Tikait’s 28 January speech, farm stir pivot western Uttar Pradesh’s farmers against BJP

Farmers arrive to attend a mahapanchayat, or town-hall meeting, as part of the protests against the 2020 farm laws at Bhainswal in Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district on 5 February 2021. Farmers in western Uttar Pradesh appear to be becoming disillusioned with the ruling BJP due to the government’s aggressive efforts to quash the movement against the farm laws. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
18 February, 2021

Farmers in western Uttar Pradesh appear to be becoming disillusioned with the ruling BJP due to the government’s aggressive efforts to quash the ongoing movement against its 2020 farm laws. A crucial event which spurred this anti-BJP sentiment had occurred on 28 January, when Rakesh Tikait gave a tearful speech in response to the government’s efforts to clear the Ghazipur sit-in at the Delhi–Uttar Pradesh border. Tikait is a farmer leader from the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Arajnaitik) who wields influence in the area. Since his speech, western Uttar Pradesh has seen at least three mahapanchayats, or town-hall meetings, against the laws with the participation of thousands of farmers. Several people from the region have also joined the Ghazipur sit-in. 

Residents of western Uttar Pradesh spoke to me about the movement and the BJP government’s response to it. “The thousands of farmers you are seeing today, we had voted for the BJP, but forget fulfilling its promises, it is preparing to take our land away from us as well,” Shivam Baliyan, a farmer from Muzaffarnagar who is also pursuing a master’s in physical education, said. Almost everyone I spoke to said that the ruling party would suffer politically. “It has been written on the walls of our village: ‘BJP and RSS are thieves,’” Bhishma Singh, a farmer from Ghaziabad, said. Even Virender Singh Gujjar, a BJP leader who hails from Saharanpur, said he thought that if the movement continued for a longer time, it would affect the party in the state elections.

Bhishma said that he has witnessed a “huge change” in how people around him were viewing the protests and the BJP. “They may not be able to articulate it, but you can see the presence of panchayats everywhere,” he said. “People are also seeing the kind of statements that the prime minister of the country is giving while sitting in the parliament.” Bhishma referred to how the BJP had promised to clear sugarcane dues in 14 days in the 2017 assembly elections. “Farmers know that they supply sugarcane to mills, but it takes years to get the payment. So how can we believe what they say?” He added, “All this will cause a loss in elections, you will see. We were cheated earlier, we will not be cheated now.” 

After violence unfolded in some parts of the capital during the 26 January tractor rally and mainstream media vilified the movement, sit-ins against the farm laws were under pressure to end their protests. Within two days, the local administration at Ghazipur served Tikait and other farmer leaders a notice directing them to clear the site amid a security build-up. Tikait and his brother Naresh Tikait, the BKU (A) chief, from the Jat community, were affiliated with the BJP in the past and have been accused in the 2013 communal violence in Muzaffarnagar. On the night of 28 January, Tikait appealed on live TV for the protest to continue and voiced a sense of betrayal. Among other things, Tikait said that he had voted for the BJP and that the party’s “people are conspiring to kill the farmers.”  

Povindra Rana, a farmer from Baghpat district, told me, “What happened with Rakesh Tikait—we could not sleep. People in our village kept calling each other, and the next morning we reached Delhi on three tractors.” Thousands reached Ghazipur over the next day, and the pressure to vacate the site weaned off. Rana told me, “I stayed at the sit-in for two nights, and then attended a rally in Baraut on 31 January.” 

Several protests in western Uttar Pradesh followed Tikait’s appeal. Baliyan told me that it takes little effort to hold the mahapanchayats now. “A location is decided, and the youngsters publicise it on social media.” The first mahapanchayat was held in Muzaffarnagar on 29 January. Even with just a few hours of notice, thousands of farmers attended it.

The mahapanchayat was notable for another reason—it saw the participation of Naresh, the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s vice president Jayant Chaudhary, and Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, an elderly farmer leader from Muzaffarnagar who was once an aid of Mahender Singh Tikait, the father of the Tikait brothers and a legend among the farming community in north India. After the Tikait brothers were accused in the Muzaffarnagar violence, Jaula had denounced them. Vishal Kumar, a journalist from the media collective ChalChitra Abhiyan who has been covering the mahapanchayats, told me that on 29 January, “Naresh Tikait, Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, Jayant Chaudhary, all three were seen hugging each other on a stage for the first time after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.” Kumar took this as a sign of Jat–Muslim unity. “Not just the leaders, even their workers are meeting each other,” he added. 

After Tikait came to the spotlight on 28 January, there was also increased focus on the Jat community’s role in the protests in Uttar Pradesh. People I spoke to said that the idea that the movement in western Uttar Pradesh was limited to one community is wrong. Rubin Kashyap, a resident of Bhainswal village in Shamli district, told me he has visited the Ghazipur sit-in twice. “My village has a huge presence of Dalits, and then of Jats,” he said. “After the Bhim Army supported the protests, the Dalits in my village also joined in.” Kumar said, “A large section of farm labourers is from OBC and Dalit castes. They also feel that if a farmer’s land is ruined, then where will they work?” 

Referring to the Jat community, Bhishma, told me, “You cannot suppress castes who have a history of fighting.” But he also said, “The BJP wants it to be a Jat issue. Even the landless castes, they also raise buffalos—their fodder, water comes from a farmer’s field. At first, farmers were unable to understand this, but they have developed an understanding of the laws with time.” 

Rana told me that his village was not actively protesting the laws initially. “But with time, we could see the attitude of the government and that the problem is increasing,” he said. He told me that twenty days after farmers began sit-ins against the laws at Delhi’s border in late November 2020, a sit-in began in Baraut city. “Thousands of farmers gathered every day and dispersed at night,” he said. Rana said residents of Baghpat also participated in a tractor rally against the farm laws at the end of December. “People collected donations and gave Rs 51,000 to the protesters at Baraut because they had to feed people at the sit-in,” Rana told me. “Jayant joined the sit-in twice and Tikait also joined once.” 

According to Rana, tractors from Baghpat reached Ghazipur on 25 January to participate in the 26 January tractor rally. “Tikait explained on the morning of 26 January how we should participate,” he added. Rana had also gone to Delhi. The next day, he said, “We saw the news when we reached back home—it was different from what we had experienced. TV channels were showing the wrong thing.” On the night of 27 January, the administration removed the protesters from the Baraut sit-in. “Policemen lathicharged 30 elderly people at the Baraut sit-in,” Rana said. This also caused “anger against the administration.” 

Almost everyone I spoke to expressed anger at the government’s response to the protests. Kashyap told me, “In 2019, there was a lot of support for the BJP at our place. But now people are becoming aware.” Baliyan said, “The Tikait incident has made people think that the government, and even its goons, can attack a peaceful movement.” Baliyan is from the Baliyan Khap, a parallel lineage-based group, that Naresh heads. Khaps are playing a huge role in Uttar Pradesh’s mahapanchayats. “The youth of the Baliyan Khap is also very angry. They will not make a compromise till the laws are repealed now,” he said. “We are looking for political alternatives. The Jat community is standing up now. RLD is the likely option since we are attached to Chaudhary Charan Singh.” 

Even Gujjar said that the movement could impact the party’s future in Uttar Pradesh. “BJP will suffer when the people believe that ‘the government will not agree because it is sold out to Adani, Ambani. Their power should be taken away. There is no other way,’” he said. “This is not the case right now, but if this goes on for a few more days, it will be.” When asked about the response of other BJP members to the protests, he told me, “People in the party are not speaking up right now out of selfishness, but there is a lot of upheaval.” He continued, “The government should agree to the demand of the farmers. It should not be so rigid. The government is from the people, they have elected it.” 

Gujjar said he was accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar violence and after a few months, he was felicitated at a BJP meeting at an event which was also attended by the prime minister Narendra Modi. He told me he has been supporting the farmers’ movement since it began. “I am first a farmer, a BJP member later,” he said. “We, farmers of all communities, will hold a mahapanchayat and include Muslims, Hindus everyone in it.”

According to Kashyap, a donation drive to collect funds to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya was held in his village, but no one participated in it. Kumar said that farmers felt “cheated” due to the government’s response. “They are angry with the government as it is not ready to listen to such a large number of people,” he said. “This resentment is increasing with time, and the government is still not listening. It will also have an impact on the 2022 elections.” Rana added, “This government will have to pay for this now. We will not vote for BJP and we will keep fighting till these laws are repealed.”