The ongoing farmers’ protest against the Narendra Modi government’s new agricultural laws isn’t just a battle to secure a legal guarantee for minimum support price, or seek repeal of the three legislations. The battle is also to stop India’s rich capitalists from smuggling out farmers’ labour power without paying the cost – and there are several reasons why farmers from the Sikh community are at the forefront.
The Sikh farmers of Punjab were the first to grasp the danger when Parliament passed the three controversial bills in a great hurry, without a discussion or taking farmers’ unions into confidence.
The last time Sikhs of Punjab were locked in a battle with the government was in the early 1980s, when the Indira Gandhi administration had sent troops into the state to curtail the rising insurgency. But if the emerging Khalistan movement restricted wider support then, the Sikh farmers now have a worthy cause – and they have galvanised the country’s farming community and generated nationwide support. They will go down in India’s history as the frontline heroes of the farmers’ movement.
Toe to toe
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government – with help from its campaigners like Kangana Ranaut – are trying to portray Punjab’s Sikh farmers as ‘Khalistani terrorists’. But it won’t be easy. The Sikh farmer-youth are not only more educated, they are also globally spread out and can give a fitting reply to the Hindutva army. If the RSS-BJP allow their loose cannons to go after them as they did against Kashmiris, after the abrogation of Article 370, India as a nation will be in danger. The Sikh farmers can fight the battle better than any other state’s farming community in the country.
They are equally aware of what might constitute as a political gimmick. Modi rushed to one of the gurudwaras in New Delhi and kneeled before the Guru Granth Sahib but the Sikh farmers know why he was doing it. They remained unmoved.
It is this awareness and conviction that has blunted the Hindutva attack on them and also made farmers from across India join them in the movement. They understand the tactics deployed by the likes of Kangana, who repeatedly uses terms like ‘Khalistani terrorists’.
But the film industry from different regions, including Bollywood, is turning towards the farmers’ fight for justice and survival. They have rightly described the farmers as ‘food soldiers’ of India. Without the ‘farming soldiers’ producing food, there won’t be ‘standing soldiers’ on the borders. The RSS-BJP government never recognised the farm soldiers as nationalists but only adored big business families as real nationalists.
Dignity of labour
Another reason why Sikh farmers have taken up the cudgels is to defend the labour, which is accorded great dignity in Sikhism. And it has roots in the relative undermining of casteism among Sikhs.
Majority of Sikh farmers are Jats. Historically, they too belonged to the Shudra varna who suffered indignities at the hands of Dwijas (Brahmins, Baniyas and Khatris) in united Punjab. Once Guru Nanak Dev established Sikhism and his and other Sikh Gurus’ teachings and hymns were compiled together into the religious scripture Guru Granth Sahib, it laid the foundation for the community’s liberation from the varna order and the indignity of labour.
It brought self-respect among the Shudra labourers, changing their status from that of an undignified community in a hierarchical system into one of equal and dignified members. Today, no farming community of India is as self-respecting as that of the Jat Sikhs. This is not to say that Dalit Sikhs, who are also known as mazhabi Sikhs, do not face social discrimination in Punjab. They do.
But the Sikh community is not as casteist and varna dharma practitioners as the Hindutvawadis are. Dalit Sikhs have their own Ravidasi gurudwaras around the world. They are also fairly well-educated than the Dalit community in any other part of India. They have an independent spiritual and social identity, though largely part of Sikhism. Although the Hindutvawadis want to portray Sikhism as part of Hinduism, their efforts don’t bear much fruit because Sikhs realise these are just methods of co-opting. Sikhism has already got global recognition as an independent religion.
Moreover, any Sikh with sufficient knowledge of Guru Granth Sahib, irrespective of gender, can become a Granthi, unlike in Hinduism. Though Arya Samaj allows women priests to recite shlokas and perform marriages, there is no liberation for women in labour participation in that sect too. Such gender-neutral involvement in spiritual and production process in Sikhism, unlike in Hinduism and also Islam, and their collective labour participation and efficiency in farm production, made Punjab India’s food basket. The RSS-BJP never called for such caste-free and gender-neutral participation in agrarian production. On the contrary, they emphasise on maintaining the parampara of varna dharma.
The advancement of Punjab agriculture is rooted in the social base of everybody working on the farm with dignity. Thus, Punjab has evolved as a separate cultural entity within Indian federalism. The state produces a lot of wheat and milk, and the notion of ‘Kar Seva’ (labour service) even in gurudwaras has attracted global attention.
The gurudwaras – particularly the Golden Temple of Amritsar – are known for their langars where any visitor can have free food and even rich members of the Sikh community freely participate in labour. Such a culture of labour service without invoking the caste cultural indignity in temples is not there on the agenda of the RSS-BJP, even though their members and supporters routinely project themselves as authentic Hindu nationalists. Without promoting the dignity of labour by the nation’s ruling class, no nation can develop. The government doles out slogans like Swachh Bharat and Atmanirbhar Bharat but they would mean nothing without injecting the dignity of labour in the spiritual-religious system.
A living contrast
Sikhism lays stress on ‘Sarbat da bhalla’ (working towards the common good of all) and kar seva (doing physical work for the common good). These two ideas are part of the Guru Granth spiritual ideology, which runs counter to the varna dharma ideology of the Hindutva forces. The Sikh Gurus established the concept of dignity of labour at a time when the idea was almost unknown to the Brahminical spiritual, social and political ideology.
The Shudra/Dalit farmers and labourers in the Hindutva ideology are disrespected and considered undignified human beings, despite being the pillars of India’s food production system outside Punjab. The Modi government has not done anything to change this fundamental belief of caste and varna, and make farm work dignified in the spiritual and social system. What it has done instead is brought laws that would allow monopolistic capitalists to exploit the poor farmers even though they never participate in the socio-economic changes or spend their wealth on the wellbeing of the people at large.
The Sikh farmers are now part of a strong global community with agrarian production knowledge as their backbone. They have migrated to the US, Canada and Australia to furrow the forest lands and have become respectable citizens of those countries. They are a major political force in Canada now. India must learn from them with humility. And the RSS-BJP too must rein in its forces that are constantly working to demonise the Sikh community. The more they do that, the more they will be exposed before the world, not just in India.
The author is a political theorist, with an upcoming new book The Shudras — Vision for a New Path co-edited with Karthik Raja Karuppusamy (Penguin). Views are personal.
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