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

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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.

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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.