Gurupurab — “the day of the Guru” — is the most important festival for the followers of Sikhism. It celebrates the birth of their first Guru, Guru Nanak. The purnmashi of the Kartik month, 1469, is his birth date. On his 551st birth anniversary, the Prime Minister announced that the three farm laws will be repealed in the upcoming Parliament session.
This marks a remarkable parallel to the history of Sikhism, which is closely associated with the history of Punjab. Sikhs came into conflict with Mughal laws, beginning in the reign of Emperor Jahangir. The Mughal rulers killed many Sikhs for refusing to obey their orders. Supreme sacrifices were made by the community, including Guru Arjan Dev and Guru Teg Bahadur. The sacrifice of the young sons of Guru Gobind Singh — Banda Bahadur, Bhai Mati Das, Bhai Sati Das and Bhai Dayala — is also legendary. The emergence of a Sikh empire under the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is the highlight of Sikhism.
Now, once again, the farmers led by Sikhs have reaffirmed their strength against draconian laws, albeit emanating from modern democratic rulers. This movement also had an uncanny resemblance to the freedom struggle. A special session of the Congress was held in Calcutta on September 4, 1920. Lokmanya Tilak had just died and it was presided over by Lala Lajpat Rai. The Congress had met in this tense atmosphere to decide on the momentous issue of non-cooperation. Mahatma Gandhi placed the non-cooperation resolution before the Subjects Committee, which reads as: “And in view of the fact that, in the matter of the events of the April of 1919, both the said governments have grossly neglected or failed to protect the innocent people of the Punjab and punish officers guilty of unsoldierly and barbarous behaviour towards them, and have exonerated Sir Michael O’Dwyer who proved himself directly responsible for most of the official crimes and callous to the sufferings of the people placed under his administration… This Congress is further of the opinion that there is no course left open for the people of India but to approve of and adopt the policy of progressive non-violent non-co-operation inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, until the said wrongs are righted and Swarajya is established.”
Thus, non-cooperation was born. It gave the measure of discipline and self-sacrifice, without which no nation can make real progress. It gave an opportunity to every man, woman and child to participate in this discipline and self-sacrifice. Interestingly, the three most exciting elements of the non-cooperation movement were the boycott of legislatures, lower courts and educational institutions. Later, civil disobedience was accentuated by acute economic crises in UP. Peasants were not in a position to pay taxes and the government made only a partial remission, which was wholly inadequate. Gandhiji warned the British that he would have no other course left but to resume civil disobedience on account of the plight of farmers in UP and Bengal. Verrier Elwin, an eminent English scholar, visited the regions and described the situation in UP as “the most pathetic condition of the peasants and fully justifies the steps taken by the Congress”. Elwin concluded that “the real failure to observe the spirit of the settlement appears to me to have been on the other (government) side”.
A series of ordinances issued by the British, which practically suspended all normal laws safeguarding the lives, properties and personal liberties of Indians, was strongly opposed. Madan Mohan Malaviya, on January 26, 1933, declared: “… it is estimated that nearly 1,20,000, including several thousand women and quite a number of children, have been arrested and imprisoned during the last 15 months. It is an open secret that when the government started repression, the official expectation was that they would crush the Congress in six weeks. Fifteen months have not enabled the Government to achieve the object. Twice fifteen months will not enable it to do so.”
Non-cooperation or civil disobedience gave us freedom from the British in 1947. Those who question it reveal their lack of knowledge and understanding of the freedom struggle and the sacrifices of millions. The farmers’ agitation of 2020-2021 re-establishes the relevance of non-cooperation and civil disobedience in a democratic set-up. Unconstitutional and unjust laws must always be opposed by citizens — that is the message of the freedom struggle. Equally, those in power must remember the words of Nelson Mandela from the dock at Rivonia Trial, before the Pretoria Supreme Court on April 20, 1964:
“I am the First Accused. I have already mentioned that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto. I, and the others who started the organisation, did so for two reasons. Firstly, we believed that as a result of government policy … unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly … all lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government.”
The farmers’ agitation reaffirms one’s faith in peaceful resistance. The government must rule but with compassion towards all. A parliamentary majority is not a licence to legislate unconstitutional and unreasonable laws.
The government has done well to backtrack with grace and the farmers must accept this measure with equal grace. Let us hope that with the repeal, the government pushes for further constructive and ameliorative measures to support the farmers of India.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 20, 2021 under the title ‘The power of civil disobedience’. The writer is a senior advocate and former president, Supreme Court Bar Association