A Muslim protester pressing the feet of an elderly Sikh protester, a Sikh tying turbans for young Muslim boys, Muslim and Sikh men and women cooking langar together – these are some of the images from Shaheen Bagh that have become symbolic of the amazing solidarity that the Sikh community has shown with the protesters, against the Citizenship (Amendment Act) and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens, gathered at the site.
But the presence of Sikhs and Punjabis at Shaheen Bagh goes much beyond symbolism. The protesters are bound by a shared grief and desire to regain their voice.
The farmers brought with them placards written in Urdu which said, “May brothers never fight again, may 1947 never be repeated again”.
Besides 1947, the other date that has driven Sikhs to come out in solidarity with Muslims is 1984. According to senior journalist Harmeet Shah Singh, subjected to systematic demonisation followed by a large-scale pogrom in 1984, Sikhs understand deeply the pain of Muslims fearing disenfranchisement.
“The CAA has been brought to divide us. That’s what the government does. It divides the people using such tricks and continues to exploit the poor,” said Harnam Singh, one of the farmers who have come from Punjab.
A longer conversation with the farmers reveals that their presence at Shaheen Bagh has as much to do with Punjab as with the CAA.
Most of the Sikh protesters in Shaheen Bagh are farmers from districts like Moga, Mansa and Sangrur in Punjab’s Malwa region, the epicentre of agrarian distress in the state.
“Farmers are the pride of Punjab, everyone loves to say. But what is the plight of farmers in Punjab? Only debt and exploitation,” a farmer protester who has come to Shaheen Bagh from his village in Moga district, told The Quint.
“We have come here because we know what it means when the government and the ruling elite try to silence you and take away your rights. We have been facing this for decades in Punjab,” said another protester.
The Sikh farmers at Shaheen Bagh are mostly from the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), an outfit that has spearheaded a number of farmers’ agitations in Punjab.
Even as it joined the protests against CAA, the BKU held protests across the Malwa region as well as in Amritsar demanding the withdrawal of cases registered and fines imposed against farmers for paddy straw burning.
According to farm activist Ramandeep Singh Mann, agriculture in Punjab is facing a fundamental crisis that can be attributed to unsustainable crop patterns, government apathy and the depleting water table.
Another aspect according to Mann is that the “next generation is leaving farming and leaving the country if possible”. This is clear even among the BKU protesters at Shaheen Bagh, most of whom are in their 50s and 60s.
To say that farmers in Punjab are in distress is an understatement. According to reports, 501 farmers killed themselves in Punjab in 2019 and 536 in 2018.
Even the ultimate act of helplessness by farmers – killing themselves – fails to be heard by the government as a majority of such cases end up being “rejected” by the government.
An Indian Express report quoting data from Punjab Agriculture Department and Punjab Revenue Department, says that between 2015-16 and 2018-19, “Punjab government received 2,528 cases of farmer suicides, including 1,630 farmer suicides and 898 suicides by farm labourers. Out of these, only 783 cases (31 percent of the total received) were accepted by the government under farmer/farm labourer suicide category due to farm debt, while 7.9 percent (199 cases including 150 farmers and 49 of farm labourers) are pending for approval or rejection. Remaining 61.1 percent were rejected as ineligible under the category”.
The policy of rejecting suicides as “ineligible” was a key feature of the previous SAD-BJP government and has been continued by the Congress government in the state, indicating a consistence in policy among the two.
Farmers maintain that be it the SAD-BJP or the Congress, the agriculture policies always work to the benefit of rich farmers and Arhtiyas (commission agents).
BKU alleges that the aim is to push out farmers and move towards corporatisation of agriculture.“Even when a farmer commits suicide, the government says that he was under stress or had too much alcohol. Farmers are denied dignity even in death.”Gurdarshan Singh, farmer from Barnala district
So, Why Come to Shaheen Bagh?
“Our bodies are all we have. They are our only wealth. The government is threatening to take away rights from Muslims. This is a just fight and that’s why we are here,” says Harnam Singh.
“By fighting together, we can make our voices heard and liberate each other,” another protester chimes in.
Guru’s Langar Unites Protesters
This togetherness is most evident in the langar that has been set up by Sikhs at Shaheen Bagh. Even though langar or public kitchen existed among the followers of Guru Nanak and earlier Baba Farid, it was the third Sikh Guru Amar Das Ji who institutionalised the practice of langar.
Guru Amar Das Ji emphasised langar as a device for expressing the notion of equality and brotherhood in a concrete, practical manner. The langar was also meant to provide sustenance and security to the needy and wayfarers.
In this spirit, the farmers from Punjab brought their own rations and equipment for setting up a langar at Shaheen Bagh.
The local Muslims too are sensitive to the food habits of the Sikh guests – especially the prohibition against meat cut in the halal way. Therefore, they ensure that there is enough vegetarian food for the Sikh protesters.
Zarda or sweetened rice is particularly popular among the Sikh guests and is frequently distributed by locals.
Communal cooking and communal eating are major ways in which protesters belonging to different communities are coming together at Shaheen Bagh.
One person who has emerged as a major hero of protests is Delhi-based advocate DS Bindra, who reportedly sold a flat to fund the langar at Shaheen Bagh. He also supported the langar at Khureji and Seelampur protests for five days.
Bindra has been at the receiving end of a lot of hate from right-wing trolls on social media, who are accusing him of being an “Islamist” and demanding I-T raids against him to check the source of his funding.
Several Muslims are now trying to organise funds to compensate Bindra for the flat he has had to sell.
For Muslim protesters, the arrival of Sikhs at Shaheen Bagh is a source of great comfort.
“At a time when we are being called terrorists and we are facing threats, our Sikh brothers decided to come and stand with us. We can never repay them for this,” said Mushtaq, one of the protesters.
The local Muslims also say that the langar is symbolic of the brotherhood of the protesters and the inherently just nature of their cause.
As Guru Gobind Singh said in Chaubis Avtar of Dasam Granth, “Degh Tegh Jag Mai Doho Chale” or “May the kitchen (of charity) or sword (of justice) triumph in the world”.