This year in Uttar Pradesh, thousands of farmers gathered on January 29, at the government inter-college ground, Muzaffarnagar, following a call by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) president, Naresh Tikait, for a ‘mahapanchayat’ to express solidarity with the protest at the Ghazipur border led by his brother, Rakesh Tikait. Among the key speakers was Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, the most influential Muslim leader of the BKU, and considered to be a close friend of the late Mahendra Singh Tikait.
The presence of Mr. Jaula and Muslim farmers at the meet has been read as a sign of a re-emerging Jat-Muslim alliance under the kisan identity after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots affected the social fabric in rural western U.P. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its regional leadership were behind a local caste dispute growing into a communal issue that polarised villages along religious lines. At the time, it seemed that Jat farmers had suddenly claimed the Hindutva identity.
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But that did not happen overnight. The farmers’ polity has had deep roots while farmers’ mobilisations have a long history in the western U.P. region. The ongoing agrarian change and crisis generated by neoliberal economic policies have shifted the agrarian economy to non-farm occupations. These new developments caused fissures in the farmer’s polity in the northwestern region, giving the BJP a political advantage. Recent events indicate a revival of the farmers’ identity as a community.
The Jats have dominated landownership in large parts of western U.P. since at least the mid-19th century. Muslims form a section of the Jats, and both groups have co-existed in the villages.
Between the mid-1960s- to late 1980s, the Green Revolution boosted the Jats. As landowners, they have been patrons ( jajmans) of the artisan-services and labour castes who are largely Pasmanda Muslims. The artisan-service castes are either landless or small-marginal landowners. The BKU has provided an inclusive platform to various rural groups including labourers, marginal and middle farmers across religions. In the 1980s, the BKU led by Mahendra Singh Tikait, along with Muslim farmers and landless labourers, organised protest movements for cheap electricity and higher crop prices.
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However, in the early 1990s, when the Green Revolution had advanced, farmers’ income stagnated and land holdings became smaller through subdivisions. Neoliberal economic policies, a decline of state subsidies to agriculture, the rising cost of farming inputs, growing stagnation in farm production, and ecological precarity, all led to non-farm economic activities, and a further weakening of Jat farmers and the BKU’s politics.
Definite social changes
Increasingly, villagers are found more at urban sites than in the fields. Face-to-face interactions among different communities and individuals, once common, are now a rarity. Farmers who would depend on the artisan-service castes for everyday services (repairing agricultural implements, hair dressing and washing clothes) now look to new technologies or nearby towns for these services. The breakdown of the jajmani system has resulted in a cash flow. The young generation across caste groups has come under the spell of the consumer culture. Villagers who live on non-farm incomes and remittances now self-identify as middle class. Family, kinship and an obligation-based rural economy have been transformed into an individual-centric economy based on skills and cash transactions. Intra-caste, family and kin inequalities are on the rise. The formation of rural middle class is under way which includes the Muslim artisan-service castes. Independence from jajmani relations combined with universal suffrage has not only created political competition between the Jats and their clients but also changed their mutually dependent economic interests into competing ones.
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In the resultant shift in attitudes among the younger generation toward the dominant caste patrons, the young generation of artisan-service castes are now asserting their rights. Such assertion by the marginalised groups often leads to skirmishes and conflicts. But the disintegration of vertical relations and everyday face-to-face interactions between different caste-communities and individuals (who work in urban areas), and the growing disconnect from the village and its social norms have all weakened the capacity of rural society to absorb and resolve everyday conflicts.
More importantly, these changes have also reduced the ability of the Jats and other dominant castes to use their power and resolve conflicts in their favour.
Shifting identities, BJP’s rise
Distress in agriculture has led Jats to look for new avenues of employment as well as new political alliances. In a globalising economy, these shifts have brought the younger generation in proximity with the large urban Hindu middle class, influencing their tastes, language, rituals, symbols, politics and ethos. Changes in aspirations and identities forged by the new mediatised culture and mobilities have created an altered socio-cultural landscape. Communication and entertainment technologies have aided new social and economic connections, providing spaces for different socio-political formations. Economic and spatial mobilities have fragmented the Jat community.
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By giving representation and political offices, the BJP has tapped into the political and economic aspirations of youth. An increasing number have shifted away from their Arya Samaj roots and joined different religious and spiritual sects that are urban based and have spread to rural western U.P. With agricultural and village festivals on the decline, Hindu rituals and festivals, and religious meetings and functions organised by member-groups of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are the new centre of focus. The BJP has appropriated their symbols of pride by organising celebrations such as on the birth centenary or ‘sacrifice day’ of Jat freedom fighters. Certain TV channels (Astha) have become quite popular too. Increased interactions with the wider world have had an influence on the sense of caste and religion.
Similarly, religious channels such as QTV and Peace TV are quite popular among the Muslims in this region and who are also influenced by ideas shared by young Muslims who work in West Asia about being Muslims there. In the last three decades, backward Muslims have begun to exhibit (pan-Islamic) religious symbols in public places. There are now more men and women participating in the Tablighi Jamaat, a religious movement. The ideas, norms and practices of the Tablighi Jamaat have changed the public presence of the Muslim identity. There is a growing intensification of a pan- and fundamentalist-religiosity among Muslims and Hindus in the region.
Crises and a re-assemblage
The political aspirations of the rising new middle class among the Jats had fragmented and weakened the kisan identity and polity in the region. In the general elections (2014 and 2019), and the U.P. Assembly elections (2017), the Rashtriya Lok Dal lost badly and a new political leadership emerged among the Jats. This new leadership of the BJP represented the aspirations of youth who perceived Muslims as a threat. However, continued agrarian distress, rising electricity charges, diesel and fertilizer costs, and unpaid dues of sugarcane by mills have severely affected Hindu and Muslim Jat farmers.
The Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government’s stringent anti-cattle slaughter measures have devastated already broken farmers as stray cattle ruin crops. The COVID-19 pandemic has also hit the rural economy. Jat farmers have had a hard time getting agricultural labour and help since a large number of Muslim artisan and service castes displaced by the 2013 riot have left the villages. These everyday hardships have changed their perceptions about each other. The realisation for cooperation is what compelled leaders such as Mr. Jaula, Vipin Baliyan, and Puran Singh to organise joint Hindu-Muslim kisan panchayats in 2017 and 2018. Rakesh Tikait, under the banner of the BKU, organised a massive rally just before the 2019 election and led a march to Delhi. Both Hindu and Muslim farmers were participants.
In addition, the Centre’s three reform farm laws have not only created fear among the farmers of losing land but have also disenchanted them as far as the BJP is concerned. Finally, the events of the night of January 27, 2021 have hurt the dignity of Hindu and Muslim Jat farmers, and accelerated the process towards a new farmers’ alliance. The ongoing farmers’ movement has shown the potential to heal old wounds and unite the polarised western U.P. society. A new dawn beckons amidst the many insurmountable fault lines.
Satendra Kumar teaches at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, University of Allahabad, Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh. The views expressed are personal