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  • Writer's pictureZia Haq

Farm protests bring foes Jats, Muslims closer in politically crucial west UP

The political ground in western UP appears shifting, as Jats and Muslims, whose deadly clashes in 2013 polarised votes, unite against the farm laws

Rakesh Tikait (foreground), a key leader of India's ongoing farm protests. Photo: Reuters

By Zia Haq

When, after months of peaceful protests, a group of farmers stormed the Red Fort and clashed with police in the Capital on January 26, farm unions feared the violent episode could spell the end of their gritty movement.

Instead, Rakesh Tikait, a beefy leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), an influential farmers’ organisation, has managed to re-energise the protests and entrenched them in a new avatar in his home turf, the politically crucial sugarcane belt of western Uttar Pradesh. His model is now being replicated in other states as well, just as the model led by farmers from Punjab and Haryana, tens of thousands who are camped at Delhi’s Tikri and Singhu borders since November 26, was being replicated by Tikait’s group at the Ghazipur border.

Since January 28, when the UP Police attempted to vacate the Ghazipur site only to see its number swell, Tikait has been holding a series of “kisan mahapanchayats”, or rural conclaves — respected village institutions of the landed Jat community where social decisions taken by elders are binding.

Under him, therefore, the farmers’ protest against three new agricultural laws has branched off into a regional uprising. Analysts say his strategies diverge from those devised by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), the national platform of farm unions, in two ways.

First, he has built a groundswell of support for the agitation by raising local farm issues, such as the problems of sugarcane growers, aside from the larger demand of scrapping the farm laws.

Second, while farm unions at the national level have vowed to keep their agitation off-limits for political parties, Tikait has departed somewhat from this strategy. Prominent politicians from Opposition parties are freely attending his mahapanchayats, and speaking in them.

The Tikaits belong to the Baliyan khap, a dominant clan among the Jat agrarian community in western UP, most which is made up of sugarcane growers. They voted overwhelmingly for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha, and the 2017 assembly elections.

On February 5, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leader Jayant Chaudhary attended the “mahapanchayat” in Bhainswal village in Shamli, a Jat-dominated region of western Uttar Pradesh. On Wednesday, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi attended another gathering of farmers at Chilkana, Saharanpur to protest against the new farm laws.

Politicians from the RLD and Samajwadi Party have so far attended gatherings in Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor, Mathura, Baghpat and Shamli, all in western UP.

This sugarcane belt was the “ground zero” of the deadly Jat-Muslim clashes in 2013, which polarised votes in favour of the BJP since then. Analysts say the Jat-Muslim religious divide is now being bridged because of the farmers’ agitation. The Bhainswal mahapanchayat had seen heavy participation from Muslims.

At a gathering of thousands, Naresh Tikait, the president of Bharatiya Kisan Union blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party for dividing Muslims and Jats and called the rioting with Muslims in 2013 a "big mistake".

“Mahapanchayats have different connotations in rural settings. The current farmers’ agitation is being organised by informal all-inclusive mahapanchayats, which historically have great respect among the people,” said Sudhir Panwar, a professor of Lucknow University.

“These mahapanchayats are a true extension of the diffused leadership. The classic example was the Bhainswal mahapanchayat which was inclusive of all castes of Hindus and Muslims,” he said.

The glue for farmers in western Uttar Pradesh is an age-old problem of sugarcane farmers: pending dues from millers. “The government must ensure that all sugarcane arrears are paid. There are no bonuses on cane price this year. Why? The government must answer,” Tikait said. According to official data, millers owe nearly ₹11,000 crore to cane farmers in Uttar Pradesh in unpaid dues.

Farmers have been camping for months on national highways leading into Delhi to demand the repeal of a set of laws approved by Parliament in September last year. The government has said that the laws will bring investments in the farm sector and give farmers more market access. Farmers say the laws will threaten their livelihoods by forcing them to sell to corporate giants instead of government-regulated markets.

Tikait’s mahapanchayats in western Uttar Pradesh are now set to be replicated in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Darshan Pal, a prominent farm leader from Punjab, said mahapanchayats will be held in Bahadurgarh Bypass (Haryana) on February 13, Sri Ganganagar (Rajasthan) on February 18, Hanumangarh (Rajasthan) on February 19 and Sikar (Rajasthan) on February 23.

Their success would fly in the face of the government’s assertion that the farmers’ agitation is limited to the two states of Punjab and Haryana, said political analyst Milind Sharma of Osmania University.

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