"Deep Sidhu Murdabad", "Lakha Sidhana Murdabad" were the slogans chanted by a section of the protesting farmers, a day after the tractor rally on 26 January ended in a fiasco at Delhi's Red Fort.
For the farm unions coordinating the protests and negotiating with the government, actor Deep Sidhu and gangster-turned-activist Lakha Sidhana have emerged as the villains of what happened at the Red Fort. A few other names that often come up are Sikh scholar Sukhpreet Udhoke, singer Bir Singh and Baba Raja Singh.
A slightly different case is that of Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee and its leader Sarwan Singh Pandher, who had announced that his organisation will not adhere to the tractor rally routes decided by the police and insisted on taking out a rally on Delhi's Outer Ring Road.
However, Pandher has said that his organisation had nothing to do with what happend at the Red Fort.
The unions are accusing Sidhu of being a ‘BJP agent’, citing his earlier involvement in BJP MP Sunny Deol's Lok Sabha election campaign in Gurdaspur and his pictures with PM Narendra Modi.
A video of Sidhu being heckled and chased away by farmers has also surfaced.
Sidhu on his part has admitted that he was present when the ‘Nishan Sahib’ was hoisted at the Red Fort but claimed that this was a symbolic act and wasn’t aimed at disrespecting the national flag.
A few questions are important here:
How did Deep Sidhu and others become involved with the protests?
How important are these elements?
What happens next?
How Deep Sidhu Got Involved
Much of the Punjabi film and music fraternity came out in opposition to the Modi government's farm laws and in support of the protesting farmers. Sidhu, in that sense, is no exception.
However, what set him apart is the fact that he remained at the Shambhu Barrier protest site – or Shambhu Morcha as it is now called – constantly for the past two months.
Another difference between Sidhu and the rest of the artists is that he did take positions independent of the stand taken by the farmers' unions.
For instance, Sidhu has consistently been saying that "the aim of the protests shouldn't be to gain concessions, it should be to change the entire power equation."
Sukhpreet Udhoke, too, is said to have taken similar positions.
The farm unions have consistently tried to isolate these elements for fear that this could give the government a chance to derail or delegitimise their protests.
When the negotiations between the government and farmers' representatives started, naturally, the focus came on the unions and Sidhu and others like him got sidelined a bit.
Now, the question is, will the unions be able to completely isolate this strand of the protest?
A Different Strand of the Protest
While the unions have been coordinating the protests, managing the protest sites and negotiating with the government, it is clear that there are some elements within the protests who are not in their control.
It needs to be acknowledged that people like Sidhu, Sidhana, Udhoke and Bir Singh did help mobilise the youth, who are otherwise not attached with the unions. There is a section among the protesters which does look up to these individuals.
A parallel element is important here. The unions have consistently tried to downplay the importance of Sikh symbols in the protest.
On one occasion, one of the unions had also warned against the overt use of religious symbolism.
This had the potential of alienating an entire strand in the protest, for which Sikhism was central and not peripheral to the protests.
Those from this viewpoint state that if Sikh institution of langar is so central to the protest, gurdwaras are being used to support the movement and most importantly, many protesters' derive strength from Sikhism, why are Sikh symbols being downplayed and role of Sikhi being denied?
Some of those adhering to this viewpoint found articulation through individuals like Sidhu, Sidhana, Udhoke and Bir Singh.
What Happens Next?
The unions are likely to distance themselves from Sidhu and Co, and try to re-establish control over the movement. Meanwhile, the government has already registered FIRs against many of the farm union leaders and the role of Sidhu and Sidhana is also being probed. This has come as a perfect opportunity for the government to divide the movement.
Despite the desertion of minor players like VM Singh and BKU (Bhanu), the unions seem to be mostly united and are keen not to give up the struggle.
It remains to be seen what Sidhu and those close to him do from this point on – will they try to broker peace with the unions or initiate a parallel protest?
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