LONDON: The Covid question rises quite as large as the rally in support of the famers’ agitation in India in London on Sunday turned out to be. Several thousands of protesters turned up, in many hundreds of cars that jammed central London streets — and Londoner’s ears — doing the rounds around the Indian High Commission all day.
It was a far bigger turnout than expected, clearly the word had been passed on that the UK must do more than protesters had so far in Canada and the US, not less by any means. It seemed to have worked.
Convoys of cars descended on London from Birmingham and Derby in the Midlands and from other towns around the country. They carried banners in support of the farmers’ agitation, and flew triangular yellow flags, the signature colour of a forceful Sikh protest.
Several of the flags declared themselves Khalistani. As did many of the chants and slogans in front of the high commission and at a parallel gathering at Trafalgar Square.
Groups that marched along the strand between one protest gathering and the other raised their voices for Khalistan more than for Indian farmers. This was not a rally of theirs alone, but a prominence of presence backed by lung power seemed all theirs. The familiar Khalistan champion Paramjit Singh Pamma stood prominently in the crowd amongst a group of supporters wearing BabbarKhalsa t-shirts.
No doubt, many others attended purely to raise their voices in support of farmers, carrying placards like ‘No Farmers, No Food’. But these were relatively few, and sounded even fewer.
At peak power, some Sikh group-led protesters tried to breach a barrier set up to keep them at a distance from the high commission building. That brought an agitated crowd to the very doorsteps of India House which was still displaying, it seemed inappropriately on the day, festive lights at the entrance. A couple of chaps made some move to enter the high commission, but were led away by the police. It took some time and some police reinforcements to send the rest back to where they should have remained.
Predictably, noise levels were high. Slogans, a cocktail of speeches over megaphones and, above all, constant honking made this by far the loudest Sunday that London would have seen for a while. Honking is a quite standard form of protest in the UK; it comes usually from the occasional sympathetic driver passing some straggling protesters. Not, as at this demonstration, by close to a thousand cars honking one above another, around the same spot most of the day.
Cars were diverted a little later in the afternoon into a wider loop to diffuse the noise and to ease traffic. That only spread the honking wider around the city. The police still struggled to let traffic, most of it protesters’ cars anyhow, through the roads outside India House. Away from such traffic it was a struggle just to walk through that dense crowd of protesters which made nonsense of all the coronavirus rules supposedly in force.
The police had issued a warning ahead of the rally against any large gathering. The London Metropolitan police reminded community leaders in an open letter on December 4: “As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, additional legislation has been passed which puts restrictions on the right to assembly which includes protests and marches.” The police gave people “strong advice” not to attend any large gathering. It advised instead a petition inside or an online forum for registering any protest.
A breach would amount to a criminal offence, the police statement added. Potential protesters were reminded that no meeting of more than six persons is currently permitted outdoors. Six persons? A few thousand Sikhs made Britain’s laws look very strange this Sunday afternoon.
The police letter read that it would be an offence even to encourage people to take part in such an illegal protest. “Police officers will take appropriate enforcement action where necessary.” As it turned out, the police did not find it necessary to take action when the rule of six was broken by a few thousand. The police appear not to have read the letter they wrote. Or, they were just mostly taking the Sunday off.