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.