In Kairana, sugarcane, stray cattle and caste alliances will decide the Lok Sabha election

An Indian farmer carries sugarcane to load on a tractor to sell it at a nearby sugar mill in Modinagar in Ghaziabad, on 31 January 2018. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images
09 April, 2019

In the 2014 general elections, Hukum Singh, a Hindu-Gujjar leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, won in western Uttar Pradesh’s Kairana constituency, marking the party’s first victory from the seat since 1998. Singh passed away in February 2018, necessitating a bypoll in the constituency. The opposition parties—the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress—entered into an informal tie up and fielded Tabassum Hasan, a Muslim-Gujjar and former member of parliament from Kairana, on an RLD ticket. In the bypoll three months later, Hasan defeated Mriganka Singh, the BJP candidate and Hukum’s daughter, by over forty thousand votes.

A combination of factors secured Hasan’s victory. The RLD, with a predominantly Jat voter base, focused on the plight of Kairana’s sugarcane farmers—till that month, six sugarcane mills in the constituency reportedly owed the farmers Rs 777 crore. A controversy over BJP leaders objecting to a picture of Mohammad Ali Jinnah put up on the walls of the Aligarh Muslim University allowed the RLD to brand the election as a fight between ganna, or sugarcane, versus Jinnah. Moreover, the RLD rallying behind a Muslim candidate secured votes from both the Jat and Muslim communities.

The Kairana parliamentary constituency has five assembly segments—Shamli, Thana Bhawan and Kairana from Shamli district, and Gangoh and Nakur from Saharanpur district. According to estimates in media reports, the constituency has around 16.6 lakh voters, comprising approximately 5.5 lakh Muslims, 2.5 lakh Dalits and 1.7 lakh Jats. This year, the RLD, the SP and the BSP are repeating their alliance for the upcoming Lok Sabha election. Hasan is representing the alliance in Kairana on an SP ticket, whereas the BJP has fielded Pradeep Choudhury, a member of legislative assembly from the Gangoh assembly constituency.

Apart from the sugarcane dues owed to farmers, a new crisis has also emerged for Kairana’s farmers—cow vigilante groups who disrupt cattle transport, and the state government’s crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses, have led to stray cattle running free in the constituency and feeding on crops. “Ganna triumphed last year,” Jitender Hooda, a Jat sugarcane farmer from Shamli, said. “This year, ganna and gai”—cow—“will be the BJP’s undoing.” The BJP has also angered a section of Hindu-Gujjars by denying Mriganka a ticket.

Yet, Manoj Sharma, the vice president of the BJP’s Shamli district unit, believed that the party’s “nationalism” narrative would see it to victory. Dheeresh Saini, a journalist and a political commentator in the region, told me that the opposition alliance is also on the back foot because it has not been countering this narrative. Sharma said the BJP has the support of “non-dominant” Other Backward Classes, but he agreed that the party was “struggling” due to the caste-based arithmetic of the opposition alliance working in their favour. “This election is not easy,” he said.

As of 22 March, the sugarcane arrears due in Uttar Pradesh stood at Rs 10,074.98 crore, according to a report in the Indian Express. Out of these, 45 percent arrears, worth Rs 4,547.97 crore, are due from the six parliamentary constituencies that are slated to go to polls in the first phase of the general elections, on 11 April—Kairana, Meerut, Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor and Saharanpur.

On 16 January this year, around hundred sugarcane farmers stormed into the Upper Doab Sugar Mills, popularly known as the Shamli mill, which falls within the Kairana constituency. At the time, the mill reportedly owed over Rs 200 crore to farmers. In protest, the farmers occupied its premises for ten days. Deshpal Rana, a member of the Shamli mill’s sugarcane committee, which acts as an intermediary between the mill and farmers, was among the leaders of the agitation. Rana told me that the mill still owes him Rs 4 lakh. Referring to the BJP, he said, “They haven’t implemented the Swaminathan recommendations, they haven’t given us the promised Rs 15 lakh, they haven’t generated 2 crore jobs—none of these promises have been fulfilled.”

Rana is a member of the Jat community, and grows sugarcane, wheat and mustard on a farm measuring eight acres, in Shamli district’s Lilon village. To illustrate the cost and returns of sugarcane, Rana explained the process of cultivating the early-maturing variety of the crop on a plot measuring one bigha—roughly, six bighas form one acre. He said the process of cultivating the crop on one-bigha land takes ten to eleven months, and costs him around Rs 14,000. It yields around 45 to 60 quintals of cane which he sells to sugar mills in accordance with the State Advised Price of Rs 325 per quintal.

“The BJP does not care about farmers or agriculture,” Rana told me. He was not always opposed to the BJP. Rana joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh when he was 18 years old, in 1978. Fourteen years later, he was delegated to the BJP, he claimed, adding that he was closely associated with Hukum Singh. Rana said that he left the BJP in January this year because he realised that the party was “kisan-virodhi”—anti-farmers. “They pretend to care about farmers, but behind the scenes they only care about the interests of banias,” Rana said, pointing to parts of his farm where the crops were half-eaten and damaged by stray cattle.

A few kilometers away from Lilon, in Bamnoli village, Rajgopal Sharma, a 55-year-old farmer grew sugarcane in front of his house. At 5 am on 2 June 2018, he exited his house to use the toilet adjacent to it. But just as he was about to enter the toilet, a stray bull attacked him and gored him to death. Deepak Sharma, Rajgopal’s nephew, told me that he now camps out in the field at night to chase stray cattle away. Other farmers from the village also told me they had made this a part of their routine. “The government says that the cow is our mother, but they have led us to conflict with our mothers,” Sharma said.

The issues of pending sugarcane dues and stray cattle are intrinsically linked. “Since our ganna payments are delayed, we don’t have money to take care of our cattle either,” Rajveer Singh Mundait, a Jat farmer from Shamli’s Mundet village, told me. Mundait owns ten acres of land on which he grows sugarcane. According to him, before the BJP came to power in the state in 2017, a high-quality milch cow would cost Rs 1 lakh. Now, its value has plunged to Rs 20,000. In a day, cattle feed for a milch animal costs him around Rs 200–250 while the income he generates from its milk is Rs 250-300. “We have no option but to let our cattle loose,” he added.

“Jats and Muslims used to vote together since the time of Chaudhury Charan Singh”—the former prime minister whose son, Ajit Singh, formed the RLD—“and to break that, the BJP and RSS orchestrated the 2013 riots,” Mundait said. He was referring to communal riots that broke out in the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts, in mid 2013, which led to the displacement of thousands of people—predominantly Muslims—from their homes. Hukum Singh, the deceased BJP parliamentarian, was among those booked for inciting violence against the Muslim community ahead of the riots. According to political commentators, the riots led to a consolidation of Jat votes for the BJP, following which the party won seats in western Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Riyaz Hashmi, a journalist based in Saharanpur, told me that the riots impacted both the communities economically. “Jats were the land owners, while Muslims worked as field labourers on their farms,” he said. “The riots disrupted this system.” Hashmi added, “Both Jats and Muslims have realised that they are economically tied to each other.”

Although the Jat community seems to be disillusioned with the BJP, they might yet vote in three directions in the upcoming election. “Older Jats remember the heritage of Charan Singh and are core RLD voters, while younger Jats, who are not interested in farming, are attracted to the BJP,” Hashmi said. Moreover, the Congress is fielding Harender Malik, a former member of legislative assembly in the state, who is a member of the Jat community. According to Saini, “This will eat into the anti-BJP votes, which would have otherwise gone to the alliance.” According to Hashmi, Hasan’s shifting political loyalties is another factor that could contribute to the division of Jat votes. Hasan first got elected as Kairana’s member of parliament in 2009 on a BSP ticket, then joined the SP, and last contested the 2018 bypoll on an RLD ticket. “This is bound to create doubts in the minds of voters,” Hashmi said.

Even if the BJP benefits from a three-way split in votes, the party is losing the support of sections of the Gujjar community, which is dominant in Kairana. In 2016, Hukum Singh alleged that there was a “forced exodus” of Hindu families from Kairana because they were targeted by “Muslim criminals.” The claim was subsequently debunked by several investigative reports. According to a report in the news website BBC Hindi, the controversy alienated Muslim Gujjars. During my reporting, several residents of Kairana also reiterated the same. That year, the BJP only lost the Kairana assembly constituency to Nahid Hasan, the SP’s candidate and Tabassum Hasan’s son. The party had fielded Mriganka Singh.

By fielding Pradeep Choudhury, a Hindu Gujjar, from the Kairana parliamentary constituency for the 2019 general election, the BJP has also angered the followers of Mriganka. Her family—and even Hasan’s—has ties to the Kalsyan Khap, an influential Gujjar clan. In Kairana town, I met Chaudhury Ram Pal, the head of the Kalsyan Khap, who is Mriganka’s cousin. “I was with Hukum Singh, and now I am with his daughter Mriganka,” he told me. Ram Pal was convening an evening darbar—meeting—at the Kalsyan Choupal, a community centre for members of the clan. Hindu Gujjars and Muslim Gujjars were seated around him. Ram Pal said that the BJP was trying to finish Hukum’s virasat—political heritage. “We will either not go to vote or will press NOTA,” Ram Pal said. He added that the clan is not campaigning for the BJP as it would have had they given Mriganka the ticket. “This will affect voting in Kairana, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar and Meerut,” Ram Pal claimed.

The president of a BJP booth-level committee in Kairana town, who requested to remain anonymous, also told me that not fielding Mriganka would cost the party. “Hindu Gujjars are angry with the BJP, and it is possible that a section will not vote for us,” he said. While during the last election, they did not have to make much effort to canvass for votes, this time, the BJP members are holding a door-to-door campaign to pacify Hindu Gujjars. Even Manoj Sharma admitted that the Gujjars are angry with the party, and while the Jats are disillusioned as well, they understand that sugarcane payments in the state “during our government have been better than in previous government’s” tenure.

The booth-level committee president said that the party had conducted a survey between 21–28 January in 200 houses that fall under his booth. “We found that most respondents in our booth did not reveal who they would vote for. This is in sharp contrast to 2014 when people were very enthusiastic about the BJP.” According to him, the survey indicated that the opposition’s caste-based arithmetic was gaining favour.

But the tide was different in Kandela, a Gujjar-majority village near Kairana town. At the Kandela village square, it appeared that the central government’s national-security measures would influence voting preferences. Jasbir Singh, a Gujjar farmer who also owns a liquor store in the village, was seated with four of his friends smoking a hookah. “So what if they didn’t give a ticket to Mriganka, they gave it to another Gujjar and upheld our pride,” Jasbir said. He referred to the recent aerial strikes by the Indian Air Force within Pakistan’s territory, and a subsequent dogfight between the two nations during which an Indian pilot was captured by Pakistan’s army and released soon after. He praised Modi as he “taught Pakistana lesson” and got “our pilot back.” Jasbir said that if the Congress was in power, they would not have retaliated. “With Modi in power, India is acting more like Israel and we will vote for him. Gujjars are with the nation after all.” His friends nodded in agreement.

Saini also told me that the election will “not be as easy for the opposition” because “the BJP is relying heavily on nationalism and communalism to counter the opposition’s caste arithmetic.” When Modi launched his election campaign in the region’s Meerut constituency, he said, “Whether it be on land, in the sky or in outer space, it is this chowkidar who has shown the courage to carry out surgical strikes.” According to Saini, the opposition is not tackling the BJP on issues of national importance in the region. “It is avoiding the real issues like Rafale, corruption … and is instead trying to recreate the caste alliance that saw it through in previous elections.”

“Smaller OBC castes like the Sainis, who earlier used to be with Congress, are now with the BJP,” Saini continued. In Kairana town, Neeraj Saini, a farmer who owns around seven acres of land, told me that in spite of their pending sugarcane dues, “90 percent of Saini votes will go to the BJP.” Even Manoj Sharma mentioned the BJP’s reliance on these communities. “We are confident of winning Kairana because the non-dominant OBC groups—Kashyap, Saini, Prajapati, Jogi, Balmiki and Khatik—are glued to the BJP like Fevicol.”