On September 5, 2021, in Uttar Pradesh, lakhs of farmers gathered at Muzaffarnagar’s government inter-college ground for the kisan mahapanchayat organised by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM). At the mahapanchayat, Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait reiterated the farmers’ demands to repeal the three farm laws and for the “legal guarantee of MSP [Minimum Support Price].” Mr. Tikait and other farmer leaders present declared their determination to oust the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh in the upcoming 2022 State legislative elections. The farmer leaders unanimously appealed for communal harmony while chanting ‘Allah Hu Akbar’ and ‘Har Har Mahadev’ together with an estimated three to four lakh farmers.
Secular vs the divisive
This retrieval of the old secular political language openly counters the BJP’s divisive and communal politics that has gripped the local and the national scene after the 2014 general election. Women and young farmers across religious and caste lines, from Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttarakhand and other States attended the mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar. It is a surprise that the ongoing farmers’ movement has been openly engaging with gender and environmental issues and has provided them their rightful space.
By enabling the convergence of different farmer organisations and space for the voices of marginalised groups, the Muzaffarnagar Kisan Mahapanchayat has not only reclaimed the language of secularism and communal harmony but also shows cautious potential to challenge the BJP’s politics and hegemony in the legislative assembly elections due in five States next year (Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Goa and Manipur).
Message of harmony
Muzaffarnagar had communal riots in 2013 which polarised the western Uttar Pradesh region along religious lines. The BJP local leadership converted a caste dispute into brutal communal riots which ended up benefiting the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 general elections, across Uttar Pradesh, as this was the local script used at the State and the national levels. The communal polarisation not only caused fissures in the social fabric but also impeded the farmers’ identity and unity that was traditionally the support base of the BKU under the leadership of the late Mahendra Singh Tikait in the 1980s.
Realising this social and political loss, his son, Rakesh Tikait, and his supporters, over the last couple of years, began to revive the BKU’s old legacy of secularism. However, these attempts have only gathered momentum since January 2021 when the BJP government forcefully attempted to remove the protesting farmers including Mr. Tikait from the Ghazipur border of Delhi. An emotional appeal by an overwhelmed Mr. Tikait mobilised both Hindu and Muslim Jat farmers, changing the epicentre of the farmers’ protest from Punjab to rural western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
The SKM has spectacularly reasserted the secular language particularly in the post-2014 socio-political environment. Its act of courage in the Muzaffarnagar Kisan Mahapanchayat is a reminder to the ‘timid’ political Opposition and other political parties to do their constitutional duty in maintaining India’s political legacy. In their appeal for communal harmony, Mr. Tikait and other farmer leaders have categorically said no to communal violence in the region. Mr. Tikait and other farmer leaders accepted being swayed by communal divisiveness and have vowed to counter the hatred and violence. “They talk of dividing, we speak of uniting. The hallmark of the BJP is the hate politics”, Mr. Tikait declared loud and clear.
More importantly, Mr. Tikait and the BKU’s activists have been visiting village after village and organising collective meetings with Hindu and Muslim farmers. In numerous street corner meetings, BKU activists have been attempting to recreate a common platform for farmers across religious and caste divisions by reclaiming and reasserting religious and caste unity among the farmers to heal and repair the damage caused by the Muzaffarnagar riots.
Mission 2022 and hope
The Muzaffarnagar Kisan Mahapanchayat has transformed the ongoing farmers’ protests into a national movement. With the BJP government’s lack of acknowledgement and response to the movement, farmer leaders under the SKM have decided to connect the sufferings of farmers with electoral politics directly with the announcement of ‘ faslo ke dam nahi , to vote nahi (no vote, if no legal guarantee of MSP’) and pronouncing their method as ‘vote ki chot (hit by vote’). The SKM and its leadership will campaign against the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections due next year. In addition to spreading the message of peace and communal harmony, farmer leaders including Mr. Tikait have announced that they will go to every home in the villages to educate farmers about the three farm laws and the ways in which these laws will destroy farmers and farming. Using the idioms of kheti , kisani and bhaichara , the BKU and its leadership will also inform them about the BJP’s betrayal of farmers through its pro-corporate policies.
Besides the farm laws, several other proximate factors have set the stage for broad electoral mobilisation that may convert angry farmers and labourers into politically conscious voters when they face continued agrarian distress, the doubling of electricity charges, and the rising cost of diesel and fertilizers. More importantly, the unpaid dues of sugarcane mills to farmers have severely affected farmers and labourers across generation, caste and religious lines.
Furthermore, in Uttar Pradesh, the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government’s stringent anti-cattle slaughter measures have devastated already broken farmers as stray cattle continue to plunder fields and ruin crops. The COVID-19 epidemic has not only struck another major blow against the rural economy but has also highlighted the fragility of urban jobs. The participation of young farmers in large numbers explains in one go the ongoing agrarian crises and jobless growth that has created a big class of rural-urban precariat.
While the emerging broad alliance and solidarity generate hope and a new grammar of politics, competitive party politics and existing socio-economic divisions continue to pose several challenges to Mission 2022. The ongoing farmers’ movement does not show any sign of converting itself into a political party. In this case farmer voters depend on the existing political parties that have already lost steam and failed in the face of the BJP’s propaganda, organisational skills and politics. In fact, some of them have started imitating the BJP’s style by adopting a softer version of the Hindutva.
U.P. politics today
In Uttar Pradesh in particular, Opposition political parties such as the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal are competing for the same pie. Hence, it is too early to know how these competing parties will compromise their interests and put up a united opposition. Besides, the Jats are no longer a politically united group as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. The emerging political competition led by the aspiring middle class within the Jats has produced new leaders such as Sanjeev Baliyan that has opened a chasm to be exploited by the BJP’s style of politics. Moreover, farmers from the most ‘backward’ castes such as Morya, Nishad and Gaderiyas have hardly been an ally of the BKU and a part of the ‘kisan’ identity popularised by Charan Singh.
By projecting these farmers as the victims of the dominant landowning farmers the BJP has weaponised them as new warriors of Hindutva. Despite these limitations, the Muzaffarnagar Kisan Mahapanchayat has shown the way to reclaim the Indian Constitution and the legacy of secularism by simultaneously linking socio-economic injustices to environmental and gender issues.
Satendra Kumar teaches Sociology at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, University of Allahabad