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What has led the world’s largest democracy to take on Rihanna and Greta Thunberg in an undignified twitter war? The Indian government’s response to the online support shown to India’s striking farmers by the pop superstar and teenage climate change activist show how sensitive the Modi administration is to its handling of recent farmer protests.

While the Indian government has restricted the farmers’ access to the internet in the wake of the protests, it has taken to social media to respond to the “sensationalist social media hashtags and comments … resorted to by celebrities” with some of their own.

Whereas Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, felt compelled to respond by decrying the “propaganda,” which imperilled India’s “unity,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the most followed world leader on Twitter with 65 million followers, was content to retweet an official Ministry of External Affairs statement ending with the hashtags #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether. They have subsequently been retweeted more than a million times, including by Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar.

Although the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, there have been clashes between farmers and with the security forces most notably on India’s Republic Day on Jan. 26 when the Nishan Sahib, a flag with a symbol associated with the Sikh independence movement was unfurled in the old Mughal imperial capital of Red Fort.

The government is right to be concerned. The farmer’s protest constitutes the largest and most sustained mass protest that Modi has faced since being re-elected with a landslide majority in 2019. Whereas the other protests, most notably the demonstration against the reform of the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), have focused on legislation that appear to target the Muslim minority in India, the farmers’ protest is different in two respects.

First, it is broadly supported by the majority of India’s 103 million farmers who fear that the proposed marketization of farming will lead to a concentration of farmland in the hands of a few agribusiness companies with ties to the Modi administration.

Second, it appears to be led — if official media channels are to be believed — by farmers from the Punjab region, and in particular, by the Sikh community, who have had a troubled relationship with the Centre since independence. The response of the Modi administration and its allies has been to try and discredit the protests outside of India by implicitly linking them to the movement for a Sikh independent state, Khalistan.

Despite the election of a Sikh, Manmohan Singh, as India’s prime minister from 2004 to 2014, Khalistan continues to attract limited support from some Sikhs in the Punjab and many more in overseas Sikh communities who constitute a powerful diaspora. However, the movement has declined since the decade-long insurgency following then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s fateful decision to storm the Golden Temple, the most sacred site within Sikhism, in 1984.

The storming of the Golden Temple was carried out to flush out militants led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who had taken refuge there. It led to the desecration of the Akal Takht, the Sikh “parliament,” and considerable loss of life as innocent pilgrims were caught in the crossfire between government forces and militants.

In retaliation for ordering the action, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, precipitating pogroms against Sikhs in the capital New Delhi that were reminiscent of the targeting of Jews in Germany during Kristallnacht.

The now 27 million strong global Sikh community broadly considers itself to constitute not only a religious but also an ethnic group, and potentially an embryonic nation. The community sided with the Indian National Congress (INC) following the Partition of India and Pakistan but the main Sikh political party, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), campaigned for a “homeland” in India, a Punjabi Suba, where “their” language, Punjabi, was spoken. However, this does not mean that the community supported Khalistan. National sentiment and belonging do not necessarily translate into a demand for sovereign statehood.

Indeed, Sikh nationalism may best be seen as a reaction to the actions of the Indian state and an increasingly “Hinduized” public sphere. The process of Hinduization has greatly intensified following Modi’s re-election through legislation targeting the Muslim minority. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is committed to an ideology of Hindutva, which seeks to redefine India as a Hindu Rashtra or nation.

Whereas Muslims have been marginalized, Sikhs have been courted. The SAD, led by Sukhbir Singh Badal, was a key ally of the BJP in the Punjab and part of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). However, the passage of the farm bills in September 2020 has led Badal to leave the NDA and express solidarity with the farmers, who remain his primary electoral base.

The farmers’ protests, in short, have nothing to do with the demand for Khalistan. They are an organized and sustained attempt to repeal three farm bills, introduced following a limited debate in the lower house, Lok Sabha, which are designed to increase agricultural productivity by “expanding market access” and “providing greater flexibility for farmers.”

The first bill relaxes restrictions on the purchase and sale of agricultural goods, the second loosens restrictions on keeping stock under the 1955 Essential Commodities Act and the third introduces legislation to allow contract farming based on written agreements. What the farmers object to are the end to protection, which was provided for by government-controlled wholesale markets.

Furthermore, the protests are motivated by fears that increasing liberalization of the agricultural sector will lead to the abolishment of Minimum Support Processes (MSPs), which provide a measure of security for farmers. Despite reassurances from the Modi government that the MSPs are not under threat, the protesting farmers want MSPs legally guaranteed in the future. So far, the Modi government has been reluctant to do so or to commit to repeal the farm bills, which remains the farmers’ primary demand.

Eleven rounds of talks between the government and farmers’ unions have resulted in little progress leading to calls from the leader of one of the biggest unions, the Bharatiya Kisan Union, for the government to be removed from power if the bills are not repealed.

Whether this demand will materialise remains to be seen given the BJP’s outright majority in the Lok Sabha. However, if the Modi administration does not compromise further, it remains a distinct, albeit slight, possibility. One thing is sure: If they want India to remain together, the Modi administration will need more than a hashtag.

Giorgio Shani is professor and chair of the Department of Politics and International Studies, Director of the Rotary Peace Center at International Christian University and author of “Sikh Nationalism and Identity in a Global Age.”

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