To The Farm Leaders…..

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It is clear that men like Yogendra Yadav had planned a symbolic protest that reiterated the farmers’ faith in the Indian system while asserting their right to protest against laws that harm their interests. Unfortunately for Yadav and other farmers’ leaders, a relatively small and determined group did not share their sentiments. As far as this group was concerned, this was as much a religious protest as it was economic. These protesters did not abjure violence (as we can see in the videos of the assaults on the police), did not stick to the route that the farmers’ leaders had planned and committed to, and were eager to make a religious statement, even if it meant disrespecting a symbol of Indian unity in diversity. The farmers’ leaders have offered explanations. They had always known, they say, that there were groups that would cause mayhem and had informed the Delhi police about them. I am sure that is true. But if they knew that mayhem was on the cards, should they not have acted against these groups? Should they not have condemned them first? All of us have seen the TV footage of Deep Sidhu (now blamed for his involvement in the Red Fort intrusion) praising Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Should he not have been publicly shunned and disowned – especially if he was, as some are now saying, a BJP plant? (To be fair, some farmers groups did deny him a platform after his Bhindranwale remarks went public, but too little was done to publicly condemn his positions.) There is a certain depressing similarity between what the farmers’ leaders are now saying and what LK Advani said in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid: “Saddest day of my life; did not know this was going to happen; a small group of men broke our record of discipline; it is the frustration of people who have been denied justice for so long spilling over.” Surely, these are not parallels that Yogendra Yadav and the other fundamentally decent people who speak for the farmers can be happy about. The worst aspect of the events of January 26 is that they have turned what was meant to be an agitation about farm laws into a confrontation between a few Sikhs and the Indian state. It is true that the overwhelming majority of Sikhs disapprove of any insult to national symbols. (In fact there is footage of some Sikhs abusing and chasing Sidhu away.) And it is as true that many non-Sikhs (myself included) believe that the farmers have a valid point. But I fear that the footage of a Sikh swinging from the flagpole on top of the Red Fort as a religious flag flutters in the wind may well become the defining image of the farmers’ protests. The leaders of the agitation must now work quickly to throw the extremists and fundamentalists out of their ranks. They must recognise how much damage has been done to their cause. They made the mistake of not acting against the extremists because they wanted a broad coalition. But they should now go beyond North India and find a way of making the protests more national in scope. Otherwise, they will have been played for patsies by men who have no real interest in their demands and wish to follow a completely different agenda. Equally, the state must be thoughtful and measured in its response. The more it makes it sound like a police versus Sikhs conflict, the more the extremists will rejoice.

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