India is witnessing the largest protests in the 21st century. Activist Premi Singh offers his passionate version of what is happening.
by Thierry Valle
Something huge is happening in India. The protest against the laws known as the Farmers Bills, mostly (but not exclusively) by Sikhs from Punjab, is becoming the largest mass protest movement of the 21st century on a worldwide scale, with more than 25 million protesters. While the farmers are fighting for their land, many Sikhs believe a religious element is involved, with a deliberate attempt to dilute and deny their identity, as part of a Hindu nationalist broader policy to “Hinduize” India.
The Sikhs’ voice on the protests is not heard often in the West. I interviewed Premi Singh, an outspoken and well-known Sikh activist based in Europe. His is, obviously, the Sikh version of the story, told in a passionate and often emotional voice. His opinions are not necessarily the magazine’s, but I believe they deserve to be heard.
Can you shortly introduce yourself?
My name is Premi Singh, I am a Sikh community representative, educator in Sikh affairs, and an activist on human rights. I have represented Sikhs, liberal Hindus, and other communities’ concerns and issues regarding human rights violations at the United Nations in Geneva. I have also spoken about and raised issues faced by many refugees and asylum seekers, regarding their deportation and immigration matters. I have also stood against and raised my voice against the brutality of unjustifiable wars. Apart from delegation duties and citizens diplomacy, I and my team actively support homeless communities across Europe via our work with various Sikh Gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship), and different active collaboration with charities like the British Red Cross, Khalsa Aid, and many other European charities.
Can you explain your concerns about the protests of the Sikh farmers currently taking place in India? And how is what may look as a purely economic problem connected to religion?
I will try to explain the farmers’ peaceful protest, and how it is linked with Sikhs and Panjabi [the preferred Sikh spelling is “Panjab” rather than “Punjab”] farmers in particular, and how it will have a serious impact on their livelihood. I want to discuss what I believe to be the main aim of far-right Hindu nationalist groups, and the current BJP government, which mostly consists of members of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a volunteer far-right Hindu nationalist organization). This is a group that the current prime minister of India, PM Modi is an active member of.
My concern is how the fundamental right to go to court on contractual disputes, under article 6 and 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), has been taken away from the farmers. This is to throw the small farmers to the “market” (a word hiding a deliberately created monopoly by large Hindu-owned corporations), and remove all protections as well as the small subsidies that enable these small farmers to survive. The majority of them are already under debts, and the new bills are pushing them further towards bankruptcy. This may result in them losing their lands, homes, and all livelihoods. These will later be purchased by the aforementioned large corporations, some of them owned by far-right Hindu nationalists, either by forced purchases or through opportunistic land grabbing. This is a process that is designed by India’s central government to gain control of historical Panjab land and territories, and achieve political control over Panjab. I see it as a systematic process to wipe out Panjab and its Sikh identity, pushing Sikh farmers to migrate to other countries.
What is the aim of these new Farmers Bills?
In my opinion, these bills are politically designed to pursue a sinister agenda of the far-right Hindu organizations such as RSS, and the party currently in the government, BJP. In particular, they are aimed at Sikh and Panjabi farmers. They are designed to push the Sikh community out of Panjab slowly and systematically, and seize their lands.
These proposed bills/laws do not provide any guarantees or any assurances of a minimum purchased price (MSP) for individual crops. This means large corporations and monopolies can dictate prices. Whenever there are large monopolies, as seen in the current markets in India, the small owners, which had been protected previously, are forced to offer lower prices.
Many Ministers and MPs in India have raised their voices against PM Modi’s Farmers Bills, but I would call his reaction disgraceful and sycophantic. India officials have threatened the Canadian PM Justin Trudeau by releasing a statement that India ties and trade deals with Canada are at risk, should Canada continue to support the Panjabi community. Mr. Trudeau, to his credit, responded very strongly and said that “Canada will always be there to defend the right to peaceful protest,” in the context of the protests in India.
The Indian central government placed under house arrest Arvind Kejrewal, the CM (Chief Minister) of Delhi, and an AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) member. This happened as a direct result of him refusing to convert Delhi stadiums into prisons. The BJP plan was to place all Sikh protesters in these stadiums as prisoners. He responded that this would be a violation of human rights, and in fact tried to support the basic rights of the protesters by providing electricity and clean water.
Why, in your opinion, considering that the UK hosts a large Sikh community, is Britain’s PM silent over this massive protest??
The current UK government is being influenced by the Indian government, as it requires Indian government co-operation to achieve any sort of post-Brexit trade deal.
The current Secretary of State for the Home Department in the UK, Priti Patel, has long-standing political affiliations with the Government of India. She was the International Development Secretary under Theresa May’s premiership, but was removed from this position after it was discovered that she was having meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel’s Prime minister) that breached the ministerial code of conduct. Priti Patel’s background is from Gujarat, and allegedly she has relations with some of the far-right Hindu nationalists that form a large part of the current ruling party in India. Gujarat is where PM Modi started his political career, and he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. During his tenure, the now infamous Gujarat Riots took place, where thousands of Muslims (the ethnic minority in the region) where killed. During this crisis, the police were allegedly stopped from taking actions that could have prevented or curtailed such riots.
Whenever any organisation or individual highlights such human rights violations, the government of India labels that individual/organisation as anti-Indian, fundamentalist, hardliner, separatist, or even terrorist. These acts do not stop at political name-calling, as in fact these individuals are harassed by the local law enforcement, imprisoned on false allegations, and often tortured in jail. Indian state-backed media often lead attempts at discrediting such individuals. They will also attempt character assassination on live TV shows, with baseless claims, to promote the political agenda of the ruling party.
Many scientists, sports personalities, artists, celebrities (numbering in the hundreds) have returned their awards, including Olympic medals, back to central Indian government in response to such atrocious Farmers Bills and the treatment farmers are receiving from PM Modi.
How did the protest start?
The peaceful farmers’ protest started on September 25, 2020, in Panjab after the Farmers Bills were announced and were passed without consultation with the farmers themselves, and were pushed swiftly by PM Modi to the President of India Ram Nath Kovind (again, a far-right Hindu nationalist) without the right to appeal in court.
The central government started ignoring the pleas of farmer organizations, and thereafter started to ignore democratically elected ministers from the Panjab region. This act was seen and felt both by national and international witnesses as dictatorial in nature, and a direct threat to democracy of India. This also brought together the already strong ties of PM Modi, the far-right Hindu nationalist party BJP, RSS, and its alliance with big corporations like Advani, Hinduja, Tata, Mittal, and Reliance Ambani. The aim of such an alliance is clear for all to see—namely, an eradication of Sikh’s rights in Panjab with an aim to their eventual removal from their home state.
Do you believe this to be a religiously motivated anti-Sikh policy?
Sikhs are known to the world for their kindness, bravery, farming prowess, economical entrepreneurship, community values, and pride. For far-right nationalist Hindus, these are all reasons to be against the Sikh community and the values they stand for. Sikhs have been soldiers fighting for justice, democracy, and human rights across the world since their inception.
When the British left India in 1947, they had plans of a three-state solution, Hindustan for Hindus, Panjab (Khalistan) for Sikhs, and Pakistan for Muslims. Due to the short-sightedness of the Sikh leadership and the false promises of Mr. Gandhi, Sikh leaders declined the offer of the three-state solution.
Once India, got freedom in 1947, the promises made by Gandhi at the time to Sikhs did not materialise. Thereafter, time after time, the demands of a Free Panjab state was suppressed and ignored by successive Indian governments. There has been no official acknowledgement of the unique Sikh history and territories, no acknowledgement of the proposed Sikh constitution by the Sri Akaal Thakht Sahib (called the Sikh Rehat Maryada). Even till today, Sikhs are considered as Hindus under the Indian Constitution, and even their marriage act is registered under the Hindu marriage act. How can we label an English as Irish, or a Dutch as South African, or a French as Canadian? Well, this is exactly happening to Sikhs around the world, they have been labelled as Indians even as a matter of fact they prefer to be identified as Panjabis.
To keep brutal pressure on Sikhs, the central government of India kept dividing the Panjabi territories to other states within India, the prime example being Haryana, a new state that was formed as a result of dissection of the territories in Panjab. This was done to dilute the political voting power from the majority Sikhs and Panjabis.
India has historically divided the Panjabi kingdom between Pakistan and India in 1947, then further divisions inside India to neighboring states continued to dilute the Sikh voting bloc. They have continued by taking control of water and natural resources without the Panjab state’s consent. nor the consent of its citizens, i.e., largely the Sikh community! Indian governments did not stop there, they allowed drugs, alcohol, and prostitution into the state of Panjab, which undermined the younger Panjabis’ Sikh identity.
Do you really see this as a deliberate attempt to dilute or eradicate the traditional Sikh identity?
History suggests that, if you take away the richness and purity of Sikh faith, its strong cultural and traditional ties, and its values from the younger generation, and specially the mother tongue (Panjabi), the coming generation will cripple itself. This is exactly what is happening to Sikhs in India. A slow, systematic political dilution and wipeout of their existence, and of Panjab as a free democratic state. A few years back, all the road signs of Panjab were re-written in Hindi, and Panjabi was wiped out. This faced serious challenges by the local Panjabi residents, who may only know how to read and write in Panjabi.
We can see the killing of Indian PM Indira Gandhi in 1984 as a consequence of the protests again Indian government’s long suppression, torture, and repression on Sikhs, and especially the attack by the Indian Army on the Golden Temple (Sri Harmandir Sahib) acted as a catalyst to this action.
The military history of Sikhs and their contribution to world’s peace and democracy, is well-known to the world. However. India and its RSS-lead politics and media keeps labeling Sikhs as terrorists and fundamentalists.
Sikhs and their empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh prove that Sikhs promotes multiculturalism, equality, respect to all faith and beliefs, human rights for all, by recognizing “All human race and humankind as one!” This Sikh rule and empire was so forward-thinking in its ideals and practices, it is still being studied by scholars in other countries worldwide.
Sikhs were the first to give full equal rights to women, and Sikh women (see the case of Mia Bhago Ji in the 1666 battle against Mughals) have fought on the front lines over 300 years ago. Even later, Sophia Daleep Singh (1876–1948), a Sikh princess, was part of the movement for the women’s right to vote called the Suffragette revolution/movement in Europe, including the UK.
Not many countries or their public are aware of the Sikh empire (also known as Sikh Khalsa Raj, or Sarkar E Khalsa), which was established under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It was a secular empire, rooted on Sikh values as respecting and recognizing all as One.
At its peak in the 18thth to 19th centuries, the Sikh empire extended from the Khyber Pass in the west to western Tibet in east, and from Mithankot in the south to Kashmir in the north. In today’s geography, this would be a land covering parts of China, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Tibet. The main language spoken in the Sikh empire was Panjabi (script–Gurmukhi), with its dialects, and then Hindi, Urdu, Sarikis, Hindoowans, Pothwari also mixed with Pashto, and a Farsi, and Kashmiri mix. Its generals, court judges, and ministers were from not only from Sikh background but many from other faiths, and from all around the world as to promote multiculturalism.
A few names of some of the generals that served under Maharaja Ranjit Singh include Jean-François Allard (French), Paolo Di Avitabile (Italian from Naples), Claude Auguste Court (French), Jean-Baptiste Ventura (Italian from Modena), Alexander Gardner (American of Scot–Irish descent), Josiah Harlan (American, later governor of Gujarat).
This is all interesting, but perhaps we should return to the Sikh farmers’ protests…
Now let’s relate Sikh history to the current situation of peaceful farmers’ protests all over India, with its capital city Delhi being the center point of the protests against Modi’s suppressive government and its unethical Farmers Bills.
Panjab and Sikh territories have been changed regularly by the central government of India with cruelty and dictatorship-like tactics.
The current political stunt aims to acquire lands from the Panjabis (Sikhs in particular), by the RSS-led Hindu government currently governed by PM Modi. The plan seems clear, by destroying the local economy and livelihoods of the farmers in the Panjab rejoin, they aim to buy up the land at a fraction of current prices. This is economic warfare. and plain to see by all.
On November 27, 2020, Panjabi farmers chose to co-ordinate their protests against the radical Farmers Bills in the capital city of Delhi. They had to overcome concrete barricades, national highways were being converted into trenches to stop crossings, and they had to face tear gas, stone missiles, baton charges from the Haryana and Delhi police. Nevertheless, they successfully overcame all of these hurdles, as the need to protest against these bills was paramount.
The farmer protesters coming into Delhi pushed Modi to cut off the food and water supplies from Punjab to these protesters. Already over 25 Panjabis have lost their lives due to the freezing local conditions in Delhi. Nevertheless, the Panjabi protests continue. They continue in spite of the challenges forced upon them by the central government. They continue in spite of the risk to their lives. They know if the current bills that have already been passed are allowed to stand, it means an end to the Panjab they know. It will mean an end to their culture and their way of living. This is why they and we must continue to protest and force these bills to be undone.
But, as depicted by both Indian and international media, the situation seems to be less dramatic…
The Indian government is suggesting to the world’s media that they are providing the protesters with electricity, food, and water. This is false. Modi has tried and is still trying to stop supplies from Panjab to the protesters on the borders of Delhi. The government has placed internet jamming devices and has tried to implement a national and international media blackout on the protests. This extends to social media sites, and accounts are being blocked that are reporting on the protests. That is why it has taken over two months to reach to international news about the farmers’ protest. The protests took over three months to gain any sort of attention, as they actually started on September 25, 2020 in Panjab and in other cities and states of India like Calcutta, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh. Since September 2020, the protests are not localized in Panjab only, many states and farmers from all over India recognize this threat to their livelihoods and have been protesting locally ever since.
Aren’t Sikhs a particularly belligerent community?
Sikhs are known for giving not taking, they have fought many battles for the freedom of the world and democracy. They have had humanitarian leaders since day one. The clearest example of their service to all communities is their serving of free food (Langar/free kitchen) to the world, as Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s Langar. This tradition has started since the days of the first Gurus in the 1500s, and is continued proudly by all Sikhs all over the world.
Sikhs are peace-loving, “saint soldiers” (universal soldiers), not fundamentalists or hardliners. They are in their own way secular, and promote humanity, multiculturalism, and democracy in a full and transparent manner. We believe we have a duty to protect communities and people who are unable to fight for themselves. This is why it is paramount we protest against such laws and transgressions from the government in India.
It is crucial for the world to understand that Sikhs are only asking for their human rights, farming rights, freedom to use their mother tongue, and share their culture with the world.
In the long run, Sikhs are hoping to establish an independent state in future. This is the same land they were born on and have lived on for generation. It is their right to govern themselves according to their own laws and values. The international community and India should not have an objection to this. They are not asking someone else’s land or property. This is land that has passed down through the generations. Sikhs are asking for the right to govern themselves without fear of religious persecution. The same persecution they have been fighting against since the creation of the Khalsa.
However, the peaceful farmers’ protest to Delhi is not about an independent Sikh state, Khalistan (or Sarkar I Khalsa). It is solely about the farmers’ rights and against the atrocious Farmers Bills. The bills are clearly designed to benefit already rich companies like Hinduja, Mittal, Ambani, Reliance, Tata, etc., all of which are unsurprisingly owned by rich Hindus. This is why other states have joined with Sikhs and Panjabi farmers to protest against the brutal bills where farmers’ lands will be taken away in a slow and systematic way. This bill will impact millions of farmers’ lives and livelihoods. The Sikhs community is being targeted by the current Indian administration, but is not the only group.
What about violence involving the protesters and the police?
The Indian government tried its hardest to stop Sikh farmers entering Delhi but failed. Delhi and Haryana police, BSF soldiers, and RAW agents tried infiltrating the protests. State-hired goons turned the initially peaceful protest march to Delhi into a violent one. They used stone projectiles, tear gas canisters, heavy water-guns, dug trenches on the national highways and roads, built over 7-feet-high concrete barricades, and even fired live ammunition against the protesters resulting in injury to many.
Nevertheless, the peace-loving Sikh and Panjabi farmers kept the peaceful march moving forward. The Indian government tried to place false COVID-19 restriction on them, but nothing withstood the farmers’ energy, passion, and strength for justice and righteousness. It is surprising that a few weeks ago other states’ farmers managed to enter Delhi to protest and there were no COVID-19 restrictions placed on them. Even Bihar state ran its full elections and election rallies previously, and there was no mention of COVID-19. That included the currently running party of Modi, BJP, and the Prime Minister and his advisor, Amit Sha, were themselves being present in the rallies.
Did the protest receive some support from Western countries?
The Indian government has been trying to buy and influence Western main TV channels like BBC, SKY, CNN, as well as French and Arab channels, not to broadcast or provide coverage to farmers’ protests around the world. BBC has kept it quiet till December 6, 2020, and only after widespread protests has given the topic minimal coverage.
Indian media is deliberately broadcasting negative news about the protest, and farmers in turn have boycotted the Indian media owned by Modi-related interests.
Clearly, much more needs to be done by the international community and politicians! The Western media has a duty to report human rights violations by the Indian government on these peaceful farmers protesters.
Even when the protests are covered in the media of some foreign nations, they have a distinct pro-government bias in their reporting. This is a direct result of the pressure the Indian government is applying to its trading partners around the world.
Do you see this as part of a broader Hindu nationalist policy?
Modi’s RSS and BJP’s aims are to convert India from a secular to a Hindu country. Prime examples are the changes of city names from Bombay to Mumbai, Madras to Chennai, and now even Delhi’s roads names are being changed to honor Hindu prominent figures and far-right Hindu leaders. Yet the international media is keeping quiet about it.
Isn’t some agricultural reform needed, particularly for ecological reasons?
Indeed, the main point of the Farmer Bills should be to limit climate change, lower pollution, achieve cleaner air, promote better use of safe insecticides and fertilizers. However, there is no subsidy for environment or sustainable development.
It shows clearly that the Modi government is doing what few wealthy Hindu-owned corporations have asked it to do. They want to gain ever-increasing profits at the expense of poor farmers and smaller landowners. This situation is so dire that some of the affected farmers have committed suicide.
The farmers’ suicide has become a recurring trend in Panjab. We have seen over 1,200 suicides in the last year alone. In Panjab, selling your land is like selling your mother. There is deep shame and regret in even thinking of selling your land. Members of the Sikh community are proud to be farmers, and to be able to grow crops on their own land. The inability to do so is a shameful thought for many, and some have chosen to take their lives rather than live with such regret. The suicide issue is a serious problem throughout India with over 32,000 suicide cases registered all over India in the last year. Due to the social stigma of suicide, there is gross under-reporting of such actions, and the true number is probably well over 50,000 in the past year.
You have been extremely critical of the international attitude towards the protests, and Sikh issues in general. Can you explain why?
The Sikh voice and the plight of the Panjab cannot be silenced. Attempts to curry favor with Western world through offering preferential trade terms are already being made by the Indian government. This was the same tactic used after what we call the 1984 Sikh genocide with the attack on Sri Harmandir Sahib, i.e., the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
The trade deals of India silenced the world (especially the Western countries), blindfolded them, and made them deaf to the cruelty and torture of Sikhs in Delhi and all over India. This has been happening since the 1970s and continued in the 1980s, at the time of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, who, by the way, had once been a supporter of Sant Jarnail Singh Bindrawale. Sant Bindrawale was a Sikh leader and social human rights activist. He was not a terrorist, which is what the Indian government is trying to label him till today. Meanwhile, whenever India is in violation of human rights, it tries to buy international silence with trade deals.
Now the Indian government has placed hardline far-right Hindu goons into police uniforms and army uniforms, and they are planning to attack protesters turning a peaceful protest into violence. They will then blame Sikhs and Panjabis for disturbing the peace of the capital city.
To blindfold the world, they are using old tactics. They will prevent independent media from providing coverage of their attacks on Sikhs, just like they did in the 1984 Sikh Genocide. They have already placed internet jammers, social media blockades (particularly on Facebook), and they are further planning to even turn the streetlights off. I mean, a full electricity cut-off, so that their sinister operations can be covered by darkness. The same happened in the Gujarat riots, where thousands of Muslims were killed, and many were burned alive.
Till today’s date, there have been more than 25 deaths/causalities of farmer protesters in Delhi, and many injured due to the brutality of Indian leadership.
Yet, the silence from European leaders continues. Our impression is they do not value Sikh lives. This is despite Sikhs being crucial in both world wars. Sikhs fought alongside British and French troops in the trenches of World War II against Hitler. The Sikhs choose to be part of that war to protect civil liberties, and fight for human rights for all.
Should international organizations and democratic governments put pressure on India? Should the farmers’ crisis be somewhat internationalized?
This is a decision for the United Nation and the rest of the world, and even for ordinary citizens and voters. If you want to be dictated, governed, controlled, or ruled by the 1% richest percentage of the population of the world, then be silent! If you want the large corporations to decide what is good and bad for you, then be silent! Whenever Sikhs have raised issues with regards to India, they have been labeled as hardliners, or traitors, or even terrorist funded by America, Europe, or the Arab world. They are forced to be silent or face India’s tyranny by being arrested on false allegations and trumped-up charges, or even killed in false accidents, as it happened to Jaswant Singh Karla. Today, ordinary people like you and me are letting this happen because we do nothing! The casual readers and watchers-by are as much guilty as the perpetrators, on moral grounds.
We are not placing our pens on papers nor raising our voices to condemn it strongly enough. This is wrong, and your elected governments should place pressure on the Indian government.
If there is humanity, compassion, kindness, and righteousness left on this world, then I humbly urge the international community and the United Nations to strongly condemn the hardliner, harsh tactics of PM Modi. They should place pressure on the central government of India to cancel the Farmers Bills with immediate effect. This will help not only the Sikhs, but all farmers in India, and allow them to continue enjoying their peaceful livelihoods.