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?”