“Do you know which one is this?” the American wife of late Balwant Gargi — Punjabi writer, gossip and card-carrying bohemian — asked him, pointing at a pressed flower in her scrapbook. Gargi shook his head. She showed him another flower and he shook his head again. She turned page after page, showing him flowers she had gathered during a Seattle summer, and he kept shaking his head. When he couldn’t bear it anymore, he blurted out, “Look, I am from Bathinda. I have seen only two flowers, rose and marigold, but I can recognise dozens of types of sand.”

Gargi could recognise one more flower, the cotton blossom — the flower of the desert sands of the Malwa region in Punjab. It was the only flower that could bloom happily in the dust storms called kaali-bauli (black and crazy), which turned scorching afternoons into dark nights. The Malwai folklore as well as Gargi’s salacious plays are suffused with the beauty of the snow-white October blossom (katte di kapaah), the passion of burning sands and the abandon of the kaali-bauli.

When the hybrid cotton varieties during the Green Revolution raised the yield manifold, lovers would longingly wait for the cotton plants to grow high enough for a rendezvous hidden from the prying eyes of villagers. But like many other reversals of the Green Revolution, crop after crop of the Malwa cotton was ravaged by American bollworm in the early ’90s. Tonnes of pesticides failed to kill it but ended up poisoning the earth. Before the Green Revolution, the pests were not as greedy and hostile as bollworm. If they attacked the crop, they still left enough for the farmer. The pest and the farmer were part of the great natural equilibrium.

Two decades after Gargi’s confession, when bollworm had eaten off the Malwa cotton for many years, the government promoted an alien crop — rice — with guaranteed purchase and a minimum price. The sandy plains of Malwa turned into lush paddy fields. There weren’t any flowers but a village in the cotton belt would look like tropical paradise on autumn evenings. Bollworm-stung farmers heaved a sigh of relief. The kaali-baulis abated.

Before the cotton crop returned with the introduction of genetically modified Bt cotton in early 2000s, rice had wreaked the ecology. Unsuitable for the sandy Malwa, it required five times more water. Canal water was sufficient for cotton; but for rice, water was pumped out of earth by nearly a million tube wells. In just 15 years, the water table fell from 80 to 500 feet, probably the sharpest drop in India. The fast-depleting water table can turn the Malwa cotton belt back into a desert — without the beauty, passion and abandon of the old Malwa that Gargi’s plays celebrate.

But that’s not the news that breaks from Punjab. At least not as loudly as anything with the word Khalistan in it. A botched Green Revolution has distorted the economy, society and culture in so many ways that the thumb rule to understand every disturbance in the state today is: follow the farmer. Ditto for the recent protests against the desecration of the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib in a Malwa village, which led to the Sarbat Khalsa conference by hardliners and separatists.

White fly destroyed 75 per cent of the cotton crop this year. Many thought Bt cotton, which was popular with farmers for being pest-resistant, had met its American bollworm in white fly. But later it was found farmers were scammed with spurious seeds and pesticides. That’s why the crop could not resist the white fly. A top agriculture official was arrested in this case. The whole of Malwa broke out in protests. Farmers blockaded roads and rail tracks for more than a week. The government agreed to pay ₹8,000 compensation for an acre but they wanted more as the cost per acre was about ₹20,000. The Parkash Singh Badal government was cornered once more.

That’s when the torn pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were found in Bargari village in Faridkot district. The farmer agitation fed into the more charged religious protests initially, in which two people were shot dead by the police. Sukhdarshan Natt, a member of the CPI (ML) state secretariat, who has been at the forefront of farmer struggle in the Malwa area, claims the sacrilege was a conspiracy to drown out cotton farmers’ protest. “Our agitation was as usual planned, well-organised and disciplined. They could not have derailed it in any way, so they resorted to all this. The government was pushed to the wall after the railway blockade,” he says. Whatever the truth behind the sacrilege, no one can deny that it was the farmers’ agitation that bolstered the religious protests. The radical Sikh conference surprised everyone by gathering more than a lakh people, but when the organisers were arrested not even a thousand came out to protest. They used to say agriculture is all that Punjab has in the name of culture. One can add all its politics, too, is agriculture.

Bhindranwala 2.0

After Bhindranwala, or Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as he is known reverentially (yes, he is still revered by lakhs of Sikhs in Punjab and abroad) was killed in Operation Bluestar in 1984, a charade began. The Lahore radio, which blared Khalistani propaganda in Punjab from across the border, announced that he had crossed over to Pakistan and would appear on the radio soon. Several times the date of his appearance was fixed and then moved. Gradually everyone accepted that he was dead, but he did come back two decades later — not on the Lahore radio but on the back of cars and trucks. That pride of place was hitherto reserved for freedom-fighter Bhagat Singh. Bhindranwala became the new Bhagat Singh for many Sikh youths. Bhindranwala-on-the-back-of-the-car youths were hardly the Khalistanis of the terrorism days; they were the lost generation groping for an honest, larger-than-life leader. And when other religious groups in the country were asserting themselves, Bhindranwala became their symbol of community pride. So it didn’t matter that most of them being clean-shaven would not have been Sikh enough for Bhindranwala, who had become famous as a religious preacher exhorting Sikhs to keep unshorn hair. In those days, Bhindranwala and the shorn hair were the twain that would never meet. Most of them also don’t seem to share his views on Hindus. They would not call Hindus ‘Talli Ram’ and ‘Chhalli Ram’ derisively after him. Nor do they seem to think one Sikh needs to kill just 35 Hindus to wipe them out. Bhindranwala 2.0 is a sanitised, non-violent version of the Hindu-hating bigot. There might come in future a Bhindranwala 3.0, an icon of minority rights. You can even expect to read an essay on him by Arundhati Roy (she addressed a press conference with Khalistanis in Delhi a few years ago).

Are Sikhs Hindus?

A radical communist leader in Punjab says they won’t think twice before backing Bhindranwala sympathisers if the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) turns into a bigger threat. The Punjabi Hindus are traditionally Congress supporters and RSS has never been able to find more than a toehold among them. But after the BJP formed the government in the centre, RSS has revived its old project of bringing the Sikhs under the Hindu nationalist banner.

Sikhism shares many philosophical assumptions with Hinduism and can be called a mixture of Vaishnavism and Vedanta. The Guru Granth Sahib is replete with Pauranic illustrations and praises for the avatars of Vishnu.

Damdami Taksal, Bhindranwala’s own seminary, had in its liturgy prayers to Hindu gods and its texts included one Hanuman Natak. Despite reformist movements that worked against Hinduisation of Sikhism, so steeped was the religion in the Hindu lore that Bhindranwala himself was mythologised with the help of Hindu myths. He was said to have a divine mark — long arms that reached his knees. The reference came from Ramayana, where the Hindu god Rama is called ajanubhuj, the one whose arms reach his knees.

Sikhs say all references in Sikhism to Hindu gods and goddesses are merely symbolic and it is a Brahminical conspiracy to portray Sikhism as a Hindu sect. If the Guru Granth Sahib praises the avatars of Vishnu, it also clearly prohibits worship of gods and goddesses.

Many Hindus think one of the reasons behind the Khalistani movement was the belief that Sikhs are not Hindus and Sikhism is against Hinduism. The idea that Sikhs are not Hindus took definite shape during the early 20th century reform movements and after a belligerent Arya Samaj challenged Sikh reformist groups.

Whatever the historical or theological issues, today Sikhism is a different religion for all practical purposes. Bhindranwala used to say if Sikhs are kesha-dhari Hindus (Hindus with hair, as the RSS calls them) then Indian Muslims must be sunnat-dhari Hindus (Hindus with circumcision). RSS wants to enlist Sikhs in the service of Hinduism as its sword arm. Sikhs will happily become the sword arm of India but never of the Hindu religion.

A revolution gone wrong

The Badal government must have been shocked by the radical show of strength at the recent Sarbat Khalsa conference. But Gurmail Kaur of Gharangna village, in Mansa district, insists that it is all the doings of the Badals to shift attention from the real issues of farmers. People are not talking of Khalistan or the RSS in the cotton belt but of loans, dwindling returns, crop prices and cancer — and, of course, the Badals whom they hold responsible for every ill.

Gurmail and her husband, Major Singh, had seven acres 10 years ago. One of their sons is a car mechanic and the other tills land on contract. Major Singh’s parents died of cancer. Gurmail Kaur herself survived breast cancer after a long treatment. Major Singh invested a lot of money in a boring machine, which did not bring sufficient business, and spent a huge sum on cancer treatment of three family members. It was not possible without a loan from the moneylender. The cycle of interest was so rapid that in 10 years his land was reduced from seven to less than an acre. This year they too had sown cotton on whatever land they have. “We don’t have a tube well of our own. We have to buy water from big farmers who get electricity for free,” she says, highlighting the inequities of state policies. A helpless Gurmail Kaur does not know how they will get out of this vicious cycle. Hers is the story of most small and marginal farmers in Punjab.

When input costs began to rise and prices stagnated in the early ’80s, big farmers merely lost profits but small farmers began losing livelihood. That’s when Bhindranwala emerged, along with the first signs of the decline of the Green Revolution. Khalistan was also the politics of agriculture. The initial success of the Green Revolution raised political aspirations of Sikhs; and when it lost steam, there was a great discontent that went into the making of Bhindranwala.

Punjab Kisan Union, a unit of CPI (ML), helped Gurmail Kaur retain the six kanals that a moneylender had grabbed when she could not repay a loan. “When all else failed, I told him now my case goes to Ruldu Singh (the local union head),” she says. Rajwinder Rana of CPI (ML) says the economic distress has spread even to businessmen in towns, who are also defaulting on loans — and committing suicide as do the farmers. “A few years ago, commission agents pasted posters on walls in Mansa calling us more dangerous than terrorists as we incited farmers who default on loans. Today, when they default, they too come to us for help.” In Mansa and the neighbouring areas, CPI (ML) has forged an unlikely alliance of farmers and businessmen, who have traditionally been the parties at war. “Rising corporatisation has hit small businessmen. The general agricultural decline in the state has impacted even commission agents and factory owners,” says Sukhdarshan Natt.

Malwai folk poet Sant Ram Udasi had written a popular song, ‘Jatt lagg ke seeri de gal rowe’, which spoke of an upper-caste Jatt farmer crying on the shoulder of his Dalit sharecropper after a crop failure. The song pointed out the absence of caste relations among the poor. “Today, we have gone a step ahead. Now a distressed Baniya cries on the shoulder of the farmer,” Natt says.

Seizing the day

Decades ago when crops failed due to weeds or pests, the Punjabi farmer took it in his stride, attributing it to the general transience of his world. He considered it part of the challenge Punjabis have faced for centuries: the invaders who would loot all that they had saved. So there was a song that told the farmer to seize the day: ‘Kanak nu lagg gaya gulli-danda, narme nu lagg gaya taila/Maujan lutt mitra chalo chali da mela (wheat would be spoiled by weeds and cotton by pests/Make merry in this transient world).’

It took the Punjabi farmer some time to realise that pests and weeds were not the marauding invaders of the 20th century but an effect of government and corporate policies. His life on the edge even after many decades of the Green Revolution was not an effect of a transient world but a direct consequence of governance. This was what fuelled terrorism in the ’80s. And this is why there is unrest in Punjab today.

Dharminder Kumar is a Delhi-based journalist