Doth the lady protest too much? Sikhs, schools and the Indian farmers

NewsBharati    16-Dec-2020 14:44:14 PM
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-Prakash Shah
Reading the western press coverage one gets the impression that Indian farmers are protesting because their livelihoods are at great risk and they face a government in India which isn’t concerned about their interests. Protests have taken place in Britain too and schools in England are urging their pupils to take part in them. This article examines the way in which the protests in India are being received in the UK and why they are leading to protests in an environment where little is understood of the background and reasons. It links the recent protests in Britain to the identity politics of Sikhs and the traction made by the demand for Khalistan, a Sikh ethno-state.
For someone who has been observing the way in which events in India are reacted to in Britain, there is nothing surprising when protests, ostensibly about the recent Indian farming laws, have gathered so much support in this country. As with most events in India which gather such temporary momentum for condemnation, be it on caste, rape, religious violence, or citizenship, British chateratti get hold of the wrong end of the stick and look as uninformed about India as their counterparts were in previous centuries. So wide are the cultural differences between the two, Europeans have always held a contorted view of India, rarely recognisable to Indians themselves.

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From that wide-angle lens, the farmers protests represent merely one in a longer line of ‘causes’ backed in Britain. Schools in England are now encouraging their pupils to come out in support of the protests. Correspondence from three schools, one in Slough, one in Walsall and the third in Birmingham, provides strong grounds for suspecting that it is part of a systematic campaign being carried out throughout the country by insidious interests. It remains an open question why those who run schools want their pupils to become involved in campaigns in other countries. Since they possess no knowledge of the political and social issues at stake, one can only assume their involvement is ideological.
The near-identical language employed by the school letters suggests that farmers across India are badly affected by the enactment of recent legislation, to the point of being deprived of their lands. Contrary evidence suggests that the reforms brought by the legislation, part of the Modi government’s economic agenda, are meant to inject greater market freedoms in the farming sector and a widening of choice for farmers to seek markets for their products or to continue under a minimum price arrangement. It is worth noting that this legislation was backed by political parties and farmers unions now opportunistically feigning opposition to it. The reforms have been brought about after wide consultations and with the prior consent of the farmers representative organisations. Evidence already points to how many farmers in India are benefitting from the higher prices they can command for their products in the open market and it is a source of great relief to many who, for generations, were caught in a vicious cycle involving declining terms of trade, exploitation by unproductive middlemen, inability to access credit, concentration on a few listed products, environmental degradation, reduction in water tables, and suicides. The prospects for the farming sector look brighter than ever.
In three states of India, namely, Punjab, Haryana, and parts of Madhya Pradesh there has been some opposition because of fears, among those who have hitherto benefitted from the price maintenance system, that they would no longer be able to force farmers to trade on certain fixed terms when the latter can obtain better terms on the free market. The so-called farmers protests are restricted to those whose dominant position in the fixed market is no longer tenable and comes from within only three states in India. It is worth noting that, even in these states, there is no consensus among farmers, many of whom realise that vested interests are provoking protests by spreading fake news of the effects of the reforms. Protests therefore look like a coordinated attempt to bring down the Modi government not to advance farmers’ interests.
The protests in India have affected the main arterial routes to India’s capital city, to the great consternation of its peaceful and tolerant population, whose patience is being tried by the self-centred manner in which a blockade on Delhi has been mounted. No reasonable government should or would allow that. Considering that, the Indian authorities have acted with remarkable forbearance and have continued to engage in discussions despite the most unreasonable demands being made upon them, including the bizarre claim that those held on terrorism related charges be released. One wonders whether the resemblance to tactics and demands adopted in protests earlier this year against the Citizenship Amendment Act, orchestrated by an odd marriage of Maoists and jihadists, is merely coincidental.
The provocative letters circulated in and by English schools, urging pupils be allowed to take part in protests, provide none of this detail and give the false impression that the human rights of Indian farmers are being violated. That is contrary to all information already in the public domain, although one will not get that impression glancing at the western press, which follows the opposing narrative, leaving one to wonder on what grounds they choose to depict the version they do.
One of the consequences that colonialism left was its depiction of Indian society as divided by rival religions. Among them, the British discovered Sikhism, to rival another discovery, Hinduism. Sikhism was given form by British writers as a revolt against the priestcraft of Hinduism, a model predicated on the Protestant revolt against Catholicism. India has no native religions though. ‘Sikhs’ were followers of just another set of Indian traditions and this is still the reality today. As colonialism consolidated, some attempted to deepen the model the British had gifted, and tried to claim orthodoxy over other traditions. A conception arose that was basically a vulgarised Christianity with its rhetoric of monotheism, catechism, holy book, and baptism, rent away from the traditions of India. While inexistent in the Indian culture, such conceptions nevertheless tend to look for hosts. It is this idea that Sikh ‘fundamentalists’ have since tried to build and impose, often with violent results. Over time, this sense of a ‘religious’ community of Sikhs has given vent to a nationalism to mimic Europe’s nationalisms, as well as birth to terrorism to realise it. The idea of Khalistan expresses this aim. Perhaps it is also relevant that Sikh identity was consolidated by the British Indian army. There is a mutual conspiracy of silence over the fact that Britain’s imperial venture was often supported by Indian soldiers dressed up as Sikhs. It is partly in this past that British admiration of Sikhism rests, even though it was something of their own making. Such admiration has immunised Britons against contemplating the prospect of dangerous and recurring trends.
This background is relevant because the protests taking place in Britain seem to be concentrated among Sikhs. This mirrors the pattern elsewhere in the United States and Canada. While the Khalistan sympathies have generally been rejected by Sikhs in India, and the opportunistic protests have a different configuration, in those western countries where multicultural recognition is the norm, fertile ground is found for the further development of Sikh identity politics originally generated by British colonialism in India. This reflects a changing dynamic of how Sikhs abroad relate to their ancestral traditions. These western societies tend to generate a detachment from those ancestral traditions and elevate identification with religion or ethnicity. It is little wonder that those Sikhs who are searching for an identity in these countries will tend to attach themselves to the kind of conceptualisation of a sterile Sikhism provided by the British model, with its focus on a few symbols and slogans. This goes hand in hand with a grasping for a narrative of persecution and a comprehensive distancing from the wider Indian culture.
In Britain, Khalistan sympathisers have been organising among Sikhs again in a hark-back to the Britain of the 1980s, which was a period of great tension between Britain and India, with a number of murders being carried out on British soil. For a while, the Khalistan project receded but has been revived recently. The de-proscription by the Cameron government in 2016 of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), involved in the attack on two Air India flights in 1985 (the more lethal of which took the lives of 329 people including 27 British citizens), has not helped matters. Since then, Sikh gurudwaras have come under the control of Khalistani elements represented by the Sikh Federation. It is not unusual to see Facebook profiles displaying pictures of Khalistani terrorists. There is a heightened sense of intimidation within the Sikh community which regularly spills over into the wider society. The Indian consular missions in the U.K. have come under attack on several occasions by thugs that have included Khalistanis. This places Britain in breach of the international law on the inviolability of diplomatic premises and personnel.
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Joining the same sort of Britons who feel their own virtue is confirmed by backing ‘worthy’ causes, but who seem unable to distinguish between the language used to attract support and the unsavoury inclinations of the actors behind them, some British parliamentarians have chosen to speak in sympathy for these elements. One Coventry MP, after tweeting her support for the inappropriately named US-based Sikhs for Justice, apologised after being informed it is proscribed under India’s anti-terrorism laws. Her apology doesn’t extend to a recognition that her tweet placed her in potential breach of British anti-terrorism laws.
Academic colleagues have come under great pressure to conform to the Sikh Federation’s agenda, which extends to having Sikhs counted in the next census, not merely as a religion, but also as an ethnic group. Scotland has accepted the demand after threat of judicial review. The claim, which seems connected with the revived campaign for Khalistan, has not met with success in England and Wales despite three rounds of judicial review mounted by the Sikh Federation against the decision of the Office for National Statistics. One wonders where the funds to support such identity politics, that includes pursuing expensive litigation, are sourced. In one case, a female Sikh academic colleague has been bullied by an MP sympathetic to the Federation because of her criticism of its demands, such that special measures had to be introduced to protect her. Remarkably, although many cannot have been unaware of the pressures brought to bear against our female colleague, no fellow Sikh academics supported her against her intimidators. Commendably, however, her own university has taken measures to shield her.
An immediate and pressing problem is the way in which schools are now coming under the sway of insidious elements on the false pretext of fighting for human rights in India. The radicalisation of schoolchildren, their grooming to adopt the discourse and agenda of these elements, and their being used as shields by them, should be a cause of national concern.
Schools have statutory duties to inform the local authorities and the police that children are being placed under pressure to circulate letters within schools covering political issues of which they could have no comprehension. However, schools are also issuing such letters to all parents, thus spreading the material and giving it their imprimatur, which other children would find difficult to reject and which creates negative prejudices of India the minds of pupils. There are evident concerns about how parents or anybody else responsible for the children, who couldn’t possibly have drafted such letters themselves, are pushing the children to adopt their dubious agenda of untruths. Concerns arise under the children’s legislation, the law on terrorism, as well as charity law. At least one Sikh school from which letters have emerged is part of a larger network of voluntary aided faith schools, once again raising the problem of how faith schools can become vehicles for spreading divisive and false material. It may be that the schools in question should come under investigation, as have some schools that were caught promoting Islamic extremism. Here is another Trojan horse in the making.
The U.K. government must be presumed to be in possession of the relevant intelligence in order to take appropriate action against these insidious elements. Indo-British tensions were allowed to fester during the 1980s, and criminal elements allowed to create fear, because of the British government’s foot-dragging. Matters have once again slipped out of the British government’s control and the sooner this genie is put back into the bottle, the earlier we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
(The writer is a Reader in Culture and Law at Queen Mary, University of London.)