For RSS farmers protest is a big threat

News Desk: “The violence and disturbances unleashed in Delhi today, the sacred Republic Day, are extremely painful and deplorable. Especially the unfortunate act at historic Red Fort is an insult to martyrs who sacrificed their lives for freedom and national integrity,” Suresh Joshi, the second-in-command of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, posted to the organisation’s Twitter account late in the evening on 26 January. Joshi, often called Bhaiyyaji, appealed to “all countrymen to rise above political and ideological differences and to strive for peace.”

Earlier in the day, a group of young Sikh farmers had hoisted the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag, atop a pole on the historic Red Fort’s rampart. The group was part of thousands of protesting farmers who participated in a tractor rally in the national capital. The farmers had been observing sit-ins on the borders of Delhi for over two months, to demand the repeal of three recently enacted laws that would impact their livelihoods. The tractor rally marked this protest. While thousands of farmers had carried out the rally on a pre-sanctioned route on the periphery of Delhi, at least two groups deviated to enter the heart of Delhi. The Delhi Police met them with heavy deployment—the farmers that hoisted the flag had breached barricades and clashed with police to enter the Red Fort premises.

By that evening, government-backed media had already peddled the false claim that the flag represented Khalistan—a separate Sikh state. TV channels painted the farmers as violent separatists and terrorists. Several media organisations later fact checked this claim as false.

Sikh and Punjabi journalists and historians, while condemning the violence, later called the flag’s hoisting an expression of “popular visual culture” of Punjabis, an “articulation through the ethos of Sikhism” and an “assertion to be counted,” among others. None of them saw it as a challenge to India’s integrity or sovereignty. Instead, they saw it as a mere expression of the protesters’ cultural identity. Giani Harpreet Singh, the head of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhs, called the violence unjustifiable but said that it was “not right to criticize Nishan Sahib.”

Joshi’s description ran counter to these ideas. He indirectly labeled the protestors as secessionists whose purpose was to insult upholders of “freedom and the national integrity.” The extrapolation is fortified by the views of other senior RSS functionaries, who were far more direct. They openly castigated Sikh farmers, terming them terrorists and traitors.

The RSS’s institutional and individuals’ responses to the hoisting of Nishan Sahib were a mere reflection of its founding ideology, which sees any assertion of a non-Hindu identity from a Sikh as a threat to the Hindu Rashtra. To the RSS’s ideological fathers, a “true Sikh” was always a Hindu. Those who did not agree to this idea were termed treacherous to both their faith and the nation. Two core texts of the RSS—VD Savarkar’s Essentials of Hindutva and MS Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts—clearly set down this view. The books stipulate ahistorical versions of how Sikhism came into being and prescribe it a singular purpose in the Hindu society they envision: protecting Hinduism.

This ideology was in plain view after farmers hoisted the Nishan Sahib at the Red Fort. A torrent of posts appeared on social and news media by RSS officials, all with a common thread—they termed the hoisting of the Nishan Sahib an insult to the Indian flag and India itself.

BL Santhosh, an RSS man who is currently the national general secretary of the BJP and acts as liaison between the two organisations, described the incident in a tweet as an attack on the “nation’s pride.” He tweeted: “It was less about farm laws. It was not at all about farmers interests. There were no leaders there. Organisations were a facade. Nation, Nation’s pride, & development were their target.”

Narendra Kumar, the national joint secretary of the publicity department in the RSS, employed a hashtag to describe the incident as a “Khalistani_Naxali_conspiracy”—referring to separatist Sikh and militant Maoist ideologies. The publicity department is one of the six major departments through which the RSS operates across the country. Echoing Joshi, Kumar tweeted, “The action is an insult to those who sacrificed their lives for the protection of the country’s freedom and national integrity.”

Raghvendra Patel, the publicity chief of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the RSS’s farmers’ wing,  posted alongside a video clip of the Nishan Sahib being hoisted: “Is this not an insult to the tricolor? It is a direct challenge to the country’s sovereignty.” The organisational secretary of the BKS, Dinesh D Kulkarni, tweeted that the incident was “leftist hooliganism.” The next day, the BKS released a statement describing the incident as “a national shame.” BKS’s press release mentioned, “The country will ask why acts that gave joy to enemy countries are repeated again and again. The country will ask why in the guise of farm laws the republic is being challenged.” The RSS’s farmers wing earlier had called for amendment to the three farm laws but it never participated in the farmers’ protest on Delhi’s borders.

The institutional responses of the RSS’s key wings—students’, farmers’, social—also reflected its binary view of Sikhs. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the RSS’s students’ wing, said in a press release, “The perpetrators, who desecrated the National flag, hoisted other flags and of secessionist Khalistani, as well as political flags associated with left parties at the Red Fort and organized coordinated assaults on the police and paramilitary personnel must be identified.”

The RSS’s socio-religious wing, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which led the demolition campaign against the Babri Masjid in the 1980s, was more vicious in its response. On 26 January, Shriraj Nair, the spokesperson of the VHP, tweeted, “It’s time to ruthlessly crush the Anti National Elements… Traitors wearing the masks should be Exposed.” Nair also called the Sikh protestors “vidharmi”—heretics.

He also tweeted: “A flame flickers before being snuffed. The end of all terrorists, traitors and masked heretic activists is now near. There will be peace and solution all around the country Jai Shri Ram.” Nair tweeted that dharma, or Brahminical religious codes, “will win” while adharma, or the rejection of dharma, would “perish.”

The RSS’s political arm, the ruling BJP, was also quick to describe the incident as an “insult” to the national flag. Several BJP leaders, such as the official spokesperson Sambit Patra, had called the protesting farmers “Khalistani” even before Republic Day, on their social media and television interviews. Prakash Javadekar, the union minister for information and broadcasting, said during a press conference that “India will not tolerate the insult to the national flag.” Three days later, the prime minister Narendra Modi repeated the BJP’s stand on his monthly radio show Mann ki Baat. Modi, formerly a longtime RSS worker, said, “The nation was shocked to witness the insult of the tricolor on 26 January.”

The RSS’s reaction was a culmination of its growing worry over the increasingly Sikh expression of the ongoing protest. On 7 January, Krishna Gopal, the RSS joint general secretary, had said, “The RSS believes that the farmers should continue holding talks in a peaceful manner with government.” Until then, seven out of  eleven rounds of talks between farmers’ unions and the government had failed. The same day, the farmers took out their first tractor rally on the borders of Delhi. Against this backdrop, the RSS’s statement suggested it was still hopeful of a peaceful solution.

Within two weeks, however, its views had changed completely. On 20 January, speaking to the Indian Express, Joshi said, “We just want the agitation to end quickly now.” Joshi then expressed his concern, “There is, perhaps, an effort to give the agitation a panthic (sectarian) colour. I believe pushing the agitation towards a panthic (sectarian) movement is not good.”

The RSS uses “sect” instead of “religion” for faiths such as Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism, because it sees all of these as part of Hinduism. In simple words, Joshi was worried that the farmers’ protest was turning into a Sikh movement or a protest planked entirely on Sikhism. In the interview, he also asked for a “probe” against “elements” that he believed did not want a solution—a dog-whistle to suggest that the farmers harboured extremist tendencies.

Joshi’s concern can be explained by the fact that the Sikh expression of the protest was among its defining characteristics. This was natural—the cadres of the protesting unions were largely Sikhs. Punjab’s farmer unions were the first to start the sit-ins on Delhi’s borders in late November 2020. As the support for the protest grew, Jat, Gurjar and Rajput farming unions from western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana joined them. But the Sikhs outnumbered all other groups.

The Sikh community remained steadily involved in the protests. The large Punjabi diaspora communities in London and Canada extended their support to the protest. Back in India, Sikh celebrities began to express their support—prominent among them was the popular Punjabi singer and actor, Diljit Dosanjh. Sikh and Punjabi singers wrote protest songs. Sikh voluntary organisations such as Khalsa Aid chipped in to provide food and tents for the farmers, invoking the Sikh tradition of sewa, or service. Evidently, the form and expression of the protest was unavoidably Sikh, much to the RSS’s displeasure.

The RSS’s worries about a possible Sikh movement and its anger against the Sikh flag can be understood from the writings of its founding fathers. Savarkar, a Marathi Brahmin, believed that all Hindus shared a common racial past. He imagined people living to the south of the Sindhu as the forefathers of Hindus, and as a supreme race. In his 1923 text Essentials of Hindutva, a foundational document for the RSS, Savarkar wrote that “the Sikhs are the almost direct descendants of those ancient Sindhus.” He called Sikhs natural Hindus. “This minority of the Hindus as well as the major communities of them did not fall from the sky as separate creations,” he said. “Really if any community is India is Hindu beyond cavil or criticism it is our Sikh brotherhood … The Sikh of today is the Hindu of yesterday.”

He stated that Sikh gurus, too, were Hindus by lineage. “As their Gurus themselves had been the children of Hindus they would fail to understand if not resent any such attempt to class them as Non-Hindus.” According to him, there was a “political” reason for “some leaders of our Sikh brotherhood against their being classed as Hindus.” The Sikhs’ identification as non-Hindus, he felt, was rooted in their worry of securing “special representation” vis-à-vis “Mohammedans”—referring to Muslims—who he believed were already safeguarding their community privileges. Savarkar felt it was “suicidal” for Sikhs to claim a separate identity. He opined that they should instead have claimed a “non-Brahmin” identity as other castes did then—“Sikhs, to guard their own interests, could have pressed for and succeeded in securing special representation … as our non-Brahmins and other communities have done without renouncing their birthright of Hindutva.”

To Savarkar, any Sikh who saw himself as a non-Hindu was nothing but a traitor. This equivalence is common in the RSS’s thought-process—the only nation in its imagination is a Hindu one, and by default, all patriots Hindus. (As recently as 1 January 2021, Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the RSS, reiterated this thinking. Speaking at a book launch, he said, “If one is a Hindu, one can’t be anything but a patriot.”)

In Essentials, Savarkar tells a story about an interaction with a Sikh who identified himself as a non-Hindu. Savarkar narrates that the Sikh told him that members of his community would “incur no guilt by killing a Brahmin” as it was a Brahmin cook who betrayed the sons of the Sikh guru Gobind Singh, eventually leading them to be captured and killed at the hands of a Mughal king. Savarkar identified the Sikh as a “dacoit,” a debtor who looted and murdered a money-lending Brahmin. To counter the “dacoit” Sikh’s argument, Savarkar introduced a second Sikh, whom he described as “a gentleman.” The “gentleman” Sikh, who happened to be standing right next to the dacoit Sikh in Savarkar’s story, immediately rebukes the latter, pointing out that there were many Brahmins who had earlier “sheltered the Guru.”

Savarkar then puts forward his own argument. The Maratha king Shivaji was “betrayed by his kith and kin,” Savarkar writes. “But did Shivaji and his nation disown their race and cease to be Hindus?” Savarkar further argued that during a battle with the Mughals, Sikhs had deserted the guru Gobind Singh. “It was this act of treacherous cowardice of these Sikhs” that forced the guru to “try a desperate sortie” that eventually led a Brahmin to betray the guru’s sons, Savarkar claimed. “If, therefore, for the crime of the latter we cease to be Hindus, then for the crime of the former we ought to cease to be Sikhs too,” he wrote. In this argument, Savarkar pitted one Sikh against another, in an attempt to draw out a conclusion that the guru’s sons were killed because of their own “treachery” and not due to a Brahmin’s betrayal.

Further, Savarkar belittled Sikh religious symbols that visually separated them from Hindus. He classified true Sikhs, who accepted their Hindu lineage, as “lions.” He wrote, “You cannot pick up a lamb and by tying a Kachchha and Kripan on it, make a lion of it! If the Guru succeeded in forming a band of martyrs and warriors he could do so because the race that produced him as well as that band was capable of being moulded thus… as soon as you point at a Sikh who was true to his Guru you have automatically pointed at a Hindu.” Savarkar added, “So long as our Sikh brethren are true to Sikhism they must of necessity continue to be Hindus.”

Golwalkar, a Marathi Brahmin who headed the RSS for over three decades until the early 1970s, echoed Savarkar on Sikhism. In his 1966 book, Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar wrote a section called “Present Perversions,” where, like Savarkar, he decried that “various sects and creeds” had begun to take pride in their non-Hindu identity. Condemning this, he wrote that Sikhism was but a “devoted and heroic sword arm of Hinduism.” Like Savarkar, he too claimed that “the poison of political ambition had roused the demon of separatism” among Sikhs. Golwalkar added, “Guru Govind Singh had declared ‘a true Sikh is one who has faith in the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita and who worships Rama and Krishna.’” His narration sought to grant godly sanction to seeing Sikhism as a part of Hinduism. There is, however, no historical evidence to back his claim.

According to Golwalkar, non-Hindus such as Sikhs and Buddhists were “in a way communal.” Golwalkar wrote that Neo-Buddhists and Sikhs are types of groups who “originally came into existence in the form of creeds as a manifestation of the many sided Hindu genius, but who later on forgot the source of their inspiration and creation and began to consider themselves as being different from Hindu samaj and dharma.

With a Hindu nationalist government in power, any challenge to the government, particularly asserted by identities outside Hinduism, becomes a direct challenge to the Hindu Rashtra itself. To avert the threat of independent Sikh assertion, government-friendly media began to attack it, framing it as rioting. On Republic Day, news channels incessantly ran images of Nihang Sikhs swinging swords and riding horses, with tickers and titles that called them terrorists or rioters. Alongside the false characterisation of the Nishan Sahib as a symbol of Khalistan, this served to frame Sikh iconography and identifiers as violent—a tactic often used against Muslims.

The same philosophy that guides the RSS to oppose Sikh assertion in any form also makes it use “true Sikhs” as a shield for Hindu causes. In 2019, when Muslims protested against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act for its discriminatory nature, BJP ministers used the inclusion of Sikh and other minorities to justify the law. Home Minister Amit Shah, who began his career with the ABVP, defended the law in Parliament by saying the amendment also protected Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi and Christian refugees, besides Hindus. Shah called the law “inclusive.” He took a swipe at opposition leaders, saying, “Aapki vyakhya hai ki sirf Muslim aayega toh hi panth nirpeksh mane jaoge, toh hi dharm nirpeksh mane jaoge”—you think that when Muslim is included, only then it is considered secular. In February 2020, Indresh Kumar, a member of the RSS’s central executive council, on his visit to Chandigarh, urged Sikhs “to support CAA instead of supporting Khalistani ideology.”

The RSS has a history of using Sikhs to advance its political interests, projecting itself—and by extensions, Hindus—as naturally aligned to the community. During the late 1990s, when the organisation was still making space for itself in Punjab’s politics, its then-chief K Sudarshan held secret parleys with Sikh hardliners of the Damdami Taksal. The taksal, or religious institute, was once headed by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who advocated for Khalistan. The Tribune reported that Sudarshan headed several such meetings to discuss the status of Sikh extremists who had been incarcerated after Operation Blue Star—the former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s military siege of the Golden Temple, in which Bhindranwale and hundreds others were killed.

According to The Tribune, the RSS had opened up the dialogue with the hardliners after getting “a feel of Sikh psyche and aspirations” through its Sikh wing, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat. Following the meetings, the RSS had also released a report on the status of hardliners detainees and how many remained incarcerated. The BJP, the RSS’s political wing, was then a coalition partner in the Shiromani Akali Dal’s government—the SAD is a Sikh-centric party that controls most major Sikh religious bodies. The RSS report embarrassed the Akalis, who had been promising to release the detainees for a decade. Through the report, the RSS presented itself as true well-wisher of Sikhs while embarrassing both the Sikh schools—the hardliners and the Akalis. The RSS successfully used the hardliners’ situation to establish its own credibility among Sikh people. The move took a page from Savarkar’s book, by pitting Sikhs against each other, and attempting to portray Hindus as their saviours.

During the same period, RSS furthered Savarkar’s divisive view of Sikhs to counter the opposition to it among Sikh institutions. Since the formation of RSS’s Sikh wing in the mid-1980s, the Akal Takht, dominated by Jat Sikhs, has harshly opposed the RSS’s every attempt to appropriate Sikhism. The RSS, on the other hand, adopted a strategy of winning the gratitude of Dalit Sikhs—who are still discriminated against—to make space for itself in Punjabi society. In early 2000, RSS workers visited a Dalit Sikh colony and fomented hate against Punjabi Muslims who had left for Pakistan after Partition. It encouraged the residents to demolish a local mosque. The RSS also worked in collaboration with deras—religious camps common in Punjab—which provided a platform for lower-caste Sikhs, who were otherwise sidelined by the Takht. This helped create political space for the RSS in Punjab.

Like their predecessors, RSS leaders have often used ahistoric stories to project Sikhs and Hindus as inseparable. In January this year, during a donation drive for the construction of the Ram Temple at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid, Joshi addressing the residents of a Dalit Sikh colony in Jammu. He said that, according to an 1858 first-information report, “Nihang Sikhs entered the disputed structure”—Babri Masjid—“with flags and performed havan there … also raised Sri Ram Slogans there in the complex and there were more than 25 Sikhs who also wrote ‘Ram-Ram’ with charcoal on its walls.” Bhaiyyaji Joshi termed the donation drive “a campaign to connect people and society.”

There is little historic proof of his story. One such incident is mentioned in the Supreme Court’s judgment on the Ram temple, but its inclusion invited objection from academic quarters. An article in The Wire noted that Sikh intelligentsia opposed this mention, with some stating that Nihangs are “baptised Sikhs who do not perform puja.” The article stated, “Sikhs are uncomfortable with how the Supreme Court has seen it fit to insert the Sikh religion into what they believe is purely a Hindu-Muslim conflict.”

In March 2019, in an official press release on the 550th birth anniversary of the Sikh guru Nanak Dev, Joshi wrote, “Facing the onslaught of fanatic Babar, Guru Nanak Dev ji exhorted the nation to challenge it. He strengthened the self sacrificing traditions of Bharat by inspiring to live with self respect which forever shut the doors for invaders.” This claim, too, has no real basis in truth.

Krishna Gopal, the joint general secretary, had previously spread similar narratives about the ninth Sikh guru Teg Bahadur and fifth guru Arjun Dev. In May 2017, Gopal said, “Had Guru Teg Bahadur not sacrificed his life the entire India would have converted into Islam and our ancient culture and civilization would have ended.” He was speaking at the launch of a book titled Hindu ki Chadar, Shri Guru Teg Bahadur Ji—“Shield of Hindus, Shri Guru Teg Bahadur Ji.”

In June 2018, on the birth anniversary of Guru Arjun Dev, Gopal said that the guru Nanak Dev wrote of the first Mughal emperor Babar, “Ye paap ki baarat lekar Babar aa gaya hai, kya karen”—Babar has come with a parade of crimes, what to do? He went on to say that the guru began langars, or community kitchens, to organise people against Babar. This claim is near impossible to verify. The intended spin was clear—according to him and Joshi, the history of Sikhism consisted only of Sikh Gurus fighting against Islam to protect Hindus.

The echoes of Golwalkar could not be louder. In Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar wrote, “The Sikh sect … came into being to contain the spread of Islam in Punjab. Later on, recognising the need of the times, Guru Govind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, armed his disciples and turned them into a band of national heroes.”

The events of 26 January appear to have served the RSS in many ways. Since then, the attempts of a political resolution to the farmers’ issues have come to a halt. The BJP-led government has refused to repeal the laws. Strangely, the RSS’s concern, of the protest turning into “sectarian” movement, has been ameliorated. The most prominent leader of the protests is now Rakesh Tikait, a Jat, who was earlier considered to be more conciliatory towards the ruling party. After initially responding with a brutal crackdown, the government appears to have relented after a tearful call by Tikait brought Jat, Gurjar and Rajput khaps—landlord caste organisations—in large numbers to Delhi’s borders. For now, the Sikh expression of the farmers protest has taken a back seat.