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. But Joga lived to fight another day.

A decade later, Joga and his comrades of the then Lal Party led an epochal struggle around Kishangarh (now in Sangrur district) and 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 Capt. Amrinder Singh, is Bhupinder Singh’s grandson.

Joga was in Nabha jail in 1954, following those land and other struggles – when people voted him to the state assembly while still incarcerated. He was also voted back as an MLA in 1962, 1967 and 1972.

PHOTO • Jagtar Singh

Left: In the 1930s, Jagir Singh Joga' s dissent was directed at Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala whose feudal thugs tried to grab the land of poor peasants. Right: Kulwinder Kaur, a constable with the CISF directed her dissent in June 2024 at newly-elected MP, Kangana Ranaut

“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, Joga’s biographer. Jagtar Singh, a retired college teacher, 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 often of humble or modest background. Kulwinder, a CISF constable, is from a small farmer family in Mahiwal village of Kapurthala district. Her mother Veer Kaur – who Kulwinder felt was mocked and slandered by Kangana Ranaut, is still a farmer.

Before Joga, it was Premdatta Varma who threw a chappal at a brother-in-arms -turned-approver, Jai Gopal, inside the court during the Lahore Conspiracy Case trial (1929-30) against Bhagat Singh and his comrades. “It was not a planned strategy, and 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 .

After a shoddy farce of a trial, Bhagat Singh and his two comrades were hanged on March 23, 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).

PHOTO • Daily Milap / courtesy Prof. Chaman Lal
PHOTO • Courtesy: Prof Chaman Lal

A 1930s poster (left) by The Daily Milap on the Lahore Conspiracy Case. Premdatta Varma (right) who threw a chappal at a brother-in-arms-turned-approver, Jai Gopal, inside the court during the trial against Bhagat Singh and his comrades

PHOTO • Courtesy: Amarjit Chandan
PHOTO • P. Sainath

Left: In 1932, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, tore down the British flag from the top of the district court in Hoshiarpur and defiantly hoisted the Tricolour when he was just 16 years old. Seen here after winning the Phillaur assembly constituency of Punjab in February 1967. Right: Prof. Jagmohan Singh (in blue), nephew of revolutionary Shaheed Bhagat Singh with Jhuggian at his home in Ramgarh

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 prize-winning 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.’ A young 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. You can read his story here ,  where Jhuggian spoke to PARI founder-editor P. Sainath barely a year before his death in 2022 at around age 95.

The same emotion resonated this June 12 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,” he asserted.

Even Punjab’s recent past is punctuated by defiant individual protests of a similar nature. 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 August 15, 2014.

PHOTO • Courtesy: Vikram Dhanaula
PHOTO • Shraddha Agarwal

In 2014, Vikram Singh Dhanaula (left) hurled his shoe at  Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal to protest the state's apathy towards unemployed youth and distressed farmers. In 2021, women from Punjab  were at the forefront of the farm protests (right)

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.”

Dhanaula, who still resides in Barnala District’s Dhanaula village, spent 26 days in jail. Does he have any regrets over what he did? “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, through time, there have existed solitary voices, each with its own resonance, all steadfast in their pursuit, regardless of the repercussions they might incur.

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 November 19, 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 100 rupees,” Kangana had tweeted.

It seems the people of Punjab have not forgotten Kangana’s words. They resurfaced and reverberated once again on June 6, 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 that Kulwinder is said to have given Kangana. But whatever happened, it did not start on June 6.

Watch the video: the back story of anger against Kangana's words

Most of these individual, spontaneous protests in Punjab have come from ordinary citizens often of humble or modest background

Much before the alleged June 6 ‘slapgate’ row at Chandigarh Airport, on December 3, 2021, 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 too, for Kulwinder, her brother Sher Singh Mahiwal, and their kin, there are also 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. And 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?" asks Sher Singh Mahiwal.

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 the individual protesters bear the weight of the consequences of their actions, but their personal courage often sows 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 kilometres from Jagir Singh’s village of Joga. Both fall in today’s Mansa district.

Joga was elected to Punjab’s legislative assembly in 1954 while still lodged in Nabha jail. Surjeet, Bhagat Singh Jhuggian and Prem Datta Varma are part of Punjab’s long saga of individual protest and its folklore of struggle.

Watch the video of Sher Singh Mahiwal, brother of Kulwinder, speaking on the incident

All the individual protesters bear the weight of the consequences of their actions, but their personal courage often sows seeds for a brighter tomorrow

Rallies and processions have been and 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.

The whole episode has sparked off a barrage of poems, songs, memes and cartoons across the state. Today, PARI carries one of those poems with this story: the poet is Swarajbir Singh, a celebrated playwright and former editor of the Punjabi Tribune

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.


Left: Kulwinder Kaur at Chandigarh airport after the incident. Right: A march held in Mohali on June 9, 2024, protesting against Kangana and in favour of Kulwinder


Tell Me O' Mother


Mother, O’ mother
Tell me, what is in your heart, dear mother.
Volcanoes erupt and surge in my own.

Tell me, who slaps us each passing day?
Who violates our streets,
and roars on the screens?

We bear the slaps of the rich and mighty.
The wretched of the earth bear the pain.
False are the promises of the State.

But sometimes,
yes, at some very rare times,
rises a beaten pauper girl.
Strong emotions surging in her heart,
she raises and waves a hand.
She dares the devils that rule.

This punch,
this slap is not a blow, O' mother.
It’s a cry, a scream, a roar of my aching heart.

Some say it’s right,
some say it is wrong.
Call it decent or indecent,
my heart is wailing for you.

The mighty threatened your people and you.
The mighty challenged you.
And it’s the mighty who bludgeoned my heart.

It’s my heart, mother,
my wailing heart.
Call it decent or rude,
it’s screaming and crying for you.
Some say it is wrong,
some say it is right.

But this is my heart, O' mother.
My defiant little heart, speaking for you.

(Translated by Charanjit Sohal)

Swarajbir is a playwright, journalist and former editor, Punjabi Tribune

Vishav Bharti

Vishav Bharti is a journalist based in Chandigarh who has been covering Punjab’s agrarian crisis and resistance movements for the past two decades.

Other stories by Vishav Bharti

P. Sainath is Founder Editor, People's Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought' and 'The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom'.

Other stories by P. Sainath
Illustration : Antara Raman

Antara Raman is an illustrator and website designer with an interest in social processes and mythological imagery. A graduate of the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, she believes that the world of storytelling and illustration are symbiotic.

Other stories by Antara Raman