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Justice, not electoral calculations, must prevail in Lakhimpur Kheri

Pramod Kumar writes: Caste and religious cleavages must not be exploited for votes and those responsible for violence must be held accountable

Written by Pramod Kumar |
Updated: October 8, 2021 8:30:06 am
During a protest in Lakhimpur Kheri

In Lakhimpur Kheri, there are echoes of Sikh identity politics, the organic kinship and alliance with Punjab’s farmers and the persecution of minorities in caste-ridden Uttar Pradesh. The Lakhimpur Kheri incident is less a clash between anti and pro-farmer protesters and more about the age-old issues of patchy governance and the religious-caste outrage of dominant Hindu upper-castes. This was seen in the latter’s reaction to the Sikh farmer protesters and the death of eight people.

Lakhimpur Kheri is home to the largest Sikh population in UP (6.43 lakh out of the district’s total population of 40.21 lakh). The region is also known as “mini Punjab”, and the farmers of these Sikh families have supported the farmer protests from the beginning. The anti-farmer protesters (mainly the Hindu upper-caste community in the region) have already labelled these Sikh farmers as radicals.

The Sikh farmers from the Terai region represent a mix of moderate, radical and liberal strands of Sikh politics. At the time of Partition, a large number of Sikh families migrated from Pakistan and settled in the Terai region. The settlers purchased land from tribals in some areas and from local rulers in others. But, decades later, some people from tribal communities demanded their land, and in the 1980s, the UP government banned the sale of land by tribals to non-tribals. It also passed orders that ensured the land bought from tribals by the settlers would not be regularised.

The region has significant Scheduled Caste and tribal populations, but the dominant majority is of Hindu upper-castes (mainly Brahmins). The Sikh community not only challenges the idea of caste supremacy, but also has a significant voice in this region around socio-political matters. The anger over the killing of farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri is symptomatic of much deeper discontent, which became grave with the promulgation of the three farm laws.

The threats issued by Union Minister Ajay Mishra, triggered by the black flags shown to him by the farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri on October 3, should be seen in this background. Mishra can be seen in a video saying: “If I got down to action then they would not have even found a way to run away… I want to say to such people to ‘mend your ways’, otherwise I will make them face me and set them right in two minutes.”

These kinds of threats have to be seen as a display of upper-caste privilege and a reminder to Sikhs and other farmers that they are outsiders, and many of them are cultivating disputed land. The kisan agitation against three laws was an opportunity for the farmers in the region to be a part of the larger agitation, with its roots in Punjab. The Sikh farmers have been fighting for rights to the land they have been tilling for the last 70 years. These farmers have put in hard labour to make the land cultivable and transformed the agricultural landscape of the region. Since these farmers are not politically significant in UP politics, the forest and revenue departments, and gram sabhas, are asking them to vacate the disputed land.

The Lakhimpur Kheri incident uncovered the contours of a discriminatory, casteist mode of governance. Four farmers and four others were killed. It is alleged that the farmers died when the vehicle of Ashish Mishra, the minister’s son, mowed down the protesters. It has been alleged by BJP leaders that three party workers were dragged out of the car and lynched by the protesters.

While many opposition parties have protested, the more pronounced reaction has come from Punjab’s political leaders. Former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh said in a tweet: “Thorough probe needed into the Lakhimpur Kheri incident. Justice must be ensured for the victims of violence. Violence or provocation of violence is no solution to any problem.” Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal said that his party demands the immediate arrest of Ashish Mishra.

The crisis has catalysed caste polarisation in the Lakhimpur Kheri region. These fissures are also extending to Punjab, where some urban Hindus and a section of SCs are distancing themselves from the farmers’ protests. One reason for this is that Punjab and UP are going to the polls soon. The logic of the pursuit of power always locates itself in local fault lines — farmers become Jat, Kurmi, Kamboj, Ahir and the khet mazdoor, Mazhabi, Valmiki, Adi dharmi etc.

This is also why most opposition parties have waded into the farmers’ issue at the current juncture — many are in the electoral fray in both election-bound states. Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was arrested on her way to meet the victim’s families, former UP CM Akhilesh Yadav conducted a sit-in protest, BSP leader Satish Chandra Mishra was put under house arrest. The chief ministers of Congress-ruled Punjab and Chhattisgarh sought permission to land their helicopters in Lakhimpur Kheri. On the other side, the BJP has alleged that violence was perpetrated by some of the protesters.

After the incident, the UP state government and farmer leader Rakesh Tikait reached an agreement on October 4. This includes Rs 45 lakh compensation and a government job for the relatives of the four farmers who died. These measures will be followed by a probe by a retired high court judge. Later, Tikait said that the state government must arrest Ashish Mishra within a week. Tikait’s role has been questioned by some leaders of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM). The SKM also fears that if this protest is allowed to linger, the epicentre of the farmer movement may shift.

The SKM is not in command. It has ceased to be homogeneous and many fault lines have emerged in the farmers’ movement. It would be prudent to resolve the conflicts between kisan unions rather than multiplying caste, religious and ethnic cleavages to win elections. The parties behind state and central governments will garner more votes if they are seen to be on the side of justice. The people responsible for the ruthless repression must be brought to justice. The victims must not be cast aside for the callous calculus of electoral arithmetic. The issues that led to the protests should be resolved as soon as possible.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 7, 2021 under the title ‘The politics of injustice’. The writer is director, Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh

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