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Resistance in Punjab: Lessons on Power from a Small Sikh Village

India: the world’s largest democracy. A nuclear-armed power that harbors the oldest language still in active use in the world today. An anachronistic country struggling to walk a tightrope between its history and its dreams. The subcontinent has long captured the imaginations and fetishes of spiritually-inclined white folks in North America and Europe, and not without reason. It’s one of the oldest civilizations on earth with a unique culture and faith not found anywhere else.

But not enough analysis of India’s political climate has taken place in US American and European scholarship and activism. The complexity runs deeper than the reductionist narrative of warring Hindu and Muslim nationalists, and many Indian political realities apply to a country like the United States that has been shaped by soft state politics, a diverse population, and a brutal history. The U.S. struggles to address its apartheid legacy despite not being as fractured by language or ethnicity as India. Mainstream white society refuses to scrutinize the history of race and class that mold our current politics and we ruin our understanding of the present in the process.

India may be flawed in this respect too, but the ethnic and linguistic detachment there offers some insights into how we, as progressives, can confront systems of power in our own countries.

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Fun fact: “short-term yoga retreat” is an official reason one can apply for a tourist visa when visiting India. This may be the only country in the world where a bunch of white people can petition the Bureau of Immigration for permission to come twist themselves into knots. But I wasn’t here to troll a room full of white people who sank thousands of dollars to do downward-facing dog across Big Blue. I came to see an old dear friend who always insisted I needed to see her home in India someday, and no way was I going to be That Guy who kept saying “next year” until one year turned into a decade or two. Soon I found myself in a cab headed north on the lawless highway out of Delhi at the ass crack of dawn.

It was around 5:00 AM local time when I arrived at the village outside of Samrala City in Punjab. This modest town is home to 4500 people, almost all of them Sikh. Two massive gurudwaras sit at the north and south ends, both with incredible significance for Sikh history. One was visited and blessed by the 6th Sikh guru Hargobind Sahib, the other by the 10th and final guru Gobind Singh. Waking up to the morning prayer projecting from the speakers on each building tops my list of the most peaceful sensations in the world.

The visit brought an unexpected bonus: a case-study of how to build alternative systems of power. Abandoned by the central government and persecuted throughout their history, these Sikhs chose a soft form of anarchism divorced from the Indian state.

Speaking with a young Sikh man nicknamed Nikka one afternoon, the discussion turned to politics.

What do you think of Donald Trump?” he asked me, “is he a good president?”

I snorted and shook my head “No, I can’t stand the man.” We laughed.

And the Indian Prime Minister,” I said, “Narendra Modi?”

Yes.”

What do you think of him?”

Nikka waved his hand. “I don’t like him at all. The only people who think he is good are the rich people. He does nothing for the poor or middle class. Me and my family struggle and he cares nothing about us.”

Much like Donald Trump,” I said.

Trump and Modi, they are the same.”

A woman walking down the farm road with us named Simirata chimed in: “The Indian government has never been good for people like us. We can’t rely on them for anything. That’s why we build our communities so we don’t need to travel far for our needs.”

Distrust of the Indian state seems common among Sikhs both here in India and in the diaspora. Given the history of Sikh oppression at the hands of the Moghul Empire, violence from Hindutva ultranationalists (including a military raid of one of the holiest Sikh sites, Darbār Sahib, in 1984), kidnapping of Sikh activists, and being caught in the crossfire of Hindu-Muslim conflicts like the 1947 India-Pakistan partition and the Kashmir war, this isn’t exactly a hot take.

The sentiment is not confined to the Sikh community. The screeching halt of the Indian National Congress (INC)’s multi-decade rule confirms that many communities in India feel abandoned by the central government. South Asian commentators have offered several explanations for this radical shift, chief among them the INC’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies that gutted support programs for lower and middle-income Indians. The party of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru is in complete freefall after being starched in several regional and national elections. None of the left-wing parties serve as reasonable challengers as they too suffered similar losses in the electoral ring and carry even less power in the national legislature than the Congress. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is running the show unopposed, giving Hindutva thugs the green light to wage violence against religious minorities, women, and other vulnerable groups.

Discussing the rise of Modi’s BJP, another young Sikh I spoke to put it in simple terms: “People, especially poor people, feel like the government does nothing for them. That the government just lines its own pockets and leaves people to struggle.”

Sound familiar? The same phenomenon fueled the rise of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Rodrigo Duterte, and many other right-wing leaders. Whatever one may think of former British parliamentarian George Galloway, he wasn’t wrong when he said that flooding the atmosphere with fear of an Other while people are seeing red from economic insecurity creates one hell of a xenophobic cocktail.

A response to the wave of mutilation may be hiding in this Sikh village in Punjab. It’s an approach with similar ideas to the history and scholarship of black and indigenous American struggles for freedom from the tyranny of the state that figures like Modi and Trump represent.

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What is the role of the state in freedom struggles? Debating this question takes different forms depending on the crowd. Discourse in conservative circles may appear lively, but the scope of that talk is limited. Whether it be traditional conservatism, libertarian philosophy, anarchocapitalism, or any other shade, belief in a limited central state governs most if not all conservative politics.

Progressive approaches to the question of the state are broader in scope and more troubled as a result. It may be recognized that the state itself is an institution of force responsible for many injustices, but many who acknowledge this still deem it a “necessary evil” in order to safeguard protections in a rights-based society. This argument is not without merit. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service is a crucial institution that deserves to be defended. Welfare states, despite their flaws and the need to adjust to a globalizing world, do not bankrupt the government as Republicans and Tories claim. Reparations have taken the stage as a debate issue in the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign and most agree the state will serve some role in that plan’s execution. In some respects, the state can be a reliable institution in progressive struggle.

But progressives lack answers for how to reconcile these advances with the vast history of violence central states have caused. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was a massive genocidal operation facilitated by the empires of Europe. The modern corporation is the state’s Frankenstein’s monster, as these entities cannot exist on the scale that they do without the legal and financial protections afforded by government investment in the market. The markets that socialist thinkers and activists chastise cannot exist without government, and to some extent the opposite is also true.

Scholars and activists have debated the role of government in liberation struggles for centuries, and people of color in the United States offer some of the most prescient insight on this question. Indigenous American historians like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz condemn the United States government’s history of dishonoring its treaties and agreements with several nations and discuss how this fomented distrust of the settler state among indigenous leadership from the first contacts between European invaders and indigenous people. Black American legal scholars like Cheryl Harris and Derrick Bell questioned the wisdom of appealing to the oppressor for protections and professor Tilen J. LeMelle once asked whether “…a culture from whose inception racial discrimination has been a regulative force for maintaining stability and growth for maximizing other cultural values – whether such a society of itself can even legislate public policy to combat racial discrimination is most doubtful.” Harlem Renaissance thinker Marcus Garvey became famous for his proposal that blacks in the Americas abandon attempts to secure their rights and instead return to the African continent to rebuild their ravaged societies.

These scholars, activists, and ordinary citizens did not carry much faith in the charity of their oppressor. For these communities, appealing to the state for liberation equated to a domestic abuse victim begging their abuser to quit hitting them after hundreds of broken noses, busted lips and shiners. The only way to achieve total liberation was political and social independence, not by seeking to overthrow the existing government and erase it, but by building alternative systems of support. Only by removing the state’s leverage over a community could its jingoistic power over their lives be destroyed.

This philosophy is what I find in this small Sikh village outside Samrala City in Punjab.

Recognizing the ill will of a state influenced by a radical Hindu lobby, the village secures most of its needs on its own streets. The family I’m staying with owns a shop around the corner that carries such items as snacks, hygienic products, stationary and writing materials, and a printer/photocopier for customers to use. A doctor occupies the house across the street. A plumber came by to fix the pipes in the neighbor’s bathroom one afternoon. Another guy invited me into his shop where he repairs computers and stereos. Turns out he’s DJ Preet, who runs one of the hottest decks in northern India. Farmers outside the city grow wheat, rice, mustard leaves, and other crops. Two mills pound the wheat into flour to make that dynamite roti and a dairy on the same street converts milk into the freshest ghee you’ll ever taste. A goldsmith creates jewelry and down the way from him is a garment-making school where residents as old as 60 attend.

But this isn’t some demented Indian Innsmouth; the community is far from isolated. Young adults are encouraged to attend school and work in the nearby cities, especially with Punjab’s growing unemployment rate (7.8% in 2018 compared to 2.2% in 2012). Many villagers own successful businesses in Samrala and several younger Sikhs I spoke to discussed their plans to travel, study, or work abroad in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Singapore.

These people have recognized the need to detach from a nation that does not value their lives and they have constructed a network around that premise. As Bell and other scholars have argued, an oppressed community cannot legislate their way to freedom in a society built on their blood and sweat. The only solution in their eyes is to model the philosophy of this Sikh village. If the existing system of power will not defend vulnerable communities, those communities must act on their own.

 

{1984 assault on the Golden Temple by Indian armed forces}

None of this is to fetishize this place in some Gauguin-style Eurojizz over nonwhite societies. The village’s system isn’t perfect, and internal critiques would certainly have emerged if I had more than a couple of weeks to spend and a smaller language barrier. Where there are people, there are problems. But as author and geography professor Jared Diamond points out in The World Until Yesterday, all societies are flawed and that doesn’t mean they can’t offer us valuable lessons.

Similar models to this village’s system have already shown success in the United States, some dating back more than a century. The famous Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, better known as the Black Wall Street, produced unprecedented wealth for participating black Americans in the early 20th century until it was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1921. That project may have gone up in flames, but the spirit never died. Jackson, Mississippi, has garnered much attention in the past few years as a stronghold of growing black wealth, complete with black civic leadership and a thriving economy based on the same soft anarchist principle found in this corner of India. Detroit, Michigan, became an American punching bag after declaring bankruptcy in 2013, but the blackest city in the U.S. now serves as a national inspiration through its growing green spaces and revitalized community bonds.

Indigenous American communities are finding similar success with this philosophy. The Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma developed several homegrown industries that provide substantial economic gains. These payouts are reinvested into infrastructure, education, school lunch programs, and other projects. The Coeur d’Alene Nation in Northern Idaho started rolling in dough after tribal leader Ernie Stensgar implemented an improved healthcare system and a well-regulated gaming scene that abated many of the inequalities casinos often bring to reservations. Urban indigenous Americans, who outnumber reservation residents contrary to popular belief, were some of the first to establish self-sufficient hubs in Oakland, New York, Seattle, and several other American cities.

Asian-Americans in the Chinatown-International District of Seattle maintain a stable economic hub in the city despite a history of anti-Chinese violence and Japanese internment during World War II. A combination of elected and appointed leaders govern the district through a board system with the goal of keeping as much capital in the district as possible.

{Seattle’s Chinatown-International district houses several businesses owned by Asian-American residents of the city.}

Across the pond in the United Kingdom, independence fire rages in Scotland and Wales after Westminster obliterated its own mandate through three years of Brexit madness. People are recognizing their status as second-class citizens in a union built on pillars of sand.

Scots have a common cause with the Sikhs in this respect. Dreams of an independent Sikh land, Khalistan, exist not just in India, but across the Sikh diaspora. The subject came up often in my discussions with the villagers, including a potent exchange one evening at an older gentleman’s house. Nikka took me to retrieve some milk for his home and we stopped by on the way to the dairy.

“He is a supporter of Khalistan,” Nikka said of me after introductions. He pointed to a picture high on the wall depicting the owner of the house with several other members dressed in Sikh battle garb. The text was in Punjabi, but it obviously had to do with the Khalistan movement.

“Yes,” I said, “I have encountered some Sikhs in the U.S. who support an independent state for the Sikh people.”

“Most do,” the owner said, “We are not Indians. We were forced out of our original home in what is now Pakistan in the partition of ’47 and were told we were now Indians. We cannot talk about Khalistan in India. [The government] won’t allow it. That is why support is louder abroad.”

Political independence, while still relying on institutions, uses as its inspiration the same philosophy of building an independent system of power. For Scots, that means a sovereign and autonomous government free of the whipping belt of London. For Sikhs, it means restoring the Sikh home to live and worship in peace. For black Americans, it means the opportunity to build economic and social capital after being denied the opportunity to participate in capitalism ever since their removal from Africa.

Whatever it looks like, we need to begin thinking of ways to build power outside the electoral process, especially as it becomes ever more tainted by the philosophies of vapid self-interest and wealth accumulation. These communities in the United States and India have discovered some methods of making that happen. As accomplices, it is our duty to support them.

By George Collins
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