On the evening of January 28, Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, 80, got a call from Naresh Tikait, chief of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, or BKU, which is leading the farmer protests against the Narendra Modi government’s new agriculture laws at Ghazipur on Delhi’s border with Uttar Pradesh. “Come and join the panchayat in Muzaffarnagar. These are troubled times and it is about our self-respect now,” Jaula, speaking at his home in Muzaffarnagar’s Jaula village, recalled Naresh telling him. “His words were ‘forget what has happened and come’.”
Earlier in the evening, Naresh’s brother and BKU national spokesperson Rakesh Tikait’s emotional outburst in front of the media had quickly shored up the Ghazipur protest just as the UP government seemed itching for a crackdown.
Jaula, who has influence over Muslim farmers in western UP, was once a close aide of BKU founder Mahender Singh Tikait, the father of the Tikait brothers and a formidable voice of farmer movements in North India from the 1980s until his death in 2011.
The BKU, Jaula believes, weakened after Mahender’s death, and fell from grace in 2013 after communal violence in Muzaffarnagar killed 62 people, mostly Muslims. The Tikait brothers, who had addressed a Jat mahapanchayat that stoked the violence, were afterwards booked for making inflammatory speeches and lost standing among local Muslims. Though Naresh later described the carnage as a “stain on the history of the region”, it didn’t save the sundered political alliance between the sugar bowl’s Jats and Muslims. It pushed Jaula to quit the union, and start the Kisan Mazdoor Manch for his base of Muslim farmers.
When he met the Tikaits at the Muzaffarnagar mahapanchayat on January 29 this year, Jaula told them they had made two mistakes. “One, you helped defeat Ajit Singh,” he told them, referring to the Rashtriya Lok Dal leader, “and two, you killed Muslims.”
Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, 80, at his home in Muzaffarnagar.
Two months into the farmer protests, faced with likely Jat-Muslim reconciliation in western UP, Jaula is at once hopeful and doubtful.
The two communities can join hands, he believes, but only if the Tikait brothers follow the right path and shun “self-preservation”. “Naresh is still a secular leader, but Rakesh is opportunistic,” Jaula said. “He has been closer to politics than farmer movements.”
The old man’s doubts stem from what he sees as the Tikaits’ reluctance to take on the Modi government. “When I was invited to speak at the Ghazipur protest on February 1, the Tikaits took me aside and said, ‘Baba, don’t make it political. Don’t speak against the government.’ I got the sense they were afraid because the government is trying to tighten the screw on them,” Jaula said.
The Jaula village in Muzaffarnagar’s Budhana area.
For Jaula, Muslim support for the farmer protests does not have much to do with the appeal of the Tikaits or the BKU. For one, most Muslims in the region are farmers and they believe the new laws harm their interests. Second, their loyalty lies with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal. Third, the community wants an end to their persecution by Adityanath’s Hindu supremacist government, especially its law enforcement apparatus.
“If the police catch a Jat youth riding a motorcycle without a helmet, he can get away with a Rs 100 fine,” Jaula said. “A Muslim boy has to pay ten times more.”
Jaula wants the BKU to pull away the Jat youth from the Bharatiya Janata Party. The support of the “16 to 25” population, as the local people put it, was crucial as the saffron party swept the region in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and the 2017 assembly election.
“At the Shamli mahapanchayat on February 5, I asked the Jat men to swear to boycott the BJP,” Jaula said. “All of them raised their hands and said they would.”
‘Rakesh Tikait is not a good man’
A few kilometres from Jaula is the village of Johiya Kheda, where I met Momeen Baba, 60, a sugarcane farmer who is a candidate for the panchayat elections, scheduled to be held later this year. I asked Momeen how Muslims in Muzaffarnagar were reconciling the dilemma that is Rakesh Tikait – a popular farmer protest leader once accused of inflaming the 2013 communal violence.
“We haven’t forgotten Tikait’s role in the violence,” Momeen told me. “But we’re prepared to overlook it. The riots in which he participated killed more than 60 people. But if BJP stays, thousands more can die. That is the genuine fear among Muslims.”
Jats may have turned against the BJP to safeguard their economic interests, Momeen explained, but Muslims are looking at the larger picture. “We have to support Tikait’s leadership and his Jat base. We can’t go to Ghazipur to protest all by ourselves. If we do, we’ll be called terrorists and shot.”
Momeen Baba, 60, at Johiya Kheda village in Muzaffarnagar.
He maintained that Muslim farmers in Muzaffarnagar do not have a sympathetic view of Rakesh. “No one considers him a good man, not only because of what happened in 2013, but also because he’s not a good man to begin with,” he said. “It is merely a compromise given the circumstances. We want to save this nation.”
Momeen’s view may not be as widely shared as he believes. Lukman Kushwaha, 22, who comes from a family of farmers but will soon be a first generation pharmacist, told me the protests along the borders of Delhi are on everyone’s mind in his village which sent three tractors to Ghazipur after watching Rakesh sob.
Kushwaha isn’t as harsh on Tikait as Momeen and Jaula. “One cannot say Rakesh Tikait was responsible for the Muzaffarnagar violence. It was never proved,” he said. “Morever, everyone at the time was thinking like a Hindu or a Muslim. Before that episode, his father had worked for farmers, both Hindu and Muslim, for many years.”
Kushwaha’s father, Mohammad Haneer, 70, echoes what is now a common refrain from Bijnor to Baghpat: it was the BJP which orchestrated the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar. Their critics should cut the Tikaits some slack, he believes, because they went to Muslim elders in Muzaffarnagar a few months after the carnage and apologised.
Has he forgiven the Tikaits? “That is for Allah to do. Who am I to forgive,” he replied.
Lukman Kushwaha, 22, at Johiya Kheda village.
In neighbouring Loi Sarai, the village chief Dilshad, 45, told me that social divisions between Jats and Muslims in the region have healed over the years – they attend each other’s weddings and sit down for feasts together. He remarked that the violence happened in “another era, another time”.
“I don’t think the Tikaits gave any inflammatory speeches then,” he added. “In any case, things are better now.”
Dilshad indicated that the reason for Muslim support to Jats in the ongoing protests goes beyond farming. They are looking to halt the BJP’s juggernaut in UP. “The police here likes to harass young Muslims. Our boys have more trouble with them than the Jats. At the slightest rumour of violence, they pick up Muslims and throw them into prison. It needs to stop,” he explained.
Dilshad, 45, the village chief of Loi Sarai, in Muzaffarnagar.
'Both communities made mistakes’
The Tikait brothers find greater acceptance among Muslims closer to Sisauli, their village in Muzaffarnagar.
Shikarpur, a village about 2 km from Sisauli, sent more than a hundred men to the Ghazipur protest – and more than once. "No one was killed here during the riots because we worked with Naresh Tikait to maintain peace," said former village chief Yahya Nambardar, 49.
He added that during the violence in 2013, "both communities made mistakes". "Our leaders also created provocation like then member of parliament Amir Alam Khan," Yahya said. "Jats reacted. But by the end of the violence, more Muslims were killed than Hindus."
People in Shikarpur describe Naresh Tikait as a "simple", "low-profile" man who works in the field most of the day like any other farmer. His father, fondly known as Baba Tikait, is remembered for similar reasons. As head of the Balyan khap of 84 villages, both communities trust Naresh’s judgement: Muslims told me that villagers in the area preferred to take their disputes to him rather than the courts.
"Even when innocent Muslim boys are picked up by the police, Nareshji goes to the Thana and gets them out," said Yahya.
Rakesh Tikait, on the other hand, is seen as someone who is "urban-based" and occupied with BKU matters within and outside UP, handling its media and government-related matters. "But Naresh has his ear to the ground and exerts greater influence in the local area," said the former village chief.
Islam Nambardar, Yahya's brother and the chief of Shikarpur, explained that Muslim farmers in western UP are prepared to overlook the Tikait brothers' blemished past because the ongoing protests concern their occupation and livelihood – a common link with the Jats of the region. "The Muslims and Jats were together under Mahendra Tikait for decades," Islam said. "His sons might have deviated from his course, but every family has some infighting. We have put it behind us to fight these black laws by the BJP."
Pictures by Ayush Tiwari.