Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait's emotional outburst on the evening of 28 January proved to be a major turning point in the farmers' protest against the Centre's farm laws.
Tikait's tears not only warded off what seemed to be a likely crackdown on the Ghazipur protest site but also became a spark for the revival of the farmers’ protest, which was facing flak after the violence that took place during the 26 January tractor rally.
"This government will destroy farmers, BJP's goons will come and attack them with the police," said Tikait, in tears.
Those close to him say that the tears came from a genuine sense of helplessness that the government would attack protesting farmers and that the implementation of the farm laws would be a death knell for farmers.
Within hours of Tikait’s outburst, groups of farmers from Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh began mobilising and arriving at Ghazipur.
The security personnel whose numbers kept building up at the protest site through Thursday, left late at night. And by morning the strength of protesters at Ghazipur increased significantly.
The BKU has also called for a Mahapanchayat in Tikait’s home district of Muzaffarnagar in West UP.
The assertions of BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra – who tweeted that, ‘Tikait is crying, the country is laughing’ or of pro-government journalists that, ‘this is the end of the protest’ – ended up backfiring.
Initially considered a more conciliatory element among the protesting unions by some, Tikait has now emerged as one of the strongest voices in the entire movement against the Centre's farm laws.
Who Is Rakesh Tikait?
52-year-old Rakesh Tikait is a graduate from Meerut University and presently is the spokesperson of BKU. He has contested two elections, one on a Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket and another as an Independent, but unsuccessfully.
Rakesh Tikait is the younger son of legendary Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, who dominated farmers' mobilisation in North India since 1980s.
Hailing from Sisauli in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar, the Tikait family also heads Baliyan Khap of 84 villages, giving it considerable influence within the Jat community of Western UP and Haryana. The BKU also has influence among the Malik and Deshwal Khaps.
Due to the Jat community's custom of passing on authority to the eldest son, Tikait’s elder brother Naresh Tikait took over the mantle of both the BKU and Baliyan Khap from Mahendra Singh Tikait, and Rakesh Tikait who became the spokesperson of BKU through his influence is much more than the position he holds.
The Tikait brothers have had big shoes to fill due to Mahendra Singh Tikait’s towering personality. He led a number of massive demonstrations against the Centre and state government on farmers' issues and was an important power centre in the region. Tikait’s biggest protest was in 1988 when lakhs of farmers gathered at Boat Club in the heart of Lutyen's Delhi, bringing the Rajiv Gandhi government to its knees.
However, his sons could never come close to achieving such a massive mobilisation.
The Tikait brothers have also been found wanting in another aspect — the failure to counter rising communal tensions in Western Uttar Pradesh.
Mahendra Singh Tikait was popular among both Hindu and Muslim farmers of Western UP, who shared common economic interests. Farmers of both communities have laid down their lives in Tikait’s protests and were honoured as martyrs by their leader.
Mahendra SIngh Tikait used to actively try and maintain communal peace by adjudicating disputes. In one famous incident in 1989, the patriarch led a protest to secure the release of an abducted Muslim girl called Nayeema.
However, Tikait's support to Jats' demand for reservation and changing political dynamics of Uttar Pradesh reduced their influence among other communities.
A huge blow came with the death of Mahendra Singh Tikait in 2011, which weakened not just the BKU's political influence but also of the RLD with which it had a close relationship. Meanwhile the RLD’s alliance with the BJP in the early 2000s ended up legitimising the party in the eyes of Jats and the party continued to expand within the community.
Muzaffarnagar Communal Violence and BJP’s Sidelining of Tikaits
During the communal tensions in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, Rakesh Tikait was accused of making incendiary speeches at the crucial Mahapanchayat after which the violence broke out, killing 42 Muslims and 20 Hindus according to official figures. Tikait later denied making any speeches, though he admits attending the Mahapanchayat.
A few weeks after the violence, Naresh Tikait declared the violence as a ‘stain on the history of the region’ and urged displaced Muslims to ‘return to their homes’.
However, some say that the Tikaits’ change of stand took place only due to pressure from Mulayam Singh Yadav and the cases filed against BKU leaders by the then Samajwadi Party government led by Akhilesh Yadav.
In the entire process, what became clear was the failure of the Tikait brothers in upholding Mahendra Singh Tikait's legacy of communal harmony.
"That was a very bad time. They (Tikaits) and also Ajit Singh were threatened by younger, more hardline Jats to go with the community's sentiment or prepare to be boycotted. They would have become irrelevant had they spoken out," a community leader told this reporter on an earlier occasion.
However, this couldn’t prevent their decline as the communal polarisation ended up undermining the Tikaits' base considerably. Among Jats, they got upstaged by pro-Hindutva leaders like BJP's Sanjiv Baliyan, who belongs to the same clan.
On the other hand, they completely lost the support of Muslims from the area.
More worryingly for Tikaits, the communal polarisation greatly reduced the space for politics based on farmers’ demands and caste loyalties.
This, despite the fact that the woes of farmers, particularly those growing sugarcane, kept increasing under the BJP government.
Despite being marginalised by the BJP in West UP, the Tikaits maintained reasonable ties with the party. Some accuse them of tacitly helping BJP in the 2019 campaign and contributing to the defeat of RLD’s Chaudhary Ajit Singh in Muzaffarnagar.
Did BJP Underestimate Rakesh Tikait?
Due to this earlier equation, the BJP government considered Tikait as a more amenable leader among the farm unions compared to the union leaders from Punjab in the current agitation.
As the Punjab unions are more Left wing than Tikait and their support is mostly from the Sikh peasantry, the BJP saw them as being much more hostile.
Regarding Tikait, the sense in the BJP was that since a huge chunk of his supporters are also BJP voters, he could be made to compromise on the farm laws.
It needs to be remembered that BJP considers West UP as Amit Shah’s first major experiment in national politics. The party believes that his tenure as BJP’s in-charge for UP ended Jat politics of the Tikait and RLD variety for good.
This is where the government made a mistake.
Tikait may have played along with them in 2013 and maintained cordial ties for the sake of survival, he was still smarting under the BJP's marginalisation of his politics in West UP.
Tikait genuinely sees the farm laws as a big threat for farmers and also feels the need for reviving agrarian politics in West UP.
A video of Tikait's rally in Palwal, Haryana surfaced in December, which sparked outrage among Brahmin groups. They allege that in the video, Tikait is accusing priests and Brahmins of not contributing to the farmers' protest. They also accuse him of threatening Brahmins, an allegation he has denied.
There is a history to this. Jat politics has historically been anti-Brahmin and it is only the communal polarisation over the last decade or so that has changed this.
It appears that the Tikaits, Ajit Singh and his son Jayant Chaudhary are trying to revive agrarian and Jat politics in Western UP and take on the BJP.
It is not surprising that one of the first political leaders to speak to Tikait after his ‘outburst’ on Thursday was Ajit Singh.
This is what makes Tikait a dangerous customer for the BJP, as he has the potential of taking away a strong vote bank of the party.
What Lies Ahead
The other problem for the BJP is that while it has tried to malign Sikh protesters using the ‘Khalistani’ label, it would be difficult for it to present Hindu Jat protesters in a similar light.
The hoisting of the Nishan Sahib at Red Fort came as a perfect opportunity for the BJP to target the farmers’ protest. And after smaller protest sites, they chose to target Tikait and the Ghazipur protest, in the expectation that it would be an easier one to handle than the more numerous and Sikh-dominated protests at Tikri and Singhu.
The mistake they made was underestimating the anger among Jats and also the influence Tikait still holds.
Even before the farm laws, sugarcane farmers in West UP have been protesting regularly. In addition to this is the fact that the Yogi Adityanath government in UP is seen as promoting only Thakurs. A combination of these factors is driving the support for Tikait.
This has set in motion a battle of wits between the government and the unions, particularly Tikait. It is likely that the the probe into the 26 January violence could lead to cases against the farm union leaders. Meanwhile the government would also have to prepare for fresh mobilisation from Haryana and West UP.
For the unions, Tikait’s emotional outburst has come as a blessing and diluted some of the attacks they were facing after the 26 January violence. The fresh mobilisation from Haryana and West UP would also strengthen the Punjab unions’ position with respect to independent entities like Deep Sidhu and Lakha Sidhana.