Jaskaran Sandhu: Sidhana And Sidhu Always Seen As A Political Threat By Establishment
According to a source, some leaders were always looking for a reason to undermine and get rid of Sidhu and Sidhana long before Republic Day
February 12, 2021 | 10 min. read
“Hello sir, I am at Singhu. I would like to talk to you about Deep Sidhu, Lakha Sidhana, and union leaders.”
I receive direct messages and emails like this often now, ever since we launched Baaz. But this one caught my attention because nothing has been discussed and debated more in the Sikh and Punjabi world than this junction of personalities.
Deep Sidhu was arrested this week, for his alleged role in leading a portion of the Republic Day Tractor March to Lal Qilla and raising a Nishan Sahib on an empty flagpole. Sidhana, while also blamed, has so far been saved from similar results as he was never at Red Fort.
So, I made a few phone calls, verified some information, and realized that this cryptic message was from a legit source. Baljinder Singh, his name has been changed to protect his identity, is close enough to many of those in leadership but he is not squarely in any camp. He is a farmer.
Deep Sidhu, for those unaware, is an actor turned activist, who has been part of the farmers’ movement from its early days. He propelled to global attention after a video of him debating with a police officer during the long march to Delhi went viral - in part thanks to far-right Modi supporters who could not wrap their heads around someone speaking English.
Lakha Sidhana is a far more layered character than Sidhu. I turn to Baaz contributor, and what I can only describe as a Sidhana historian, Pali Kaur for her thoughts.
“From descriptions he and others provide, he sounds more like an antagonist in a Punjabi movie than a real-life person”, Kaur shares with me, “he spent years of his life getting paid to beat and threaten others. He alleges he was a hired goon for politicians such as Sikander Singh Maluka of the Akali Party. Sidhana has scars from multiple gunshot wounds on his body including one in his head, that he says nearly killed him. Sidhana even openly admits and regrets that a stray bullet from his gun killed another man.”
How does a person like that become a central figure in Delhi Chalo? Kaur provides the details, “Sidhana has become very well respected at the grassroots level over the last few years, including in his role as the president of the Malwa Youth Federation, an organization dedicated to the revitalization of Punjabi culture and youth. In 2017, Sidhana was arrested for leading a group of youth to paint over state highway signs that were written in Hindi and English but left the Punjabi ones untouched. People trust him.”
Watching his speeches on village stages and videos on social media it is clear that Sidhana anchors his activism in Sikhi. Kaur agrees, “Sidhana says two things shook him out of the life of a paid thug - Waheguru and books. He talks about how during stints in jail he read Sikh history books about Bhagat Singh and Banda Singh Bahudar. It was a near-death encounter when a bullet entered the back of his head that showed him that the gangster life is not what he wanted for himself.”
Back to Baljinder Singh.
He opens up our conversation with an observation many of us have noticed, “Deep Sidhu’s arrest for the Lal Qilla incident is a rare moment where both India’s liberals and right-wingers are united. Right-wingers hate him as he has contributed to making the farmers’ struggle popular, and liberals hate him because he does not toe their line.”
But, what about the farmers’ union leadership I ask.
“They do not like him either. He was always a threat at the grassroots and youth level. Even Punjab’s political parties see him as a threat to their politics post-farmers’ protest,” Baljinder Singh continues to add, “to discredit Sidhu, liberals and some farm leaders call him a BJP agent, and right-wingers call him a Khalistani or anti-national.”
So if the establishment has always been threatened by the likes of Sidhu and Sidhana, who does like them?
“Sidhu and Sidhana are seen as panthic, but it is their strong grip on the youth that actually scares leadership. The diaspora’s love for them is also not a secret here. And, while Sidhu only became active more recently, Sidhana has a lot of years of real activism. They are emerging leaders and that is a threat to everyone, across the spectrum.”
Baljinder Singh explains that tensions between farm union leaders and Sidhu and Sidhana flared up on November 28, at Singhu border, “Sidhu was given some time to speak on the stage and Sidhana also wanted an opportunity. However, another person made some remarks against one of Delhi’s top politicians and it was then announced that the stage would only allow farm union leaders to speak moving forward”, Baljinder Singh adds, “Sidhu, who was sitting at that point amongst the people, left with his supporters for the backside.”
No story is complete though, without an appearance of the legend himself, Babbu Maan, “after a little time, Babbu Maan arrived at Singhu and addressed farmers as well, but not from the main stage. It was in a random lane, a crowd formed, and Maan endorsed Sidhana. It was after this that Sidhana shared that because protestors came to Singhu with different leaders others should be allowed to speak from the main stage too. It had become very apparent to everyone that the youth were with Sidhana and Sidhu.”
It was around the same time as Sidhu’s interview with Barkha Dutt, where he refused to apologize for Sikh sovereignty or allow Khalistan to be used as a synonym for extremism, that he would also be banned from the stage as well - which meant both Sidhu and Sidhana were now barred.
“The truth is, Sidhu and Sidhana are seen as a threat by farmer leadership. One senior leader is a very harsh critic of them both. If you dig into it some you will learn that he has a history of competing with Sidhana.” Baljinder Singh is referring to Rajinder Singh Deep Singh Wala, a young leader and Vice President of Kirti Kisan Union, and someone who has taken every opportunity in the past to undermine Sidhana in particular.
“In 2019, an action committee was formed to ensure justice for Jaspal Singh, someone who was picked up by the police had disappeared. At that time a march was planned, but in the end, everyone refused to take part in it, except for Sidhana. Sidhana’s young supporters were called goons by the establishment, and it was actually at that point relationships soured between Rajinder Singh and Sidhana. There is not a moment where Rajinder Singh does not take the opportunity to criticize Sidhana and now even Sidhu.”
In the end, power dynamics is what drives a lot of this harsh criticism, “Punjab’s leftist think that they have a monopoly over leading the protest and they cannot digest people from other ideologies leading or gaining traction amongst youth. Sidhana and Sidhu are a major threat to the balance of power, even though Sidhana continues to stress unity.”
The events of January 26 - the Republic Day Parade and Lal Qilla incident - brought all of this to a boil.
It was confusion and poor coordination that set up what would be a critical day in the protest, as Baljinder Singh explains, “In January, the farmer unions gave a call to march on Delhi’s outer ring road from different bodies. But a few days before the planned march, they made an entirely different agreement with Delhi police and declared a very different route. There were also now limits on the number of tractors that were allowed to march to Delhi. There was a lot of confusion.”
The issue had always been that Sidhana and Sidhu were never given proper representation, and rather than accommodating them the farmer union leaders tried to isolate and deplatform them, according to Baljinder Singh.
He continues to recount what happened in the lead up to the Republic Day Tractor Rally, “The youth had been generally dissatisfied with being kept out of Delhi, hundred of thousands had marched on the promise that the demonstration would go into the city. Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee had announced that they will march on the outer ring road, and on January 25 a five-member committee was formed that included Sidhana and Sidhu as youth representatives. The call was given to follow the KMSC tractor - ‘Mooreh mooreh ohna ne jana (they will go ahead), piche piche apa vi chal pa gye (and we will follow)’.”
Then came the fateful day, January 26. Republic Day.
“KMSC tractors began the march towards Delhi around 8 AM. People even began walking to Delhi. Sidhu and Sidhana played zero role in any of that. When the KMSC tractor reached Karnal Bypass, where police had done strong barricading, KMSC gave an ultimatum to police to either remove the barricades or move over as farmers themselves would do the deed”, Baljinder Singh continues, “despite police lathi-charge and firing of tear gas shells, farmers crossed the barricades. But when farmers crossed the Karnal Bypass most were not aware of where to go. They took whatever route they could find. Most were not even aware of the ring road. They walked. Some traveled on tractors. A question everyone asked was where to go? The answer was Red fort.”
Why Red Fort?
Baljinder Singh answers, “It represented something bigger where farmers could go and show the world that they were protesting against the laws. It is just natural to want to go to Red Fort when inside Delhi. In fact, before Singhu protestors even showed up, farmers from Ghazipur had already arrived there. According to eyewitnesses Sidhu reached at least 1-1.5 hours later. He never led anyone there.”
Baljinder Singh picks up the pace now, and you can tell that the disinformation spread about the Lal Qilla incident and amplified by some farm leaders continues to bother him, “Sidhu and Sidhana were blamed for ‘violence” on January 26. But where was the violence? No loss of life due to farmers. Farmers did not burn anything. They did not demolish a mosque like right-wingers did in Ayodhya.”
Baljinder Singh brings up the visual of buses with broken windows, as shown by national media after the rally, “Police parked buses to stop the farmers from marching peacefully. For every protestor trying to break glass, there were multiple other protestors trying to stop them. In any case, I have probably broken more glass windows with a cricket ball than those farmers broke that day. That is the violence you are worried about?”
Speaking of disinformation, he talks about how the Nishan Sahib being put onto an empty rampart flagpole was being presented as a Khalistani flag replacing the Indian flag atop the Red Fort as “baseless accusations and rumours that the national media spread. Instead of addressing the propaganda, instead of defending the Nishan Sahib and what it means to Sikhs, or the fact it is even used in the Sikh regiments of the Indian army, the farmer union leaders ran their own propaganda against Sidhu and Sidhana. It shocked many of us”, Singh continues, “instead of trying to counter godi media, and defending our youth, they jumped into the controversy by defending themselves and settling old scores.”
“There was not much difference between the godi media’s vocabulary and the farmer union leaders’ vocabulary.”
The farmer unions risked the entire movement in an attempt to capture the opportunity to push out Sidhan and Sidhu, “leaders overlooked the fact that Haryanvis played music at Red Fort and also danced there,” referring to Rajinder Singh Deep Singh Wala, Baljinder Singh goes on to say, “farm leaders instead chose to raise anti-Sidhu and anti-Sidhana slogans. They spent the next two days attacking Sidhu and Sidhana, rather than countering false narratives and disinformation, threatening the entire movement to settle old rivalries. Instead of questioning the government, the police, or the national media, they were questioning youth and individuals that had been with the movement from the beginning. It was shocking.”
Baljinder Singh slows down, reflects, and goes on, “look, Sidhu and Sidhana can be questioned, but farm leaders cannot escape responsibility for their actions in the lead-up and after Republic Day. They promised youth that they would march into Delhi, but then changed routes without consulting with them. A farm leader who had expressed his desire to metaphorically drive a tractor on Modi’s chest became the harshest critic of those who went to the Red Fort.”
Disorganization seems to have been a bigger culprit than anything else that day, as Baljinder Singh adds, “farm leadership was not there when needed the night before or during the rally. They should have been on the frontlines and gave direction to youths. The march was so unorganized that at least seven farm leaders themselves marched on the ring road, however, only two were temporarily suspended as a result. A lot of double standards.”
While Sidhu is now in custody for his alleged role in leading protestors to the Red Fort, Sidhana survives as he was not at Lal Qilla that day. Sidhana’s long-established grassroots credibility has also insulated him from the kind of fate experienced by Sidhu.
Time will tell whether Sidhu and Sidhana are guilty of anything, but they were definitely made out as scapegoats in order to settle old scores and check their growing influence amongst youth, shares Baljinder Singh as he ends the conversation, “farm leaders are becoming more ambitious and suspicious of alternative leadership. They have spent more time spreading propaganda against Sidhu and Sidhana than anyone else. Farm leaders can escape responsibility for now, but history will not forget their blunders and how they almost lost the entire agitation over their egos.”
Jaskaran Sandhu hails from Brampton, Canada, and is the co-founder of Baaz. He is a Senior Consultant at the public affairs agency Crestview Strategy. Jaskaran also previously served as Executive Director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada and as a Senior Advisor to Brampton’s Office of the Mayor. You can find Jaskaran on Twitter at @JaskaranSandhu_
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