Kisan Mahapanchayat: Why Show of Unity in Muzaffarnagar Mustn't be Overestimated
It is important to note that this 'unity' between communities does not arise from any loyalty for the minorities.
There was a mood of celebration across Muzaffarnagar on 5 September. Slogans honouring the farmer and ridiculing the BJP were reverberating across the lanes that led to the government-inter-college grounds. Farmers poured in from several states — atop tractors, mini vans, buses and trucks — to what is being called the largest gathering of farmers, ever in the world.
The kisan mahapanchayat was a show of unity and a show of strength. A renewed phase of protests, the farmers say, against the three contentious kale kanoon (black laws) passed by the central government in September 2020.
But in west UP's Muzaffarnagar, the gathering was more symbolic. It was a chetavni (warning) to the BJP government considering the upcoming UP state polls in about six months and a show of unity between the Hindus and Muslims. Muzaffaranagar is where at least 66 people died, 7 women were allegedly raped, in the bloody communal violence of 2013.
"It was after the 2013 mahapanchayat that the 2013 riots happened. And it was because of the riots, that the BJP came to power. Our vote enabled them to gain power. Our unity had been destroyed then. We made a big mistake, we all realise that," 45-year-old Devi Singh, a Jat farmer from Bijrol in Baghpat, said.
There was a mahapanchayat organised in August 2013 in UP where communal tensions were stoked after the death of three men. The Bharat Kisan Union (BKU) and BJP leaders had actively participated in this meeting. Rakesh Tikait, the face of BKU now, and his brother and BKU chief Naresh Tikait, were named in several FIRs after the riots. They are said to have stoked communal tensions.
From the stage, constant calls were made to differentiate the 2013 mahapanchayat to this one. One after the other, calls were made to forget caste and community and come together against an "oppressive" BJP regime. "Every time a mahapanchayat is held in Muzaffarnagar, it changes the face of the UP government. The time has come again," a BKU representative said from the stage while the crowd unanimously cheered him.
'Won't Get Swayed by Communal Hate'
Devi Singh said the riots were the reason that the BJP came to power. They will not get swayed by those calls this time around.
"Last time we made a big mistake and fell for their Hindu-Muslim divide. This time we know better. We have learnt our lesson," Singh said. He owns 1 acre of land where he grows sugarcane.
Another sugarcane farmer, Raj Kumar Singh from Nunna Kheda in Muzaffarnagar district, said he has never seen a government as bad as this one. He said, "In 2013 they instigated us. They only talk about Hindus and Muslims. I have never seen a government as bad as this."
He said the attempts to polarise the community will not work anymore and credits the UP government for the same. "If you keep raising the prices for anything, while doing nothing for the farmer, of course we will compromise with Muslims. The government is responsible for us coming together."
As we spoke of the coming together of the community 68-year-old Rishipal, who is the pradhan (headman) of Gaidbara village in Baghpat district, said, "Yes, our issues are different compared to the Muslim farmers. They have a lot more at stake."
It is important to note here that this 'unity' does not arise from a sympathy on the attacks on the minorities or any loyalty to them. It is limited to a shared economic distress.
'We Will Remain Loyal to The BJP'
Not everyone thinks like Singh and Rishipal though.
Ahead of the mahapanchayat, The Quint travelled to villages of Muzaffarnagar where the 2013 riots had spread to and saw firm loyalty for the BJP.
"See we owe everything to the BJP. If the Samajwadi Party (SP) would have come back to power in the state, we would all have been hung to death. BJP leaders took care of us, met us in jail, helped us with money as well. The Rashtriya Lok Dal, which has thrown themselves behind the farmer protests, is an ally of the SP. We will not go against the BJP no matter what," Rupender Malik, a 38-year-old farmer from Lank village said. He was accused of murder in two cases from the riots.
Similarly, Arun, was also thankful to the BJP for all the help the accused got after the riots. "See the BJP is the only Hindu party, we cannot go against them no matter what. They are the only ones who truly care for us," Arun said. He was accused of triple murder during the riots.
They went on to say that Muslims had wrongly accused them, when the murders were done by other men. "We can never forgive them and we will never let anyone forget that," Arun said.
The homes of the Muslims in the village have been sold to Hindus and the two mosques are regularly cleaned by Muslims who come from nearby villages. "We let them come and clean it. We do not even look at them," Rupender said.
As we spoke, the crowd swelled and many said they will not go to the kisan mahapanchayat. This was despite them being at the receiving end of economic distress too.
Kuldeep Malik, a farmer agricultural labourer who has not had a job for a day for several months, said he will vote for Yogi's BJP. His relatives are not embroiled in the violence of the 2013 riots. "We might go out of curiosity, but all of us will only vote for the BJP," the 55-year-old said.
Similarly, Sanjeev Kumar, who is from Mandol village, said that he is a pakka wala (real) Jat. "We are all men of Yogi here," he said. He takes care of 40 bhigas of land on which he grows wheat and sugarcane.
"Pakke Hinduvaadi hai hum. (We are real Hindus). We are against corruption and what is happening is correct," when I ask him what he means, he said, "Tikait doesn't know anything about the laws. Today they are harping about the three laws, tomorrow they'll ask for triple talaq ban to be taken back. These Muslims are coming from everywhere to attend this mahapanchayat." He believes nothing will come of these mahapanchayats and asked us to 'wait and watch'.
UP's significance in elections is immense. It has 80 Lok Saba seats, of which the party won 71 in 2019. In western UP, their performance was successful with them winning 24 of the 27 seats. Similarly, in the 2017 state polls the party won 105 of 136 seats in the same region.
Muslims Understand 'Unity Important to Defeat BJP'
Back at the mahapanchayat, we met several Muslim farmers to ask them why they had come to the Kisan mahapanchayat being led by Tikait. Several of them were actively involved in distributing water and food to the incoming farmers. Many more were at the grounds listening to speech after speech. While most acknowledged the 'unity' ahead of the polls, some were wary.
30-year-old Shahan Muhammad who owns 2 bhigas of land on the outskirts of the town, grows rice and vegetables for himself. He said he was not worried about the possibility of communal disharmony. As we spoke, a crowd grew around us. He said, "Dange badhana hukumat ka kaam hai, humaara nahi. (Instigating riots is the job of the government, not ours)," everyone hooted and applauded him. When asked about the involvement of the Tikait brothers during the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, Shahan said, "Jaane anjaane mein gunah kiya unhone. Unhone iske liye maafi bhi maangi. Ab hum sab saath mein hai. (Unknowingly he committed a sin. He apologised for it. Now we are all together.)
It took till January 2021 for Naresh Tikait to apologise. He said he was sorry for letting his Muslim brothers down. Till then the Tikait brothers hadn't apologised for the mahapanchayat and how it boosted the tension in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts.
They had put out an appeal for peace, after the police began to investigate their role in instigating the violence. Naresh Tikait had urged the Muslims to not leave their villages and assured them of protection. Rakesh Tikait had told The Hindu, "Our first priority is to help people return. Outsiders attacked and destroyed harmony here," Rakesh had said.
Karigayor Mohammad, who lives in Nagla buzurg and is an agricultural labourer, said something similar. "They realised they made a mistake and apologised. However, we need to come together to keep the BJP out of power," the 50-year-old said.
Then we spoke to 60-year-old Mohd Ilyas, who said that he and all Muslims are wary of the BKU, but they do not see any option but to support them. "We cannot do much. Our unity is more a consequence of our shared economic distress than anything else. The BJP does not want to see Muslims being prosperous," Ilyas said, while the people around him nodded. He then requested he not be photographed. "Kya zaroorat hai photo lene ki, sach bata diya maine aapko jo log nahi bolenge. (What is the point of taking the photo, I have told you the truth that no one else will)," he said as he smiled, waved and walked towards the grounds.
'Common Ground is Economic Distress'
As Ilyas said, the link between the farmers is a shared economic distress. The two key issues were the government not raising the MSP for sugarcane and the rise in costs of diesel, petrol, pesticides, oil, driving everyday expenses through the roof.
Raj Kumar Singh says that not increasing the price of sugarcane has been criminal on the part of the UP government. "They have not increased the rate of our sugarcane it's been four years," Singh says, while adding that they are yet to get their pending money too. Approximately Rs 12,000 crore is pending in dues to pay to sugarcane farmers in UP.
The Modi government increased the MSP by Rs 5 in August. After this the UP government said they will hold a round of talks with farmers before they increase the prices.
"See, even if they increase it to Rs 500, we will not vote for them. You cannot do these gimmicks in an election year and think of us as fools," Raj Kumar Singh said. 52-year-old Brijpal from Gaidbara village in Baghpat says he cannot trust the government. "They did not do anything for four years, even if they do something now, how do we trust them," he says.
Salma and Nazma, who are agricultural labourers from Nirana village in Muzaffarnagar, said that everyday expenses have hit the roof due to which they cannot think of sending their kids to school, or building a better home, or anything.
"Even buying food and cooking has become so expensive. In 2013, the cylinder was for Rs 300, now it is Rs 900. We have only seen inflation under this government," Salma said. Nazma said that this government came in saying they will increase employment, but they have done the opposite. "Everyone is becoming poorer around us," Nazma said.
'Will Wait and Watch'
While there are farmers who seemed to have made up their mind to not vote for the BJP, Raj Kumar Swaroop, who grows sugarcane on 250 bhigas of land, said he is willing to wait and watch. "They have not increased the price of the sugarcane while the cost of everything has tripled over the years. This includes pesticides, diesel, oil, everything," he said.
"Ya toh sarkaar sahi sunegi, nahi toh UP ki badlegi. (Either the government will listen to us, or the governments will change in UP.)" he said adding that he will vote for the party that gives him facilities.
Similarly, Rishipal, who had acknowledged that Muslim farmers had a lot more at stake, said while they want the three laws rolled back, he is willing to see what the government will do.
"The government is saying they are in talks. If the government does anything about the rising costs, then I will see," he said.
'Farmers From Punjab Hope UP Farmers Will Learn'
Parvinder Singh, 38, who has come with fifty other people from Rajgura village in Punjab's Patiala district says he is in UP to give an impetus to the movement. He says these mahapanchayats are important as they help create awareness.
"Log jagrook hogaye hai, pehle UP ke kisaan ka bohut fayeda uthaya gaya hai. Unko jaati aur dharm ke naam pe apas mein ladva dete the. Ab aisa nahi hoga. (The farmer has become aware. Earlier people would take advantage of the farmer by dividing them on the lines of caste and religion,)" he said. He owns five acres of land on which he grows wheat, potatoes, etc.
He has come to UP for a mahapanchayat for the first time. He says the link was the Delhi morcha, where farmers from several states gathered.
"The farmers in UP have a lot to lose if they continue to vote for this party. Otherwise, all this will be a pointless," he said.
Jasdev Singh says that awareness in UP will only come through mahapanchayats like this one. "Right now I do not think the UP farmer is completely aware. These mahapanchayats must continue if BJP has to be defeated," he said.
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