Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism, called for the oneness of humanity, and this idea permeates Sikh religious scriptures and code of conduct. The last words in Ardas, the daily Sikh prayer, translate to “may everyone prosper.”
This ideology clashes with India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its policies over the past seven years. So when, on Friday – which was also Gurpurab, the celebration of Guru Nanak’s birth – Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the repeal of three contentious farm laws in the coming parliamentary session, many could not hide their skepticism over the sudden show of empathy. The laws sparked protests by farmers across the country, many of whom have been camped at different border sites for over a year. Sikh farmers have become the face of these protests, as standing up for community and organizing congregational spaces is tied to their faith.
The messaging around the controversial farm laws, which were designed to reform agricultural systems in India, was initially framed in favour of the farmer, as the proposed bills aimed to allow farmers to sell their goods directly to buyers. However, the laws failed to implement key recommendations from any farmers’ unions or the Swaminathan Commission (tasked by the previous administration with finding solutions to the problems faced by the country’s farmers), leading to criticism from unions, economists and academics around the world.
Farmers feared that by deregulating agricultural markets and ending a system of guaranteed pricing, the government would leave them unprotected and at the hands of private corporations, while also affecting the environment as well as traditional methods and knowledge.
Under Mr. Modi’s right-wing Hindutva nationalist ideology, India has faced a constant surge of aggressive policies, such as the 2019 anti-secular Citizenship Amendment Bill and the revocation of the Kashmir Valley’s autonomous special status – all of which have hurt marginalized communities. His admission of making a mistake on the farm laws and subsequent request for forgiveness is too far a departure from his brand of political machismo.
That’s why this recent supposed attempt at humility calls his intent into question. In his address Friday, Mr. Modi looked directly at the camera, wearing a saffron-coloured shawl – the colour of the Sikh faith – making himself appear as an ally. He spoke to Guru Nanak’s teachings and the reopening of Kartarpur Corridor (a crossing that allows Sikhs from India to visit the gurdwara on the Pakistan side of the border without a visa), pulling on Sikhs’ emotional heartstrings. He positioned himself as a common man, addressing fellow Indians as friends; and as a deity at the same time, committed to saving farmers by repealing the laws. This centring of himself as the protagonist – rather than the antagonizer who introduced the hated laws to begin with – is an attempt to change the narrative of the farmers’ protests entirely.
If not genuine empathy, what made Mr. Modi change his mind, given how strongly he defended the laws prior to the announcement?
The BJP government realizes that its position is politically risky as state elections in important grain-belt areas such as Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh (India’s most populous state and long-time political battleground) loom ahead. But even as Mr. Modi urged farmers to return to their homes during his speech, it didn’t work – farmers have remained steadfast at the protest sites because they have lost trust in the Prime Minister and will not leave until the laws are officially repealed. The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of more than 40 Indian farmers’ unions, have also outlined six additional demands in a letter to the Prime Minister.
Right now, the focus needs to be foremost on the farmers who, under Mr. Modi’s leadership, have experienced a great deal of trauma. The dozens of farmers who sacrificed their lives over the course of the protests did so not just for these individual laws to be repealed, but for something greater.
Indeed, we are witnessing a mass civil disobedience that is fighting for Indian democracy itself – for citizens to be able to advance popular interests against a government that does not work for them. And if the government doesn’t look inward and reform its own posturing, even larger challenges lie ahead. The farmers know this, and that’s why they remain active.
While this victorious moment means that farmers can soon hope to return to their families and heal together, the Modi government’s cynical course of action leaves many rightly suspicious and vigilant to the possibility of another agitation. Politicians that don’t consider the lesson of the Ardas prayer will have to answer to the farmers – because they will continue to fight for causes above and beyond their own rights alone.
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