Farmer protests—the Jat blowback
March 15, 2021
Increasing participation of the Jat farmers from Uppar Pradeshi in the farmers agitation and the fact that these Jats form the vote banks of BJP could disrupt social engineering in this region. — Anilesh S. Mahajan
On January 28, the national media flashed pictures of Rakesh Tikait, national leader and spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), breaking into tears. Some miles away, in his hometown Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, his elder brother Naresh Tikait had announced that their group will end the protests that day. Rakesh’s tears not only melted the elder brother, but turned the two-month-old farmer agitation led by the Jats and Sikhs from Punjab into a much larger Jat rebellion in north India. Rakesh refused to vacate the protest spot and came in direct confrontation with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s regime. His supporters alleged that BJP MLAs Nand Kishore Gurjar and Sunil Sharma were waiting for his arrest, to unleash violence upon his supporters.
Before such allegations could be verified, Jat groups from Meerut, Baghpat, Bijnor, Muzaffarnagar, Moradabad and Bulandshahr began to throng towards the protest sites on the Delhi borders, followed by those from various districts of Haryana and Punjab. Since then, Rakesh has been visited by leaders from Punjab and Haryana, like Rajya Sabha MPs Pratap Singh Bajwa, Deepender Singh Hooda, INLD chief Abhay Chautala, SAD chief and Lok Sabha MP Sukhbir Badal, along with MPs from opposition parties Shiv Sena and TMC. The swelling numbers of his supporters at Ghazipur border have kept the parliament’s budget session warm, asking for discussion on the farm laws and the unrest.
The BJP strategy makers believe that if Tikait’s protest goes out of hand, it could change the social engineering the BJP has done over the past seven years.
Unlike in Punjab and Haryana, Jats in Uttar Pradesh are a major votebank for the party. They make up just 6 to 7 per cent of the voters in western Uttar Pradesh, yet have power over several villages in the region. The BJP rebuilt their fortunes in this region over the past seven years with the help of the Hindu Jats. If the resurgence of Tikait is pulling Jats towards him, the Gurjar community, which is equally populous and powerful, is backing Nand Kishore. The confrontation has the potential to disrupt the social engineering in this region, which the BJP can ill-afford, that too when elections for the state assembly is due next year. “The protests will continue till October (much closer to the polls),” Tikait said.
In the all-party meeting before the commencement of the budget session, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked Opposition leaders to speak to these outfits. He assured that the government is still open to the proposal of suspending the laws for up to 18 months and constituted a committee to review the laws and framework to make the MSP a legal statute.
But things have changed. Till now, Rakesh remained a supporting cast at the 12 rounds of discussion centred around agitating farmer groups from Punjab, and his base at Delhi’s Ghazipur border not only lacked facilities, but also supporters. These outfits were adamant that three laws—The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020—passed by the Parliament in September this year be repealed immediately. Now, though, the primary demand is that the government and BJP should first take action against their MLAs.
This shift in focus has also allowed other protesting farmers outfits from Punjab some time to regroup at Singhu and Tikri borders. This is not before fault lines had begun appearing between the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) and Tikait’s group. None of the top leaders have visited Tikait yet and BKU’s cadre is upset that SKM leadership hasn’t shown any sympathy for the 24-year-old Navreet Singh, the farmer from Uttarakhand who died in the tractor accident at ITO. He was part of the BKU’s cadre. However, SKM has its own battles to fight. It has been spending its time convincing supporters to return to the protest sites and distancing itself from the violence and attempts to siege Red Fort on January 26. The SKM has taken to blaming the splinter groups for disrupting the agitation. But the violence on Republic Day exposed that the SKM leadership doesn’t have much of control over its young farmers, or coordination among itself. SKM leaders admitted off the record that they were always suspicious that some of their groups have political ambitions. They said that the AAP and BKU (Charuni group) leader Gurnam Singh Charuni and Tikait were always under watch. Meanwhile, Delhi police suspect that Charuni and Tikait, along with two leaders from the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, Satnam Singh Pannu and Swaran Singh Pannu, of making provocative statements to instigate violence on Republic Day.
Under pressure from the political leadership in SAD, Congress and AAP, several village panchayats in Punjab passed the resolution forcing the villagers to return to protest sites or face penalties and social boycott. The trick, though, is not working. The images on television of the Delhi police fortifying the protest sites and the fear of a police crackdown are holding protestors back. Secondly, Punjab is going through elections for local bodies, which will get over by February 14.
The Tikait brothers are carrying forward the legacy of their father Mahendra Tikait, who came into limelight in 1988 and then in 1993, when he brought the national capital to a grinding halt for several days. Ironically, these two protests were done to allow the farmers to sell their produce in the open market. Rakesh, however, doesn’t enjoy even a fraction of his father’s popularity and his clout among farmers had depleted his political ambitions and tendency to take unilateral decisions. In 2004, he formed the Bahujan Kisan Dal—a political outfit of his group of BKU leaders—and lost deposits in all the nine constituencies the party contested in. In the 2007 assembly polls, Tikait contested from Khatauli and lost. In 2009 general elections, he lobbied with now defence minister Rajnath Singh to get a BJP ticket from Bijnor, but didn’t succeed. Later in 2014, he again, unsuccessfully, contested from Amroha constituency on a Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket. In 2013, both Tikait brothers, along with other BKU leaders of their group and several BJP leaders, were present in the Mahapanchayat, which was followed by the infamous Muzaffarnagar riots that left 66 people dead and rendered more than 60,000 people homeless. Both brothers were later accused of causing the riots along with BJP leaders like Sanjeev Balyan and Sangeet Som.
Only time will tell, if the new dimension into the farm protest would bear some political fruits for Tikait, but he has certainly taken the agitation to another level.