Mumbai: Hundreds of mainly Sikh farmers who broke barricades and clashed with police to converge at the historic Red Fort on India’s Republic Day appear to have been led there by rabble-rousing from a designated terrorist based in the US, an actor who has campaigned for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and popular frustration at the State’s unwillingness to give farmers a prominent platform to draw the nation’s attention to their protest.
Farm unions have now cancelled their plans to march on Parliament on 1 February, the Delhi Police have arrested more than 250 protestors and two unions have withdrawn from the protests, even as about 500,000 farmers continue living on the highways leading into Delhi, as they have since November 2020, demanding the rollback of three new laws on agricultural marketing.
On 26 January, Republic Day, the protests completed 60 days of living on the highway, despite a harsh winter and unseasonal rain. But, by that afternoon, a farmer was dead, hundreds injured, including over 300 policemen, as police fired teargas and baton-charged some groups among the thousands participating in a parade of tractors on a day of a traditional military parade.
The morning after the violence, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the founder of banned Khalistani secessionist group ‘Sikhs For Justice’ (SFJ) posted a video, lauding the hoisting of the Sikh sacred flag, the triangular Nishan Sahib, on the ramparts of Red Fort and urging the protesting farmers to next “seize Parliament” on 1 February.
Pannun enjoys very little support in Punjab, but on social media and among some political leaders in Punjab, there was alarm over the past week about his grand announcements of cash rewards for subversive acts, as his inflammatory videos were shared in a tense atmosphere.
The website of the Sikhs For Justice has been inaccessible for a while as illegal content. Based on a complaint from the Government of India in June 2020, Pannun’s Twitter handle was also suspended.
SFJ’s sister site, www.Referendum2020.org, was active until Wednesday mid-morning, when Pannun posted his latest video message. This site is named for a worldwide Sikh referendum on Khalistan, or a free nation-state for Sikhs, that Pannun had proposed, a move opposed by other Sikh leaders including other supporters of a free Khalistan.
Viewed by Article 14 before the site was taken down, the SFJ founder claimed in a 27 January video clip that he had raised the reward for hoisting the Nishan Sahib flag at Red Fort by US $ 100,000, to $ 350,000. The 6.44-minute video was a shrill exhortation to young Sikhs to reclaim from the Indian State “occupied” Punjab. Speaking in Punjabi, Pannun said the Indian tricolour was “bloody”, referring to violence faced by Sikhs during Partition.
A video clip of Pannun’s exhortation to protesting Punjab farmers to carry flags valorising secessionist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was also still active on the Referendum2020 website, as were a range of downloadable documents, from allegations of genocide of Sikhs by the Indian State to the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 to reports of SFJ-organised events in the US to support the farmer protests. Previous award declarations included a sum for any farmer who hoisted the Khalistan flag at a toll plaza called Shambu between Punjab and Haryana.
Inflammatory Calls To Action
“Those who hoisted their own flag at Red Fort were all associated with Sikhs For Justice and Referendum2020,” said Ludhiana Member of Parliament Ravneet Singh Bittu of the Congress. He alleged those who led the men who broke into the Red Fort had been “hiding” in Delhi, and were not from the protest camps at the borders.
A week ago, Simranjit Singh Mann, two-time MP from Sangrur in the heart of Punjab and president of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Amritsar, a Khalistan-supporting splinter group of the Akali Dal, India’s second-oldest party after the Indian National Congress, posted a video message requesting Pannun “with folded hands” not to “provoke” protesting farmers. That was soon after news emerged that Pannun had advised his followers to cut power to Delhi on Republic Day.
The Shiromani Akali Dal-Amritsar, which has been seeking an independent state of Khalistan for nearly three decades, opposes Pannun’s methods and his 2020 referendum.
Against this incendiary backdrop, dissenting voices at Delhi’s protest sites reportedly took over the stage during late evening on occasion over the past week. On Monday night, actor-activist from Punjab Deep Sidhu led one such group that hijacked the main stage at the Singhu protest site, ostensibly to discuss protestors’ sentiment in favour of sticking to their originally proposed plan of a tractor rally along the Outer Ring Road of Delhi, one of Delhi’s main thoroughfares.
The Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, one of the unions, was opposed to restricting the tractor rally to Delhi’s outskirts, as the police had allowed, and Sidhu and others aggressively discussed sticking to ‘our route, Ring Road’.
Sidhu, The Man With The Saffron Flag
On Tuesday, Sidhu posted a video of himself at Red Fort, his selfie panning to the thousands gathered behind him, as he held a saffron flag that appeared to be the Nishan Sahib. Minutes later, a man was seen clambering up an empty mast and hoisting a Nishan Sahib.
Sidhu, a 36-year-old Punjabi actor-singer-activist, campaigned for BJP member of Parliament and Bollywood actor Sunny Deol during the latter’s campaign from the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat in the summer of 2019. Deol on Wednesday claimed neither he nor his family were in any way associated with Sidhu, despite photographs of the duo with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Farm unions have for weeks accused Sidhu of being the State’s Trojan horse. Sidhu shot a video of himself atop a tractor soon after the Red Fort bedlam. The actor, who has spent more than four months trying to gain visibility in the farmer protests, despite being shunned by various farmer unions, said people’s “genuine emotions” in a struggle, if ignored, would “flare up”.
Other videos surfaced on Wednesday, of Sidhu appearing to flee, as angry farmers confronted him over the communalisation of the protest parade. In another video, he is seen leaving the scene on a motorbike.
In another Facebook Live that appeared to be shot after nightfall on Republic Day, Sidhu said “genuine sentiment” of the people had been ignored by the senior leaders of the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella body of the protesting unions, leading to the outpouring of emotion at Red Fort. He refuted what he called attempts to paint him as the “villain” of the piece. The comments section of his Facebook Live was, however, filled with posts accusing him for the movement’s sudden descent into chaos on Tuesday.
Sidhu, who hails from Punjab’s Muktsar district, first emerged on the scene of the protests on the first night of the farmers’ arrival on the outskirts of Delhi. Wearing a white turban and speaking a slightly accented English, Sidhu was seen telling a policeman at the barricades, “Yeh Inquilab hai, sir. This is revolution.” The video of the actor went viral, and suddenly, Sidhu was the face of the revolution.
Two days later, he controversially alleged on journalist Barkha Dutt’s ‘The Mojo Story’ that secessionist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale “was not a terrorist”. Amid unsubstantiated allegations of pro-Khalistani groups supporting the farmers’ protest, Sidhu’s comments were grist to the nationalist mill.
On 12 January, as SFJ’s videos began to be noticed, India’s Attorney General KK Venugopal told the Supreme Court that ‘Khalistani elements had infiltrated’ the protests. Earlier in January, Sidhu was served summons by the NIA as a witness in an alleged terror-funding case involving the outlawed SFJ.
Present with Sidhu on the Singhu stage on the eve of Republic Day was Lakha Sidhana, a former political mercenary who is now an activist with a following among young Punjabis. Lakha, whose presence at Red Fort is not yet confirmed, runs an organisation called the Malwa Youth Federation. Born Lakhbir Singh, he belongs to Sidhana, a village near Bhatinda, 200 km west of capital Chandigarh.
“Deep Sidhu is not one of us,” Bhupender Chaudhary, Congress leader from Haryana and a member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), told Article 14. “He does not belong to the farmers’ struggle in any way.” Marching from the Tikri protest site himself, Chaudhary said other protestors were following the route agreed upon with the police.
BKU leader Rakesh Singh Tikait told television channels that Sidhu was a BJP worker. Gurnam Singh Chaduni, chief of the Haryana BKU, said Sidhu was a “BJP stooge” and that there had been no plan to march to Red Fort.
Tikait and Chaduni, among the senior leadership of the Sanyukta Kisan Morcha, have both been named in first information reports (FIRs) filed by the Delhi Police, and face the prospect of arrest, a likely body blow to the farmers’ struggle. Sidhu and Lakha Sidhani have also been named. Some of those named for participating in violence will face attempt to murder charges.
Who Is Gurpatwant Singh Pannun?
On 10 December, 2020, the NIA filed a chargesheet against 16 men for conducting propaganda for SFJ and Referendum2020. Pannun’s name, listed as a resident of New York, is on top of the list. The others chargesheeted are from Punjab and one from Delhi.
A statement from the NIA said the crimes had been committed in 2017-18 by “a gang of radicalised Sikh youth under the direction and financial assistance from SFJ handlers located abroad as part of an organised conspiracy by the accused for launching a concerted secessionist campaign for creation of Khalistan”.
Originally filed as two cases in Amritsar and Kapurthala, the cases against the SFJ were handed over to the NIAin April 2020. The agency said the secessionist SFJ was using social-media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube, and its websites to “propagate sedition” and radicalise youth through funds received from abroad. Pannun and his co-accused were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
Formed in 2007, SFJ was already designated a “unlawful association” under the UAPA.
An earlier charge sheet was filed on 9 December 2020, against Pannun and other foreign residents including accused based in the United States. United Kingdom and Canada. They were charged under UAPA for seditious activities under the ‘Referendum 2020’ banner.
The Significance Of R-Day, Red Fort For Protestors
January 26 is India’s ‘Republic Day’, marking the day in 1950 when the Indian Constitution was formally adopted. This year, the day also marked the completion of two months of a peaceful sit-in protest by at least 5 lakh farmers whose tractors, trolleys, water tankers, tents and some farm animals have been parked on highways leading into the capital city of New Delhi during this duration.
At the Tikri entry point into Delhi, one of the sites of protest, the area occupied by tractors and trolleys stretches 22 km, one third the distance to the neighbouring town of Rohtak on Delhi’s northwest.
The protesting farmers are demanding a rollback of three new laws pertaining to marketing of agricultural produce, laws that were rushed without debate through Parliament in September 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The government has presented the laws as key reforms to liberalise agricultural markets, but farmers fear dismantling of existing support price mechanisms and government procurement of produce. The undue haste that the Narendra Modi government displayed in jettisoning parliamentary consultative processes despite growing opposition to the bills deepened fears that powerful corporates would be chief beneficiaries of the reform. One central minister resigned, citing discomfort with the lack of dialogue with those whose lot the law is meant to improve.
The two-month blockade has won wide acclaim for its peaceful stance, the farmers’ camps, a colourful setting of performances, langar or free food for all, libraries for books on revolutionary struggles, and general conviviality. The farmers come from multiple states, including Maharashtra and Rajasthan, but the large majority are from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
When farmers reached Red Fort on 26 January, there were first scenes of euphoria as they unfurled flags including the Indian tricolour -- the Red Fort is particularly significant for Sikhs.
Amid Disquiet, Protestors Face Declining Support
Having dissociated themselves from the events at Red Fort, calling off the parade and asking protestors to return to continue their vigil at the sites on the borders of Delhi, senior leaders of the farmer unions tried to regain control over the protestors through 27 January, with little effect. Two farmer unions said they were withdrawing from the protest. Late into the night, megaphones were still in use at Tikri and aggressive sloganeering continued.
Those present at Tikri and Singhu told Article 14 that having stood out as a largely leaderless protest of people including farmers who were not unionised, 27 January saw scores of those not affiliated to any union pack their belongings and leave for home.
Police and paramilitary reinforcement were positioned at the sites, they said. While Internet services were suspended in various parts of the capital, including at the border protest sites on 26 January afternoon, services resumed on the 27th.
Nearby, late that night, local administration in Baraut town of Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district convinced a group of farmer protestors living in a tent for 40 days on the highway to return to their homes.
“Hum kahaan khade the aur kahaan pahunch gaye (how much ground we have lost),” a dispirited Chaduni said on the afternoon of 27 January, addressing a large crowd of protestors at Singhu. “Because of one man, though there were many, but because of one flag hoisting incident, we are facing opposition in the entire country.”
(Kavitha Iyer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)