February 6, 2021 dawns amid extraordinary security arrangements made by the government against a call by protesting farmers to halt national and State highways. Jatin Anand and Anuj Kumar report on the preparations and assess the shifting realities
The capital wears the look of a city fortified and battle-ready. As far as the eyes can see are reams and reams of razor wires, which, as a senior police officer points out, have their origins in the trench warfare of World War I. Metal and concrete barricades and panels of nails fastened by cement to restrict breach by vehicles display the readiness of the state to take on the farmers. The three-hour chakka jam (gridlock) on February 6 announced by a section of protesting farmers on all State and national highways around and beyond Delhi — the first “big event” since a proposed march to Parliament on February 1 was postponed — will be a test of self-discipline for the agitating farmers, and of nerves for security personnel manning veritable fortifications behind metal and concrete walls.
Access to protest sites, for protesters, local residents and journalists alike, is controlled either directly through security personnel, especially at Singhu border, which is regarded as the headquarters of the movement, or indirectly via elongated routes through dirt roads replete with recently dug pits and concrete slabs. The Delhi Police, the Uttar Pradesh Police, commandoes, the Rapid Action Force (RAF) and riot police are on guard.
Internet services are restricted at all three locations, earthmoving equipment is on standby to make “modifications” to the topography of the area as and when required, alongside riot control vehicles. Heavy slabs — longish metal ones placed on large trucks under the Tikri Border metro station, concrete ones topped with iron bar pieces jutting out from the top at the Singhu border, and smaller ones on either side of beds of nails on both the main roads leading to and on the Ghazipur flyover — have been requisitioned.
Over two months since the mostly peaceful protests began, an interlude of a few hours on January 26 witnessed unprecedented violence at several locations, including the Red Fort, during the tractor rally taken out by farmers. The police say it was “a breach of trust” and a deliberate violation of terms related to the rally agreed upon by them and leaders of the farmer unions, and that has necessitated the bandobast (arrangements) this time.
As the ceremonial parade on Rajpath got underway on January 26, the ‘Kisan Gantantra Parade’, too, commenced around 10 a.m. on routes on the peripheries of the capital. However, within a few minutes, reports of farmers aboard their tractors attempting to breach the boundaries began pouring in from all sides.
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Water cannons were used and tear gas shells were lobbed to stop the agitating farmers’ advance as tractors driven by men with faces covered rammed into DTC buses meant to demarcate the “permitted” route; men poured out from “private vehicles” to clash with security personnel and damage road dividers at Mukarba Chowk, Nangloi and Singhu border, among other locations.
Soon, tractors and vehicles had breached the route on the U.P. Link road near the Akshardham Temple and had driven on towards ITO, the arterial junction between Old and Lutyens’ Delhi. Those who were stalled clashed brazenly with police personnel. Some attempted to run them over with their tractors under the mural of a smiling Mahatma Gandhi adorning one side of the old Delhi Police headquarters. One of the protesters died allegedly after his tractor overturned at a high speed.
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In the meantime, others, many of them on foot, had reached the Red Fort. As police personnel, a majority of whom had reported for duty almost 18 to 24 hours ago as per the standard protocol preceding Republic Day arrangements, scrambled onto the scene, a mob breached the gates of the 383-year-old fort, rampaging through its vicinity, and oversaw the hurried hoisting of the ‘Nishan Sahib’ flag on one of its poles amid cheers of triumph.
Close to 400 police personnel, including both men and women, were injured, some seriously, during the course of the day. Almost one-fourth of these injuries were reportedly inflicted at the Red Fort. Of these, a sizeable number were suffered as police personnel fell or chose the relative safety of jumping over 15 feet into the dry moat along the periphery of the fort to escape the sticks, batons and other improvised weapons of the mob.
Aftermath and resurrection
The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, an umbrella organisation of 41 farmer unions, alleged that some “anti-social elements” had infiltrated their otherwise peaceful movement. It called off the tractor march as the police administration took stock of its injured personnel and went into a huddle over the way forward at what a police source termed “the highest levels”.
“Chaupals (village meetings) and panchayats were convened throughout the night across villages in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, and what had happened was discussed at length till noon the next day. We realised we had been betrayed not by our own but by the government,” said Suresh Dhaka, a resident of Haryana.
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Two days later, a video of a crying Rakesh Tikait, the national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), followed by his emotional appeal to rural India to join the movement to strengthen it, instilled a new-found resolve among the agitating farmers.
An old saying
There is a saying in western Uttar Pradesh: Jat mara tab janiyo jab tehervi ho jaye (Don’t consider a Jat dead before 13 days have elapsed). On the evening of January 28, the Ghaziabad administration realised its import as Tikait’s emotional outburst reinvigorated the agitation that was seemingly on its last legs at the Ghazipur border. Shaken and demoralised after the violent incidents of January 26, wherein some protesters lost in more ways than one, the farmers had begun to pack their bags, and those who were left were waiting to be detained after being caned.
Rajveer Singh, State vice-president of the BKU, says he had warned the administration that “hum 500 se 5,000 kabhi bhi ho sakte hain” (we could swell within hours), “but that day even we were not sure”. Senior members of the BKU said they had conveyed to officials that they should arrest the protesters with pakke kagaz (proper charges), failing which, they would not vacate the almost 3-km space on the Delhi-Meerut expressway. “Otherwise, our position would have been worse than that of V.M. Singh [of the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan] and Bhanu [BKU-Bhanu],” said a senior member. While Singh had left the protest site the previous day after blaming Tikait for mismanagement on Republic Day during the tractor rally, Bhanu Pratap Singh of the BKU-Bhanu vacated the protest site at Chilla on the Delhi-Noida border citing the violence.
As images of a teary-eyed Tikait flashed across western Uttar Pradesh after the Additional District Magistrate served him an eviction notice under Section 133 of the CrPC, the Ghaziabad administration started getting inputs about movement of farmers from neighbouring districts.
Police action, that had seemed imminent, was ultimately called off. On January 28, there had been indications: water and electricity supplies were cut off a night before and CCTVs were taken off.
Within hours of the video, Tikait became a national figure and Ghazipur no longer had to play second fiddle to Singhu and Tikri.
With his rival gone, Tikait, who had been saying that a section of farmers had let the movement down on January 26, took no time to embrace Sikh farmers from the Terai belt who were mobilised by V.M. Singh, and declared unflinching support for the community.
With his rustic wit and combative demeanour, Tikait handled both a prying media and impatient farmers with ease, but after January 28, he also shed the pro-BJP image, justifying his place in the coordination committee.
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Galvanising fresh recruits not only from villages in western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, but also from other protest sites in the city, Tikait’s appeal, however, underlined the fact that a peaceful resistance against alleged attempts at besmirching and defaming the movement would be crucial.
“This protest will continue till October-November; we have told the government this categorically and we have enough supplies to last us till then. Jab tak kanoon wapas nahin, tab tak kisan wapas nahin (There will be no farmers’ return home till the laws aren’t taken back),” Tikait announced on February 2. Apart from the tears that turned the ideological protest against the Central government’s farm laws into a fight for the dignity of farmers, Tikait’s allegation that the administration wanted the farmers to be beaten up by a crowd led by a BJP MLA decidedly turned the tide that night. It is not clear whether the BJP MLA from Loni, Nand Kishore Gurjar, was present at the spot — Ghaziabad Police say they are still verifying the charge — but his videos and a letter to the Union Home Minister, wherein he suggested that he and his supporters be allowed to remove the farmers from the protest site, gave BKU enough material to mobilise sympathy.
However, Tikait still needed numbers on the ground. That came after he got a call from Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) president Ajit Singh, followed by a tweet of support from the party’s vice-president, Jayant Chaudhary. Most of the farmers that reached Ghazipur that night were supporters of the RLD from neighbouring areas. However hard BKU leaders try to describe themselves as “arajnaitik” (apolitical), for Jat farmers in western Uttar Pradesh, the BKU and the RLD had been two faces of the same coin, until the BJP started making inroads into the community, particularly after the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013.
Considered close to senior BJP leader and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Rajnath Singh, who had supported the BKU in protests during the Congress regime, Tikait told The Hindu in December 2020 that he expected Rajnath Singh to join the talks at a later stage. But that didn’t happen and farmers who supported the BJP in the last two Lok Sabha elections were left without a political cover.
Union Minister Sanjeev Balyan, the sitting MP from Muzaffarnagar, might be an effective polarising figure in the region, but he did not carry enough social or political weight to pull the farmers back from Ghazipur. Locals say the Tikaits are on a first-name basis with the Minister, who is a member of the Baliyan khap which Naresh Tikait heads, and yet, he could not force the farmers to return.
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After 2014, the BJP has tried to build a young, more Hindutva-friendly leadership among Jats. Locals say they were given the patronage of the administration during face-offs with other communities, but the elderly are still loyal to the clan of former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, who created a robust social alliance among Jats, Yadavs, Muslims, and Gurjars in the 1970s.
“The farmer, who was free of the communal virus even during the Ayodhya movement, fell prey to it after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. There was communalisation of farmers in the region and a particular party benefited from it,” says Sokhendra Sharma, assistant professor in the History department in Digambar Jain Degree College in Baraut. The town saw a huge panchayat of various khaps last week.
Dr. Sharma says there has been tremendous social mobilisation through khaps after January 26 as after the emotional appeal by Tikait, youngsters got connected with the protest.
“Before January 26, the impression in the region was that farmers were being misguided like Muslims during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests. The vernacular frontline media was not playing its part in explaining the clauses of the laws to the public,” says Dr. Sharma. But after January 26, he says, awareness spread through social media and the youth were mobilised quickly through khap panchayats.
“Unlike rallies, to which people are brought, here, people come out of their own will,” says Yudhvir Singh, general secretary of the BKU. While in urban areas colleges are key sites for mobilisation of youth, in rural areas, it is the panchayats, he adds. “Panchayats continue to play an important role in peasant mobilisation, irrespective of caste. A large section of protesters at Ghazipur border may be from Jat families; food and other material support is being provided by people of all castes in a village. Even student leaders attend them,” says Dr. Sharma.
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On the slow mobilisation in western Uttar Pradesh, Dr. Sharma says that though census figures indicate that around 60% of the population is engaged in farming, the reality is different. “The direct involvement of the population in farming in this region has reduced considerably over the years as after globalisation, the children of farmers migrated to cities doing all kinds of jobs but not farming. Though they are from farming families, they are not aware of the interests of farmers.”
The contentious farm laws have given the youngsters a jolt because, as Rakesh Tikait says, they have put their identity as a farmer at stake. “They were facing issues such as rise in electricity and diesel prices, stray cattle, and non-payment of sugarcane dues, but after the farm laws, they feared that their lands would be taken away by corporates. The apprehensions also brought back those who have agriculture as their secondary source of income.”
“There are clauses that the government would intervene only if there is 50% increase over the previous year’s price in case of non-perishable goods and 100% rise over previous year’s price of perishable goods. It is against both the farmer and the consumer,” says Yudhvir Singh.
Suddenly, old-timers say, youth have begun to realise why the elders used to say never allow diya aur bati (lamp and wick, the symbol of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP) to enter villages, as it is a party that keeps traders’ interest first.
Politically, it is still an open game that depends on Tikait’s political ambitions after the new-found glory. Having bitten the dust on the hustings twice in the past, the seniors in the outfit hold that he is better placed as a farmer leader, with Jayant Chaudhary taking the political charge.
Naresh Tikait, the less combative of the two brothers, understands that hereon, the protest could be termed as a protest of Jat farmers, a label he could ill-afford when the elections in the State are still a year away. Hence, he is not making any statements against the BJP leadership in the region and is telling reporters that Balyan must have his political compulsions, and otherwise, he is with them.
Old-timers in the community do not foresee a profitable alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the RLD, unless SP chief Akhilesh Yadav concedes western Uttar Pradesh to the RLD. “The Jats still hold a grudge against Mulayam Singh Yadav for betraying the trust of his mentor Charan Singh by not giving his son Ajit Singh his share in the former Prime Minister’s political legacy,” says a senior BKU member. It was seen during the Bulandshahr Sadar bypoll in 2020, where the RLD candidate came a cropper. But those in favour of the alliance cite the Kairana win of 2018.
Response to fortification
Rakesh Tikait describes the turning of protest sites into citadels as a well-thought-out plan on the part of the police and the Centre, as that will only inconvenience people, which the authorities will then use to mobilise the public against farmers.
Already, on WhatsApp groups of residential societies in Ghaziabad, messages that question using the word ‘annadata’ (food-provider) for farmers have begun to surface. An argument is being promoted that the so-called ‘food-providers’ get many subsidies.
On February 5 evening, the BKU called off the chakka jam proposed for February 6 in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand citing ‘prevailing conditions’ and ongoing agricultural work in the region. Dharmendra Malik, media in-charge of the BKU, said the conditions in the two States are not conducive for the protest. “Now, members of BKU will give a memorandum to district officials in these two States. In the rest of the country, the call for the chakka jam remains as it is,” he said. The outfit has already kept Delhi out of the protest. Sources in the BKU say to counter propaganda, it was proposed to keep Delhi-NCR out of the protest, but ultimately, only Delhi was kept out. Tikait says he had inputs that violence could be fomented in Uttar Pradesh by breaking windshields of cars during the chakka jam.
Sources say the BKU is being careful as those who are averse to the farmers’ movement could foment trouble during the protest. “We have already proved that we can mobilise hundreds of people within hours. So, there is no point in pursuing the protest belligerently. We know we are in for a long haul,” said a senior member. In a touch of Gandhigiri, Tikait on February 5 also made a flowerbed on the Ghazipur border in response to nails fixed into roads by the Delhi Police. Farmers have been urged to distribute water and food items like groundnuts and jaggery among people who get stuck in the jam.
Music and noise
No movement is complete without music. Every evening, as the sun sets at the Ghazipur border, young Jats assemble around tractors fitted with huge speakers and dance away to artiste Ajay Hooda’s “Modiji thari top kde hum dilli aage” (Modiji, where is your canon? We have reached Delhi). Played in a loop, it is not the Punjabi beats, but the song’s biting lyrics — digital hogi duniya sari, annadata hua bhikari (the world has turned digital but the food provider is reduced to a beggar) — that pointedly capture the anguish of farmers.
However, as the dance began to border on hooliganism and spilt onto the streets, the discipline of the protest has been dented. After a couple of days, senior members of the community had to step in to restore order. “We have to constantly fight the stereotype: I told you they are unruly and can go berserk any time,” said Rajveer Singh. So, on Friday, one could also hear the sound of Mohammed Rafi’s “Aaj mausam bada beimaan hai” emanating from tents.