Glimpses of Liberation: Moving Beyond Elections and Reform
Although Kisaan and Majdoor have physically left the Delhi borders, their momentum and collective pulse continues to vibrate with Sikhs in Punjab and across the globe. When Sikhs were leaving the morcha sites, locals mourned their departure. This raises a fundamental question about what was being mourned by those who physically witnessed Sikh mobilization and resistance. While some question the strategies mobilized during the morcha and others debate if the morcha can be called a Sikh site of resistance, it is undeniable that Sikh values, sidhant, and institutions laid the foundation for the “largest protest in history”. Less discussed is the revolutionary Sikh spirit and momentum that can sustain a protest on a city’s borders without conventional access to, or desire for, city infrastructure. As we endure yet another election cycle and collectively reflect on recent Sikh mobilizations, these glimpses of liberation call on us to ask: where do we go from here?
The morcha planted seeds bestowed upon us by our Gurus and Shaheeds about how Sikhs unite and mobilize. We do not have to look far to understand ways to move and organize beyond elections, reform and the state. The Sikh quam is alive and ready to rebuild a world with the very barricades used to contain us; to build in the revolutionary Khalsa spirit that handed a young Kaur shastaar when the state failed to protect the family; and to build on the ashes that sparked ਨਾਅਰੇ (naare) of “ਇਹ ਸਾਡੀ ਮਜਬੂਰੀ ਏ, ਖਾਲਿਸਤਾਨ ਜ਼ਰੂਰੀ ਏ" (ee sade majboori e, Khalistan jaroore e) at Deep Sidhu’s cremation. The morcha reignited mass Sikh consciousness and politicized many to reimagine our liberatory possibilities both in protest and structures for Sikhs ways of mutual support and existence.
The morcha reintroduced ways of being and relating that have become nearly impossible in our current structures of capitalism and our contested existence within empires. Instead, Sikhs in Punjab and those displaced have fragments and glimpses of this way of existence and support when we attend local morche and sit in sangat at gurudware. Our morche demonstrate different alternate possibilities for Sikh ways of being that directly challenge current modes of survival in Punjab, the diaspora, and other spaces in which our existence is negotiated, compartmentalized and fragmented within empires.
At the Kisaan morcha, Sikhs engaged in a process of creating new geographies, those deeply embedded in Sikh values, institutions, and embodiment. The morcha became an autonomous zone with no desire for police or state agents. The morcha’s geographies included makeshift “kitchens”, where men and women of all generations gathered to make langar and fed not only those at the morcha, but nearby children and residents. Spaces to rest and sleep were created, along with stages to engage in discourse, listen to Gurbani and Kirtan, and to organize. Nihang Singhs protected not only those at the morcha from possible infiltrators or bad actors, but also protected those at the morcha from the police and state violence; a dual protection from the state which is otherwise pushed to the margins as an impracticability. External funding from abroad was discouraged. Sikh approaches to collective care and support, another way of being that are antagonistic to modes of organization perpetuated by the state and capitalism, were put into practice.
Regardless of different Sikhs’ differing political and ideological perspectives, there is a rising consensus that conditions in Punjab must change as its uncertain future becomes undeniable as water scarcity continues, more naujawan are displaced from home in search for a stable livelihood, more Sikh political prisoners are created and sovereign Sikh expression is criminalized. As such, this pushes us to rethink what lessons can be learned from the morcha to move beyond elections and reform to truly create the modes of organizing that center our liberation and shatter narratives of confinement and state reform.
Sikhs’ existence within neoliberal confining structures and our modes of resistance are omnipresent, from the insurgency at the Red Fort on January 26th to the Naujawan Support Network in Canada. In a capitalist world that breeds hyperindividualism, the collectivity at the morcha, both in ਰੋਸ (ros - expressions of anger) and embodied in the everyday through practices and acts of collective care from providing langar to shelter, push us to rethink where we stake our energy, hopes and aspirations for liberation. The morcha captured an alternate way of existing and mobilizing in ways that supported people’s immediate material needs that the state is inadequate to provide, worked against oppressive state structures, and became a fertile ground to imagine the Sikh quam’s existence as a sovereign entity. This, again, raises the question about what was being mourned as Sikhs left the Delhi borders and the living conditions produced by the morcha that contrast and juxtapose current ways of survival. If Sikhs created a space of collective care at the borders of Delhi while still being confined and surveilled by the state, what would the Sikh quam, geographies and existence look like outside of the state’s confines, barricades and prisons?
At this conjuncture, Sikhs must deeply acknowledge how events in the last few years, and generations of revolutionary mobilization and resistance against the Indian State, provides us with directions about how to organize against and resist the state that are deeply embedded in Sikhi. By sitting with these realities, it is clear that Sikh self-determination and ways of existing do not need to be shackled to local or national politics and elections. Instead, recent organizing and mobilization capture the Sikh imaginary for liberation that sits outside of the state’s vision for so-called democracy and reform.
The morcha captured our ways of fugitive planning against the state and an insurgence that moves beyond India’s capacity for regulation. The barricades that were repurposed from the state’s attempt at confinement represent the historic and ongoing Sikh revolutionary spirit, which cannot be contained. The repurposing of the barricades represents Sikh ways of mobilizing and agitating against oppressive structures that attempt to confine us and demonstrate how Sikhs create a new world in its ashes that feeds, serves and creates alternative ways of existence for those in the margins. These moments of struggle point to a momentum that exists in the underbelly of the Sikh quam, clouded in frustration, anger and suffering, that is grounded in the blood of our Shaheeds and praxis of our Gurus. January 26th was not a random, by chance event; instead, it encapsulates the tension and deep generational longing for liberation which continues to erupt, demanding our attention and collective nurturing.
The diaspora witnessed and experienced the morcha from a mediated lens, from photographers on the ground with their breathtaking work to glimpses from reporters traveling from one border to another. Others in the diaspora, desperate to call the West’s attention to the atrocities happening to those on the ground, emphasized Rihanna’s tweet and called India’s democracy into question. However, Sikhs’ collectivity and values guided the morcha, with everyday people and elders who weathered through the Punjab winters, rain and heat. If the diaspora was so inspired through the mediated lens, one can only imagine what it was like there in real life, to sleep in the trailers and wake up to Japji Sahib on the loudspeaker as the Sangat prepares for the new day.
Why, then, do we continuously set our coordinates for organizing against and resisting the Indian state to elections, NGOs, fundraisers and other forms of institutional building that only reform and reify the state and these regimes that are in direct antagonism to our existence? This is apparent in the diaspora where any form of crisis moves from a deep frustration, anger and dard for the Panth to Sikh philanthropy and NGO organizations asking for money. These NGOs and Sikh philanthropy organizations become responsible for the state’s failures and engage in crisis management that are deeply embedded in intersecting layers of dispossession, neoliberalism and state violence. These modes of intervention are important as they meet people’s material needs and temporarily band-aid the crisis. However, they do not absolve or name the violent structures that continually reproduce conditions of displacement, poverty, and struggle. Instead, in the larger Sikh political discourse, conversations and questions about liberation are erased as an unrealistic possibility by the non-profit industrial complex. By merely looking at spectacles of violence and not grounding questions about liberation or histories of dispossession, some Sikhs find themselves engaging in cycles of defeat and hopelessness as they turn to the state, non-profit industrial complex and reform as the only conceivable way forward.
As such, we must move beyond elections, reform, representation politics and merely consuming spectacles of violence and recenter the discourse on our liberation. Recent events, including the Kisaan morcha, demonstrate how Sikhs organize, agitate and resist the state while simultaneously engaging in practices of collective care that move beyond the state’s capacity. While the Kisaan morcha was still a confined, libidinal space that was highly surveilled, its embodied protest captures glimpses of our liberation in practice. The morcha captures how in the Sikh quam’s underbelly, there is a deep longing to cultivate spaces where Sikhs can exist on their own terms, without compromising and negotiating elements of our identities and ways of being.
Teer Kaur s a Ph.D Candidate who studies the criminalization of space and state violence.