“I kept wailing the whole night,” said Abdul Wahid, remembering the night when the image of Rakesh Tikait crying in front of cameras was flashed across western Uttar Pradesh. Standing on the Meerut-Delhi Expressway at the Ghazipur protest site with his family, Mr. Wahid, who hails from Tajpura village in Saharanpur, said that night they decided to strengthen the hands of their brothers.
“I could relate with the plight of Sikh farmers that day. We have been singled out, used, polarised many times but I liked the way Mr. Rakesh stood for them. It won my heart.”
Mr. Wahid’s grandson Shahzad, who works as a painter in Chandigarh, rushed as well. “I work in Sikh homes, get my livelihood from them. I felt it was my duty to support them in the hour of need,” he said.
Ghulam Mohammad Jola, 85, who had been with Mahendra Singh Tikait right from the foundation of the BKU, parted ways and formed Bhartiya Kisan Mazdoor Manch after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. In the riots, at least 62 people died and over 50,000 were displaced.
During the mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar on January 29, Naresh Tikait apologised for two things. One for voting against RLD president Ajit Singh in the 2019 general elections and second for letting the Muslim brothers down during the Muzaffarnagar riots. “I have worked with Mahendra for 27 years. Mr. Rakesh and Mr. Naresh are like my sons but they chose the wrong path after 2013,” said an emotional Jola.
“After Mr. Naresh apologised and Jayant touched my feet, we are hoping that the wounds of the riots would heal. Out of one lakh farmers present during the mahapanchayat, at the least 30,000 were Muslims,” he told The Hindu.
He said talks about the merger of his faction with the BKU have yet to start. “See, right now BKU is their family’s fiefdom. All the zonal heads are Jats. If they allow Muslim farmers a dignified space in the union, we would definitely consider it. Otherwise, we are happy the way we are,” said Mr. Jola.
Having said that, he added social tensions have eased. “We have forgiven them. And it is not just the high caste Muslims, lower caste have also felt after the emotional outburst of Mr. Rakesh that they are farmers first and Muslims later,” asserted Mr. Jola.
Senior advocate Mannan Baliyan said he also belonged to the Tikait’s khap (Naresh Tikait is the head of Baliyan khap). “But after 2013, I was seen as a Muslim Jat and was not invited. After Mr. Naresh’s appeal in the last week, Muslim farmers in western U.P. have felt an emotional bond with Jats and at least 60% of Muslim farmers are seriously thinking of returning to the BKU fold.”
Now, he said, it depends on how the BKU carries forward the movement. “If it turns out to be a ‘drama’, all the efforts would come to a naught,” he said.
Shot in the arm
The coming together of Muslims and Jats could prove to be a shot in the arm for Rashtriya Lok Dal. It once prided itself as the political arm of farmers in the region but is now fighting for survival. If the alignment is complete, experts say, RLD could cross the electoral rubicon in more than a dozen Assembly seats in the region.
Advocate and social activist Akram Akhtar, however, cautions against romanticising the Tikaits and said things won’t change overnight. “The image of Tikait brothers has been that of political opportunists and their clout has significantly reduced after the death of their father. “Their limited protests have been around sugarcane and electricity prices and they have not been able to get anything for farmers of the region from the BJP government. This is their first big test,” he remarked.
He said there was a difference between political bonds and social ties. “Political alignments are largely about give and take and that could happen and has already been there between the RLD and high caste Muslims. But will the ties between the socially backward Muslims and Jats get stitched on the ground is still doubtful,” he added.
BJP loyalists also remind that it was not that Ajit Singh didn’t get the Jat and Muslim vote in 2019 elections. “That’s why the margin of his defeat was very narrow.” Mr. Akhtar said, adding that the shift would depend upon whether the RLD firms up it ties with Samajwadi Party and whom the Dalits vote for. With Chandra Shekhar Azad of Bhim Army repeatedly describing Rakesh Tikait as his elder brother, there are early signs of political ground shifting away from the ruling party.
A seasoned BJP leader, who also belonged to the Baliyan khap, admitted that BJP leaders were finding it difficult to visit villages in the constituency. “But these are early days. We have provided political patronage to Jats in the region.”
Locals cite instances. Even in cases of clashes between Jats and Brahmins in the region, the administration seemed on the side of Jats. “As long as 50% of vote bank is with us, we are not expected to face any stiff challenge. And it is not difficult to come up with an emotional issue in this country,” said a BJP leader, requesting anonymity.