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“It is no longer an issue about farm laws, it has become an issue of Sikh identity.” This is how a senior Union minister and prominent BJP leader summed up the farmer agitation.

The leader had a point which was reflected in sights one could see in Punjab recently. At a toll booth near Jalandhar this September, this reporter was met with a disturbing sight — a cutout of senior BJP leaders garlanded with shoes. In rather uncharitable words, a group of Sikh farmers, named Lakhbir Singh and Harpal Ahluwalia, from nearby villages here said Narendra Modi had duped them with the farm laws.

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Sikh revolutionary leader Jarnail Bhindrawale has always resonated in Punjab but of late his presence has been pronounced in the state, with his face on black flags fluttering from numerous cars and motorcycles, and many youngsters wearing ‘Bhindrawale’ T-shirts.

Another Union minister told this reporter recently that he had to cancel going to an event in Punjab due to the farmers planning a big protest. “Have we become untouchables?” he asked.

The answer may lie in small shops across Punjab that had put up placards saying ‘We Are With Farmers’ and ‘No Farmers, No Food’. Popular Punjabi singers brought out songs against the farm laws and the BJP, stringing together the youth. Sikh voices from abroad, who have espoused the Khalistani cause, seemed to be getting some resonance among the youth who felt the Centre had challenged the ‘Sikh pride’ by not going back on the laws.

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A veteran journalist from the Ajit newspaper who has covered Punjab for years said in Chandigarh: “Something has to give. The Centre knows it cannot allow the situation to fester. No muck is sticking to the farmer leaders too. Captain Amarinder Singh who is going out of favour in the Congress could act as a catalyst in making the Centre see sense that the farm laws issue needs to be resolved or the country could end up paying a heavy price in Punjab.” Another veteran journalist agreed with the analysis.

The sentiment seemed to reflect in the PM’s words too on Friday when he announced the rollback of the three farm laws, saying he failed to convince one section of the farmers about its benefits. Government insiders say the ‘national security’ challenge emerging in Punjab was also real and trouble on this count during the poll season could be “ill-afforded” as elements close to Khalistan or the Pakistan ISI saw an opportunity to channelise the anger among Sikhs towards an unsavory violent reaction.

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Amarinder Singh candidly told Home Minister Amit Shah last month that no chances should be taken in a border state and the Centre must resolve the farm laws issue before it was too late.

The Lakhimpur Kheri incident also seems to have come as a wake-up call on this front as the involvement of a Union minister’s son seemed to make Sikh farmers in UP, too, see the BJP government as an adversary.

In western UP, farmers say sugarcane procurement price is a bigger issue than the farm laws, but Jats here had a reason in the latter to question the government. The growing footprint of Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal in west UP was a warning signal too. Jats in the recent elections shifted to the BJP here while Jatavs kept voting for the BSP, and Muslims shifted to the SP-Congress alliance in 2017, making the BJP sweep west UP in a three-cornered fight. This formula may not have worked this time. As elections in UP begin from the west, momentum is also built from here.

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The larger miscalculation, however, seemed that some in the government earlier thought the farmers would “tire and return home” and were proved grossly wrong. The support system for Sikh farmers on protest at Delhi’s borders only grew with time, with no shortage of food or tents, and they managed to make the government come across as obstinate and egoistic.

The larger opposition political ecosystem fueled this perception. In the end, Narendra Modi seems to have decided to cut the losses and not antagonise the Sikh community any further. He chose the day of Gurpurab to extend the olive branch. Those close to him say Modi has always cared for the Sikhs and with this decision, they say, he showed he cared for the country the most.

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