Monday, March 27, 2023
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Sikh separatism fighting existential battle but mishandling farmer protest can add fuel

In Punjab, the cult status of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is more like what Che Guevara was for the young in the 1970s.

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It is with deep anguish that I condemn the violence and vandalism perpetrated by a section of the protesting farmers at the historic Red Fort and in other parts of Delhi on the 72nd Republic Day. The turn of events, if not the specifics, were predictable to a fault. This has been the trend with respect to all mass movements for over a century, beginning with the Chauri Chaura incident that brought the ahimsa-driven Non-cooperation Movement, the first mass satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, between 1920 and 1922, to a halt.

The aftermath of the 26 January violence was even more disturbing. The   perpetrators were predominantly Sikhs, or certainly the more visible ones because of their unique Sikh identity. This led to perceived ‘substantiation’ of the politically inspired campaign that was started by neo-nationalists with active cooperation of pliant media since end November — to dub the farmers’ mass protest as revival of the Khalistan movement. The visuals of violence were aggressively exploited to discredit the farmers’ movement. The short-term aim of politicians and their supporters is to derail the movement, but its resonance is being felt in Punjab. It spells ominous portents for communal harmony in the state and if not checked may become the first stride towards replanting the seed of radicalism in the psyche of the Sikh community.

Also read: How mahapanchayat in Haryana’s Jind could spell fresh trouble for BJP-JJP alliance

A protest gone wrong

Mass protests make people with diverse ideologies/causes to unite for a common cause. In this case, the three farm laws, which the farmers perceive will lead to destruction of their way of life. The latent causes/ideologies of dissipate groups can come to fore either by design or default as the mass protest gets prolonged without any tangible gains. The collective leadership — Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) — is informal and can exercise only minimal control. In any case, outside the military, in a democracy, it is unrealistic to expect rigid control by the leadership.

Then there is the traditional approach of the State to discredit a mass movement contesting its will by shaping public opinion through a perverse narrative assisted by its supporters and a large section of media. The agitation may be infiltrated with provocateurs or one of the dissipated groups may be sponsored/encouraged with tacit support to engineer violence and sabotage the movement itself. Finally (what we are seeing now) is crackdown by the State with full support of the shaped public opinion. The will of the State is reimposed and it is business as usual. All of the above was at play since 26 November.

The strength of the movement was its secular, peaceful, disciplined and self-sustaining nature achieved through community service traditions particularly of the Sikhs.

The movement had pan-India support of the farmers. However, the ‘dharna’ at Delhi’s borders was predominantly sustained by the Jat farmers of Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and Terai region (Uttarakhand/UP) with a sprinkling from other states, primarily due to proximity with Delhi.

With respect to Punjab farmers, there were two factors that impinged on the spirit of the movement. First, Sikhs living abroad are close to their roots and actively participate in Punjab politics through donations. Every family has at least one member settled abroad. Some of these Sikhs are radicalised proponents of Khalistan, they attempt to hijack every movement of Sikhs through their proxies. Second, most of the leaders of farm unions (not necessarily their members) have a Leftist background. Some of them still hold a romantic vision of bringing about a revolution. The collective leadership of the SKM did steer clear of such elements but failed to evict them from the protest sites.

The Gandhian carnival at Delhi’s doorsteps won pan-India sympathy/support despite serious reservations with respect to the farmers’ rigid demand for repeal of the three farm laws. The ‘counter-attack’ began with the politicians of the ruling party, its Hindutva ideology and nationalism-driven supporters, and a large section of the media branding the movement as opposition sponsored, ‘tukde – tukde gang’, ‘anti-national and secessionist (Khalistani)’. But these efforts failed to dent the image of the movement and it continued to remain peaceful, and steadfast.

The government, seeing the scale of the protests and fearing adverse political fallout of alienating a dominant electoral entity, engaged in talks and gradually conceded most of the demands except the promise of a law ensuring legal guarantee for MSP. The farmers argued that if the laws merited so many amendments, then these must be repealed and enacted afresh with guaranteed MSP after due consultations with them. Simultaneously, the government continued its efforts to discredit the movement, which further eroded its credibility in the minds of the farmers.

What happened on 26 January had its reasons.

The farmers made three cardinal mistakes. First, angered by the perverse propaganda, right through the negotiations, they adopted a maximalist position — nothing short of repeal of the controversial laws. It is possible the farmers’ leadership may have been willing but it did not have the status to convince the masses. Second, in early January, they declared their intent to showcase their power and embarrass the government by holding a parallel Republic Day parade with 15-20 thousand tractors in the capital. This was a tailor-made opportunity for the radicals or State-sponsored provocateurs to foment trouble. The third mistake was their failure to declare victory by accepting the government’s offer on 20 January to hold the laws in abeyance for 18 months.

Also read: Rihanna’s tweet took TV news back to ’70s. No foreign criticism of India allowed

Who is responsible for the violence and vandalism?

The criminality of the action is easy to fix. There are enough videos and photographs available to identify the perpetrators and initiate proceedings. The moral responsibility of the SKM and the administration is also easy to fix. The farmers and their leaders are certainly responsible for planning a massive tractor parade on Republic Day knowing fully well that in such cases, events overtake the intent and control.

The administration is morally responsible for granting permission to hold the tractor parade, despite a century’s experience in handling mass protests. The administration is also responsible for not taking preemptive action against the radicalised elements who had captured the SKM stage late evening 25 January in full view of the police to declare their intent to not follow the routes agreed. The SKM claims that it had informed the administration about the intent of the radicals at 11pm on 25 January and requested for necessary action to be taken.

Who was behind the radical elements perpetrating the violence? I would rule out the farmers’ leadership because such an action would sound the death knell for the movement. Sikhs for Justice had announced a hefty reward for hoisting the Khalistan flag at the Red Fort, which could also have been the inspiration for the radicalised perpetrators apart from their ideology. However, the ease with which a few hundred miscreants breached the barricades at the borders before the designated time, changed their route and entered the high-security zone to reach the Red Fort, raises serious questions about the sheer incompetence or complicity, as alleged by SKM leaders, of the government. The farm leaders allege the association of Deep Sidhu, the prima donna of the sordid spectacle on the ramparts of Red Fort, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the police’s failure to arrest him despite him having announced his intent on 25 January and having been forewarned by them.

Unfortunately, it is this perception that prevailed with the farmers in general and among the Sikhs of Punjab in particular — of the complicity between violent protesters and the government.

Also read: Rakesh Tikait helped BJP win over Jats in 2014, his tears have now turned them against Modi

Misery of being a farmer

There are no rich farmers in Punjab. My observations are based on my  village where I live. The average land holding per family with two teenage children is 3-5 acres. Most farmers follow the two-crop (wheat–paddy) cycle due to the assured MSP. The average yield of wheat is 20 quintals per acre. At the MSP of Rs 1,925 per quintal, the per acre earning would come to about Rs 38,500. Input costs are Rs 11,000 per acre. Net earning stands at Rs 27,500 per acre.

The average yield of paddy is 25 quintals per acre. Input costs is Rs 14,000 per acre. Net earning per acre at an MSP of Rs 1,870 would come to about Rs 32,750. Thus the average farming family in Punjab earns between Rs 1,80,750 – Rs 3,01,250 per year or Rs 15,062 – 25,104 per month. This is equivalent to unskilled and skilled labour wages. These calculations do not take into account personal labour cost of the entire family and are based on my own experience and on data collected by me from other farmers.

The affluent lifestyle of four decades — beginning 1970, when land holdings were two to four times bigger — is maintained by bank loans, assistance from children and kith settled abroad or by a family member engaged in non-farming job. That’s how the state’s rural economy is being supported to a large extent.

On an average, the loan amount is Rs 100,000 per acre. It costs Rs 15-20 lakhs to send one family member, by fair or foul means, abroad. For this also, a loan is raised. It takes nearly five years before the money starts coming from abroad. Due to their own fault, children of farmers aren’t competitively educated and lose out jobs to the urban youth. It is no longer cost-effective to keep one or two milch animals. Today, dairy farming requires heavy investment. Punjab has seen limited industrialisation. Jat Sikh farmers are wary of blue collar jobs. Even the limited industry that is there, prefers migrant workers.

In a nutshell, the image of an affluent Punjab farmer is a mirage. Of course, the Punjab farmers are themselves to be blamed for their sorry situation — they failed to diversify and empower themselves for the changed environment and market practices. MSP is the mainstay of their survival and the artificial lifestyle they maintain. In a decade’s time, farming will become completely unsustainable in Punjab. Situation in other states is similar. In many states, even worse.

Also read: ‘Are 60% Indians terrorists?’ — Rahul Gandhi slams Kangana Ranaut over tweet on farmers

Agriculture requires urgent reforms

My observations make a very strong case for urgent reforms, and to that end the government is right. Even the farmer recognises this. The problem lies elsewhere. It is socio-economic in nature and it is empirical wisdom that farming is not an economic activity and requires government support.

The farmers see the new laws as loaded in favour of the businessmen/corporates. A case in point is the ‘unconstitutional’ dispute resolution mechanism that prevents the farmer from filing legal cases. They understand that without government support and existing market infrastructure, sooner than later, the laws of economics will take over, their way of life will be destroyed and they will be reduced to penury.

Without a legal backing, the government’s promise of continuing MSP lacks credibility. More so, when these reforms were introduced through an ordinance and bulldozed through Parliament without debate and scrutiny. The constitutional tradition of agriculture being a state subject under our federal structure has been contemptuously undermined.

To sum up, logically, reforms are required but both social and economic factors must be taken into account. The stakeholders — farmers — must be engaged and the reforms should be consensual and not made only by theoretical experts and parliamentarians without farming background. Adequate safeguards of law must be made to prevent exploitation. The current laws have no obligation for businessmen/corporates to ensure welfare of farmers beyond engaging in commerce. There is a strong case to hold the laws in abeyance or repeal them and make a fresh start.

The farmers’ movement is not going away. In fact, based on the prevailing perception among the farmers of the government being complicit in the actions of the fringe that symbolised the events of 26 January, the movement has got greater impetus. The happenings at Ghazipur on the night of 28-29 January are a case in point. The farmers have recovered the moral high ground and will remain steadfast. The ball is in the government’s court.

Also read: Not my job to comment on law & order, says Tomar after farmers allege harassment by police

Dangerous portents for Punjab

The Khalistan movement in Punjab has been fighting an existential battle for the last three decades. There are no takers. Even the cult status of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is more like what Che Guevara was for the young in the 1970s.

Yet, all ingredients of radicalisation are omnipresent — a border state, a religious community that revels in past glory and sacrifice, diminishing land holdings, shrinking incomes, loss of relative affluence, lack of industrialisation and unemployed youth lacking quality education with high rate of alcohol and drug dependency. Every family has one member abroad and thus becomes vulnerable to radicalisation from Khalistan supporters there.

Despite all this, in Punjab, there is no time or thought for Khalistan. True to their culture, Sikhs are too busy living life king size — khadha peeta lahe da, baki Ahmad Shahe da (whatever you can eat and drink is yours, rest belongs to Ahmad Shah, a reference to the Afghan invader).

If this patriotic community, chastened by the bloody decade of 1980-90, continues to be branded as Khalistani by the neo-nationalists and a section of the media with the perceived support of the ruling dispensation, then the consequences for national security will be horrendous. It is time for a course correction by the government before it is too late. 

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

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  1. I, a fauji, am 100% with Gen Panag about not to ever allow the ghost of 1984 to rise again. It is too scary. Yes there have been perfidious attempts to wake up those ghost during current Farmers protest and need to be stamped down. Where do we start? Punjab is in a mess of its own making as Dr. Johl, a 93 year old agro-economist has shown. Now they want to blame all and sundry for it. Secondly why was not Yogi Raj Singh, father of cricketer Yuvraj Singh, condemned and kicked out for his terrible comments against Hindu women? Why did some Sikh war heroes wear their venerable medals during protests and give interviews to channels? Those who called protesters Khalistanis, stitch their mouths surgically and throw the needle away till the protests finish. One good outcome of the 26th mayhem is that the focus has shifted from Sardar protesters to Tikait. That blunts the communalist edge of the protest. And finally it is too specious to call this 2-State protest as All India protest.

  2. * “If the farmer wants, he can cancel all the three agricultural laws” *

    * Whatever farmers of this country are not in favor of the three agricultural laws of the central government, * * The government is not canceling them, * You cancel the tax yourself, * * I have canceled the tax, * * You also tax Two cancel * – * very easy, see how * –

    1. The first law is that the farmer will not be forced to sell his crop in mandis only at APMC, where he can sell it to whom he wants. Those farmers who do not like this freedom can decide that we will go to Mandi at APMC and sell our crop to the same agent who has been selling it earlier.
    First law canceled

    2. The second law is that at the time of planting the crop, the farmers will be able to compromise with any buyer beforehand, at what price that buyer will buy their crop. Buyers will go to disguise! Do not compromise
    The second law is canceled!

    3. The third law is that one can collect as much agricultural produce as he wants, there will be no limit. Although this is not applicable to any farmer, it is for the traders. But the farmer who is getting this law wrong, he should decide the extent of keeping the crop in his barn.
    The third law has been canceled

    The rest of those who find these laws right, let them live according to them!

    If you do not like the law, then you should not obey it. There is no coercion. You sell your crop in the old way, there is no pressure or coercion of any kind, but farmers who have to take advantage of them, please
    Let us take advantage of the laws.

  3. What a racist post. For everyone agreeing, your privilege or lack of knowledge on farming is clear. Also, just to educate the authors, and everyone who agrees with this heavily opinionated and lack of facts article, not all farmers are Punjabi or Sikh.

    Also, if you actually understood the laws being passed, you would see the problems. The biggest problem is, people do not want to educate themselves and understand the problem. So my suggestion to you all would be educate yourself on the situation.

  4. As stated before in my previous post , an independent Khalistan would be a landlocked nation , it would lose a huge portion of trade with the rest of the country, as well as employment in the Indian military.

    The same MSP that they are crying themselves hoarse for has depleted the groundwater reserves in the NorthWestern states of Punjab and Haryana, so it is highly unlikely that trying to materialize foolish and romantic hopes of the warrior peasant working the same job , tilling the lands that his forefathers did , into a pragmatic economic policy would end in the same manner as Chavez’s economic policies did for Venezuela, real life is not some Superhero cinematic universe.

    Unfortunately, any economist warning of the same would be ignored , as they are ignored right now, not one economist worth his salt has recommended that GOI take back these laws, not based on economic grounds, at least, Thomas Piketty is a darling of the left, he was an advisor to RaGa’s 2019 Manifesto and these same laws were part of that said manifesto, why doesn’t he bring up the moronic Jio vs BSNL analogy in his assessment, is it because he knows he would be laughed at by his peers for comparing a luxury to a necessity?

    But, you know what?, I say let them have their referendum, because repealing these same laws would set a dangerous precedent that would lead to protests after protests continuously strong-arming the elected legislature of India to effectively turn us into a Latin American Peronist disaster.

    And if I have to choose between India splitting into Dozens of states, where it’s possible that there would be a few of the post balkanized India states would be like Mauritius and Switzerland, or the Union of India regressing back to the License Raj, I would happily choose the former.

  5. No doubt, the root cause of the problem is this government’s arrogant attitude: “I know what is good for you. Accept it.”. But, the socio-economic reasons cannot justify the murderous attack on the police resulting in injury to over 500 policemen. More police were injured than the protesting farmers. There is no sympathy for these police personnel doing their duty, who also have wife, mother, children, father and so on. This minority mindset of “Pamper me and handle me with kid gloves. Otherwise, I will become radicalised.” is disgusting and dangerous.

  6. This article is the most apt example why Generals and armed forces should be kept at arms length of country’s economy and polity ; and they should stick to their area of expertise i.e. security issues– mostly external and at few instances internal.
    Authors depiction of security aspects is very appropriate but at economic and political analysis is where his uniformed , inexperienced yet ‘know it all attitude’ comes into fore.

    Maybe that’s the reason why despite being ruled by disciplined branch like armed forces and generals , countries like pakistan are looking at economic and political stagnation and marginalization

  7. So basically just like Pakistan;s views. Dont suppress muslims or they will pick up arms against India. What sort of blackmail is it?

  8. What can be termed as ‘proper handling’ ?
    Why do we feel that the protesting farmers are the rightful representatives? Even if an agreement is reached with them, will others not come up saying that discussions are not conducted with them and so will start one more protest ?

  9. 1) If the laws are repealed, what next ? These will not be touched again by anyone in the future. Farmers will probably suffer even more. I have not heard about farmer suicides in Punjab, but these happened in lot of other places.
    2) Tractors in big numbers, Motor bikes by young farmers do not give a picture that the protestors are poor farmers. if you go to other places in the country, farmers do not have luxury of bicycles also. Such is the state across the country. If these laws are going to help vast majority, then what is wrong? Aren’t enough numbers published about govt purchases in punjab Vs RoI ?
    3) The protest seems to be well funded. Wonder why the same funds cannot be used to support farmers to move to better agricultural practices.

  10. The crux of the article was in the last paragraph.
    The proponents of Khalistan have a point, Punjab would be much better of as an independent state living peacefully with both India and Pakistan.
    If the majority wish it then why not? In a democracy the majority of a people have the right of self determination.
    The Sikhs have their , own nation, and own land, the Khalsa are separate ethnically from Indians
    A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture. And the overwhelming people of its inhabitants are in agreement that there are a separate nation.
    According to this, people from Punjab are a different nation to that of people from India.
    As per the definition thr Khslsz have nothing in common with India.
    The high IQ Well fed pedigree Khalsa race has nothing in common with the malnourished stunted Indians.
    Panag you as a retired General know how difficult it is to recruit officers and men from the material that comes in for recruitment from the rest of India.
    The Khalsa is often seen feeding these people from makeshift kitchens.

    • I hear a Pakistani’s drivel. A Khalistan between India and Pakistan will be infiltrated and swallowed by Pakistan in no time. Pakistani rats know how to burrow through the soil.

    • Chagatai first of all congratulations for piecing together a few semi-coherent sentences of a foreign language. Means a lot coming from someone belonging to the land of – boys played well. Secondly, your ilk whose traditional vocation of fixing tyre tube punctures has produced someone who knows what IQ is, it is a serious achievement on your part. Thirdly, reading an online Indian paper tells either you’ve immigrated to West hiding in a shipping tanker like the rest of your countrymen who’re doing menial jobs or the land of pure finally has entered 21st century and therefore providing 3G/4G like internet service to its poverty stricken malnourished overwhelmingly illiterate and therefore religiously extremist population.

      You may be led in to the belief that you’re ethnically different from Indians, but the reality is your forefathers were too weak to remain Indian. And your military has played a cruel joke on you by making your lot believe in the theory that Turkey/China are your fathers. A nation propped up by loans and aid which finds itself with hat in her hand should accept that your real father is India and your forefathers were Indians albeit weak in their predisposition.

    • There are no sources in this post to back your claims that Sikhs want a separate nation, considering that they voted in the same party that engaged in pogroms that sent military personnel to the Golden Temple, means that 1980-90s have been forgotten.

      A separate Khalistan would be a landlocked nation, would lose the Indian Military as one of its biggest employers and we also did not mention Punjab Power.

      There are just a few of the reasons why an independent Khalistan would not be a prosperous utopia that you want Sikhs to believe it would be.

    • Yes Khalistan has to begin geographically from Nankana Sahib in Pakistan, birthplace of Guru Nanak Dev. Let Pakistan donate their entire Eastern Punjab border to an independent state, then India will happily give her Punjab.

    • ‘Khalsa are separate ethnically from Indians’. You do not know the meaning of ethinicity. All the population of Punjab, including in Pakistan, is of the same stock. What about Punjabi Hindus? Did they convert to sikhism or were parachuted into Punjab (including the parts which are in Pakistan)

    • I think India should step up its efforts to split Balochistan from the rest of Pakistan. After all, virtually every “argument” you make on why Punjab should be allowed to become Khalistan would apply to Balochistan too wouldn’t it ?

      And then I guess India should also provoke the Shias and Ahmadiyas to revel against the Punjabi and Sunni dictatorship that Pakistan is at the end of the day.

      You idiots seem to have forgotten the lessons from East Pakistan. Jinnah’s homeland for South Asia’s Muslims lasted barely 25 years. And given the vast mix of ethnicities in Pakistan, you are sitting on a powder keg pal.

  11. In September and October, the protesting farmers blocked Army convoys and fuel tankers from going onwards to Ladakh. Sikh farmers were already helping the Chinese military gain a lethal advantage in Ladakh in 2020!

  12. It is beyond me why there are no neutral mutually acceptable members body striving to drive a solution between the farmers and the government. Everyone is baking their own bread and this is now getting out of control since we are very well now watching the discussions veering off. 26 January started that and even the SKM has taken a backseat and all the headspace and airtime is being occupied by the same politicians. This was a movement for a totally different cause and reason. This movement is going to expose more and more fragmentations and hence the general is very right in pointing out the intrusion of anti social and separatist elements . It is inevitable. Just hoping for some sanity to prevail over all .

  13. You can engage with somebody who is ready for talks. If you set repealing of laws as a precondition, what else is there to discuss. Giving legal sanctity to MSP. Everyone knows how disastrous that would be. They wont stop there for sure, they would want subsidy on something else too. It will only be made worse in the future. If the farmers where really interested in dialogue, when the govt gave proposal to postpone the implementation, they would have accepted it and started working on it. As you rightly pointed out, the grievance readdresal in current farm laws are inadequate. That should be the working point. This agitation now is about the egos and political careers of the farm leaders. Vested interests are making of this agitation to exploit our fault lines. Punjab is its target. Disappointing of all is Captain Amrinder Singh. He knows and understands about this better than anybody else. Yet he is acting like somebody who wants to protect his political career at any cost . The government has failed to convey the reforms properly. Communication is not about giving statements or Mann ki Baat, it about going out showing what these reforms are capable of delivering. This government should stop talking and start performing in terms of reforms. Getting out of this without any major incidents is a big win for it.

  14. Excellent article, a true service to the nation. I sincerely hope all concerned take heed. Recent events are cause for great concern, and the future course must be marked with humility, empathy, sincerity and caution.

  15. I think government should leave farmers be and be exploited by these middle men. Government has genuinely tried to bring in more opportunities for farmers to sell, but we are living in an era where social media and road rampage will decide policy outcomes.

    As for Sikh separatism – Punjab pays lesser taxes than Chhatissgarh, funnier still the direct income tax paid by Punjab is lesser than that of direct income taxes paid by Assam. Ha! Punjab is dependent on rest of the country and not the other way round. So shove it this separatism thingy. Also before anyone mentions food – my food comes from other state and hopefully yours too because whatever Punjab produces is inconsumable.

    • it would be better you visited eastern UP and Bihar and Orissa farmers – then you may wish to review your comments about rish – poor – MSP and so on. Sitting at a desk is great fun – as long as the government does not auction desk jobs every two years ( in this era of joblessness) to benefit the ndustrialist

      • We in Bengal need the farm laws. Because we want to get rid of middlemen. Now don’t go on saying that I know nothing about farming.

    • Section 10 (1) of income tax act states agriculture income is exempted from taxation. Reason why punjab pay less tax and also section and land involve in agriculture is higher comparing to states you mentioned.

  16. The General states that Agriculture in Panjab needs reform and to this extent the Bills passed by Parliament and enacted by the Government are in the right direction./It is also common ground that the present practice of paddy and wheat cultivation will very soon lead to the drying up of ground water resources, rendering the crop lands to desertification and barren.Still General Panag recommends the continuation of present crop regime,citing socio-economic compulsion and creeping Sikh separatist tendencies in Panjab.The Government has virtually conceded most of the demands of the farmers,yet they are adamant about repealing the laws.The General seems to have bought the views of the political opposition namel;y oppose at any cost.As a distinguished General of the Indian Army he could have raised his voice in favour of a moderate position by the Jat farmers.

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