Sonia Dhami is trustee, Sikh Foundation; president, ArtandTolerance.com; and commissioner, Fine Arts, City of Cupertino, California. The views expressed are her own.
I am filled with amazement seeing and reading the news and stories of the farmers’ protest coming in from India. While the scale of the protests itself is astounding, five outstanding features of this protest stand out for me.
Firstly for me, the most striking aspect of these protests if that there is no one face of this movement. It is truly “The People” as a collective.
I see determined grandfathers, feisty grandmothers, valiant brothers, and courageous sisters. They have come in the thousands, cars, vans, buses, trucks and trains. These faces could very well be of my own family members.
The flag of protest against the Farm Bill, hurriedly passed in India this year during lockdown, was first raised in Punjab, some months ago. Today its farmers are not alone in this fight. Many other states of the union including farmers from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have joined forces.
Most movements have a leader who becomes the face of the movement. In 2012, it was Ana Hazare who was the face of the Lok Pal bill agitation. Why is there no such face or person for the largest protest in the world?
The answer might lie in history, which gives us an insight into the Sikh psyche. In the 18th century the Sikhs were heavily persecuted by the rulers of the time. Each Sikh head literally had a price.
Overcoming challenges they organized into independent confederacies called misals. Each member of the confederacy considered himself equal in every way. When faced with a powerful common enemy, they worked together and decisions were taken collectively. Within a few decades, the Sikhs became the rulers of the land where they were once hunted.
The same spirit of equality appears to infuse this movement. Each farmer has an equal stake in the fight. No ‘one face’ represents them. They know that if they don’t fight together now, they will be swept away individually. The onslaught of unregulated corporate greed will do them under in no time.
Chardi Kala (eternal optimism)
Secondly, the mood in the camps is not of distress or worry. It is instead one of Chardi Kala. This state of being is the essence of the Sikh community.
One might mistake these camps of protesting farmers as large melas (joyous gatherings). The reality is far from it. Behind their smiles and joie de vivre is the realization that this fight is for their livelihoods. The underlying issues are life-changing for these farmers. They know that this battle will define the rest of their life and those of their children.
To understand this emotion, one should again look at Sikh history and the lessons the community has imbibed from its Guru’s.
Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru, personified Chardi Kala even at the most difficult time in his life – his 4 sons martyred, his family separated from him and he alone hunted by the enemy. This time too was also during a similarly bitter cold month of December in 1704.
Soon thereafter the Guru wrote a missive to Emperor Aurangzeb called the “Zafarnama” or Epistle of Victory. This missive was not one from a victim but from someone who is undefeated and has the moral right to speak truth to power.
I see a similar resolve in these protestors. They are not begging or pleading to the powers that be. They are demonstrating a steely resolve. They are living & protesting in Chardi Kala while understanding the grave situation at hand.
Thirdly, wherever the protestors have been stopped by the powers in their march to Delhi, they have brought out the good in the people around them.
While someone has brought thousands to shoes to fit cold and blistered feet, another has brought almonds and cashews to help them fight the bitter cold. Someone is distributing warm clothing and blankets; another is offering free salon services. The list is long and heart warming.
Artists are documenting the energy and resolve they are experiencing; poets are creating verses – both satirical puns on the powers and words of encouragement, folk singers, musicians and dancers are adding a pinch of humor and comedy to the mix, painters are sketching on-site and photographers are capturing the spirit of the people.
People of all hues and backgrounds have come out in support – holy men, singers, film stars, celebrities, sportspersons, writers, poets, dancers, musicians, folk entertainers – they have shown their support both on the ground and on social media.
Authors have returned awards they have received from the state and police officers have resigned to mark their protest. It appears to be a fight for India’s soul.
Fourthly, a striking feature of this protest is the visible and passionate participation by women. They are marching shoulder to shoulder with the men. They are bearing the burden equally or maybe even more.
While women have traditionally borne the deepest hardships be it war or peace, they have mostly remained unseen and unheard. Here they have captured the imagination of the nation. Lovingly called “dadis of the revolution” they are fierce and bold eager to step forward and make their voices heard.
For them to leave their comfortable homes and live out in the open with no place for privacy only shows their determination and steel. I can only imagine what they are undergoing and bearing with a smile on their faces and fiery look in their eyes as I see in the pictures captured by photographer Himanshu Dua and sketches created by Gurpreet Singh Bhatinda.
In fact, not only are women in the forefront of this protest, even in my home here in California, thousands of miles away from ground zero, my 82-year-old mother is the one who is following the news closely and shares with us messages she receives on Whats App. Her indignation and anger was high today when she found that one of the videos she wanted to show was no longer available (possibly removed by the platforms).
Finally, the miraculous aspect of this protest is that it has united people across religions, castes, beliefs, states, and languages. As someone said: “Tau and Tayaji are finally together”. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains have expressed solidarity with each other. Landless workers, commission agents & land owners all are in it as one.
Is this the India Tagore dreamt of when he wrote the following lines?
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
[Top photos courtesy: Himanshu Dua at Tikri Border]