Kulwinder Kaur: Inheritor of a proud legacy of protest

CISF constable Kulwinder Kaur is just the latest link in a long, storied tradition of protests in Punjab

Illustration: Antara Raman
Illustration: Antara Raman

Vishav Bharti

Rich or poor, young or old, everybody was supposed to remove their shoes and touch the Maharaja’s feet. However, a fragile young man kept looking him in the eye, standing ramrod straight, refusing to bow.

That act of defiance before the Maharaja, known for his ruthless crushing of any dissent, left the elders of Joga village in Punjab in a panic and the tyrannical royal furious. The young man was Jagir Singh Joga.

His brave, individual protest came nine decades before Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) constable Kulwinder Kaur slapped Bollywood celebrity and now Member of Parliament from Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, Kangana Ranaut.

Joga’s dissent was directed at Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, whose feudal thugs tried to grab the land of poor peasants. That was in the 1930s. What happened immediately after is lost in folklore and verifiable history.

A decade later, Joga and his comrades of the then Lal Party led an epochal struggle around Kishangarh (now in Sangrur district). They snatched thousands of acres of land in 784 villages from Bhupinder Singh’s son and distributed it among the landless. The present ex-royal of Patiala, former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, is Bhupinder Singh’s grandson.

Joga was in Nabha jail in 1954, when people voted him to the state assembly while still incarcerated. He was also voted back as an MLA in 1962, 1967 and 1972. “Protest thrives in Punjab’s air. Kulwinder Kaur is just the latest link in the long chain of individual—often spontaneous—protests in Punjab, which neither starts with Joga nor ends with Kulwinder Kaur,” says Jagtar Singh.

A retired college teacher, Singh is the author of Inquilaabi Yodha: Jagir Singh Joga (Revolutionary Warrior: Jagir Singh Joga). Most of these individual, spontaneous protests in Punjab have come from ordinary citizens of humble or modest background.

Kulwinder, a CISF constable, is from a small farming family in Mahiwal village of Kapurthala district. Her mother Veer Kaur, who Kulwinder believed had been mocked and slandered by Kangana Ranaut, is still a farmer.

Before Joga, it was Premdatta Varma who threw a chappal at brother-in-armsturned- approver, Jai Gopal, during the Lahore Conspiracy Case trial (1929–30) against Bhagat Singh and his comrades. “It was not a planned strategy, Varma’s protest was spontaneous. During the course of the trial, he and the other accused were subjected to torture,” says Prof. Chaman Lal, author of The Bhagat Singh Reader.

Premdatta Varma, who threw a chappal at Jai Gopal inside the
courtroom. (Photo courtesy: Prof. Chaman Lal)
Premdatta Varma, who threw a chappal at Jai Gopal inside the courtroom. (Photo courtesy: Prof. Chaman Lal)
Photo courtesy: Prof. Chaman Lal

After a shoddy farce of a trial, Bhagat Singh and his two comrades were hanged on 23 March 1931. (Varma, the youngest among them, was awarded five years in prison).

Exactly a year later, to mark the first anniversary of their martyrdom, and with utter contempt for the shoot-at-sight orders in force, 16-year-old Harkishan Singh Surjeet tore down the British flag from the top of the district court in Hoshiarpur and hoisted the Tricolour.

“Originally the call to bring down the Union Jack was given by the Congress party, but they started dragging their feet. Surjeet acted on his own; the rest is now part of history,” local historian Ajmer Sidhu told PARI.

Many decades later, resonating through the corridors of memory, Surjeet would say, “I still feel proud of what I did that day.” Some six decades after the flag hoisting drama, Surjeet would be general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Surjeet, Bhagat Singh Jhuggian and Premdatta Varma are part of Punjab’s long saga of individual protest and its folklore of struggle.

A few years after the flag-hoisting incident of 1932, Surjeet’s comrade, Bhagat Singh Jhuggian, who was much younger than him, staged a most dramatic individual protest—at age 11. Jhuggian was a prizewinning student of Class 3, which he had topped.

The education department dignitary giving away the prizes congratulated him on stage, and asked him to shout “Britannia Zindabad, Hitler Murdabad”. Jhuggian faced the audience at the ceremony and yelled: “Britannia Murdabad, Hindustan Zindabad.” He was thrashed, thrown out and could never return to school. But till the last days of his life, Jhuggian was proud of what he did.

Harkishan Singh Surjeet after winning Phillaur
assembly seat in Feb. 1967. (Photo courtesy: Amarjit Chandan)
Harkishan Singh Surjeet after winning Phillaur assembly seat in Feb. 1967. (Photo courtesy: Amarjit Chandan)

The same emotion resonated on 12 June2024 when Kulwinder Kaur’s brother Sher Singh Mahiwal, who owns six acres of land, walked out after meeting his sister in Mohali to tell the media: “Neither she nor we regret what she did. So, the question of an apology doesn’t even arise.”


Amid a wave of farm suicides, drug addiction and widespread unemployment, 2014 was a turbulent year in Punjab’s cotton belt. Seeing no hope from any quarter, Vikram Singh Dhanaula travelled around 100 km from his village to Khanna town, where then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal was to unfurl the Tricolour on 15 August.

Badal had just begun his speech when Dhanaula hurled his shoe towards him. “I could easily have hit his face but deliberately threw it towards the podium. I just wanted to make him lend an ear to the unemployed youth and echoes of farmers who committed suicide due to sale of fake seeds and pesticides.”

Vikram Singh, who still resides in Barnala district’s Dhanaula village, spent 26 days in jail. Does he have any regrets? “One resorts to what Kulwinder Kaur has done, or what I did 10 years ago, when you see no hope anywhere,” he told PARI.

From the British Raj to the present BJP government, there have existed solitary voices, each steadfast in their pursuit, regardless of the repercussions. Kangana Ranaut’s relationship with Punjab got redefined in 2020, when at the peak of the farmers’ movement, she used derogatory language against women protesting the three contentious farm laws which the Union government finally repealed on 19 November 2021.

“Ha ha ha ha she is the same dadi (paternal grandmother) who featured in Time magazine for being the most powerful Indian… And she is available in (sic) 100 rupees,” Kangana had tweeted.

It seems the people of Punjab have not forgotten Kangana’s words. They resurfaced and reverberated once again on 6 June, when Kulwinder Kaur said, “She (Kangana) made a statement that farmers were protesting in Delhi because they were paid 100 or 200 rupees. At the time, my mother was one of the protesters.”

Oddly, no one so far claims to have seen footage of the actual slap. But whatever happened did not begin on 6 June. Much before the alleged ‘slapgate’ row at Chandigarh Airport, on 3 December2021, when Kangana Ranaut was on her way back from Manali, she was stopped by women farmers the moment her car entered Punjab. Kangana was left with no option but to apologise for her remarks.

In this ongoing conflict, for Kulwinder, her brother Sher Singh Mahiwal and their kin, there are serious issues of family reputation and dignity involved.

“We have been serving the security forces for several generations,” Mahiwal told PARI. “Before Kulwinder, five members of my grandfather’s family served in the army, including my grandfather himself. Three of his five sons also served in the Indian Army. They fought in the 1965 and 1971 wars for this nation. Do you still think we need certificates of patriotism from a person like Kangana, who calls us terrorists?”

Kulwinder Kaur has been placed under suspension. The 35-year-old—who is married to another CISF constable and has two children, a boy aged five and a girl aged nine—is at risk of losing her CISF job. Yet, as those who know Punjab point out, all individual protesters bear the consequences of their actions, but their personal courage sows the seeds for a brighter tomorrow.

“Joga and Kaur both symbolise that our dreams are still alive,” says former CPI MLA Hardev Singh Arshi, who first got associated with Jagir Singh Joga six decades ago. Arshi is from Datewas village, some 25 km from Jagir Singh’s village of Joga. Both fall in today’s Mansa district.

Rallies and processions continue to be held across Punjab and Chandigarh in support of Kulwinder Kaur. Overwhelmingly, these have not celebrated the slap or insisted that it was the right thing to do. The way people here see it, what they’re doing is celebrating a mere constable standing up to a powerful celebrity and MP, in defence of the dignity and integrity of Punjab’s farmers.

Simply put, they see Kulwinder’s actions as falling within Punjab’s tradition of individual spontaneous protest. Kulwinder Kaur may lose her job in the security forces, amid a flood of rewards, legal aid and protests in her support.

But, like Joga, a much bigger job might be waiting for her in the Punjab legislative assembly, as five by-elections are around the corner. A lot of people in Punjab are hoping she will contest.

Courtesy: People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI)

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