Updated: January 31, 2021 4:29:36 pm
Between 1987 and 2001, a series of political misadventures triggered a steady decline in the aura of the country’s most charismatic farm leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, and with it Sisauli, a bustling Muzaffarnagar village nestled amidst sugarcane fields which went from being called “Kisano ki Rajdhani” (farmers’ capital) to “Jaton ki Rajdhani” (capital of the Jats) to “Baliyano ki Rajdhani” — capital of the Baliyan khap headed by Tikait.
And then he would get a second wind. In 2001, Tikait, on whose call lakhs occupied the Boat Club lawns in the national capital in 1988, was struggling to muster numbers for a protest at the Muzaffarnagar town hall. Thinking that the modest gathering was being a nuisance, an overzealous sub-divisional magistrate ordered lathi-charge, and in the ensuing chaos the sexagenarian farm leader fell with an injury to his forehead. Images of a wounded Tikait in the papers the next day led to an outpour of support the farmer leader hadn’t seen in years.
Twenty years later, on Thursday night at the Ghazipur border, a similar chord was struck, this time by his son Rakesh, who broke down during a press conference as police personnel moved in to clear the site of protesting farmers — inadvertently galvanising protesters in western UP and Haryana. The reinforcements came in as a ray of hope for an agitation that has faced intense pressure after the January 26 violence, and in the process, Rakesh found his moment under the sun.
On the 33-km drive from Muzaffarnagar to Sisauli, there is a chance one may encounter youngsters running alongside bullock-carts and tractor-trolley — not aspiring marathoners but preparing for the next “Dilli Police ki bharti”. In these parts, they say a Delhi Police sipahi is equal to a 100-bigha farmer, sorted for life. Sisauli alone has sent hundreds of foot-soldiers to Delhi Police. One of them was Rakesh Tikait.
Had he not quit the job at 28 and joined his father when he was leading his breakthrough demonstration — in 1987 against electricity bills near Shamli — who knows he might have been on the other side of the divide today, trying to implement the government orders against protesters.
But Rakesh, second of Tikait’s four sons, has always been a bit of a rebel. While his father tried hard to maintain an apolitical image, Rakesh dabbled in politics and failed miserably. In 2014, he contested Lok Sabha elections from Amroha on Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket, but couldn’t save his deposit. In 2007, he contested from Khatauli in the UP Assembly elections, but finished fifth. In fact, there were murmurs that he was colluding with the government when he was invited to meet Home Minister Amit Shah on December 8.
The murmurs arose, too, because if the BJP is a force in western UP, according to observers, the Tikaits have directly and indirectly played some part in it. And not least by voting for the BJP, as Rakesh said on Thursday he did.
Rise and fall
When he was on the rise, Tikait senior was seen as a leader upholding secular values. At the 1987 Karmu Kheri agitation, he brought Jats, Muslims and Gurjars on a single platform — a Jat and a Muslim farmer died side-by-side in the protests. This image was reinforced in 1989 when he led the demonstrations after the alleged rape and killing of a Muslim woman. This led to a national newspaper declaring that “Another Mahatma is born”.
However, his support would gradually erode. The first to leave him were the Gurjars and what triggered the exodus was Tikait’s secretary making statements against the Mandal Commission report. Then, following the 1992 Babri demolition and the subsequent mid-term elections necessitated by the fall of Kalyan Singh’s government, Tikait told his supporters to vote in “the name of the antaratma (conscience) and Ram”. That didn’t go well with the Muslims, who left him. Later a silent power struggle with Ajit Singh during the ’90s restricted his influence primarily to his khap, which has 84 villages in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli.
“Mahendra Singh Tikait… was a product of the time and circumstances. There was a vacuum after Charan Singh, and he came along. He had rustic charm, the farmer associated with him, but he was a man of contradictions as well… he would always maintain he was apolitical, but his own sons went into politics while he was alive. And people saw it,” said a former associate of Tikait who didn’t want to be named
Two years after Tikait’s death, his eldest son Naresh, who heads the Bhartiya Kisan Union, and Rakesh were accused of giving inflammatory speeches during the mahapanchayat that led to the 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar and the subsequent polarisation which strengthened the BJP in UP.
With the emotional appeal on Thursday and by staring the government down, Rakesh has put the BJP in a quandary. They can’t be seen resolving it by force. For, unlike Haryana, where BJP is seen as the party of the non-Jats, across the Yamuna, it relies on the Jat vote to maintain its hold in western UP.
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