Winter of discontent in western UP

Jat belt overwhelmingly voted saffron in 2014, 2017 and 2019, but ripple effects are being felt of farmers’ stir & local issues

Winter of discontent in western UP

A huge poster of BKU leader Rakesh Tikait, the face of the recent farmers' agitation, adorns a wall on the Baghpat-Shamli road. Tribune photos: Mukesh Aggarwal

Aditi Tandon

Don’t be surprised if the tide in western Uttar Pradesh turns this time, says Yoginder Pradhan of Baghpat, who returned home to his village last week after 383 gruelling days of agitation against the controversial farm laws at Ghazipur border along New Delhi.

2017 Assembly polls

  • BJP won 312 of UP’s 403 seats and 13 more with alliance partners, clocking three-fourth majority.
  • Its vote share was 40 per cent, an addition of 25 per cent since 2012.
  • The ruling SP, which had 224 seats in 2012, was down to 47, BSP to 19 and Congress to 7 (worst ever).
  • BJP candidates won over 100 of western Uttar Pradesh’s nearly 135 segments.
  • Jat and Muslim farmers dominate several of the region’s segments, with Jats openly going with the BJP in 2014, 2017 and 2019 (as Rakesh Tikait had said).
  • Of 71 Assembly seats across 14 western UP districts where Jats are particularly dominant, BJP had bagged 51 in 2017.

The November 30 farm law repeal by Parliament, preceded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public apology to farmers, doesn’t seem to impress him much, for he is still counting the losses.

Ved Pal Malik, former sarpanch of Muzaffarnagar’s Phugana village, had sheltered 70 Muslims during the

2013 riots.

“More than 700 farmers died over the course of 383 days. I could have been one of them. Our lives don’t matter. Iss baar vote ki chot zaroori hai, kisan aur kisan mazdoor kaa yehi naara hai (this time an assault with votes is necessary, this is our slogan). The agitation has dismantled all walls of religion. Farmers stand united,” says Pradhan, as the movement and its leaders weigh the future course ahead of the UP Assembly elections early next year.

2013 riot survivor Bashir Saifi, patriarch of Lisarh village’s lone Muslim family.

Meanwhile, signs of simmering discontent against the ruling BJP are surfacing across the region’s Jat belt that overwhelmingly voted saffron in three consecutive elections: 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha, and 2017 Assembly elections.

Lokhendra Kumar of Shamli and his friends smoke hookah while signalling the winds of change in the region.

More than 100 of the region’s 135 Assembly segments and all but five — Amroha, Bijnor, Moradabad, Nagina and Rampur — of its 27 parliamentary constituencies are currently with the BJP, that won a landslide in the 2017 state polls riding the wave of Jat support.

But loyalties can’t be taken for granted, reveal signals from the ground as Jats begin to consolidate behind the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), giving its alliance with the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party a formidable shape in giving the BJP a fight.

Fuelling the ground shift is a vast segment of farmers anguished at mounting sugarcane dues, rising power tariffs at village homes and farmlands and the stray animal menace. Their woes are compounded by a lack of guaranteed MSP on procurement, with BKU leader Rakesh Tikait repeatedly demanding legal guarantees and waiting for the government to form its promised panel to discuss MSP.

New alignments

Local testimonies signal a possible Jat-Muslim consolidation in the upcoming elections as the shadow of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots retreats and newly formed solidarities emerge.

“Everyone knows the reality of the Muzaffarnagar riots. Local communities want harmony and will do anything to keep it. The farmers’ agitation has cemented these solidarities and brought people together. The fact is, issues of livelihood are gaining prominence in western UP and the polarisation agenda has few takers,” says Ved Pal Malik, former sarpanch of Muzaffarnagar’s Phugana village, one of the worst affected during the 2013 riots.

Malik had then sheltered 70 Muslims but could not keep them from leaving in the aftermath of the violence.

Of the area’s 4,000 Muslims, only 50 have stayed, the rest seeking new lives in dilapidated resettlement areas around Shamli and Muzaffarnagar.

Riot-hit Lisarh village in Shamli also tells the tale of rekindled ties between the once estranged communities (Jats and Muslims) which RLD’s Jayant Chaudhary and SP’s Akhilesh Yadav are eyeing to tilt election equations and stay in the fight, even as the BJP continues its infrastructure push in the state and the frequency of PM’s visits increases. Between Saturday and December 28, the PM will visit the state four times, having already inaugurated Kashi Vishwanath Dham with BJP Chief Ministers in Varanasi in a major signalling to the party’s core Hindu base.

On the ground though, the religious fault lines don’t seem as pronounced as they were immediately after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar violence.

Riot survivor Bashir Saifi, the patriarch of Lisarh’s lone Muslim family, says things are getting back to normal and the farmers’ agitation has played its part. The family never left Lisarh, even though 400 Muslim households migrated after 2013, using the Rs5 lakh rehabilitation package the state offered as compensation.

Asked how it felt to be the only Muslim family in a community of over 1,800 Jat households, Bashir’s son Islam said, “It feels absolutely normal. The farmer protests saw participation from all communities and helped heal hearts. People are much more awakened. As for my father, he has vowed to live and die here and our neighbours help us a lot.”

Across the area where dark memories of 2013 abound, even Jats have moved on after repairing ties.

“Those riots are history. Today everyone is talking about the lack of jobs, rising power bills and mounting sugarcane dues. The elections of 2014, 2017 and 2019 were fought on Muzaffarnagar riots, nationalism and Hindutva, but the 2022 election will be different. Local issues will dominate. Thanks to the farmers’ agitation, our lands were saved from going into private hands. The laws spoke of contract farming. Sugarcane has contract farming, but what is happening? Even when the state has fixed sugarcane prices, sugar mill owners are not clearing our dues. This is a clear case of why farming should never be deregulated,” says Lisarh’s Sachin Malik, 40, whose uncle Chandra Bose Malik provided safety to several Muslim families in 2013.

Other village youth also express resentment at the lack of jobs and allege discrimination against western UP in the state’s power pie. “Vote idhar, chaudhar udhar (our votes, their power),” says 35-year-old Deepak Malik, pointing to the dominance of eastern UP in governance structures right from Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to the bottom.

RLD back in reckoning

With local issues holding centre-stage and the farmers’ movement attaining a glorious victory by way of repeal of farm laws, several local Jats are heard openly professing loyalties for RLD founder Choudhary Charan Singh’s family.

“Idhar toh Jayant kaa zor hai,” says 60-year-old Lokhendra Kumar of Shamli, his friends nodding in agreement as they smoke hookah at the break of day, a pointer to the winds of change in a region once famous as the RLD stronghold.

A deeper dig reveals high power tariff is a major issue in the sugarcane belt.

Although many villagers admit that power supply has improved with 24x7 electricity, they complain of tariffs doubling from Rs500 to over Rs1,000 a month.

“The government gives free ration but what use is that when other costs are rising?” rues Chandra Bose Malik.

Sugarcane dues, farmers say, have been pending for many months. “In 2020 alone, dues of over two months have not been paid. This season’s dues are also mounting. Further, the UP government announced a meagre Rs25 raise per quintal on state advised price of sugarcane. That does not suffice,” says Vikram Singh, a local farmer, with BKU now aggressively posturing on the issue.

While the Jat belt simmers with discontent over a range of issues, including what BKU chief Naresh Tikait calls the “hurt pride of farmers”, other dominant castes of the area are keeping cards close to their chest.

Across several western UP segments, Gurjars, Thakurs and Rajputs dominate poll equations (numerically, Dalits form a considerable block) as the BJP continues to command support across these communities.

But locals point to why the BJP could be on a sticky wicket in the area.

“At least on 100 seats here, the BJP candidates won with slim margins ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 votes. In 2017, the anti-BJP vote was divided as the RLD, SP and BSP contested separately. If the divisions are prevented and two dominant segments back SP and RLD, the BJP will have a tough fight,” says Mukesh Malik, adding that the farmers’ movement has revived the RLD and the scene changed after Rakesh Tikait’s teary-eyed appeal to Jats for support when Delhi Police was forcing him out of Ghazipur.

That day, RLD’s Ajit Singh phoned Tikait, assuring all possible support. The Jat community got the signal, and signs of RLD’s revival are becoming visible.

In the 2019 General Election, the RLD had lost all three Lok Sabha seats it contested in western UP. Jayant Chaudhary lost Baghpat to BJP’s Satya Pal Singh by a margin of a little over 23,000 votes, his father Ajit Singh lost Muzaffarnagar to BJP’s Sanjeev Balyan by over 6,000 votes and the RLD also lost Mathura to Hema Malini as the BJP swept the belt, repeating its 2017 state election performance when it wrested the majority of seats in the area.

In the 71 Assembly seats of 14 Jat-dominated districts here, saffron candidates won 51 in 2017, a performance that led BJP to a tally of 312 of UP Assembly’s 403 seats.

That was the best show by any party since 1977 when in the aftermath of the Emergency, the Janata Party bagged 352 of UP’s 425 seats, winning 47.8 per cent of all votes.

But 2022 could spring a surprise as locals prepare to hold the incumbents accountable and BKU continues to expand its organisation, forming village units.

“BJP’s wave in the past elections started from western UP, but this time the region is pensive. Anything can happen. Kaante ki takkar lag rahi hai,” says Narinder Singh, a ration shop owner in Shamli’s Lisarh and a committed BJP voter.

Locals also point to the alienation of Sikhs across several segments, specially Terai’s Pilibhit and Sultanpur where the wounds of the October 3 Lakhimpur Kheri violence are yet to heal.

Union Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra has not been sacked despite calls for ouster by farmers following SIT’s report that his son, Ashish Mishra, was allegedly involved in a pre-planned conspiracy to kill.

“The government displayed arrogance in repealing farm laws and we lost over 700 farmers. It is repeating the mistake with Mishra. A perception is taking root that it is arrogant. This hurt will have costs,” says Kishan Pal Yadav of Mainpuri, who spent a year away from his home at Ghazipur.

Farmers united, religion can’t divide them now: Naresh Tikait

As the silent force behind the year-long farmers’ sit-in at Ghazipur along the UP-Delhi border, Bhartiya Kisan Union president Naresh Tikait has come a long way. A sharp contrast to his aggressive younger brother Rakesh Tikait, who emerged as the face of the anti-farm law agitation in western Uttar Pradesh, Naresh Tikait is unassuming and measured.

Speaking to The Tribune at Sisauli, the native village of the Tikaits in Muzaffarnagar, from where he powered the Ghazipur protests, the BKU chief described farmers’ unity as the top legacy of the agitation and said religion cannot divide the community anymore. His reference was to the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots that polarised the local communities, to the huge electoral advantage of the BJP.

“The movement has united the farmers like never before. Its shadow will loom for centuries to come and governments will think twice before compromising our interests. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the farmers have become one family. It has phenomenally boosted our ability to organise and articulate our concerns. The religion card is not going to work anymore. We won’t let communal harmony be disturbed ever again,” said Tikait.

Asked what the electoral impact the agitation could have in the western UP belt where the BJP won over 100 of the 135 segments in 2017, Tikait claimed the BJP would “suffer immensely”.

“We voted for the BJP in three previous elections, committing the same mistake thrice. What did we get? Our own village here is a picture of sheer neglect. Even the local degree college for women was built with community funds. Sugarcane dues of farmers have been pending since 2020. Power bills are going through the roof. There are too many issues plus the farm laws which the government took over a year to repeal. There was a reason why BJP leaders were unwelcome in our villages,” said Tikait, head of the influential Balyan khap. Sitting Muzaffarnagar MP Sanjeev Balyan is also from the same clan.

Reflecting on the agitation, Tikait said the farmers never intended to sit for so long, but their pride was “repeatedly hurt”.

“Painful remarks were made. Attempts were made to malign us by insinuating that foreign funding was involved whereas farmers contributed their own resources to make the agitation successful,” Tikait said, adding that the BKU was now awaiting election manifestos of parties.

The leader added that the farmers’ movement had brought issues of livelihood back into focus and in the public conscience.

Hailing the construction of Ram Mandir, a major poll plank of the BJP, Tikait added, “We are the direct descendants of Lord Ram. This region has 84 Raghuvanshi villages. We are elated that Ram Mandir is coming up but we urge parties to keep religion out of politics.” — Aditi Tandon

Law and order key issue for ruling BJP 

Anxieties in the wake of farmers’ issues apart, many locals across Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut, Bijnor and Kairana admitted that the law and order situation in UP had improved significantly under Yogi Adityanath.

Ram Gopal Singh of Khatauli Assembly segment in Muzaffarnagar LS area said, “Law and order matters the most. That has improved. There is no fear. Also, BJP support across Rajput-dominated segments is intact and other castes barring Jats and Muslims will also back the BJP. As for Rakesh Tikait, he had lost his deposit from Khatauli in 2007 and stood fifth. Ram Mandir, improved Ardh Kumbh and Kashi redevelopment will remain major poll issues.”

Jaipal Singh, a progressive farmer from Meerut’s Dadri, also backed the BJP and said continuation of farm laws would not have harmed the BJP. “PM’s image has taken a hit,” he said, while his wife Bishambri Devi quipped, “BJP is good but iss baar laal topi wale ki zyada sun rahe hain (read Akhilesh Yadav).”

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