sikhs and many others do not recognise the system of the four castes, and yet are they foreigners? God forbid! They are ours by blood, by race, by country, by God. We, Hindus, are all one and a nation, because chiefly of our common blood: Bharati Santati.”
In Essentials of Hindutva, Savarkar used the word ‘Sikh’ more than 60 times. This number is another way to understand the importance of Sikhs in his Hindutva project. He further said that Sikhs should continue to profess their religion and continue to fight for minority rights. He added, “The Sikhs are free to reject any or all superstitions they dislike in sanatan dharma,” even the binding authority of the Vedas as a revelation. They, thereby, may cease to be Sanatanis, but cannot cease to be Hindus. “Sikhs are Hindus in the sense of our definition of Hindutva and not in any religious sense whatever,” said Savarkar.
Sikhs sustained the farmers’ protests
On the face of it, one may postulate that the farmers’ movement was a non-religious social movement, as many of its leaders were Hindus and even Muslims such as Hannan Mollah, the general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha. Farmers from all religious groups took part in the movement and their demands were all economic and related to government policies. The organisers took extra effort to ensure that the movement doesn’t look like a religious programme by making Hindu and Muslim leaders a part of all the delegations and press conferences.
But the fact remains that the Sikhs were at the core of the movement, and the religious overtones were never missed. The protests started in Punjab just after the three Bills were passed in Parliament in mid-September 2020. The state government, led by the Congress, supported the farmers’ agitation and the Punjab assembly even passed a resolution that the Acts would not be implemented in the state. The principal opposition party in Punjab, the Akali Dal, also took the same position. For two months, the farmers’ unions protested, blocking roads and rail networks. All this while the movement remained largely confined to the Sikh farmers. Later on, Hindu Jats also joined the agitation. Other communities soon became a part of the protests, but these two were at the core. A vast majority of the farmers who died during the protests were Sikhs.
In November 2020, the farmers gave a call to march to Delhi, and farmers from Haryana and western UP became a part of the agitation as well. Despite the movement broad-basing its social structure, the Sikhs exerted the strongest influence on it. The Sikh religious and philanthropic organisations provided it with the necessary infrastructure. The gurdwaras and the prabandhak (managing) committees organised the community kitchens, medical facilities and also functioned as transit points for farmers travelling to and fro. Makeshift gurdwaras were made and Nihang Sikhs provided security to the agitators. Sikh organisations and leaders in the West made it global—Sikh Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK and Canada raised their issues in their respective parliaments. The community’s diaspora received such massive support that the Modi government was compelled to intervene, and therefore, it started investigating the so-called ‘toolkit’. Interestingly, despite all the efforts of Indian Muslims abroad, the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) never got such international support.
An impression was created—part of it may be by design—that the government is suppressing the Sikhs. This, the BJP never wanted. Alienating Sikhs beyond a point is antithetical to the idea of Hindutva and the RSS, so the BJP finally decided to go for reconciliation.
A tense reconciliation
One may ask why it took so much time for the BJP to reach this conclusion because the religious character of the farmers’ movement was quite visible from the very beginning. My explanation is that it was a miscalculation. There was a conflict between the economic agenda and the ideological core, so the BJP took some time to make a decision. We don’t know for sure, but a minor incident in Gurugram might have triggered it. There was a dispute over Friday Namaz at a public ground, and it was reported that the Sadar Bazar Gurdwara Association in Gurugram opened up their premises to Muslims to offer Namaz. Though the Namaz inside the gurdwara compound didn’t happen, but just the idea of Sikhs and Muslims coming together might have shaken up the BJP and the RSS.
In early 2020, such solidarity was clearly expressed during the CAA-NRC protests at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, where Sikh farmers set up langar to provide freshly cooked food to the protesters.
The Sikh core of the farmers’ movement and their alienation rattled the BJP and the RSS, whom we might see reaching out to Sikhs in more ways in the coming days.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)