Martyrdom, the Farmers' Movement and the Making of Another Polis

The protest at Delhi's borders has enacted Gandhi’s conception of non-violence, crafting an alternative conception of sovereignty, another polis grounded in martyrdom.

Martyr’s Day is celebrated on January 30 by commemorations that are statist and non-statist. Everyone has been claiming their favourite Gandhi depending on their preferred values, swacch (clean) or satya (truth). There has been an overkill of write-ups on Gandhi in the 150th year of his birth centenary even as his detractors zero in on his so-called racism and sexism. Gandhi’s radicalism has been domesticated, made to conform to state goals.

Suddenly, however, over the last two months the peasant movements and peasant nationalism of pre-independence India has re-emerged in the wake of the centre’s imposition of farm bills without debate and discussion in parliament and in the Indian states. The legislation has been described as the “corporatisation of agriculture, a re-colonisation of land, a deprivation of the right to the earth”.

The peasant movement in its wake has enacted Gandhi’s conception of non-violence, crafting an alternative conception of sovereignty, another polis grounded in shahadat or martyrdom. It would be tragic if the electronic media’s effort at overwriting the spirit of the movement by the single event of hoisting another flag atop the Red Fort on January 26 succeeds.

Farmers hoist flags at the Red Fort during the Kisan Gantantra Parade on January 26. Photo: PTI

The idea of shahadat or martyrdom has come to us from the Semitic traditions. Conceptually it means being a witness to truth. The witness is shahid in Islamic theology or the saint who undergoes pain and suffering akin to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Originally Judaism did not valorise sacrificial death and celebrates life instead, nonetheless, Zionist nationalism has come to emphasise the sacrifice of the martyr, most often the soldier.

Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, as the philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi reminded us, resonates in an Upanishadic story in which Nachiketa poses a question to his father, “Who will you sacrifice me to?” To Yama, answered the irate father. Bent on giving away old and emaciated cows, Nachiketa had chided him that they were of no use to anyone, hence violated the idea of dana, the genuine gift. In the story, Nachiketa goes on to experience the wondrous ‘absolute self’ much as Abraham experienced the love of God.

Given the widespread debate around “jihad”, one must distinguish true shahadat from murder, which takes away another’s life as in some interpretations of “jihad”. Islam has a complex discussion of martyrdom especially in Shi’ite theology and had a deep impact on Sikhism. It was in conversation with Qadiri Sufis such as Miyan Mir who laid the foundation of the Golden Temple that the Sikh Gurus chiselled their faith emphasising struggle and sacrifice.

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The story of Delhi’s sacredness

It is the idea of martyrdom that makes Delhi a great sacred city. This sacredness does not come merely from its religious diversity of temples (Jain, Shakta and Shaiva among others), churches, mosques and mausoleums and the new religious movements represented by the Sai Baba temple, ISKCON and Radhasoamis.

The Khuni Darwaza. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Instead, four strands of martyrdom define the deep sacredness of Delhi. The Khuni Darwaza is where Dara Shikoh was martyred he as philosopher-prince had been trying to shape another conception of sovereignty for the Mughal Empire. This was an effort to go beyond conquest and territorial expansion by undertaking deep theological conversations attempting a genuine understanding of the religious other, knowledge exchanges across cultures and a translation enterprise of rendering Sanskrit texts into Farsi, which Europe would later benefit from.

A second strand of Delhi’s sacredness comes from Sarmad Shahid who was born Jewish, studied in Iran and came to Sindh as a trader. Sarmad’s Diwan is poetically rich with references to loving non-violence, bringing out a Sarmad who would embrace even his executioner! Aurangzeb and the powerful ulama could not take his radical diversity, as a man in love with another (Hindu) man called Abhay Chand who revelled in his nakedness clothing being a cover also for the sins of the self.

Moreover, Sarmad refused to perform the Islamic faith test by reciting the shahadah and would state only the partial kalima, There is no god, as he did not have knowledge of the divine until his death. It was only then that, according to legend, his decapitated head recited the full kalimah, There is no god but god, as he became shahid, the witness to the truth of the godhead! The power of the sufi, it is said, made his head roll up the steps of the Jama Mosque, nine times over!

The third profound story of Delhi’s sacredness is that of Guru Tegh Bahadur who is commemorated pictorially in the Sisganj Gurudwara. The fourth and climatic strand is that of Gandhi whose assassination by Nathuram Godse was not only an onslaught on a person and a political leader, but on the ideology of cosmopolitan inclusivist nationalism.

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The contemporary Indian peasant movement

The two currents Gandhian and Sikh have come together in the contemporary Indian peasant movement as peasants and others have protested peacefully for more than 60 days. Their strength lies in that they created another polis to counter the masculinist, repressive and vengeful sovereignty currently being asserted by the Indian state. Theirs is a polis grounded in dialogue and discussion with decisions being taken with the mutual consent of a few hundred organisations.

Farmers gathered at the Kundli border during their ongoing ‘Delhi Chalo’ protest against Centre’s new farm laws, in New Delhi, November 30, 2020. Photo: PTI/ Shahbaz Khan

The movement has functioned as a true federation led by an apex organisation. Its governance is based on love, mutuality and sacrifice as an eclectic gathering of people belonging to different castes, classes and creeds working together. I write this on the basis of my own visits to both the Rajasthan and Haryana protest sites.

At the Kitlana toll plaza, which had been rendered toll free, I heard a Balai poet performing his satirical verse. He had been doing this on each day of the protest, his raginis set to music comprising fresh verses every day. Clearly the protest was not just dominated by Jats and Jat Sikhs. Agrarian life is an integrated whole. Other castes including agricultural labour and artisanal communities are also dependent on a thriving agriculture.

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January 26, 2021, began with an impressive people’s parade, a flotilla representing each state. The constituents of the polis were in full view. Then began the reversal as one group departed from the declared route of the peasant movement and used the symbolism of “conquest” by hoisting a flag on the Red Fort. The coercive apparatus of the state had already been preparing for this. The real story will only emerge by and by.

But one voice has testified how she and her colleagues who were on tractors went past the police post at Ghazipur. They retreated shortly on learning that they had taken a wrong route and realised as they did so that the Delhi Police had barricaded the highway’s exit but not the entry into the capital almost.

In a moving video that she has uploaded on YouTube, the retired Wing Commander Anuma Acharya points out that the police had taken an undertaking from the peasants but not given one in return.

The regime had calculated that COVID-19 would kill the movement and when it did not, it assumed that the harsh cold and winter rain would wet blanket it. The Uttar Pradesh government worked on the withdrawal of electricity and water in the wake of Republic Day that Rakesh Tikait’s tears would reverse. In addition, the media and a large section of the middle class has worked overtime to transform the larger story of peaceful protest into an “anti-national”, Punjab-centric (read Khalistani), violent and separatist story.

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The blood of martyrs from the 17th to the 20th century, however, runs in the veins of the city and our country. The discourse of martyrdom more often than not recedes but clearly has a subterranean presence in our subcontinent and has renewed itself in 2020-21. Brute, naked and undemocratic power cannot destroy a movement fortified with the weapons of the (not so) weak, love, non-violence and sacrifice. Long live Martyr’s Day!

Shail Mayaram is the author of The Secret Life of Another Indian Nationalism: Transitions from the Pax Britannica to the Pax Americana, (Cambridge University Press).