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In western UP’s sugarcane belt, hint of new solidarities over farm protests

At his home in Muzaffarnagar, 84-year-old farmer leader Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, longtime associate of Mahendra Singh Tikait, recalls the events of January 28, after Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader and Tikait's son Rakesh broke down.

Written by Uma Vishnu , Amit Sharma | Muzaffarnagar, Shamli |
Updated: March 16, 2021 8:12:23 am
Naresh Tikait (left), Jaula came together for the Jan 29 mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar. (Express photo by Uma Vishnu)

IF the farmers’ protests in Punjab and Haryana have kept more than an arm’s length from politics, in western UP, they are a crucible for new solidarities in the run-up to an election year.

At his home in Muzaffarnagar, 84-year-old farmer leader Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, longtime associate of Mahendra Singh Tikait, recalls the events of January 28, after Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader and Tikait’s son Rakesh broke down.

Jaula says Naresh, the elder of the two Tikait brothers, called him and asked him to attend the mahapanchayat in the district on January 29, where thousands of farmers from western UP gathered.

“At the mahapanchayat, I told Naresh, you made two mistakes. One, you helped defeat Chaudhary Ajit Singh; two, you killed Muslims. We hugged each other. Bas, dooriyan khatam (That it, the differences are over).”

On the ground, though, this is easier said than done.

Jaula quit the BKU after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots that tore down the fragile social order in western Uttar Pradesh, killing over 60 people and displacing several Muslim families. Jaula had blamed the Tikait brothers for fanning the violence, and went on to set up the Bharatiya Kisan Mazdoor Manch.

For Jaula, from a different era of socialist politics, it’s nostalgia that makes him optimistic about the future. “On January 27, Ajit Singh called me to Delhi. He told me we must make this Hindu-Muslim alliance stronger,” he said.

The land-owning Jats make up between 12-17 per cent of the electorate in the region’s 18-odd districts but wield far bigger political and economic clout. Muslims make up around 28 per cent of the population in Muzaffarnagar.

It’s the prospect of Jats and Muslims finding a common cause in the farmers’ protests that has got Opposition parties, from the RLD to the Congress, even Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP, to criss-cross the region, holding kisan panchayats and urging people to challenge the BJP in its bastion. Of the 90 Assembly seats in west UP, the BJP won 72 in the 2017 elections and the party swept all 14 parliamentary seats in 2019.

At a recent kisan panchayat at Dhikoli village in Baghpat, RLD vice-president and Ajit Singh’s son Jayant Choudhary said, “You are up against people who are experts at dividing you.”

Once a regional heavyweight that revolved around the Lohiaite-kisan politics of Jayant’s grandfather Chaudhary Charan Singh, the RLD has been steadily losing ground to the BJP since the 2013 riots.

Ajit Singh lost both the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the second to BJP’s Sanjeev Balyan, the MoS for Fisheries, Animal Husbandry & Dairying and now two-time Muzaffarnagar MP who stands accused of making provocative speeches at a mahapanchayat on August 31, 2013, that reportedly triggered the riots. In the 2017 Assembly elections, the RLD contested 150 seats and won just one (its lone MLA joined the BJP a year later).

Jayant hopes the farmers’ agitation will revive his party’s fortunes. “Our workers are enthused… they can sense that the political ground is shifting.”

Sitting on a cot in a clearing in his sugarcane fields, Naresh Tikait, national president of the BKU (Apolitical) and head of the Baliyan khap, says, “Instead of apologising to us, the government has been slapping cases against us, calling us names. This government’s term had been good so far… But on this issue, I don’t understand their zidd (obstinacy),” he says, adding, “People are coming together.”

At his office in Delhi, Balyan dismisses the idea of Jats and Muslims coming together. “Where have they been together? Look at the electoral history of this region. It’s true that Choudhary Charan Singh and Lok Dal used to field Muslim candidates and the Jats used to vote for them. But the Muslims never voted for the Jat candidates even then. It was always one-way,” he says.

Admitting that the government could have held more consultations with farmers before bringing in the laws, he dismisses any impact the protest — and the seeming collaboration between Jats and Muslims — may have on elections. “Abhi toh sarkar ke paas bahut time hai (the government has enough time)… Elections are a different ball-game. People don’t vote on one issue. In Uttar Pradesh, law and order has improved, roads are better, etc…”

Illustrating this uneasy Jat-Muslim truce is Shoron, a village of about 26,000 people, where Muslims are about a third of the population. The dominant Jats, Gujjars, Brahmins, Dalits and other OBCs make up the rest.

It was here that Balyan, who had come to offer his condolences to a bereaved Jat family on February 22, and his supporters were involved in a clash with a few youths who raised pro-farmer slogans.

A day later, Balyan said, “The attack in Shoron was a conspiracy. There were announcements from the masjid against me.”

‘Sarpanch’ Mohammad Tanvir Chaudhary, husband of a former sarpanch, smirks, “After the fight, an announcement was made from the masjid that day, asking people from 36 biradiri to assemble in the chaupal. And the person who made the announcement was one of their own, a Jat. All kinds of announcements happen from a masjid — bacha ghum ho gaya, pili shirt pehna hua tha (child in yellow shirt is missing), the sugar mill has started, etc. In a village, the masjid loudspeakers work as a public address system. He knows that well.”

“Really? Let them announce the mill openings then. Why did they have to make a political announcement from the masjid?,” snaps Balyan.

In the more prosperous part of Shoron, ‘Director’ Rajpal, an elderly Jat in his 80s, says tractors from the village leave for Ghazipur almost every day.

“The government should listen to farmers. Ab mooch ka mamla ban gaya hain (It’s now about egos),” he says, his fondness for PM Narendra Modi apparent.

“Modi has done a lot of vikas, brought corruption under control. Videsh neeti badhiya… desh ko chamkaya hain (his foreign policy is excellent, and he has given the country a good name), but what he did to farmers isn’t right. Those in power should learn to bend,” he says, adding that Bajaj Hindusthan Sugar Limited in Bhaisana owes him close to Rs 4 lakh in dues for the 1,700 quintal that he sold to them last season.

In these parts, where the hardy crop stretches for miles on end, and where the sweet smell from jaggery bhattis hangs in the air, the economy — and its politics — revolves around sugarcane, with the parchi (the receipt that mills hand over to farmers) its currency. UP mills currently owe cane farmers around Rs 12,000 crore in dues, including Rs 1,850 crore from the last season.

Which is why, despite all the pronouncements against the three kaale kanoon, any discussion almost always veers round to sugarcane dues and how the government didn’t keep its promise of paying the state advised price within 14 days of farmers delivering their cane produce to mills.

At Luhsana, a village where Balyan held a panchayat after the Shoron clash, a group of Jat farmers are seething. “We may not understand farm laws, but I can tell you that all of us are angry with the governments in the state and Centre for not giving us our dues. It’s been a year and a half and we are still waiting,” says Arvind Kumar, 55, who owns around 100 bighas.

Nostalgic about Mayawati’s term — “we were paid instantly” — Kumar and his group have a long litany of complaints against the Yogi government: rising electricity and diesel costs, and stray cattle, among others. But what moved the rugged Jat, they admit, was Tikait’s tears.

“That night, there wasn’t a single person in the village who slept, and there wasn’t a single eye that wasn’t moist. This agitation will go on. They can’t take us for granted anymore. Now just watch for closer to the elections… there will be ghar wapsi, love jihad. We can’t be fooled anymore,” he says.

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