Farmers’ Protest: How Will Clarion Call By ‘Jatland’ Impact It?

Sompal Shastri explains the Jat community’s disillusionment with the BJP, and their preparation for a new role.

Updated
Opinion
11 min read
Image of Sompal Shastri used for representational purposes.
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Hundreds of thousands of farmers from western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab have been protesting for the past 75 days on the borders of Delhi, historically the capital of the country, but also the ‘heart’ of the nation. And ‘Jatland’ has always had a crucial role in maintaining this ‘heartbeat’.

History has been witness to all major political changes which have had roots in ‘Jatland’, about 300-400 km around Delhi. And the ongoing farmer agitation seems to be giving a new twist to the politics of the country. There are reasons to believe this and we will try to understand them one by one.

‘Jatland’ Believes the Real India Lives in Villages

The Jat community has always been against hollow rituals. The farm is their temple, farmers their gods, and physical labour / strength is their spirituality. They are adept at using the plough and shovel in peacetime, and the sword and spear in war.

Jats are straightforward people, and have never shied away from vehemently expressing themselves against the customs of the establishment. From the Mughals, Marathas and the British, to figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Morarji Desai and VP Singh — leaders and regimes historically have experienced both the support and opposition of Jats, and the same continues in the Narendra Modi era.

History tells us that be it the Arab invaders in Sindh, Timur on the way to Meerut-Haridwar, the Mughals in Delhi, or the British in the 1857 war — and successive governments of independent India — all faced their biggest challenge from the Jat community.

In the first three decades preceding Independence, Chaudhary Chhotu Ram emerged as the strongest Jat leader on the political horizon of united Punjab. He left Gandhi and the Congress due to policy differences, and formed his own Unionist Party of purely secular and peasant interests. Until his death, he did not allow Mohammad Ali Jinnah or the Congress to succeed in Punjab.

Chotu Ram’s Legacy

Chhotu Ram played a crucial role in several big decisions in the interest of farmers. He took steps like establishing markets of agricultural produce, loan waivers and the registration of moneylenders to protect farmers and labourers from greedy and corrupt officials and middlemen. He helped enact about two dozen laws including one on regulating working hours for labour employed in commercial and industrial establishments, and also had the survey for the construction of the Bhakra Nangal Dam completed.

Chhotu Ram took on the then British Viceroy over the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for wheat, and forced him to agree to it.

He was a famous lawyer but also worked as a journalist, and launched a newspaper called the ‘Jat Gazette’. The story of India’s partition probably would have been different had he not died in 1945. Even today he is fondly remembered and continues to be revered in ‘Jatland’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled his 64-feet tall statue in Rohtak in 2018.

From ‘Jatland’ Politics to the Pinnacle of Power

“India is an agricultural country”, “Farmers are the backbone of our economy” — such statements have been made several times since Independence, and feature in myriad history books too. Mahatma Gandhi used to often say that he would be happy the day a Dalit became the President of India and a farmer the Prime Minister of the country. However, it was only in 1979 that the nation got its first farmer Prime Minister — Chaudhary Charan Singh — who reached the pinnacle of power riding on farmer politics, leaving behind a career in law.

At the 1958 annual Congress session in Nagpur, Pandit Nehru personally moved a formal resolution to adopt the Soviet model of cooperative collective farming in India. Most of the Congress leaders did not agree with it, but no one dared to oppose. Chaudhary Charan Singh took the stage and vehemently opposed it in his reasoned speech, for over an hour, compelling Nehru to withdraw the proposal.

It was Chaudhary Charan Singh who ousted the Congress for the first time in the country’s largest province, Uttar Pradesh, in 1967, becoming chief minister for two terms and installing two persons of his choice — Tribhuvan Narayan Singh and Ramnaresh Yadav — both chief ministers of UP after him.

His role in the Janata Party government at the Centre is well known too. In 1979, Chaudhary Charan Singh became prime minister.

Leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Chaudhary Ajit Singh are a part of his political legacy. As the Minister of Revenue and Agriculture in Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant and Dr Sampurnanand’s Cabinets, the CM of UP., and the Minister of Home & Finance at the Centre, his contributions to land reforms and farmer welfare are unmatched.

In addition, Chaudhary Charan Singh helped unite farmers of all castes and religions, and ensured ministerial berths for disadvantaged castes in proportion to their strength, and gave an equitable dimension to social engineering in India, constituting the Mandal Commission.

Revolt Against Exploitation of Rulers & Landlords in Rajasthan

The Jat community was the first to revolt against the dynastic rulers and their oppression in Rajasthan. It began with the Sikar Movement and a mahayajna jointly organised in 1934 by the Jat Sabha and Arya Samaj. About one lakh people joined it. Maharaja Sikar sought protection from the British Raj to avoid bloodshed and conceded to the demands of Jats giving them land and education rights.

My father Raghuveer Singh Shastri was only 17 when he, along with his guru Jagdev Singh Siddhanti, joined the yajna and debated with Sanatani Brahmins in Sanskrit for three days on subjects like caste and idolatry.

Then the movement for land rights of farmers — led by Jodhpur Police DIG Baldev Ram Mirdha and his colleagues Master Bhajanlal (Ajmer), Chaudhary Moolchand and Chaudhary Shivkaran Arya (Nagaur), Motiram Saran (Sriganganagar) — spread across Rajasthan.

During that period, Chaudhary Kumbharam Arya became the most famous, who, despite being a part of the Congress governments in Rajasthan, played a lead role in the making and unmaking of at least five chief ministers — Hiralal Shastri, Tikaram Paliwal, Jayanarayan Vyas, Damodar Vyas and Mohanlal Sukhadia.

Chaudhary Kumbharam was fondly called the ‘mobile powerhouse’ of Rajasthan politics. People symbolised his name with the 4-by-4 gear used in jeeps to rescue it from swamps or sand, calling it the ‘Kumbharam gear’.

In 1967, his attempt to overthrow the Congress government was thwarted by Governor Dr Sampurnanand. Else he would have been the first — even before Chaudhary Charan Singh — to displace the Congress in North India. Later, Hans Raj Arya, Nathuram Mirdha, Ramnivas Mirdha, Daulataram Saran and Parasaram Maderna, Shisharam Ola, etc emerged as Rajasthan’s Jat leaders.

Jat Dominance in Punjab Politics

During the freedom struggle, the famous clarion call of ‘Pagree Samhaal Jatta’ was issued by Sardar Kishan Singh ji and Ajeet Singh ji, the ancestors of Amar Shaheed Sardar Bhagat Singh, who were Jats.

Before Partition, the Punjab of Pakistan was a part of Punjab province, including our Punjab, Haryana and Himachal. Jats had a crucial presence in this region too. It was because of Chaudhary Chhotu Ram that Chaudhary Shahabuddin was elected as the speaker of the Punjab Assembly, while Malik Khizar Hayat Khan Tiwana became the minister and later the Premier. Back then Jat Sikhs like Sardar Sundar Singh Majithia, Sardar Surjit Singh Majithia, Sardar Baldev Singh and Sardar Swarn Singh were the eminent members of the Cabinet.

Post-Partition, after the first three chief ministers — Dr Vrishbhan, Dr Gopichand Bhargava and Lala Bhimsen Sachar — right from Sardar Pratap Singh Kairon till date, almost all succeeding chief ministers, save one, and including Sardar Prakash Singh Badal and Captain Amarinder Singh, have been Jats.

It is important to note that even though the Punjab Jat Sikhs respected the gurdwara, they did not necessarily offer prayers daily, neither were they active in their management. But realising the importance of the gurdwara in politics, they acquired control thereof and have since dominated the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee.

Jats Lead in Haryana Politics

Carved out of Punjab, Haryana became a new province on 1 November 1966. During the Pratap Singh Kairon government, the Hindi movement against imposition of compulsory education of Punjabi Gurmukhi laid the foundation for the creation of Haryana.

The movement was conducted by the Arya Samaj organisation of Punjab and Haryana. Guru Jagdev Singh Siddhanti (also my father’s guru), Swami Omanand Saraswati, Professor Sher Singh and my father himself were the prominent Arya Samaj leaders of Haryana. All four were Jats. Though people from all castes and communities participated equally in the movement, the Jats were the torchbearers.

Among the other leaders, Professor Sher Singh, the Deputy Chief Minister and Minister of Irrigation and Power in the 1953 Kairon Cabinet, played a significant role. He launched the movement after resigning from the Cabinet, protesting against the imposition of Gurmukhi.

Later, he became a minister at the Centre, holding the portfolios of Minister of State in the ministries of Education, Communications, Defence Production and Agriculture, and a Member of the Union Planning Commission.

The other renowned politicians from Haryana were Chaudhary Chhotu Ram's nephew Chaudhary Srichand, who was the Speaker of the legislative assembly, and Chaudhary Nihal Singh Takshak, Education Minister in the Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU).

Chaudhary Devi Lal’s Legacy

Apart from them, Chaudhary Devi Lal, Chaudhary Bansi Lal, Chaudhary Surajmal, Chaudhary Lahari Singh, Chaudhary Yudhveer Singh, Chaudhary Rizak Ram, Chaudhary Badlu Singh, Chaudhary Shamsher Singh Surjewala also played key roles in the movement. Chaudhary Ranveer Singh was a minister and the longest-serving member of the eight legislative houses including Punjab and Haryana assemblies and Councils, the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha, the Constituent Assembly and the Interim Parliament. He was the father of two-time Chief Minister of Haryana Bhupinder Hooda and grandfather of Deependra Hooda, presently Member, Rajya Sabha.

Chaudhary Birender Singh, grandson of Chaudhary Chhotu Ram, has also been a Minister in the Haryana government and the central government. Recently, he resigned as a Union Minister. Chaudhary Bansilal made the most significant contribution to the development of Haryana; as the Minister of Railways and Defence at the Centre, he later formed the Haryana Vikas Party and became chief minister again.

One personality without whom the discussion on Jat influence in the politics of Haryana and the country is incomplete is Chaudhary Devi Lal.

He took on Punjab’s powerful CM and Pandit Nehru’s favourite, Pratap Singh Kairon, and became the President of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee. Later, he took charge as the Chief Minister of Haryana twice, became the Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister of the country twice.

Chaudhary Devi Lal was both an ally and opponent of Chaudhary Charan Singh. He also happens to be my wife’s maternal uncle.

He took several farmer welfare initiatives ranging from farm loan waivers, old age pensions and matching grants for community work to a substantial increase in the Minimum Support Prices of agricultural produce and farmers’ partnership in the government’s tree plantation drive along the canals and roads on the boundaries of their fields.

Devi Lal’s biggest intervention in national politics was the creation of the Janata Dal, making VP Singh the prime minister and then replacing him with Chandrasekhar. Om Prakash Chautala is his elder son, while Ajay and Abhay Chautala are his grandsons and the current Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala is his great-grandson.

The Progress of the Jat Revolution

Jats are a people of revolutionary ideas; they participated in all major battles and joined several historical reformist campaigns and movements. The battle of Mahabharata took place in the plains of Kuru-Jangal Pradesh, the land of Jats.

The religious reforms and revolutionary ideologies of the Gorakhnath sect, Sikhism, Vishnoi religion, Islam, Dadu Panth, Kabir Panth and the 19th century Arya Samaj suit Jats’ inherent mentality.

They voluntarily embraced them in large numbers, even though none of the founders like Guru Gorakhnath, Guru Nanak Dev, Guru Jambheshwar, Mohammad Saheb, Sant Dadu, Sant Kabir and Swami Dayanand Saraswati was a Jat, nor did any of them try to formally initiate and baptise the community.

Through the Arya Samaj and khap panchayats, however, Jats have pushed action and progressiveness, bringing forth rural modern development and mass education through community action and subscription.

Jat Support for the BJP

From 1996 elections, Jats in Western Uttar Pradesh began to mobilise towards the BJP. During that period, the BJP made Dr Ranveer Singh and Naresh Balyan Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha members respectively. In an unexpected turn of events, in the 1998 elections, when the BJP fielded me from the Baghpat constituency, I won against Chaudhary Ajit Singh — becoming the Minister of State for Agriculture in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Cabinet at the Centre. The government lasted only 13 months.

During that tenure, under the guidance of Vajpayee, many historical decisions were taken due to my initiative, which included the Kisan Credit Card, National Agricultural Insurance Scheme, license-free sugar mills, abrogation of Milk and Milk Processing Order (MMPO), a historic hike in Minimum Support Price for wheat from Rs 460 to Rs 550 per quintal, launching Krishi Vigyan Kendra in each Indian district and establishing an Agricultural University in Meerut, awaited since 1955.

But in the election held in September 1999, I lost to Ajit Singh by a huge margin.

Elected to the Lok Sabha along with me was an illustrious and senior Jat leader — Virendra Verma — from Kairana, District Muzaffarnagar, on a BJP ticket. He had earlier been MLA several times, a minister in UP holding 22 portfolios at different times, Deputy Chief Minister, twice Member of Rajya Sabha and Governor of two states — Punjab and Himachal.

His contribution to the farmers’ cause is no less than Chaudhary Charan Singh’s.

What Made Jat Youths Seek Out a New Political Identity?

It seemed that Jats could not digest the fact of Ajit Singh's defeat. After losing the election, I was appointed as the Member of the Union Planning Commission, then the Member of the 12th Finance Commission, and in 2004, the Chairman of the National Farmers Commission. After I resigned from the last post, the UPA government made Dr Swaminathan the Chairman of the Farmers Commission.

On the other hand, in 2000, Ajit Singh allied with the UPA to become a Minister at the Centre. Earlier he had served as a Union Minister in the VP Singh, Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda and Gujral Cabinets. Following which perhaps Jats’ grudge against the BJP abated.

Then the communal incidents of 2013 in Western UP and the diminishing power of the Lok Dal triggered curiosity among the Jat youths to seek a new political identity.

A large number of them, impressed by Narendra Modi’s charismatic leadership, joined the BJP before the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections and the ranks continued to swell until 2019.

Farmer Protests: A Sign of Disenchantment with the BJP?

The farmer protests, starting from Punjab, have been going on for the last 75 days on Delhi’s Tikri, Singhu, Ghazipur, Palwal and Jaisinghpur Kheda borders. It’s undeniable that Punjabi farmers of all castes are participating in the agitation, but Jats are the highest in number, seconded by Jats of Haryana, and now, the third front has been opened up by Jats from western Uttar Pradesh. Initially they were relatively few in number.

But after the incidents of 26 and 28 January 2021, there was a sudden boil in western Uttar Pradesh, and without any concerted effort, the number of protesters at the Ghazipur border became equivalent to that of the farmers camping at Tikri and Singhu. The country witnessed a new avatar — of farmer leader Rakesh Tikait — who was instantly bestowed with the title and stature of his father, late Mahendra Singh Tikait, who gave a completely new dimension to the farmer movement in the 1980s and gained fame internationally.

Now signs are beginning to show that the Jats are getting disillusioned and gearing up for a change in their role.

They were drawn to the BJP between 1998 and 2019 because they were disappointed in other political parties. Consequently, they became active supporters of Hindu nationalism, forgetting the secular and all-inclusive farmer-political-social model of their most respected leader Chaudhary Charan Singh.

It’s difficult to predict political equations and their consequences until the upcoming elections. But ‘Jatland’ has once again issued a clarion call that hints at chaos in the central seat of power and the future of politics.

(Disclaimer: This piece was originally published on Quint Hindi and has been translated to English by Om Tiwari. Tiwari can be reached @iamomtiwari. The original article can be accessed here.)

(Sompal Shastri began his career as a politician of the BJP from Uttar Pradesh. He has been Minister for Agriculture in the Vajpayee government and a member of the Union Planning Commission. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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