Divided we fall; some hard lessons for the left and Sikh activists

Farmers

The recent outburst against Communists by a spokesman of India’s ruling right wing Hindu nationalist BJP should come as a wakeup call for those fighting against each other over the control of an ongoing farmers’ agitation in Punjab.

Harinder Singh Kahlon had asked for throwing “comrades” behind bars for instigating the peasantry struggle.

The Indian farmers have been camping outside New Delhi since November 2020, against unjust farm laws that threaten their livelihood. Since Punjab is a Sikh dominated state where agriculture is the backbone of the economy, a majority of the agitating farmers from there come from Sikh backgrounds. That said, not everyone is a practising Sikh, as many of them are aligned with the communist movement.

Kahlon is a former leader of the All India Sikh Student Federation (AISSF), a radical group that was in the forefront of the struggle for an autonomous Sikh region, and considered communists as their ideological enemy. On their part, the communists denounced Sikh separatism and theocracy of any shade. This led to a bloody conflict between the two sides between 1980s-1990s, as a result of which many communist leaders were assassinated by the Sikh separatists, who accused the leftists of being hand-in-glove with the Indian state, despite the fact that a number of those killed had also opposed the state repression of innocent Sikhs.

Kahlon was recently appointed as the BJP spokesman in Punjab, where the farmers’ protest continues. This may have been part of a design to weaken the agitation by roping in a former hardliner Sikh, who could checkmate the Sikh activists whose stakes are also involved in the struggle. Squarely aimed at the communists, his speech clearly suggests the desperation of the BJP, which wants to create a wedge between the Sikh activists and the left leaders who have come together to challenge the controversial farm laws.

Kahlon not only created a storm by calling for the arrests of the communists, but went further to claim that he was instrumental in wiping them out during the 1980s.

It is unfortunate that a section of the left movement and the Sikh activist camp have neither given up past hostilities, nor they have honestly tried to learn anything from the history. Instead, they continue to stick to their guns, making the job of the BJP government easier. Perhaps the BJP knows this very well, and has been trying to exploit the situation.

A case in point is the mudslinging of Sonia Mann, an actress-turned-activist. She is the daughter of the late communist leader from Punjab, Baldev Singh Mann, who was murdered by the Sikh separatists in 1986. Sonia is actively participating in the farmers’ protest, and came under vilifying campaign from among the Sikh activists who still believe in a separate homeland.

Such divisions only benefit the BJP, just as the killings of the communists by Sikh militants helped the neoliberal governments of the past. It should not surprise anyone that the Indian state succeeded in creating a favourable political environment for the bourgeois forces, after liquidating the Sikh militants through extrajudicial measures, while letting them kill communists at will before the Sikh separatist movement was brought to an end.

It is hard to prove whether the Indian state incited Sikh militants to kill communists, or tried to kill two birds with one stone through agent provocateurs. But one communist activist, Tejinder Virli, points out that a significant number of leftists were murdered during the tenure of SS Ray, who was the governor of Punjab from 1986 to 1989.

Ray had previously served as the Chief Minister of West Bengal, where he crushed the communist revolutionary movement. Virli believes that he might have been behind the scheme to get the communists killed through the Sikh militants. That the militant movement was penetrated by the Indian agents is well documented. Among the dead were several mainstream communists who had unashamedly sided with the government in its aggressive policy toward the Sikh separatists in the name of national interest, but those like Baldev Singh Mann who stood up against the state violence were not spared either.

For the record, Mann had opposed the military invasion of the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in June 1984. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had ordered the ill-conceived army operation to deal with a handful of militants, leaving many innocent pilgrims dead. This had alienated the Sikhs and galvanized the movement for a separate homeland of Khalistan. Mann, in spite of being staunchly opposed to Khalistan, had criticised the military attack and the subsequent violence against the Sikhs by security forces.

This culminated in the murder of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984, following which thousands of innocent Sikhs were slaughtered across India by the goons led by her party activists. Another revolutionary communist, Paash, had written a protest poem against the pogroms. Nevertheless, he too was killed by the Khalistani extremists.

Years later, the diary of slain Khalistani militant leader Labh Singh revealed that he repented the killings of Mann and Paash, who despite differences of opinion on many issues never became apologists of the Indian establishment. Singh had acknowledged that murdering Mann and Paash was a tactical mistake.

Indeed, the Sikh activists and the leftists could have found a common ground on people’s issues, such as human rights, fair treatment of minorities, autonomy and fair distribution of natural resources, which led to the start of the Sikh movement in the first place. It is pertinent to mention that some of the participants of the Sikh struggle had been part of the revolutionary communists in the past. The economic hardships of the middle class farmers had partly turned them into communists during late 1960s and Khalistanis decades later. It is for the protagonists of these two movements to find out the linkage and analyse.

Today, under an outright Hindu fascist regime that openly targets minorities, including the Sikhs and the leftists, this question has become even more relevant and easy to resolve. After all, the draconian laws are only being used against minority or the leftist organizations to suppress any voice of dissent, and not against the Hindu extremists who continue to terrorise everyone with impunity.

To begin with, old hostilities must be kept aside to fight against the common enemy that is much more powerful. Kahlon’s statement should unite those engaged in the farmers’ movement, in spite of philosophical differences. Diversity of views is the beauty of the farmers’ struggle and must be respected come what may.

Let’s face it; the Punjabi farmer is mainly a Sikh, and a Sikh farmer could be religious or irreligious, a supporter of Khalistan or even a united India, but that is all immaterial. This is an important moment, especially for the left to reflect on itself. The BJP supporters have been trying to demonize the Sikh famers as separatists and terrorists. If you want to survive in Punjab, take this as an insult of not only your Sikh brethren, but your own. An injury to one should be taken as an injury to all.

This also applies to the Sikh leaders who fail to see communists as their allies, and try to judge them all as atheists from the narrow lens of religion. Painting the entire left with one brush is also hugely problematic. Just for the sake of argument, if some of the left leaders were acting at the behest of the Indian state, how would they like to explain Kahlon’s admission, which only shows the real loyalties of a former AISSF leader, who has now joined the BJP and openly speaks the language of the government?

The two sides miserably failed to identify the real enemy back then, and have failed to identify it even today. At least learn from your own heritage. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, preached to share and earn one’s living through honesty and hard work. His vision for an egalitarian society is compatible with socialism.

Gurpreet Singh is a journalist from Canada

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