Fluttering in the chilly Delhi winter breeze, a triangular flag was hoisted on Jan. 26 on the ramparts of the Red Fort, a Mughal-era monument.
The Nishan Sahib, a saffron-coloured flag with a two-edged dagger as its central motif, is a religious flag that belongs to the Sikh community. It can be commonly found at all gurdwaras and Sikh events. But single act by farmer-led protesters has multiple political connotations packed into it. First, the Red Fort is the site of the national address the Indian prime minister delivers every Independence Day. The Indian flag is also ceremoniously unfurled. Second, a religious flag was hoisted below, but close to the Indian flag. And third, it happened on a day that India celebrates its constitution.
But unlike the far-right flags that were seen during the insurrection at Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, the Sikh community considers the Nishan Sahib, also known as the khalsa flag, sacred to its belief.
And yet, the fear that the religious flag could instead be a separatist one led commentators and political leaders to believe that this act of defiance was a danger to democracy.
Nishan Sahib, not the Khalistan flag
For starters, unfounded rumours began making the rounds that the flag belonged to the Khalistan movement, a separatist ideology seeking an autonomous land for Sikhs. The Khalistan movement in India brings back bitter memories of the 1984 military action at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi as retaliation, and the violent pogrom against the Sikh community that followed.
Through years of militancy in Punjab and the allegations of human rights violations to weed out separatists, any and all connection with Khalistanis turns into an ideological conflict. India’s ongoing farmer protests, which began in September and gained momentum in November, have been branded as “pro-Khalistani” for being anti-establishment.
Now, on Jan. 26, when the Nishan Sahib went up at the Red Fort during protests that took a violent turn, the Khalistani tag was back. As was the vilification of Sikhs for supporting “terror” groups.
But Nishan Sahib has deep spiritual connotations for the Sikh community. The sword, or khanda, signifies “Miri Piri,” the two world of political and spiritual sovereignty. The inner-circle represents the balance between these two worlds.
The confusion arose because the unofficial Khalistani flag also features the khanda and is saffron-coloured. But two primary distinctions remain: the Khalistani flag is rectangular, and has the word “Khalistan” written in the Hindi and Punjabi scripts. Among the others that were used during the protest at Red Fort was also flags dedicated to Bhagat Singh, India’s celebrated freedom fighter.
This is a common confusion that occurs between the Islamic flag, and that of Pakistan, too. Both are green and bear the crescent moon, but Pakistan’s flag has a white panel on its left. The Islamic flag used for religious ceremonies by India’s Muslims has often been misidentified as the “anti-India,” “pro-Pakistan” flag.
But the Khalistan movement and its flag have a more recent political context.
The fear of the separatists
For instance, when Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau visited India in February 2018, Jaspal Atwal, a Khalistani activist who was convicted in India as a terrorist, was extended an invitation for a dinner by the Canadian High Commission in India. This was a diplomatic embarrassment, and the high commission swiftly rescinded this invitation. But it only strengthened India’s deep freeze for Trudeau during his visit.
Similarly, Sikh diaspora supporters of India’s farmer protests raised pro-Khalistan slogans and covered the Mahatma Gandhi statue in Washington DC in December. This demonstration was condemned by the then White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
But during the protests and demonstrations on Jan. 26, not only were the Khalistan flags not hoisted, the Indian flag was left untouched.
In fact, it is not rare for the Nishan Sahib to be hoisted as a mark of honour during non-religious ceremonies. There’s a long history of victory behind it.
Hoisting the Nishan Sahib for honour and victory
Legend has it that Sikh rulers led by Baghel Singh, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, and Jassa Singh Ramgarhia fought the Mughals of Delhi in the 18th century, and once victorious, hoisted the Nishan Sahib on the ramparts of the Red Fort.
In fact, the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, which governs the Sikh places of worship in the state, held Fateh Diwas (victory day) at the Red Fort in March 2014 to commemorate this event. That day, many Sikh flags fluttered, all under the main Indian flag flowing above as per custom.
At the time, the symbolism also was in line with the right-wing nationalist agenda that saw Mughal rulers as invaders. The Sikh victory over Mughal rulers was something that needed to be celebrated as a symbol of nationalism. There were no concerns about raising a religious flag at a monument where only the Indian flag must be up.
Not far from the Red Fort, during India’s Republic Day parade this year, the Nishan Sahib was also part of the state of Punjab’s tableau, like several previous years. The protests, on the other hand, had a sizeable number of Indian flags, on the tractors of farmer protesters and those on foot raising slogans against the farm laws.