First person account: Red Fort protestors told me they won’t leave till govt hears them

I saw Nishan Sahabs, the Indian tricolour, flags of anti-corruption activists, but no sign of Khalistan pennants

Praveen Swami January 27, 2021 19:46:05 IST
First person account: Red Fort protestors told me they won’t leave till govt hears them

Tens of thousands of protesting farmers drove long lines of tractors into Delhi on Tuesday, breaking through police barricades, defying tear gas and storming the historic Red Fort as the nation celebrated Republic Day. AP

"Free entry today", someone shouted, "free entry, free entry". A couple from Amritsar posed for a selfie in front of the magnificent Lahori Gate, from where Emperors once passed in ceremonial processions from the Red Fort into the great city of Shahjehanabad. Nihangs, members of medieval Sikh martial order, performed a sword-dance on the podium on Red Fort’s ramparts, from where Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his first Independence Day speech, on August 16, 1947 — a day after, you might not know from school textbooks, the thing itself.

In the background, small groups of young men furiously tried to scale the fort’s walls, hoping to plant a Nishan Sahib—the ensign of the Sikh faith, a triangular flag embazoned with with a khanda, or double-edged sword, and a circular chakkar flanked by two single-edged swords

Not everyone present there was impressed. “You’re going to break your heads”, a wizened protest organiser cautioned. “We’ve come here to give our blood”, one young activist screamed. “Go and give it at a hospital”, the old man shot back, “do something useful for once in your life”. An exchange of Punjabi abuse followed; in some things, at least, there is no generational communication-gap.

The events that followed those exchanges now lie at the centre of the increasingly partisan national conversation over what happened in Delhi on Tuesday. Excitable social media commentators and television anchors, have generated considerably more heat than light. This is excellent fodder for anyone interested in cheering one side or the other. The problem is, of course, that it tells us next to nothing about what actually happened—the foundation, of course, of a any assessment of what it might portend.

I spent most of Wednesday walking alongside the almost tidal procession of vehicles streaming in from the Singhu border, alongside Delhi’s Ring Road, to the Red Fort. Those who follow my work know farm issues and peasant movements aren’t issues I have any competence on. I was hoping, instead, to get some sense of the influence on the neo-Khalistan movement, which has embedded itself on the fringes of Punjab’s youth culture.

Sadly for me, given the not-inconsiderable trudge involved, there wasn’t any any Khalistan culture on display. The road was awash in Nishan Sahabs, the Indian Tricolour, flags of anti-corruption activists, volunteer medical staff, a dozen farmers’ unions, the Shaheed Darshan Singh Pheruman Dal — much easier to find on Wikipedia than in the real world—but not one, single Khalistan flag or slogan.

I didn’t even spot a Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale t-shirt—fashionable among Punjab’s young, passionate and silly in the same way Ché Guevara is among their counterparts in London and New York—let alone hear the chirpy rap beloved of the Khalistan Posse.

For the most part, the hundreds of tractors and cars that had arrived down the Ring Road made their way up the main road in front of the fort, and then made a u-turn, returning the way they’d come. No-one made any secret of what they were doing: Even though leaders might have committed to a march route, everyone I spoke to said, they hadn’t spent ten weeks camped out in the cold to go away without making sure the Government heard their voice loud and clear.

I’m guessing—guessing, because it’s hard to speak to people engaged in clambering up walls—that the young people who flew the Nishan Sahab on the Red Fort’s ramparts had much the same idea. I’ve also no idea if Deep Singh Sidhu inspired the act or not, nor if anyone was plotting to bring down the national flag; there was just too much of a crush between where I was and those events. What I do know, for fact, is that the same gaggle of young people engaged in putting up the Nishan Sahab were also waving Indian national flags.

The small police picket stationed near the Lahori Gate finally decided to act. A lathi-charge—much gentler than most I’ve had the misfortune of being near over the years—followed. This enraged the crowd on the ramparts; reinforcements were called in from the main road on tractors, ploughing through their own supporters.

Hopelessly outnumbered, the police—wisely—fled.


, to a tractor-borne ambulance station they’d brought along. Deep Sidhu was shooed away by other farmers.

The Delhi Police’s and armed Central Reserve Police Force personnel stationed at nearby, deserve credit for demonstrating good sense in their handling of the situation. Indian police forces have learned—the hard way—that there’s no real way of dispersing gargantuan crowds once they have assembled. Even the use of lethal force, witness Kashmir in 2016, or the Haryana caste agitation that year, often inflames the situation, rather than stilling it.

For all practical purposes, the story ended there. On the walk back down the road towards Kashmiri Gate, and out towards the Ring Road, I discovered most people in the tractor parade had no idea anything had transpired in the Red Fort.

***

I know, from the accounts colleagues and other eyewitnesses, that things didn’t play out quite so gently elsewhere in Delhi. There’s no doubt at all that the violence that transpired at the Red Fort—like the violence of protestors at the Income Tax Office, or the Ghazipur border—is utterly indefensible. Now matter how legitimate one might think one’s cause to be, storming police barricades, attempting to run over officers on duty with tractors or occupying public premises cannot be defended. The protestors committed crimes: This is not in question.

Then again, I’ve learned over the years that there’s a very thin line between righteous indignation and pure cant.

From the tone of shock that underpinned media commentary on the violence, you might imagine that the violence that happened on Tuesday is an exception. Reporters, if no-one else, might be expected to have the institutional memory to recall that violence has accompanied most mass protest in modern India, from the anti-Mandal protests of 1990, to the Ram janmabhumi movement of 1990-1993. There isn’t one single political party in the country which hasn’t organised protests involving overrunning police barricades and battles with the police.

Even the Nirbhaya protests of 2012—in which not a few of today’s journalists participated, as activists—left over 70 police officers, and equal numbers of protestors, injured; one, constable Suresh Tomar, was beaten to death.

The violence, in all these cases, deserved condemnation. Even basic honesty, though, demands that we acknowledge that the supporters of these movements did not see this violence as a measure of the moral worth of their causes.

It is also true, similarly, that planting a symbol of one religion on the ramparts of the Red Fort is disgraceful: The monument is, after all, a symbol of our shared nationhood and citizenship, transcending religious affiliation. Yet, if the peasants who flew the Nishaan Sahab on the Red Fort are to be condemned, we must also condemn political leaders who have injected religious symbols into our public life.

A culture where Hindu religious rituals usher in the construction of the new Parliament, or Chief Ministers host Iftaar and Christmas celebrations, is not consistent with the secularist principles being invoked to condemn the farm movement.

I’ve no opinion on whether the farm laws are good for India, or whether they ought be withdrawn—and if I did have an opinion it wouldn’t be worth listening to, since I know nothing of agricultural economics or, for that matter, farming.

As a student of violent movements in India, though, I do know this: Like it or not, the farmers who entered Delhi were speaking the well-established language of Indian political life, which is at some considerable distance from the Gandhian pieties leaders mouth. Threatening violence, and appealing to primordial religious or caste solidarities, is that much more likely to get a hearing from Government than reasoned argument.

Tuesday’s Red Fort riot might be a great occasion to outrage — but the energy’s probably better spent on some introspection.

Videos were shot by the author at Red Fort on Republic Day

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