On February 7, the sugarcane fields of Mukari village in Uttar Pradesh’s Amroha district were dotted with thousands of white caps. Dressed in brown sweaters, plain dhotis and leather shoes, Jat farmers from across the district poured into the village to attend a mahapanchayat organised by the Rashtriya Lok Dal against the Narendra Modi government's contentious new farm laws.
Mukari is situated merely 30 km from Noorpur, the birthplace of Chaudhary Charan Singh, former prime minister and father of RLD chief Chaudhary Ajit Singh, whose son Jayant Chaudhary, the party’s vice president, was the main attraction of the mahapanchayat.
The gathering was attended by an estimated 5,000 people who arrived on tractors and carts decorated with the Indian flag, and the white and green flag of the RLD.
Farmers at the mahapanchayat in Amroha.
The flurry of mahapanchayats being held across western Uttar Pradesh these days fall into two categories: they are either a gathering against the new farm laws, or a political rally using the cloak of the protests to turn the tide against the governing Bharatiya Janata Party. The Amroha mahapanchayat fell into the latter category.
The rhetoric and audience of the mahapanchayats provide a clue as to what they are seeking to accomplish. They are attempting to mobilise and recruit other castes and communities — especially Muslims, whose presence at the Amroha gathering was overstated — for the farmer protests, which in western UP are led mainly by Jats. Two, they are appealing to the dignity of farmers, hurt by the BJP’s “anti-national” and “Khalistani” jibes, and channeling the discontent of the local sugarcane economy against the saffron party ahead of the 2022 Assembly election.
“Don’t call me a Hindu or a Muslim,” one RLD politician told the mahapanchayat on Sunday. “Call me a farmer. This is about our collective identity as farmers, and all the 36 farmer castes are behind this movement.” Behind the politician, on the stage, sat three elders – a Sikh, a Muslim and a Jat sporting saffron, white and green turbans, respectively.
An RLD leader speaking at the Amroha mahapanchayat on Sunday.
In Punjab, the farmer protests are a peasant-driven movement to get the new farm laws repealed; in western UP, they have taken an overtly political hue. Unlike the mahapanchayats in Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat, the Bharatiya Kisan Union, led by the Tikait brothers Naresh and Rakesh, did not feature at all in Amroha. It was an RLD affair, featuring an RLD scion, targeting the Jat peasant – the traditional RLD voter.
Jayant Chaudhary, 42, enjoyed a dramatic welcome at the gathering, drawing hundreds of hangers-on towards the stage. “The BJP government has all avenues, such as social media, to create a caste and communal divide among us but do not get confused by their disparaging campaign to divide the country on these lines,” said Chaudhary, whose speech was preceded by a folk song to welcome him to Amroha.
Jayant Chaudhary at the Amroha mahapanchayat.
The mood among the farmers attending the Amroha mahapanchayat was stridently anti-BJP, but not because they are spooked by the new farm laws. “I am here to understand what this andolan is all about,” said Durujan Singh, 62, a sugarcane farmer from Karhala village. “People have come here to listen to these politicians. I’m a simple villager trying to make up my mind.”
Singh, however, is not strictly on the fence. The stagnant prices of sugarcane under the Adityanath government, sale of wheat below the minimum support price, and delayed payments by sugar mills have left him worried that the laws brought by the Modi government “might bring loss to farmers”.
It does not take long for conversations with farmers here to shift to the anti-BJP gear. The rage against the party often turns abusive. Rajveer Singh, 31, from Amroha’s Jajru village, told me it was the local youth that made the mistake of voting in the BJP at the Centre and the state. “We made the mistake once, we will not make it again,” he snapped.
Bher Singh Bishnoi, 55, who hails from the district’s Faridpur village, said he came to the mahapanchayat because he could not stand the “misery” of fellow farmers. “We took loans from cooperative societies and banks to grow sugarcane. After a year, we sold the crop to the mills, which now pay us Rs 10 one month and another Rs 10 the next month,” a vexed Bishnoi explained. “The farmers have been devastated. I supported the BJP in 2017, but now I’m forced to think because they have driven us to despair and thrown the country’s economy into the pit.”
In Amroha, the frustration with the BJP seems to be pushing Jat farmers into the RLD fold, with evocations of the late Chaudhary Charan Singh, who is hailed as a leader who used his high office to help farmers. “In 2017, the thinking here was Dilli mai Modi, UP mai Yogi,” said Chhote Singh, 55, from Sihari village. “But now we are now paying for our mistakes. I voted for the BJP in 2017 for the first time in my life. Else we have always voted for the RLD, whether it lost or won.”
Chhote’s neighbour, Om Pal Singh, 80, recalled that the Bharatiya Jan Sangh — the forerunner of the BJP — used to have a lamp as their election symbol when Charan Singh was active in politics. “Chaudhary ji used to say the day these lampwalas came to power, farmers would be finished,” he said. “How right he was!”
Chhote Singh and Om Pal Singh at the Amroha mahapanchayat.
Last week, a in the Hindu quoted a BJP leader as saying that the protests against the farm laws in western UP was an “emotional issue” and not a groundswell against the governing party. Another in the paper quoted a BJP leader who said the party will not face any stiff challenge in the state “as long as 50 percent of vote bank is with us”, adding, “It is not difficult to come up with an emotional issue in this country.”
Every farmer I spoke to in Amroha repudiated this claim. The fuel for the BJP’s increasingly unpopularity, it seems, is not emotion but the poor state of sugarcane farming in the region. “The only bogey they can raise is the Hindu-Muslim issue,” said Om Pal Singh. “We have seen it before: the bricks for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the statue of Ram, and whatnot. Have the Muslims ever said no to the construction of a temple in Ayodhya? No one will be swayed by emotions this time.”
Pictures by Ayush Tiwari.