Between a Fort and a Highway: Where Does Power Lie?

Aditya Bahl

On the Republic Day, a small contingent of Sikh protestors stormed the Red Fort to hoist the Nishan Sahib. Since then, this event has been repeatedly scrutinized in the Indian public sphere. While the Hindu rightwing has trenchantly demonized these Sikh protestors as terrorist threats to the Indian sovereignty, the liberal sections of the Indian media have been slightly more cautious in their reactions. For one, they responded to the torrent of rightwing propaganda by making numerous “fact-checks”: the Nishan Sahib is not the official flag of Khalistan, but a Sikh religious flag; the protestors did not displace or defile the Indian tricolor; the Nishan Sahib was rather miniscule both in its size and its elevation; some of the protestors were also waving the Indian tricolor, and so on.

The liberal intelligentsia has since distilled these fact-checks into the following conclusion: far from threatening the Indian sovereignty, the Sikh protestors have merely affirmed their distinct religious identity; in doing so, they have asserted their affiliation to the Indian state as Sikhs, and foregrounded the secular character of the Indian Republic. “The Sikhs, too, have a claim on the National Capital,” read a popular headline.

The mere presence of a Sikh religious flag at the Red Fort has sent ripples of paranoia and confusion in the popular national imagination. Nationalists of all stripes have promptly stepped forward to neutralize this possible threat, either by confronting it or by conciliating it. If the Hindu rightwing has virulently demonized the Sikhs as enemies of the Indian state, then the secular liberals have cast the Sikh protestors as the “good minority subjects.”

Such is the catastrophic fate of religious minorities in the Indian state: you are either cast as an enemy of the state and killed in pogroms or you are neutralized as a “good Sikh,” “a good Muslim,” “a good Christian,” and so on. The Sikhs, for their part, have endured both these fates, first, in 1984, and now, in 2021.

Meanwhile, sidestepping the nationalist fantasies of the Indian media, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha offered a different critique of this event, one articulated strictly in terms of political tactics. The union leaders, many of them Sikhs, offered a range of different criticisms of the decision to hoist the Nishan Sahib: these protestors disrupted and discredited the ongoing mass movement; they broke the collective discipline of the morcha; the Nishan Sahib is not the ideological emblem of this mass movement; these protestors have played into the hands of the rightwing regime, and have invited more violence on the farmers and workers, and so on.

Before we can engage with these criticisms more closely, a few points are in order. To begin with, it is not a given that a “disruptive action” is by itself reprehensible. It is important to note that when the protests first started in Punjab, the people immediately set up blockades at railway stations, organized sit-ins at thermal plants and grain silos, freed the toll plazas on highways, and occupied the corporate-owned petrol pumps. And these disruptions were so successful in blocking the flow of capitalism that the entire state of Punjab was brought on the verge of an electricity crisis. Later, disruptions also played a key role in expanding these protests beyond the confines of Punjab. After all, if the young farmers, workers, and students had not broken the countless barricades and pushed back the police forces, the protestors would have never been able to move towards New Delhi.

There are, but, some crucial differences between these anti-capitalist disruptions and the decision to storm the Red Fort and hoist the Nishan Sahib. For one, this action took place in Delhi, which occupies a significant place in the Sikh political history, as the Mughal emperors, seated in Delhi, extensively persecuted the Sikh gurus and warriors for resisting their tyrannical rule. For instance, in 1675, Guru Teg Bahadur was executed by Aurangzeb in this city. Meanwhile, in 1783, the Sikh General Baba Baghel captured this same Red Fort and won the rights to build gurudwaras on key historical sites.

Protesters at a Toll Plaza site  Photo: Shashank Walia

Protesters at a Toll Plaza site
Photo: Shashank Walia

However, despite these historic resonances, one must also note that Modi is not a Mughal Emperor, and that the modern Delhi is not a seat of power in the same way as the Mughal Delhi was. Similarly, the Red Fort is, at best, a key symbolic site in the Indian national imagination, where the Independence celebrations are held on an annual basis. To think that this fort forms the real locus of state-power would be overreaching, to say the least.

To put it briefly, the problem with the decision to storm the Red Fort is not that it was disruptive, but rather that it did not disrupt at all. Compared to the actual disruptions happening at the railway lines, on the highways, in petrol pumps, outside the thermal plants and the grain silos, this action was, at best, a symbolic spectacle, which, among other things ended up misconstruing the nature of the power of state and capitalism that the working people are up against.

For one, this power is not concentrated in the city of New Delhi. Our enemy is not just a Prime Minister or a rightwing government seated in the national capital. These are, but, important nodes in a much more diffuse network of social relations that spans the entire country, including Punjab. Power lies in thermal plants, in grain silos, on the railway lines and the highways in petrol pumps, and so on. As the agribusiness corporations set out to build large-scale supply chains, we will soon discover that these sites will become even more powerful, to the detriment of the lives of the working people.

Similarly, power also lies in the agrarian fields and the mandis, where small and marginal farmers find themselves becoming more and more indebted, and where the landless laborers, the majority of whom are Dalits, are forced to work as bonded laborers by the bigger Jat farmers.

As it turns out, the only thing that the Red Fort incident has managed to disrupt, so far, is the people’s organic understanding of the interlockings between state and capitalism. The widespread notoriety gained by these events has diverted and distracted the people from the real sites of struggle, and funneled their discontent towards dividing the people along the lines of “Sikhs” and “Comrades.”

In contrast to the spectacular events at the Red Fort, the actual disruptions that have taken place in Punjab have remained unsung. Further, even lesser attention has been paid to the fact that these anti-capitalist disruptions have been significantly inspired by the Sikh history of resistance. Wielding the flags of the different unions, the Ghadar Party, the Communist Parties, the people are unabashedly raising the jaikaras, commemorating the Sikh martyrs, and actively situating themselves in this genealogy of Sikh resistance against oppression. The lessons of this Sikh history are to be found in the midst of these occupations, blockades, and sit-in, and not at some hollow symbol of state power.

Finally, we must understand that if these anti-capitalist disruptions have been able to replicate and sustain themselves on such a large scale, then it is precisely because they are undergirded by well-coordinated grassroots network of farmers’ and workers’ unions and Dalit and feminist organizations, which have empowered people from thousands of villages to participate in and to start their own blockades, sit-ins, and occupations. So far, the dialectical tandem between these organizations and the working people has been illustrative of what CLR James, the Trinandian communist, called disciplined disruptions. Or, what Kanwar Grewal, the Punjabi pop singer, calls: JawaanaN Da Josh/ BuzurgaN Da Hosh.

And yet, it is also clear that over the past few weeks, the struggle has reached a new stage and encountered new limits. Sitting at the New borders for the past three months, the people, especially the younger protestors, have grown restless, waiting and wanting to escalate this struggle even further. But in the wake of the Red Fort incident, the rightwing government has fortified the New Delhi borders by deploying the heavily armed paramilitary forces. Now, any attempt at escalating the struggle on these borders will imply a direct confrontation with the armed forces of the Indian state, and likely lead to a catastrophic bloodshed.

Meanwhile, as the people on the ground continue to overcome the current tactical limits of the struggle, one thing is clear: if the dialectic of discipline and disruption has, so far, made this movement successful, then this dialectic shall also clear a way beyond the current political impasse, and keep this working people’s struggle in chadhdi kala.


Published in the 11th edition of Trolley Times
Read the essay in Punjabi