Ever since Punjab farmers’ agitation has picked up in India, supporters of the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been labelling the agitators as separatists.
Since the famers from Punjab are predominantly Sikhs, Modi’s troll army and some of his apologists in Bollywood have begun attacking them on social media, frequently branding them as “Khalistanis” (those seeking a separate Sikh homeland of Khalistan).
The armed struggle for an imaginary Khalistan to be carved out of Punjab left thousands of people dead between mid- 1980s-mid 1990s. The movement was fuelled by state repression of Sikhs who were merely asking for political autonomy, along with several economical and religious concessions.
The situation was allowed to be escalated and turned violent. And "Khalistan", which was never popular among Sikhs, gradually gained momentum. It was ended brutally by police who were given extrajudicial powers by the government to suppress it.
It partly fizzled out because Sikh militants lost support because of the excesses committed by them.
Although the movement has become irrelevant and mainly survives at a propaganda level mostly in the Sikh Diaspora, it has become convenient for the followers of Modi and the Indian establishment. They brand any Sikh as a potential Khalistani to silence any voice of dissent.
This is not to suggest that others are immune from being branded in such a way. Modi supporters are used to labelling any Muslim critic as Jihadi terrorist and any leftist critic as a Maoist or urban Naxal.
The most common message for all of them is that either stay in India on our terms or go to Pakistan.
It is pertinent to mention that attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents of any stripe have grown under Modi since he became prime minister in 2014.
Hindu extremists are bent upon turning India into Hindu theocracy, and are targetting minorities, especially Muslims and Christians.
The Modi apologists have conveniently overlooked the fact that the Punjab farmers represent a diverse group. Among them are practising and non-practising Sikhs, atheists and believers, leftists and Khalistanis. Ironically, Khalistani militants killed many leftists during insurgency.
How can one ignore such complexities, considering that any grassroots movement for a common ground can bring a variety of people together, irrespective of their religious or political beliefs?
It is noteworthy that Sikh farmers have received massive support from Hindu and Muslim farmers from other states, as their issues remain similar. The current conflict is the result of the ordinances brought by Modi that are being widely seen as anti-farmer.
These laws are affecting the livelihood of the broader farming community, which is the backbone of the Indian economy. Their anger is directed at the fact that Modi, armed with majority in the parliament, did not do all this in a transparent manner.
He aims to roll back subsidies and protections for farmers that were long guaranteed to them in an agro-based economy.
It is not surprising that some of Modi’s own allies are also upset. Members of his party’s farmers’ wing have expressed their displeasure.
Why are those who have described Sikh farmers as Khalistanis so silent about that? Why not use similar expression for those Hindu farmers owing allegiance to the right-wing ideology? Why not call them Hindu supremacists?
One can safely conclude that this narrative has been created to discredit a genuine agitation in an attempt to isolate Sikhs, who are leading the campaign, and instill fear in the minds of the Hindu majority.
This has only backfired and given more fuel to Khalistanis abroad. Next time when you notice more and more people waving Khalistan flags and raising slogans for it, please blame Modi and his stooges.
On the one hand they didn’t listen to the Sikh farmers, then they tried to stop them from marching to the national capital of New Delhi, then they assaulted them brutally. And if that were not enough, they give them a bad name.
Such measures will bring more alienation and eventually revitalize the movement of Khalistan. There are many young Sikhs in Canada who believe that India mistreats their community and that they have no place in that country. These actions will only reinforce those ideas.
If you don’t want to hear this or find this inconvenient then please go ahead and call me Khalistani too, as I am born in the Sikh community. But let’s be clear that these labels won’t work if people are united in their fight against repression.
In the meantime, follow my campaign #MeTooKhalistani on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.