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"Recognize all Mankind as Equal and One": Punjabi Singer Kanwar Grewal’s Circulatory Practices of Oneness and Equality

Published onApr 14, 2022
"Recognize all Mankind as Equal and One": Punjabi Singer Kanwar Grewal’s Circulatory Practices of Oneness and Equality


“Recognize all Mankind as Equal and One!”1 – This is the leading spiritual principle within Sikh and related Sufi and Bhakti thoughts that believe in the oneness of all human beings in a formless and all-pervading God and that saturate the regional setting of Punjab2.

Why and how do people in 21st century Punjab make use of spiritual egalitarianism in order to challenge divisive mobilizations and circulations? To what extent does this adaptation not only facilitate circulatory possibilities of inclusive imaginations of peaceful coexistence, but also give rise to discussions about discrimination, inequality and exclusion? I seek to address these questions focusing especially on exemplary music videos and mediated performances of renowned Punjabi singer Kanwar Grewal and related YouTube comments and channels. Especially with regard to the latest uncertain developments in world politics, it is also important to ask on a larger scale: What can we learn from a Punjabi devotional3 singer in terms of creating circulations, spaces and collective action in order to challenge divisive notions about how we want to live together in this world?

Kanwar Grewal is a professionally trained musician who was born into a Punjabi farmer’s family in 1984. He produces songs for the Punjabi film industry and regularly performs in TV shows. He embraced a devotional way of life since he became connected to an ashram in 2010 (Mohan 2020, n.p.). Kanwar Grewal became a leading voice within the Indian Farmers’ Movement of 2020-21 which impelled the central government to reverse newly implemented farm laws after more than one year of protest.4 In the course of this movement, he produced many motivational songs, mobilized people across religion, caste, class, age, gender, region and nation and highly influenced the focus of content creation in Punjabi popular music culture.5 But already before, he was not only known for his highly emotional, soulful and spiritual songs, but also for their socio-critical content.

This article especially engages with music videos and uploaded snippets of performances on YouTube from 2019 onward which also address caste-based and religious discrimination. It equally explores related comments and YouTube channels as digital archives and hubs between different communicative spaces. I argue that references to spiritual egalitarianism along with circulatory possibilities related to YouTube ease the articulation and exchange of other messages that recognize existing forms of discrimination and inequalities or question political agendas – especially in repressive settings. Likewise, this combination facilitates inclusive mobilizations for a shared struggle for a better world through interconnecting and influencing various spiritual and this-worldly discourses and communicative spaces related to questions about how to live together. Circulations related to YouTube in these contexts are embedded in a wide range of communicative flows and spaces beyond YouTube. They do not merely disseminate ideas related to oneness and equality to larger audiences. Circulated ideas equally underlie processes of steady recontextualization and adaptation as well as complex online-offline interactions.

The first section introduces discussions about oneness, discrimination and equal representation. This is followed by an in-depth analysis of Kanwar Grewal’s music video “Guru Guru” that illustrates how he connects notions of spiritual and this-worldly egalitarianism in order to mobilize for individual behavioral changes. The ensuing explorations of related comments, snippets of performance videos and video archives of uploading YouTube channels allow insights in context specific meaning attributions, recontextualizations and interconnections of translocal communicative spaces which facilitate collective action for a more respectful and equitable living together. The exploration of Kanwar Grewal’s performances and music videos in the course of the Farmer’s Movement illustrates mobilizations related to his practices on a national level and equally emphasizes that the devotional is used to undermine divisive utilizations of religion and to bypass repression. The last section draws attention to inclusive imaginations of how to live together after the Farmer’s Movement that also involve discussions about overcoming (caste-based) inequalities, exclusions and boundaries in everyday life.

Oneness, Equality, Representation and Social Change

All over the world, imaginations of living together based the notion of oneness of all (human) beings (in God) were and are arising in very different regional settings and courses of time. Related frameworks differ especially with regard to the question who and what is actually one and to the degree of spirituality involved. Yet, those imaginations seemingly share the characteristic of transcending certain borders between the “self” or the “we” and the “other”, based on feelings of connectedness that go beyond common notions of community and unity in a strict sense of political mobilization and shared interests or agendas. There is valid criticism raised (for instance by Pierre 2016) that the notion of oneness fails to secure equal representation of minority groups due to the related idea that all share the same “set of ideals, perspectives, and goals” (Pierre 2016, n.p.) and therefore fails to recognize existing discrimination and power asymmetries. However, Pierre speaks of oneness in terms of the global community related to the global “One Billion Raising” campaign against gender based violence without any mentioning of deeper spiritual levels of oneness.

In the Indian context, discussions about oneness usually include a strong emphasis on spiritual levels of oneness and spiritual egalitarianism as propagated by the poet-saints of the medieval Bhakti movements on the Indian subcontinent. A spiritual perspective on oneness also prevails in esoteric discourses across the world and widespread Euro-American views on spirituality in India – often associated with self-realization and the detachment from this-worldly issues. Within the context of caste-based discrimination, discussions about spiritual egalitarianism very much relate to this-worldly concerns. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar6 (2014 [1979]) stressed as early as 1936 that spiritual egalitarianism failed to improve the living conditions of those who experience caste-based discrimination and to secure equal opportunities. Emphasizing the prevailing power of those Hindu scriptures and principles which legitimize caste-based inequalities and exclusions, Ambedkar argued that the saints have failed to change the state of mind and behavior of the masses. He identified two reasons: First, the saints “did not preach that all men were equal. They preached that all men were equal in the eyes of God” (Ambedkar 2014 [1989], 87). Second, a “saint […] never became an example to follow. He always remained a pious man to be honoured” (Ambedkar 2014 [1989], 88).

How does Ambedkar’s criticism relate to mobilizations based on the notion of oneness and spiritual egalitarianism in a highly mediatized and globalized 21st century?

Punjabi singer Kanwar Grewal’s music videos, performances as well as related uploads, comments and video archives on YouTube serve in this regard as very interesting research subjects, especially considering the regional context of Punjab and its rich egalitarian spiritual traditions. Especially the practices of Simran (contemplation of one transcendent God that concurrently resides in the entire creation) and Seva (voluntary service to others) are highly relevant which are enshrined in the Sikh scriptures and connect divine principles with social action. As Jodhka and Myrvold (2015) explain:

According to Sikh teachings, humans do not pursue liberation by renunciation from the social world, but by cultivating devotion and divine qualities; while living a family life, earning one’s living and actively working for the betterment of society. (Jodhka and Myrvold 2015, 65)

Nevertheless, Jodhka’s and Myrvold’s publication illustrates likewise that caste-based inequalities and discrimination even persist in this spiritual egalitarian setting.

Connecting Spiritual and This-Worldly Egalitarianism through Music Videos

Kanwar Grewal plays the role of a cobbler in his music video “Guru Guru”. In this scene, he prays while working. Afterwards, the costumer throws his coins on the ground, seemingly to avoid direct contact.

The music video “Guru Guru” (Kanwar Grewal 4/11/2019) exemplifies vividly how Kanwar Grewal brings together spiritual and this-worldly concerns and calls to action for inner and worldly transformations of social interactions through the notion of oneness and related spiritual thoughts.

Kanwar Grewal dedicates his music video to Guru Ravidass’ teachings. Bhakti poet and cobbler Guru Ravidass spread his ideas on equality and respectful coexistence in the 15th or 16th century in a peaceful, respectful and devotional way. His teachings were also included in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism7 and therefore largely coincide with principles of Sikhism. For detailed elaborations on his hagiography and thoughts see for instance Friedlander (1991), Omvedt (2008), Ram (2011) and Friedlander (2017). Guru Ravidass’ caste-background related to leather work is largely associated with the stigma of untouchability, entailing the experience of caste-based discrimination. As mentioned before, Kanwar Grewal was born into a farmer’s family, attached with a privileged and dominant Jat caste-background in Punjab.

Kanwar Grewal appears in the video in two alternating roles – as a devotional singer who is playing sitar, and as a cobbler who is living the principles of Guru Ravidass. Kanwar Grewal’s calm voice, gentle guitar, sitar and drum sounds and warm colors create a devotional and peaceful atmosphere. In his role as a cobbler, Kanwar Grewal shows respect to every human and his devotion to God while working with dedication and helping others in need. In contrast, other characters do not respect and recognize everyone equally.

On his way to his working place (the platform of a railway station), the cobbler crosses different neighborhoods of an Indian small town. While he shows respect to other humans through greeting and bowing down, other people do not recognize him.

The neighborhoods portrayed throughout the video seem separated based on caste, class and religion. The railway station serves here as a space for interaction between people of different backgrounds. Low-angle shots capture especially the point of view of those who experience discrimination on perpetrators of violence. This way, these camera angles stress unequal recognition and power relations within those interactions, but also encourage empathy for those discriminated against.

A Brahmin with a hegemonic so called “upper” caste status throws the cobbler’s food on the ground and threatens him and his own son with violence after the cobbler offered food to the boy. In contrast, the cobbler stays respectful and silent, picks up his food and prays to God.

In a different neighborhood, a girl is crying after two mothers had beaten their children for playing with her – seemingly because of identifying her as Muslim. In the following scene, the cobbler passes by and consoles the crying child.

In contrast, the low-angle shots in the last scene show the Brahmin and the cobbler kneeling on the floor on the same level.

The Brahmin, appearing here as a Hindu priest, is kissing the cobbler’s hands and starts praying after the cobbler saved the Brahmin’s son (seemingly through sucking out the venom of a snake). Afterwards, we see the cobbler from low angle pointing and looking to the sky, praying and leaving the scene.

The imagery and the storyline of the music video do not only transfer the message that everyone is one and equal in the eyes of God and that there is only one God, regardless of religious affiliations. Rather, they connect the notion of oneness with the idea that it is everyone’s responsibility to fight one’s own inner evils for bringing about equality and salvation for everyone in this world and in the beyond. The cobbler serves as role model for ideal behavior in terms of living the principles of Sikhism and also of Guru Ravidass’ teachings through performing Simran (contemplation of one transcendent God that concurrently resides in the entire creation), Seva (voluntary service to others) and Kirat (honest and dedicated work). For instance Kaur (1990) and Jodhka and Myrvold (2015) explain these principles in more detail. Concurrently, the music video condemns caste-based and religious discrimination and emphasizes its continuous existence – especially through illustrating the misbehavior of the Brahmin and the mothers. Although the visuals imply at first glance negatively connoted stereotypes of so called “upper caste” Hindus, the criticism raised here directs against specific exclusive behavior, against exclusive religious principles and inequalities as such, not against specific human beings. The message that sticks is that everyone can improve one’s behavior for a more respectful and equal living together and that this is beneficial for all.

The interactions between lyrics8 and visuals put additional emphasis on the entanglements between the spiritual and the social. While the visuals have a strong socio-critical message, the lyrics are very devotional and partly coincide with verses ascribed to Guru Ravidass9. The words appear as a practice of Simran while pointing to the necessity of improving one’s own personal (worldly and spiritual) practices in accordance to the teachings of Guru Ravidass and related principles. When the cobbler’s exemplary practice of Simran and Seva (through praying while working and offering food to the hungry boy) is blended with the Brahmin entering the scene, Kanwar Grewal sings, “Whenever he sings, he uses to pray. Although he is a Satguru [teacher or spiritual guide of the ultimate truth, liberator], he is called Bhagat [devotee of God].” While Kanwar Grewal as a singer is uttering the word “Ram”, the invocation of the divine within Hindu traditions, the Brahmin who embodies these traditions throws the cobbler’s food on the ground.

These interactions between utterances and visuals contrast the exemplary behavior and true devotion of the cobbler with the misbehavior and related religious principles of the Brahmin. These interactions also imply a criticism related to the designation of Guru Ravidass by powerful groups, since the name Bhagat (devotee of God) that is also used in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is not as respectful as the word Guru or even Satguru10. By using the words Guru and Satguru, Kanwar Grewal expresses deep respect towards Ravidass. As understood in Sikhism, a Satguru realized the ultimate truth of oneness and has the power to liberate other people through teaching them the way to remove darkness and to accomplish the realization of oneness. The word can designate a person or the Sri Guru Granth Sahib itself (Kaur 1990, 172-5). Using the word Satguru therefore puts additional emphasis on the “truth” attached to Guru Ravidass’ teachings. This also holds true for the last scene in which the cobbler is able to help the Brahmin’s son, accompanied by the lyrics: “You are doubt / questions, you are proof. Ram… Of your sayings is all right and true.”

Within the scenes in which the cobbler and the girl experience discrimination, Kanwar Grewal places the words, “Oh Guru, without you, my body is a dead body”. When the cobbler is consoling the crying child, the singer recites the verse from Guru Ravidass’ teachings, “You remember the name of God with every breath. Ravidass says, after taking asylum in the feet of Guru, you will attain salvation” (Amritbani Satguru Ravidass Maharaj 2013, 299).11 These interactions of uttered words and visuals emphasize the liberating potential and healing power of following Guru Ravidass’ teachings (and related spiritual traditions) in difficult situations, not only for those who face discrimination, but for all who are ready to fight their inner evils. Concurrently, these interactions stress the larger relevance of the inclusive spiritual heritage of Punjab while invalidating powerful exclusive and divisive interpretations of Hindu teachings which dominate Hindu nationalist politics.

Turning back to Ambedkar’s perception which questioned that spiritual egalitarianism led to larger social transformations, one might argue that this music video does not mobilize for change in a strict political sense. It rather mobilizes on spiritual and ethical grounds for an inner change of one’s own behavior that can lead, if collectively practiced, to real-life transformations as well. This form of mobilization might not be enough to realize equal opportunities for everyone, but political mobilization alone has also failed to secure equal opportunities. For instance, this manifests in the Indian setting in tense political debates surrounding caste-based quotas,12 persisting structural inequalities and in the repression of opposing and marginalized voices. Using a shared devotional language as well as the notions of Simran and Seva to raise awareness for discrimination and inequalities might be an important way to move the “masses” mentally, in order to bring about collective action for a more equitable society and world.

Connecting People through the Devotional and Punjabiness

As the analysis of the music video “Guru Guru” already implied, the devotional is an essential component of Kanwar Grewal’s performances, but he also emphasizes social matters and, especially related to the Farmers’ Movement, also political concerns. He states this in an interview related to his involvement in the Farmers’ Movement as follows:

We Punjabis have this habit of turning any gathering into shor sharaba, into a party. It’s my responsibility to remind them to get serious […] Love songs aren’t everything. When we sing for our society, our country, our rights, we’ve seen that people love us back even more. There’s now more value in songs that deal with real issues. (Kanwar Grewal cit. in: Mohan 2020, n.p.)

That especially more inclusive devotional music traditions of Punjab, related to Sikh, Sufi and Bhakti thoughts, bring generations of Punjabis together across religion, caste and nation, illustrate Kalra’s (2014, 2015) illuminating works. His works equally point out the entanglement of sacred and secular music and context specific meaning attributions of the devotional in different performative spaces which relate to fluid and inclusive notions of identity. Kalra’s findings coincide with the understanding of Bhakti in the anthology “Bhakti and Power” not only as private devotion towards the Divine, but also as a medium or as public that brings people together (see especially Hawley, Novetzke, and Sharma 2019, 3–6). In a similar way, but focusing on recognition as a “triangular constellation” (Fuchs 2018, 133) in Bhakti thought, Fuchs (2018) and Schneider (2020, 2021) point to complex entanglements of the relationships between the self, God and other humans.

These understandings of the devotional as an inclusive and adaptable medium or space that brings people together beyond caste, religion and nation are highly relevant for examining the contexts, circulatory practices and meanings related to Kanwar Grewal’s messages. Yet, it is equally important to consider that discourses related to the sacred are highly contested within the arenas of Indian politics. Kalra (2015) illustrates this very vividly with a view on colonial India and post-colonial India and Pakistan and on Punjabi music traditions. He also emphasizes the relevance of Punjabiness in this context:

Punjabiyat [Punjabiness, D.K.] emerges as the resilient space in which those wishing to express their humanity in the face of relentless degradation are able to speak. (Kalra 2014, 189)

As the following sections will illustrate, applying an inclusive spiritual language that refers to the regional heritage of Punjab is highly relevant for countering and invalidating divisive utilizations of religion within the current setting of Hindu nationalist India.

Contexts and Circulations related to the Song “Guru Guru”

Kanwar Grewal’s music video “Guru Guru” (Kanwar Grewal 4/11/2019) reached me through a transnational WhatsApp group of people who identify as followers and largely also as descendants of Bhakti poet and cobbler Guru Ravidass (Ravidassia).13 This already implies the difficulty exploring the whole range of unpredictable and intermingling flows and circulations between the physical and the digital as well as context specific meaning attributions. Yet, exploring YouTube as a platform can also provide interesting insights: There are comments related to music videos available, videos of performances which people adjust and recontextualize through their uploads as well as comments related to these performance videos and also video archives which are created by uploading YouTube accounts and channels.

Contemplating Oneness and Equality and Connecting to God Online?

YouTube comments related to “Guru Guru” illustrate that people with different regional, caste, religious and linguistic backgrounds relate to this video and share their emotions in a respectful way, based on shared spiritual beliefs and world views.14 Looking closer at the comments, numerous characteristic addresses for Guru Ravidass used by his followers become visible (such as “Jai Gurudev, Dhan Gurudev” or “Dhan, Dhan Satguru Ravidass Mahaharaj Ji”) and also forms of address for God in Sikhism (Waheguru). To a lesser extent, people refer to Allah (especially ichahal19 and Sunil Kumar) or self-identify as Hindu (Akshay Dhiman). Some account names of commentators and contents imply a self-identification with a specific caste background (for instance NRI CHAMAR WAAD or Kulwinder Singh Jatt Boy) or a location in Pakistan (Muhammad Adeel and Ahmad ramzan), in Europe (Jyoti uk or Harpal Suman) or North America (for instance american boys, JANNI RECORDS CANADA). One person also mentions that he or she only knows English, but follows Sikhism (Isha Devi). The statements in the comment section largely emphasize the strong emotional, spiritual and healing power of this music video, but also speak about its call for living the principles of oneness and equality in everyday life.15

A number of people refer to specific parts of the lyrics – especially to the lines: “Whenever he sings, he uses to pray. Although he is a Satguru, he is called Bhagat” (for instance NRI CHAMAR WAAD, Akash Paul, Kaul Records, R. K Shergill). These lines enfold a multilayered meaning. As already illustrated, the second part can be understood as a direct critique that specific religious traditions do not consider Ravidass as Satguru, but both designations also point to his self-representation as a true devotee of God. Therefore, people who share the same caste-background like Guru Ravidass might feel equally recognized through the fact that Kanwar Grewal pays equal respect to their Guru through using the word Satguru and appearing as a shoemaker in the video. Lovepreet Karry writes: “Thank bhaii g [brother] for singing this song for sc community chamar.” The second understanding might be relevant for more people due to its meaning that is related to principles and teachings in Sikhism and other related thought traditions.

The first part of the line “whenever he sings, he uses to pray” also points to the deeper spiritual meaning of performing songs. A number of comments consider Kanwar Grewal’s music video as Shabad (for example SAabi BHatoy and jasvinder bibiyan) or Bhajan16 (SK Gyani ज्ञानी or Sajan Bhatti). The performance and perceiving of sacred hymns is an important practice to relate to God in thought traditions which believe in a formless God and reject idol worship. This is relevant for comprehending the significance of the spiritual dimension related to circulations and performance contexts of Kanwar Grewal’s articulations of oneness and equality. According to this understanding, listening, watching and producing a music video can be an act of performing Simran to get closer to God and to contemplate oneness as also the examples of comments implied.

Bringing People Offline and Online Together as a Sangat against Exclusiveness and Divisiveness

In the Sikh context, the shared practice of performing or listening to shabads (Shabad Kirtan) in devotional congregations (Sangat or Satsang) serves as one egalitarian practice among others to overcome exclusions based on caste, class or religion (Kaur 1990, 180, 190; Jodhka and Myrvold 2015, 64).17 Concurrently, as Kaur (1990, 179–90) emphasizes, the fellowship of other truth seekers in a Sangat is understood in holy Sikh scriptures as an essential experience to realize oneness. Sangats can consider secular matters as well and direct the energy, activated through personal spiritual progress, towards the collective performance of Seva and human welfare (Kaur 1990, 190).

In the context of Kanwar Grewal’s music videos and live performances, these principles meet new digital and mobile circulatory possibilities to connect to others. Especially YouTube can function as an important linking communicative space in this regard. This illustrates Lange (2009) in a very different this-worldly setting of homemade amateur YouTube videos and related networks in the early days of YouTube. She uses the phrase “videos of affiliation” to emphasize the potential of YouTube videos to "enable an interaction that gives viewers a feeling of being connected not to a video, but to a person who shares mutual beliefs or interests” (Lange 2009, 83). With regard to Kanwar Grewal, especially online-offline interactions are important for bringing people together on different levels as a Sangat through the devotional in order to think and communicate about how they want to live together.

Physically, he performs his songs combined with speeches on oneness in various settings: at spiritual gatherings in Punjab on the occasion of the birth anniversaries of spiritual or historical figures, at local colleges, in centers of South Asian migration abroad, within TV shows, or at protest sites near Delhi during the Farmers’ Movement.18 Live streams on YouTube or uploaded snippets of performances involve larger audiences and reveal context specific meanings. The following video is an interesting example:

[Live] Kanwar Grewal With Ginni Mahi || ਗੁਰੂ ਰਵਿਦਾਸ ਜੀ ਬਾਰੇ ਕਨਵਰ ਗਰੇਵਾਲ [Kanwar Grewal about Guru Ravidass Ji]

Here (Mslivetv 8/21/2019), Kanwar Grewal introduces and performs his song “Guru Guru” at a devotional festival at the Dargah of Sufi saint Bapu Lal Badshah in Nakodar, Punjab. This event brings together numerous well-known Punjabi musicians and their fans across caste, religion and musical genres.19 Kanwar Grewal remarks that talks about “Baba Ravidass Ji” have started and therefore some lines came to his mind to praise him. In one line of his song, he replaces Ravidass through Allah, elaborating that the meaning stays the same, no matter which name one uses. As the title of the video indicates, his performance is blended with a performance of singer Ginni Mahi who identifies as follower of Guru Ravidass and connects the notion of oneness especially with messages against caste and gender inequalities, as I illustrated in a related RePLITO article (Kirchhof 2021). But instead of a devotional song, the video shows a performance of her hit song “Fan Baba Sahib Di(Amar Audio 2/5/2017) in which she emphasizes her gratitude for Ambedkar’s political legacy as anti-caste leader, but also as a person who worked for securing equal rights for every Indian in the constitution.

This snipped of both performances creates the impression that translocal religious festivals can serve as shared discursive spaces for spiritual, social and political issues through referring to oneness, Guru Ravidass and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Although the video does not include information about how the audiences on site perceived the performances, being once adapted and uploaded, the video unfolds specific meanings and circulations through recontextualization. The title interconnects both singers and Guru Ravidass. Comments refer to both musicians, to Ambedkar, to the constitution, the address of God in Sikhism or even to farmers’ unity. The uploading YouTube channel Mslivetv seems connected to a company that provides filming and live streaming services related to various concert and sporting events in the Doaba region of Punjab. Within the video archive, devotional musical performances appear side by side with Kabaddi and Wrestling events which serve as local concert events as well, especially for non-devotional music performances.

Although these translocal communicative spaces, video archives and online-offline interactions might not guarantee equal representation for all social groups, they connect different communicative spaces and audiences allowing different messages and issues to move in between. Live streaming or uploading videos of events allow the inclusion of larger audiences – for instance people of Punjabi origin around the world. In this mobile communicative setting, the Sangat seems not restricted to a physical space and a specific time. Rather persons around the world can participate, collectively contemplate oneness and feel connectedness across space and time, while being on the move or performing other activities.

The National Stage: Connecting Simran, Seva and the Political during Farmers’ Movement

Having illustrated the mobilizing power of circulations related to oneness, it is equally important to emphasize that the digital is a contested space – as for instance (Chaudhuri 2015, 34) and Nizaruddin (2021, 1115) illustrate in the Indian context. It is saturated by unequal power relations, misrepresentations, political repression, divisive speech and hate. Therefore, as Schneider points out, “the search for new visual forms and aesthetic means to counter increasing divisiveness and conflict has acquired exceptional urgency” (Schneider 2020, 3).

In the course of the Farmers’ Movement (2020 – 2021), Kanwar Grewal entered with his articulations of oneness and equality the stage of national politics. This involvement equally shows that his practices are entangled with larger (trans-)regional and national discourses.

As Jodhka (2021) explains in detail, the protests started in Punjab, which is an important agricultural region for India with well-connected farmers’ unions and larger average land-holdings compared to other regions. Most of the land remains in the hands of farmers with Jat background. This involves (caste-based) power asymmetries and conflicts. Interestingly, during the movement, also farmers’ unions, “even […] left-wing farm organizations” (Jodhka 2021, 1367), referred to inclusive Sikh idioms as well as to Dr. BR Ambedkar, Guru Ravidass or other anti-caste thinkers, while not allowing “political parties to be part of their agitations” (Jodhka 2021, 1363). This disassociation from party politics and adaption of spiritual egalitarianism is an important observation.

In this setting, Kanwar Grewal transcends mobilizations based on shared political interests. He creates sangats that contemplate oneness and related peaceful ethical and spiritual principles, as his following performance at a protest site illustrates (see especially 17:36- 21:16):

New Challa : Kanwar Grewal Live Song Stage Kisan Morcha Tikri Border-Gazipur Border-Singhu Border

Using a Hindi dialect that also non-Punjabi protesters would understand20, he states:

We are not from those who do violence, not from those who cause riots, from those who have vulgar behavior, we are not uncultured, we are not from those who disrespect. […] We still listen to those sweet voices of fathers and mothers in trolleys when they pass through. Do you know what voices? (Kanwar Grewal [translation by Damanpreet] cit. in: JAS PLAY 1/21/2021, 17:36-18:12)

He invites all to participate in a call and response, based on invocations of God in Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam, while sharing stories of transcending religious borders and stressing friendship and that everyone should sing all words together. He refers to a shared history and to the peace mantra “Hari Om Namo Narayan”21 and ends this part with a call and response of farm laborers’ unity (see JAS PLAY 1/21/2021, 18:13-21:16).

Oneness also serves as a powerful language while addressing the government. One example is Kanwar Grewal’s song “Ailaan [Proclamation](Kanwar Grewal 10/10/2020). The famous Punjabi line “par fasalaa de faisale kisaan karuugaa [But farmers will take the decisions concerning the crops]” and other confrontational lines directed towards the government underpin the farmers’ powerful position as food providers for the whole country. Yet, he equally presents them as protectors of the needy with reference to Sikh principles and emphasizes the calmness and wisdom of the elders and the bravery of the youngsters. This song and other songs produced by Punjabi musicians served also as mobilizing anthems of the movement. After YouTube India blocked the related video in February 2021 (Jagga 2021),22 his team uploaded a second version with strongly modified lyrics and visuals and the extended title “Ailaan| {The Voice Of People}” (Kanwar Grewal 2/13/2021) – making sure that people searching for “Ailaan” online will find this song.

Ailaan| {The Voice Of People} Kanwar Grewal | Rubai Music | Latest Punjabi Songs 2021

Kanwar Grewal introduces the music video in English with the following words, seemingly directed towards the government, highlighting the limited repressive power through the digital:

If you can spare time to listen our songs in order to ban it, you better listen the demands of farmers instead of songs. Songs could be banned from social media but how could you ban the lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of people? (Kanwar Grewal 2/13/2021, 0:02-0:25)

Towards the end (3:18-3:55), the visuals show the everyday life at the protest sites and the lyrics refer to ongoing group discussions in the form of village councils (panchayats). The visuals and lyrics stress the uniting and connecting nature of the movement, but also reflect the ambition to work for equal representation and exchanging ideas on how to live together.23 After that, Kanwar Grewal emphasizes oneness once again (translated by Damanpreet): “All religions are getting united. Now a HUMAN will talk to you” (Kanwar Grewal 2/13/2021 3:56-4:13).

As these adaptions of the spiritual in a political context illustrate, the spiritual notion of oneness is here by no means detached from this world. It rather serves as a powerful tool to undermine divisive utilizations of religion within (Hindu nationalist) politics and to invalidate their legitimacy. Concurrently, in political settings in which assertive counter voices face high risks, the “innocent” usage of an inclusive devotional language seems an important strategy to bypass repression.

Back in Punjab: How to Live Together in Future?

Kanwar Grewal’s reference to ongoing shared discussions at the protest sites is of great importance especially after the movement succeeded in impelling the government to reverse the farm laws. To put it in Jodhka’s words: “Social movements are not merely moments of being, but also moments of becoming” (Jodhka 2021, 1369). Imaginations of how to live together also engage with overcoming persisting (caste-based) inequalities and boundaries in this context. This implies for instance the quote of well-known Punjabi writer and anti-caste activist Des Raj Kali within an interview with the Hindustan Times:

In Punjab today, the farm labour, Dalits, intellectuals and women have come forward to join the peaceful protest started by the farmers […] At one of the rallies, I saw something that came as a surprise. A Jat was sitting there with a book by Ambedkar on his lap.” (Des Raj Kali cit. in: Dutt 2021, n.p.)

Numerous Punjabi singers joined the protests, produced and performed songs (also with Kanwar Grewal together). Therefore, the ongoing discussions about oneness and equality impact the imaginations of living together in Punjab’s musical content creation. Punjabi singers Harf Cheema and Kanwar Grewal have produced the following thought-provoking short movie “Manas ki Jaat [The Caste of Humaneness]” (Harf Cheema 2021)24 after the movement succeeded. Here, the viewer witnesses respectful everyday interactions and discussions about persisting caste-based discrimination and spiritual thoughts between a landowner and his farm worker, their joint participation in the Farmers’ Movement as well as persisting structural caste-based inequalities – such as caste-based places of worship and cemeteries. It invites to think about how the deep feeling of connectedness across caste and religion created during the Farmers’ Movement could be used to overcome persisting exclusions in everyday life.

Manas Ki Jaat : Harf Cheema (A Short Film) Kanwar Grewal | Navdeep| GK Digital | Punjabi Short Movie


The spiritual egalitarianism that Kanwar Grewal speaks about in the 21st century cannot be understood without messages of this-worldly equality, equity and humanism. As I have demonstrated, this manifests in music and performance videos, comments and video archives available on YouTube as well as in context specific meaning attributions, recontextualizations and interconnections of related communicative spaces. The interconnections of spiritual and this-worldly matters as well as the larger relevance for creating inclusive circulations show on different levels:

References to Simran and Seva mobilize people on spiritual and ethical grounds for behavioral changes through realizing oneness and this-worldly responsibilities. If collectively practiced, this might contribute to peaceful and respectful social interactions and recognition in everyday life. The principles of Simran and Seva are relevant across different spiritual traditions of Punjab and provide a shared spiritual language and mindset to exchange a wide range of social messages between different communicative spaces and social groups. The platform YouTube connects different communicative spaces and audiences. It eases the collective internalization of oneness, discussions about equality and the creation of community spirit between “truth seekers” across physical spaces and time. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen, to what extent people will follow these suggestions in their everyday life.

With regard to the arena of national politics, combining tools of mass self-communication and online-offline interactions with a devotional and respectful language that relates to spiritual egalitarianism seems an important strategy to bypass the repression of assertive voices. Concurrently, this combination helps to invalidate the legitimacy of divisive utilizations of religion within (Hindu nationalist) politics and to create shared imaginations of how to live together within larger communicative spaces.

In order to enable equal representation, Pierre suggests related to the global campaign “One Billion Rising”:

Rather than force many voices into one collective narrative, a solution may lie in many narratives supported by a collective network of resources and conversation, without hierarchical infrastructure or primary media outlets. (Pierre 2016, 18–19)

The interconnected circulations, networks and discursive spaces related to Kanwar Grewal’s articulations of oneness and equality might point in the right direction. However, it is difficult to overcome power asymmetries entirely. Therefore, it is important that people in positions of power address such inequalities, mobilize larger groups of people for behavioral, moral and spiritual progress and try to include as many voices and narratives in discourses as possible.

People across the world who can attach to those spiritual ideas might be eager to improve their behavior and action in order to make the world more equitable. Yet, these articulations also bridge different understandings of oneness and equality, based on humanism. On a personal level, the spiritual level of oneness, but equally the understanding of shared humanity, might help to find support, security, hope and peace of mind in order to deal with circulations of hate, violence and divisiveness in this world. Remembering that there are other people in the world who strongly believe in humanity might help to keep the believe that a peaceful and respectful living together in this world is possible.


I would like to thank Nadja-Christina Schneider, Fritzi-Marie Titzmann, Anna Schnieder-Krüger and Lill Kate Bigge for their helpful comments and suggestions and Damanpreet for her translations of lyrics and speeches used in this article.

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