Punjab’s Fields of Liberation: The Farmer Strike and the Sikh Struggle



As 40,000 farmers are still occupying the outskirts of Delhi to protest the new agriculture bills introduced by the Indian State, we asked Shamsher Singh to provide a Sikh perspective on the struggle. He describes the successive violence imposed on Punjab from the European colonizers, the Partition, and the centralized Indian State, and offers an emancipative futurity through the project of an independent country: Khalistan.

Featured Image 6
Protestors carrying both the Khalistan and Indian flags on the Kundli-Manesar-Palwal expressway around Delhi on March 7, 2021. / Photo by Exposure Visuals.

I’ve grown up hearing that the fields of Punjab are watered with the blood of Sikh martyrs, listening to songs and stories which celebrate our people as Shaheeda Di Qaum (a people/nation of martyrs). Today, as a result of the mass mobilization and resistance of the kisaan mazdoor ekta morcha (farmer-laborer solidarity front), Punjab features in international news occupying the streets of Delhi — obscured yet visible, buried within the colonial project that is India.

A photograph termed by the BBC as “the viral image that defines a protest” shows an Indian paramilitary officer swinging a baton at an elderly Sikh man as he passed a police barricade. As loud as the response to the photograph was, the reality it depicts regarding how Sikh bodies and Indian State violence are related is invisible. Before, within, and beyond the farmers’ protest, a struggle exists that challenges the “territorial integrity” of the Indian State, seeking to redefine power relations permanently.

When European colonizers made their interventions to control Sikhs in Punjab, one of the key things they enquired about was Sikh sovereignty. A discourse is recorded in a primary Sikh historical chronicle, the Sri Gur-Panth Parkash, between the writer Rattan Singh Banghu and the East India Company’s Captain David Murray. Murray asks, “how did Sikhs acquire political power and Statehood, and who bestowed sovereignty on the Sikhs,” to which Bhangu replies: “Guru Nanak.” Murray retorts that Guru Nanak was a “mere fakir,” who knew nothing of sovereignty and rule. In response, Bhangu explains that Guru Nanak was more than what Murray knew, that sovereignty is divine imbued within creation, that Sikhs saw this as a gift from the Guru which came with a commitment to crushing oppression and uplifting the oppressed.

This interrogation into Indigenous Sikh sovereignty, our patshahi, has remained at the center of contention with the imperialist power structures which have dominated Punjab and sought to dominate the very being of Sikhs. In 1849, after 40 years of war with Sikhs, European colonizers “annexed” Punjab and over the next 100 years, the firangi imposed economic and political structures to repress the expressions of patshahi and replace them with an authoritarian State that could efficiently exploit the land and people for the profit of the empire. Sikhs were left with no right to claim a sovereignty distinct from the State, and no right to claim nationhood in their own country, which was now fragmented into four new States straddling the two new countries of India and Pakistan.

It was this political structure that was handed over to “Indians” in 1947. The transfer of power made sure that the imperial relationship continued and this is the foundation on which internal center-State relations in modern India are based. In other words “national independence” did not lead to decolonization. Colonialism changed forms, but the underlying discourse, structures, and power relations remain firmly in place today. This is the fundamental issue underlying the new laws, the ongoing domination and exploitation of Punjab by the centralized political structure of the Indian State whereby Punjab is treated as a colony of Delhi to be exploited for its own interests and those of global capital. The so-called “agricultural reforms” not only undermine the minimal support currently available in an already unstable and punitive agricultural system, but they directly facilitate the corporate takeover of farmland and continue to centralize political power in Delhi.

Punjab’s over-dependence on agriculture today is a function of India’s State-building process since 1947 which intentionally underdeveloped Punjab in order to serve Indian food and national security objectives. These policies manipulated Punjab’s agrarian structure leading to environmental destruction, vicious debt cycles, farmer suicides, denial of economic diversification, and forced migration of Punjab’s youth. In other words, even before these bills were introduced, Punjab and its agricultural system were already at a crisis point.

The subjection of Punjab to Delhi is compounded by the region’s location within the global capitalist system. The further penetration of neoliberalism into Punjab’s agrarian structure through the bills serves imperialist interests by providing greater access to Indian markets and the corresponding profits. The corporate takeover of Punjab’s farmland will not be limited to the Ambani, Adanis, or others in the Hindi belt who benefit from crony capitalism domestically. These bills are a clear mechanism to expand access, profit, and control for their global partners like Facebook and Google, as well.

Beyond the immediate political and economic impacts however, these bills are also linked to India’s larger social project of building a Hindu rashtra (nation) — by repressing and erasing all alternative identities and modes of sovereignty. In this sense, these bills are a strategic step towards centralising political power in Delhi, solidifying its international support as an aspiring global power, and culturally homogenising the subcontinent.

Singh Funambulist
Young Nihang (lit: crocodile, Sikh warriors) listen to a speech from the farmer strike stage at Kundali border. / Photo by Gurnoor Riar (2021).

In response, a clear motivation was being articulated by Sikh people, young and old, as they marched to occupy Delhi; they were the children of the Guru, from a land of martyrs — they would not submit to laws that would leave them at the mercy of corporations, they prefer to die in this fight with Delhi. The Guru Khalsa Panth (the sovereign Sikh collective) has always resisted every invasion and uprooted Delhi-based empires in order to defend the oppressed by destroying tyrannical powers. This culture of Sikh resistance and intangible Sikh spirit continues to drive the mobilization on the ground and can be evidenced in the discourse, symbols, and institutions seen on the ground. From Langar, the Sikh communal-kitchen that feeds the farmers and the surrounding impoverished masses alike, to the makeshift schools, medical tents, showers, and solar generators, the protest has acquired a decentralized nature itself, with these morchas transforming into a city within a city.

The decentralized and latent radical Sikh potential of the protest combined with a Sikh spirit galvanizing in resistance is a major concern for the Indian State. In the attempts to police the protest, these fears come to the surface. In order to contain the protest, we have seen the Indian State call the protesters “terrorists,” arrest journalists, detain farmers, torture labour organisers, and jail the youth leaders using colonial sedition laws. The Indian State has sought multiple times to capitalize on its powerful demonization of Khalistan to create the social consent to justify greater violence against the farmers, but so far it has been unsuccessful. The most stark example of this strategy was seen in the wake of January 26, when Indian security forces and fascist mobs unleashed violence on protestors — particularly those marked as visibly Sikh. The genocidal violence of Indian nationalism and the State seen during the so-called “counter-insurgency”, was again mobilised during the mass arrests of hundreds of farmers and the custodial violence faced by activists like Ranjit Singh Kazampur.

The idea of Khalistan that threatens the “territorial integrity of India” offers the potential to live in Punjab as whole beings, where Sikhs can flourish and determine their relationship with the land. The imperialist capitalist process of commodification of our dharti (land/mother) and kirat (labor) erases the divine nature of the world experienced through Sikhi by turning land and labour into material objects that serve haumai (ego) and desire. This Eurocentric model of so-called “development” is based on transforming Punjab’s kirti-kisan (laborer and farmer) solely into workers and consumers — breaking them from the divine worldview, socioeconomic structures, and political vision of Sikhi. This transformation is what enables excessive rates of mass consumption, exploitation within communities, and the destruction of the environment. It fundamentally breaks from the Sikh worldview of sarbat da bhala premised on developing ethical relationships with all elements of Akaal’s creation, including when we work on the kirat karni (land) and produce any form of vand ke chhakna (wealth).

Rejuvenating our praxis in line with this worldview is the starting point for regenerating the social, political, and economic systems envisioned in begampura (a casteless, class-free land; “the city without sorrows”) and halemi raj (an egalitarian social structure without discrimination).

This praxis has been reflected in the diverse and inclusive nature of participation in the morcha, displayed in the diversity of geographical regions, caste, class, political ideology, ethnicity, and spiritual traditions of participants. This is clearly more than just an economic conflict of farmers: it is a revolt against the British-inspired Indian State project itself, neoliberalism, and the fascist project of a Hindu rashtra. Punjab remains at the helm, driven by Sikhi and a commitment to sovereignty, resistance, and sarbat da bhala.

In the context of this vast diversity, the larger questions remain over what liberation could look like, leading to tension and sometimes outright conflict within participants themselves: perhaps improved democracy in India, or greater autonomy for Punjab with India honoring some idea of federalism, a class-based revolution led by farmers and workers, or a new Sikh country of Khalistan?

At its core, the current morcha is simultaneously confronting the authoritarian and centralized structure of the Indian State as well as the domination and exploitation of global capitalism. While repealing the three bills is the immediate demand, the ultimate solution is decolonization and the complete decentralization of power in the subcontinent — not only in the respective regions, but across each individual village and farm. Our vision for liberation must be capable of mutual respect, co-existence, and cooperation within the diverse entities resisting the violence of India and global capitalism, rather than replicating the homogenising authoritarianism of the State.

The Sikh struggle throughout the centuries has never been a sectarian movement predicated on a chauvinistic impulse of identity or self-interest. Every struggle has been an exercise of the patshahi bestowed upon the Sikhs to destroy the tyrants and protect the poor, and establish a just polity based on sanjhivalta (a dignified co-creation and coexistence of diverse entities). Jujharoos (warriors) and Shaheeds (martyrs) of the Sikhs have consistently fought to uproot every form of oppression while resisting any attempts to restrict their inherent sovereignty.

In this legacy, the Sikh struggle for Khalistan centers on a drive to exercise Guru-granted patshahi and establish a sovereign society-polity built around the Guru’s vision of sarbat da bhala and halemi raj. The struggle was initiated as a revolutionary resistance to abolish the Indian State, capitalist exploitation, and Hindutva’s caste-based supremacy, with a clear commitment to advancing the liberation of all oppressed peoples across the subcontinent.

Seeking reforms or limited power solely through the State and its institutions is not sufficient for our liberation. The international State system was itself developed through colonialism to maintain an imperial relationship across the world without needing direct colonial administration. More than merely reproducing that relationship or reforming the structures of the State, a lasting solution can only be found in dismantling this authoritarian structure altogether by building decentralized power for all from the grassroots up. This is the vision bestowed upon Sikhs by our Guru which guides our steps into the future. ■