What Modi Govt Can Learn From 1988 Farmers’ Siege Of Delhi

The Bharatiya Kisan Union’s agitation in late ‘80s contributed greatly in defeating the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress.

5 min read
Image of iconic leader Mahendra Singh Tikait at a farmers’ movement over 30 years ago. Image used for representational purposes.

Is the ongoing and fast intensifying farmers’ stir – seeking repeal of three contentious farm laws enacted by the government in September 2020 – on its way to becoming similar to Rajiv Gandhi's October 1988 moment – when farmers under Mahendra Singh Tikait humiliated the government and got key demands met after a week-long dharna in the Indian capital?

Like the present agitation, the siege of Lutyens’ Delhi 32 years ago – in the course of which the hallowed Central Vista was ‘sullied’ by hundreds of thousands of peasants camping on the grounds – was preceded by stirs in western Uttar Pradesh, and should have acted as warning signals.

These however, were not heeded by the regime of the time because it was still high on brute majority in Parliament.


Steady Decline Of Rajiv Gandhi Regime Thanks To Farmers’ Movement

In the 1984 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress won an unprecedented 404 seats (numerical coincidence – BJP won 303) and further increased its tally when polls in Punjab and Assam were held later (the situation was volatile in December 1984). Due to numbers being stacked in its favour, the coterie around the prime minister, and he himself too, were of the view that the ruling party could not get unhinged from power.

As a result, the hubris-driven political elite ignored the straws in the wind and paid no thought to developments. The ruling party paid dearly by concluding that hitherto unknown leaders, who steered the movement, had no capacity to pose a challenge to the government.

Then too, it was an instance of India failing to comprehend the power of Bharat.

Although several people are said to have articulated the sentiment differently, it is Winston Churchill who is considered – by most people – to have sired the quote: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

It is not our brief to turn soothsayer and weigh if the present government too is on the path of steady decline like the Rajiv Gandhi regime was from the last quarter of 1986.

After all, predicting future developments – especially political – is extremely hazardous, especially in a country like India where the danger of social ignition lurks at every corner.

Key To Success Of Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Agitations: Excluding Politicians & Parties

History, when not used as political tool to score points in contemporary battles, provides insights to unravel the present. Consequently, a recapitulation of events which unsettled the rock solid establishment back then, would be a worthy exercise now – for the regime as well as the farmers' groups.

Because much of the developments have taken place in the course of the mind-numbing pandemic, the political process by which so farmers' unions and organisations decided to make common cause has gone undocumented.

But once the situation eases and accounts of events since June – when the government promulgated the three ordinances – are written, similarities would possibly be found with the reorganisation of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) in October 1986 at Sisauli, western UP.

The key to the success of the BKU in future agitations, starting in late 1986, and which continued till the fall of 1989 – which contributed greatly in defeating the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress – was the decision of farm leaders to leave out political parties and their leaders.

Repeated farmers' strikes through 1988-89 hollowed out the regime, but the fatal blow was provided by the rise of VP Singh and a new opposition conglomerate which included the BJP. Yet, they were not provided the farmers' platforms and had to fight their own battles.


How Bharatiya Kisan Union Saw Through The Ploys Of The Then UP Govt

The BKU’s decision in 1986 was a major shift away from former prime minister Charan Singh's legacy. He had carved his electoral constituency as a peasants' leader and remained connected with their movement.

It was at Tikait’s insistence that all political leaders, including Devi Lal, the tallest Jat leader of that time, were disallowed from appearing on platforms of the BKU.

Political leaders of various opposition parties are currently welcome to offer moral and political support, but not permitted to either grace the dais or address agitating farmers. Likewise, farmers' groups under the banner of BKU between 1986-1989 kept politicians at arm's length.

Tikait lived till May 2011 but never contested elections. The current crop of farm leaders, barring those already associated with political parties, have sworn that they have no electoral ambitions.

The success of the BKU agitation lay in seeing through the ploy of the UP government during the dharnas and sieges in Karmukheri power station (Shamli) and the Meerut Divisional Commissioner’s office in March 1987 and January-February 1988 respectively.

The state government, with the Centre's backing, used strong arm tactics and attempted to split the movement – but the BKU leadership displayed keen political sense and warded off these attempts.

In addition, Tikait had the moral courage to take a step backward if the agitation took a violent turn. Tikait instilled the two Gandhian pillars of non-violence and non-cooperation.

He asked farmers to stop paying electricity bills, and when violence erupted in Rajabpur, Amroha in February 1988 – when protestors were on way to join the Meerut siege – Tikait withdrew the agitation.

How Mahendra Singh Tikait Eroded The Moral Credibility Of Govts

India Today, in March 1988, wrote: (although) “besieging cohorts of Mahendra Singh Tikait's BKU have folded up their tents and gone home, the 25-day dharna raised a potent new force that will continue to haunt Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Bir Bahadur Singh and influence political developments in the state.”

With the escalation of violence averted, Tikait had, within days, regrouped at the site of the firing and begun the 110 day-long Rajabpur satyagraha which eroded the moral credibility of the state and central governments.

The protest was called off only after the demand for judicial enquiry was met. Yet BKU never gave up on farmers' primary demands: loan waivers, cut in electricity dues, increase in sugarcane procurement price, farmers representation in Agricultural Price Commission, etc,.

The BKU eventually succeeded in forcing the Rajiv Gandhi government to accept many of their demands by calibrating agitations before the final strike on the capital when the heart of the city was paralysed.

Like the present dharna sites that farmers are occupying, back in 1988 too, they came to Delhi in tractor-trollies, truck-tops, bullock-carts, motorcycles, cars and on foot.

Back then, every protest ground from 1987 onward, too abounded with dadis and tayees (grandmothers and aunts) who guided those who worked at the langars (community kitchens). Like now, the movement was joined by people from all walks of life, impelled by the justness of farmers' demands.


1986-87 Farmers’ Agitation Offers Lessons For Both Govt & Protestors

The government had, then too, depicted the protestors as ‘rich famers’ and their representatives, but this cut no ice with people.

Although not a political person, Tikait eventually provided the movement a socially inclusive character. He sought justice for a young Muslim girl who was abducted, raped and murdered.

This agitation, before the 1989 general elections, was called off after the police recovered her body, and ordered an enquiry. The burial took place amid chants of Allah-O-Akbar and Har-Har Mahadev.

The 1986-88 BKU agitation remains a watershed in the history of peasant struggles and offers lessons for both government and agitators. For once, if either side – or even both – draw lessons, the beneficiary shall be the farmer.

(The writer is an author and senior journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He covered the 1988 farmers’ siege of Delhi for The Sunday Mail newspaper. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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