‘Khalistan’ label is used for Punjab by the Indian state when it does not want to solve problems
Amandeep Sandhu is the author of 'Sepia Leaves', 'Roll of Honour' and "Panjab: journeys through faultlines.
Since the Central government passed three Agricultural reform bills, the state of Punjab has been burning with widespread protests for the last 40 days, with farmers demanding the acts be revoked. The central government, in response, has cracked down on the state with severe actions like stopping the rail traffic to the state and creating a shortage of coal in the state. A few narratives have also claimed that the Khalistani movement is behind these protests. Indie Journal speaks to Amandeep Sandhu, the author of 'Sepia Leaves', 'Roll of Honour' and "Panjab: journeys through faultlines about it.
Amidst the ongoing farmer's protests in Punjab against the three farmers reforms bills passed by the Indian Parliament, the Centre has stopped trains to and from the state. What does it say about the Central Government’s approach towards the protests and the relationship between Centre and a non-BJP ruled state?
The protests in the state were earlier on railway tracks,- as it's a major economic lifeline for the state. But the protests were also happening at toll plazas, petrol pumps, Adani warehouses, and outside the houses of BJP leaders. The Centre tried to muscle with Punjab by stopping trains because of the railway protest. Even though farmers have withdrawn the railway protests, the Centre is still not resuming trains.
What happens due to this is that the coal stocks in the state used for power generation are empty. The supply of urea important for planting wheat and potatoes has halted. The manufacturing industry in Ludhiana, Jalandhar is affected as thousands of crores of goods are either not being picked by railways, or are not coming into Punjab. The Centre has basically blockaded and punished Punjab right now because the state protested against the Centre.
But the sad thing is that the national media has dropped the coverage of the protest, the country doesn't know what is going on. Geographically, Punjab is disadvantaged, because it is in a corner of the country. The country doesn't get affected whether Punjab functions or not, and they are trying to make Punjab not function now, So that it withdraws all protests, and the really really bad farm laws can be implemented.
Punjab has had a long history of people’s movements. What is the significance of the farmer's protests this time?
This movement, these protests are different from most of the protests that have taken place in Punjab for around the past 100 years. Most of those were restricted to particular communities. This time, the farmers, mostly from Jat caste, landless labourers and small farmers, and mostly Hindu commission agents, have all come together.
For the last two decades, in every Punjab budget, profits from the agricultural sector might have been reducing. However, in terms of people, agriculture is the biggest area in which people engage. There are around 40 lakh people in the state that are dependent on agriculture in some way or the other. That is what has brought all of them together for protest.
The issue of the protests is not limited to the Minimum Support Price (MSPs) or the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs). The issue is that for the past 50-60 years, ever since the green revolution, Punjab has been the granary of the country. What the governments should have done in all these years is to ease Punjab into the diversification of crops, give the state the resources of industries, move the population away from agriculture, or at least reduced the agricultural imprint on Punjab. No governments did that, now suddenly they are pulling the plug. Naturally, agriculture is in crisis.
The protests by the farmers have been given a religious tone by the Central Government as well as the media. How does that affect the protests?
The ‘Khalistan’ label has been used for Punjab repeatedly by the Indian state when it does not want to solve the problems of the state. There has been very very little talk of Khalistan in this protest, and that too by very fringe elements. This is a 100 percent people's movement, there has been no violence in Punjab in the last 40 days. It is basically an economic crisis, and people are responding to it politically through strikes.
Because the BJP or Modi have never responded well to protests anywhere, they just want to malign Punjab to make it look bad in India's eyes and crush the protests, and not solve the issue of farm laws. Giving religious connotation to people's movement is completely wrong.
The agricultural crisis in Punjab is not new. Why do you think the political parties in power in the state have failed to resolve the problems of the people?
In Punjab, we often see people rise for their issues, but the political parties hardly pay any attention. Akali Dal and Congress are the same for me, they have only been doing politics for decades. People's problems are not paid attention to beyond tokenism. I don't think that in the last 50 years, any problem of Punjab has been solved.
From 2014, AAP was trying to fill the gap between political parties and people's problems. They had four MPs in 2014, however, by 2015-16, people came to know that they are also the same. Even they indulged in religious politics and did not pick up people's problems despite making big promises.
Congress and Akali Dal are very old parties in Punjab. They know Punjab very well. They know how to fool people.
The Centre-State conflict in the states with non-BJP governments has become a frequent occurrence in India. For instance, the non-BJP states have been facing the challenge of acquiring their share of Goods and Services Tax (GST) from the Centre. Do you think the Central Government is harming the country’s federal structure?
The problem of GST is not just the problem of the non-BJP states, it is the problem of all states. But only the former are talking about those, as the BJP-ruled states are weak and under pressure. Because of BJP’s own centralised structure and pressure from the RSS, they are not able to talk.
Why can't the Centre give the GST amount to the states, it's not that they don't have the money. They have collected the money, so why this gap?
The Centre-state conflicts are not new. But BJP is only looking for centralism. They are not accepting India's diversity. If BJP is not acknowledging federalism, and the government is formed by the BJP, what else will happen? We will have to fight, there is no other solution.
Lately, we have seen that several regional political parties that were in alliance with the BJP are leaving them. Shiv Sena broke alliance with BJP in Maharashtra last year. The farmers' reforms have broken ties between BJP and Akali Dal in Punjab. Do you think this is the consequence of BJP’s centralised politics?
In Maharashtra, Shiv Sena gave space for BJP to enter the state. Similarly, Akali Dal gave space to BJP in Punjab, when it was looking to form a non-Congress government, against Indira Gandhi. But now, BJP doesn't need all these regional parties, so they don’t care. BJP now knows that it will get over 30 percent of the votes in the country, and it will keep coming in power. So they don’t care about anyone else. There are enough saffron supporters - open as well as closeted - to vote for them. The Bahujan people in the country need to come together and form a party. Otherwise, they won't have representation.
I feel that as a country, we have never come out of partition. We are a country in a trauma of identity politics or religious differences. We have never really been able to focus on development, and now the way we are going, there's no hope.
BJP doesn’t even care for elections anymore. They play the game very differently. In many states, even where they get fewer numbers after elections, they manage to capture the government. They have enough money, they believe they can buy out anyone. And unfortunately for us, the buying out keeps working.
Transcription by Prajakta Joshi.