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As Punjab’s farmers and farmworkers gather on the outskirts of Delhi to demand an end to Narendra Modi’s corporatizing farm bills, they’re channeling a revolution that spans hundreds of years.
At the heart of every protest is the simple notion that things need to change.
In the 1400s, a nine-year-old Guru Nanak denounces the caste system. Decades later, the same Nanak stands up to the invading Babur and his Mughal war party. He travels the world with Bhai Mardana and ushers us into a relationship with the divine. He confronts every form of exclusivity and hypocrisy. Throws our lot in with the downtrodden, the marginalized, and those who resist. Soon, the way we live life itself becomes a form of protest. We cement our relationship with the land at Kartarpur. Fall in love with Gurmukhi at Khadur Sahib. Langar thrives at Goindwal.
Over the next 300 years, Guru Nanak’s Sikhs construct a revolution of mind, body, and spirit. Resistance is normalized. Culture thrives. All over, the people declare—why should power, intellect, and culture be held in the hands of a few? Why should we be submissive to the casteist Brahmin or the plundering Mughal?
The people flock to Amritsar, where Guru Arjan gifts us a treasure of baani. In Lahore, his courage cements our sovereignty. A Takht rises. The people mount horses and carry shastars. The dhadhis sing. The babay carry teer.
Our protests become more compelling—why should the Mughal Empire dictate who the people see as divine? In 1675, Guru Tegh Bahadur stands up and goes to Delhi. In Anandpur, a darbar comes of age. A nagara rings. Forts rise. This is the home of Mata Gujri, where Bhai Nand Lal writes and Bhai Bachittar Singh picks up a spear. In the backdrop of one of the richest, most powerful empires in the world, the Khalsa is born. Guru Nanak’s revolution is in full swing.
The sahibzadas resist. Mai Bhago storms through. In Chamkaur and Sirhind, the foundations of the panth are fortified for eternity. Shahadat becomes synonymous with Sikhi.
A zafarnama flys out. Banda Singh Bahadur marches for Punjab, his army birthing itself from the land. We overthrow Sirhind. Before the rest of the world can envision the idea of land reform, land is given to those who work the land.
Our rejection of their autocracy enrages the tyrants. Rewards are offered for our extinction. Our heads are placed on spikes.
When facing annihilation, we regroup and take out their functionaries. Sukha and Mehtab head to Amritsar and rip apart Massa Ranghar, the desecrator of Darbar Sahib. When the oppressor takes from the people—Bota and Garja Singh take its capital. We make a mockery of their empire—Sardar Baghel Singh comes for Delhi. The misls come together. Names like Sada Kaur, Nalwa, Akali Phula enter history.
Then come the Imperial British. We ask, why should a colonial power rule us? Why should our land fund their East India Company? Why should we give a shit about Victoria, an opium peddler masquerading as a Queen? Why should our people be cannon fodder for their colonization and world wars?
Terrified of the Khalsa, they scheme to subdue us. Bhai Maharaj Singh is imprisoned in Singapore, but our resistance goes global. The Ghadars rise out of the West Coast in the 1910s, the Babbar Akalis in Punjab in the 1920s. Printing presses come alive to tell the people’s tale—Gadar di Goonj in California, the Babbar Akali Akhbar in Doaba. We incite revolution. Kartar Singh Sarabha comes home, Udham takes a pistol to London.
When partition comes—our land, life, and civilization are severed. The imperial empire is swiped out for a nation-state.
Our questions persist. In the 1950s and 60s, Punjab marches—why shouldn't we have a place of our own? In the 1970s, why is the Prime Minister taking dictatorial control over this country? Perhaps we shouldn’t be second-class citizens in a place we are supposed to call home. Maybe we should have dominion over our land, water, and life.
This new empire turns out to be as duplicitous and heinous as any that’s come before. When it attacks, our rebellion rises. In Amritsar, a new teer wala baba comes of age. We speak out against caste and gender violence, of the terrors of the police state, the oppression of minorities, the financial exploitation of Punjab’s land, and the consolidation of federal power.
In June 1984, a multi-year plan to root out the Sikh existence culminates in the Indian government’s attack on Punjab. Every Sikh is identified as an enemy combatant. Punjab is blocked off from the world—the media coerced, human rights agencies banned. Tanks and battalions lay waste to the state. A concerted effort to massacre as many people as possible. Tens of thousands are killed, a generation wiped out and locked away. The aim is to suppress culture and destroy history. Yet, when Indira’s government invades the Akal Takht, the foundations of the Panth are refortified. Shahadat is again synonymous with Sikhi.
Faced with annihilation, we regroup. The nagara rings. We declare independence at our Takht. The people mount motorcycles and carry shastars. We assert that our sovereignty doesn’t exist in the Mughal, the British, or whosoever resides as the contemporary occupant of Delhi’s throne.
We ask, what differentiates a General Vaidya or an Indira Gandhi, the new plunderers of Amritsar, from Massa Ranghar, the desecrator of old? So, Beant and Satwant repel Indira, the empire’s tyrant. Sukha and Jinda wipe out Vaidya and then some more.
Before being hung, Sukha and Jinda write that our revolution must exist in concert with all the others,
"The Khalsa is inseparably and lovingly related to the people of India: the millions of Dalits, the workers who earn their living through honest labor, the Muslims and other minorities, and all those homeless and destitute who have remained oppressed and exploited by Brahmanism for centuries. They are all our kith and kin. Our Master Rider of the blue horse (Guru Gobind Singh) recognized them much earlier. All those termed by the proud Brahmin the lowly, scavengers, shoemakers, mean-professioned, became the beloved sons of our Tenth Father."
To rekindle revolution, in come the heroes. Farmers, students, dhadhis, commandos, liberators. A fresh generation of Sarabhas come in the form of Toofans. They protect the people from a police force butchering the countryside. Bota and Garjas resurrect. We sweep elections, Bibi Bimal Kaur goes to Parliament. Like the times of old, the resistance goes global. In the dead of a long night, Khalra lights a path.
And on the struggle continues.
On November 25, 2020, thousands of farmers and farmworkers march peacefully on foot and tractor from Punjab to Delhi. When met with tear gas, police batons, and water cannons, they propel past each barrier, spirited by the Sikh battle cries of old.
Upon reaching Delhi, they lay siege to its entryways, demanding that Narendra Modi’s Government, a right-wing fundamentalist regime, repeal three hastily passed farm bills, which will illegitimately sell off the country’s agricultural sector to Modi’s billionaire benefactors. The farmers say the bills are a coordinated final assault on their way of life and they won’t leave until they get back what is rightfully theirs, "we’ll stay for months if we need to."
With the arrival of protesters, the cold streets of Delhi have sprung into makeshift cities. All of Punjab has come to accompany its farmers and farmworkers. From the warrior Nihangs to the students. From the singers and artists to the Mazdoor farmworkers and dhadhi bards. Langars are served. Gyms, libraries, and medical camps are set up. Schools are created for the neighborhood children. In the legacy of the Gadris and the Babbars, new printing presses have come alive to tell the people’s tales. Citizen-journalists work to fight the lies being spewed by the government’s media. The people speak to one another. They dream of new possibilities. A cultural renaissance is here.
Our elders have come. Some are parents of those this country killed off in the 1980s. Some have walked hundreds of miles. They say this is their life’s last responsibility—to see off a future for their homeland. So what if we have to die? And sadly, many have.
When asked what motivates them, the people say, do you know how many tyrants have tried to kill us? Each day begins and ends with an evocation of our history, "We are the kin of Mai Bhago, the siblings of Sahibzaday Fateh and Zorawar. We are the children of the one who slept in the jungles of Machhiwara. We’ve fended off empire after empire. We'll send Delhi another Zafarnama."
How do you battle a people who believe themselves to be the natural heirs to a historical struggle against injustice? Who maintain that their life’s mission is to exist as a collective against the concept of tyranny itself?
A few miles from these makeshift cities exists the Sikh Widow Colony, each life a reminder of 36 years ago, when the government led rampaging mobs through Delhi to kill off the country’s Sikh population. A few miles further, is where Guru Tegh Bahadur resisted the Mughals and gave up his life. Closeby his heirs—the political prisoners of Punjab, are still jailed and tortured without due process. Adjacent is a neighborhood where Modi’s BJP led mobs to lynch Delhi’s Muslims in February 2020. Across town is where young activists who protested the increasing tyranny in India were picked up and locked away last spring. This is the backdrop for Punjab’s current resistance.
And like always, our protests are becoming more compelling. Farmers from nearby states have come. Haryana came first, past bonds fueling present alliances. Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh soon after. The aims of this protest, like most of ours, go beyond Punjab. This concerns not only the future of agriculture in India but corporatization globally. The people now ask familiar questions.
First, they laugh off Modi. We’re supposed to be scared of him? This is a brainwashed child of the RSS. A clown-autocrat who rose to power because his proficiency in overseeing a genocide against Muslims impressed his Mein Kampf-enthusiast Hindutva handlers. What differentiates the hate-filled biography of Modi from that of past genocidal despots like Aurangzeb or Indira?
Next, the people reject the notion that an economy must be beholden to conniving billionaire schemers like Mukesh Ambani or Gautam Adani, whose corporate greed has laid waste to the Earth. Is their exploitation of land and life much different from that of the British East India Company?
While much of the world has surrendered to the inevitability of government-aided market exploitation, isn’t it amazing that Punjab, the land of Kartarpur and Banda Singh Bahadur, is the place that wages one of the world’s largest and last stands against crony capitalism?
Transcending the mirage of modern borders exists the kinhood of Punjabis. This unshakable bond has shattered the billions spent by India to propagandize its myth of a tolerant nation-state. The Sikh diaspora, which has protested for decades over India’s criminalities, has organized relentlessly. It knows firsthand India’s playbook against peaceful protest. Every mechanism has already been used to defame these protesters. Draconian anti-terror laws have jailed the youth. Modi’s media, comprised of war-mongering yellow journalists, have spread lies in hopes of maligning the movement. The world is again reminded that India is simply another right-wing nationalist regime, where you will be criminalized for how you choose to pray or who you choose to love.
As new questions come of age, so do new possibilities. These laws are just the start. The protesters declare that Punjab refuses to be another way station for marauding corporatization. They imagine better existences. They speak out against the terrors of the police state and the oppression of minorities. How can a more equitable economic system be created? How do you subvert patriarchal realities and center the narratives of women protesters? Why can’t caste be annihilated? Remember, our lineage is the court of Anandpur where anything is possible.
In the pandemic dead of winter, the spirit of Kartarpur, Khadur Sahib, and Goindwal lives. The people are ready. Through economic boycott or by the pull of a tractor, we’ll channel Bota and Garja Singh and take out the oppressor’s capital. We’ll create alliances with those equally angered at the exploitation of the Earth by the Adanis and Ambanis. We’ll rekindle Kartar Singh Sarabha and publish our own tales. We’ll make a mockery of their collusion of crony capitalism and decrepit fascism. For we are the natural heirs to the historical struggle for justice.
Guru Nanak’s revolution is in full swing. A better future awaits.