Tikait’s new image and 26 January aftermath: Fresh challenges for SKM’s Punjab farmers leaders

Rakesh Tikait from the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Arajnaitik) speaks to the media at a highway in Ghazipur, on the outskirts of Delhi on 6 February 2021. In a press meeting that day, six leaders of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha from Punjab faced questions about two recent statements by Tikait. The statements appeared to be decisions taken by Tikait alone and not the SKM leadership, marking a conspicuous shift from how the collective operated before 26 January, when violence unfolded during a tractor rally by the protesters. Anindito Mukherjee / Bloomberg / Getty Images
13 February, 2021

In a press meeting on 6 February, six leaders of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha from Punjab faced questions about two recent statements by Rakesh Tikait from the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Arajnaitik). The SKM is a collective of farmers’ groups leading the ongoing movement against three farm laws enacted by the BJP, and BKU (A) is among its members. Hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Tikait had said that his home state and Uttarakhand would not participate in the nationwide chakka jam, or blockade, on 8 February that the SKM had called for. In another remark, he said, “We have given time to the government till 2 October to repeal the laws.” The decisions appeared to be taken by Tikait alone and not the SKM leadership, marking a conspicuous shift from how the collective operated before 26 January, when violence unfolded during a tractor rally by the protesters. 

Tikait is being portrayed as an individual leader of the protests since 28 January, and other challenges have also emerged for the SKM leadership in the past two weeks. This includes dealing with the aftermath of the Republic Day rally—120 individuals being arrested and several protesters from Punjab going missing, among other things. The SKM also has a task to introspect and examine the steps that led to the events of 26 January.

The main sit-ins against the laws at Delhi’s borders—at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur—faced immense pressure to end their weeks-long protest post the tractor rally. Tikait’s union had been camping at the Ghazipur sit-in for around seven weeks. On 28 January, the site saw a huge security build up and local administration had directed farmers’ leaders to clear it. But Tikait delivered a tearful speech on live television, which made thousands of people show up and keep the sit-in going. Tikait—who has been affiliated to the BJP in the past—has emerged as the face of the movement since then. Yet, he, as well as other farmers’ leaders, maintain that a joint leadership is spearheading  the movement. 

The 6 February press meeting by leaders from Punjab was held at the Singhu protest venue. Thirty two of SKM’s nearly 40 member unions are from the state. During the meeting, Darshan Pal, the leader of Krantikari Kisan Union, answered the query on Tikait’s chakka jam statement. Pal was quick to dismiss the suggestion of friction between SKM members and said that the collective supported the decision. But he admitted that there was no consultation before Tikait’s statement. “It would have been good if it had happened jointly,” Pal said. “I do think, a little, that such things shouldn’t be announced in haste.” A SKM leader told me on the condition of anonymity that a few of the collective’s members from Punjab had expressed their concerns over Tikait’s decision. “It is now to be seen whether Tikait would follow in line with the countrywide Rail Roko programme, which is scheduled on 18 February,” he said.

Tikait’s second remark—to give the government time till 2 October—could potentially shape the course of the farmers’ movement. Since 26 November 2020, tens of thousands of farmers have been camped at Delhi’s borders, creating more pressure on the government to repeal the laws with each passing day. A deadline of 2 October could mean lifting the pressure off for seven more months. Moreover, it could mean that protesting farmers, many of whom are from Punjab and Haryana, may have to compromise on their work to oppose the laws as the wheat harvesting season is in April and the paddy-sowing season falls in June. At the meeting, Daataar Singh from the Kirti Kissan Union said, that Tikait “meant that the protest can continue till October.” Later, Bharatiya Kisan Union (Chaduni) chief Gurnam Singh Chaduni categorically said that the SKM does not have a 2 October deadline. 

Before 28 January, Tikait was often among the SKM leaders who addressed the media at such press conferences at Singhu. He would also frequent the Singhu and Tikri protest sites. But Tikait has not made a single appearance at the two sit-ins since his speech. On the other hand, Balbir Singh Rajewal of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Rajewal) and even Joginder Singh Ugrahan of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan)—who has largely camped at Tikri since November—have visited the Ghazipur sit-in in the same time period. Prabhu Chawla, a journalist with the Aaj Tak, also chose to interview Tikait for his popular talk show “Seedhi Baat” this month. 

I visited Tikait’s turf, the Ghazipur sit-in, which falls on the Delhi–Uttar Pradesh border, on 10 February. The crowds at the Tikri and Singhu sit-ins—I have been frequenting both regularly—are at least four times greater than the one at Ghazipur. Hoardings at the Ghazipur sit-in prominently featured Tikait, and local leaders from the Yadav and Jat communities. Along with a hookah, every other tent at the sit-in has pictures of Tikait and his late father, Mahender Singh Tikait, who was a legend among the farming community in north India. No particular leader is as omnipresent at the Singhu and Tikri protest sites. It is yet to be seen if this is just a temporary swing of attention towards Tikait as an individual leader.

The 26 January violence has indeed been a turning point for the movement and even the leadership. It partially reflected a leadership failure too. The leadership and the Delhi Police settled on a route that limited the march to the capital’s outskirts barely two days before Republic day. But a day before the rally, Sarwan Singh Pandher, the general secretary of Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee—a major union at the protests—announced that its cadre would not follow the Delhi Police’s route. A report in The Hindu, dated 25 January, quoted Pandher saying, “We met the Delhi police and conveyed our decision. Hopefully they will be considerate.”

On 2 January, Yogendra Yadav was among the SKM leaders who had announced that the farmers will enter Delhi on Republic Day. However, he did not appear to take part in the march himself—he posted a video on Facebook that afternoon asking the protesters who broke barriers and entered the capital to maintain peace and stick to the official route. He also mentioned that according to the information he had received, there had been “no lathi charge or there is no question of a bullet being fired.” Reports had emerged that day that security forces lathi charged the protesters and there have been strong allegations of a bullet being fired. 

A group of protesters hoisted the Nishan Sahib, a Sikh flag, below the national flag at the Red Fort that day. Mainstream media vilified the movement on the basis of this and portrayed the incident as an insult to the national flag. Later that day, a few hundred tractors made rounds of the Singhu protest venue with tricolours atop to highlight the movement’s secular nature.

That day, the SKM was defensive and did not take responsibility for what had gone wrong. Instead, it said in statement, “Antisocial elements infiltrated our otherwise peaceful movement. We dissociate ourselves from all such elements that have violated our discipline.” The next day, it termed the act of unfurling “a flag” at the Red Fort as a part of a “conspiracy.” In its statement, the SKM also termed KMSC deviating from the route as a corollary to the conspiracy. Even so, the Delhi Police registered a first-information report naming 37 farmers’ leaders including Ugrahan, Tikait, Pal and Rajewal. 

The SKM suspended Harpal Singh Sangha of the Azad Kisan Committee Doaba and Surjit Phul of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Krantikari) for deviating from the designated route during the rally. According to Sangha, the cadres of his union and that of Phul and Chaduni’s had chosen to go to Red Fort. Sangha told me on 30 January that he was not a part of the panel that negotiated the route with the Delhi police. “I was simply asked to sign, but later I realised that I had signed on the dos and don’ts conditions dictated by the Delhi Police,” he said. Sangha told me that he wrote to the SKM about his suspension. According to him, he mentioned in his letter that seven other leaders had marched on the Outer Ring Road—which also leads to the Red Fort—along with their cadres, including All India Kisan Sabha’s Baldev Singh Nihalgarh and Nijjer Singh Punawal, BKU (Doaba)’s Manjit Rai and Chaduni. 

The leadership’s response to the aftermath of the violence also appeared to be inadequate. The SKM leadership had not announced that they have filed even a single bail application for those arrested in connection to the events of 26 January till 11 February. However, it has formed a committee to search and trace the missing individuals. Earlier this month, The Caravan reported on the death of Navreet Singh, a 25-year-old farmer from Uttar Pradesh, during the rally. The report mentioned that his grandfather Hardip Singh Dibdiba 

told us that at Ghazipur, he was asked what he wanted to do with the body. “I said, ‘the body now belongs to the farmers’ movement’”—the leaders on whose call Navreet had come to Delhi should decide, Dibdiba said. To his disappointment, no leader came forth to take responsibility for his grandson’s body.

The Punjab leadership of the SKM has opened itself to conducting mahapanchayats, or town-hall meetings now, taking cue from similar gatherings that have been held in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Punjab’s first such event was held on 11 February in Ludhiana, which thousands of people attended. In his address to the crowd, Ugrahan said, “Ghol de vivh mod aunde ne. Sarkaar humla kardi rehndi hai, asi humla jhallna haiA struggle always sees several turns. The government keeps attacking us, and we have to face the attacks.