Zafarnāma and the Indian Farmer’s Protest 2020

by Srilagna Majumdar and team

“Phir Dilli nu Zafarnama aj likheya jaana chaida”

It is time we send Zafarnama to Delhi again.

These are voices from the current Indian farmer’s protest. If you have been following the protest at Delhi’s borders, you can find many references to Guru Gobind Singh’s Zafarnama and the Battle of Chamkaur by the protesting framers, a vast majority of which are Sikhs.

A verse from Zafarnama

The Indian Parliament passed three agricultural bills in September this year to reform the way agricultural produce is marketed. The three bills were made into acts with the President’s nod — Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. While these Acts have been described as “anti-farmer”, the Centre has been hailing them as a watershed moment in Indian agriculture.

Thousands of farmers reached the national capital on their tractor-trolleys and other vehicles, responding to the “Delhi Chalo” call against these agri-marketing laws. Farmer unions in Punjab and Haryana say the recent laws enacted at the Centre will dismantle the minimum support price (MSP) system. Over time big corporate houses will dictate terms and farmers will end up getting less for their crops, they argue.

Drawing a comparison

We are at the end of December 2020 and the farmers’ protests have reached their zenith, spreading like a wildfire all over the country. December also happens to be the month when Guru Gobind Singh’s four sons were assassinated by the Mughal army, and the Sikh leader sent the Zafarnāma or the ‘Epistle of Victory’ to Emperor Aurangzeb. The Zafarnāma was a spiritual victory letter sent by Guru Gobind Singh in 1705 to the last of the great Mughal Emperors of India, Aurangzeb, after the Battle of Chamkaur, which is considered to be one of the greatest battles in the annals of military history.

Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, is predominantly known for founding the Khalsa and instituting the idea of the five articles of the Sikh faith — kesh (hair), kacchera (a specific type of undergarment), kangha (comb), kada (iron bracelet) and kirpan (small sword). He was also a scholar and poet, well-versed in multiple languages, of which the Zafaranama is a glowing example. The letter is written in Persian verse.

Zafarnāma combines the obvious tone of defiance to injustice with poetic power and philosophical underpinning – themes that have been common in the recent bottom-up people’s protest in the country right from last December’s anti CAA-NRC protests to this year’s farmers protest.


In the letter, Guru Gobind Singh holds an uncompromising mirror to Aurangzeb, reminding Aurangzeb how he and his henchmen had broken their oaths sworn upon the Qur’an. He also states that in spite of his several sufferings, he had won a moral victory over the Emperor who had broken all his vows. Despite sending a huge army to capture or kill the Guru, the Mughal forces did not succeed in their mission.

The fight between the two forces went on for longer than the coalition forces thought it would between 21 and 23 December. Negotiations soon began and an agreement was reached between the two sides to allow the Guru and his family safe passage. However, on another December night, when Guru Gobind Singh stepped out of the Anandpur Sahib Fort, he was attacked by Mughal forces. He managed to reach Dina, but in the process, lost his two oldest sons to the Mughal forces. Later, his two youngest sons were also killed. By the time the Battle of Chamkaur ended, he had lost everything.

Why sending of the Zafarnama to Aurangzeb by Guru Gobind Singh stands out in history?

Out of 111 stirring verses, Guru Gobind Singh showed his statesmanship and was genuine in his praise of Aurangzeb for his personal virtues such as pious living and excellent horsemanship in 6 verses. Aurangzeb was a weak 91-year-old man by then. Once he read this letter, he was impressed by the intellect and articulation of Guru Gobind Singh. His eyes, as it is claimed, filled with remorse and guilt. And he sent a royal messenger this time to persuade him to visit him.
The letter shows what it takes to be a mass leader and conscious keeper of a faith.

Now, in 2020, notwithstanding the several pro-corporate and perceived anti-farmer provisions in the farm laws, the Union government has by-passed the federal structure by legislating on subjects that exclusively fall within the domain of the state government under the state list of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Corporatization of agriculture without a concomitant security net in the form of an assured payment guarantee to the farmers results in the exploitation of farmers at the hands of big business.

The primary cause for concern is the systematic dismantling of the APMC mandis, which have stood the test of time and have provided farmers the remuneration to keep themselves afloat. The new farm laws expressly exclude the jurisdiction of the civil court, leaving the farmers remediless and with no independent medium of dispute redressal mechanism. The Government has refused to withdraw or annul the new farm laws, resulting in countrywide upsurges by the farmers.

The farmers are protesting day and night, singing songs, songs of revolution, and keeping their spirits high. In an effort to not let the national media distort their message and the narrative of the protest, they have launched their own newsletter in Punjabi and Hindi (called Trolley Times), their YouTube channel after their Facebook Page was blocked. Young female protesters have even started a voluntary initiative called ‘phulwari’ where they are teaching the local underprivileged children at the borders who have no access to education.

Some can be heard saying that the authorities should be sent another Zafarnama- narrating how the farmers have been deceived and neglected off their own rights and welfare. They, like thousands of other people of the country, feel that the authority needs to face the consequences of their negative activities that they have ushering upon the countrymen.

It is interesting to note that Guru Gobind Singh’s Zafarnama indicted the Mughal Emperor and his army against a spiritual frame of judgement and exposed their lack of morality in governance as well in the conduct of war. It foresaw an end of an empire that was dominated by falsehood and whose innards were hollowed out by spiritual decay. Above all, it reminds and inspires, just as the very life of Guru Gobind Singh does, of how while facing personal tragedies with a calm resolve, it is possible to bring about a miraculous transformation of the spirit of a people, infusing in them a self-belief and spiritual strength with which they can fight oppression and tyranny.

That fearlessness can be away of life and righteous valour a philosophy.

Here’s hoping what Guru Gobind Singh achieved through the Zafarnama, this current farmer’s protest is able to achieve. It is time the Centre pays heed to the sentiments of its people, right to peaceful protest and demand what is fair from the government that the people themselves have elected to power.

But, are the authorities listening?

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