Every morning at 6 am, Naresh Tikait arrives at his sugarcane farm in rural Muzaffarnagar, about 10 km from his home in the town of Sisauli. Dressed in a white dhoti and kurta, with a white turban and a neat Nehru jacket, his farm takes up most of his day. It’s only by early evening, when he goes back home, that he assumes his duties as the president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union and the chief of the Baliyan khap.
Back home, Tikait sits on the verandah of his haveli, eating jaggery and drinking milk while the thambedars, or khap ministers, update him with the latest details of the ongoing farmer protests against the Centre’s new farm laws.
I met Naresh Tikait on February 11 at the nearby village of Mandwar, where he was scheduled to speak at the funeral of a BKU veteran. Tikait, who is in his early 50s, was accompanied by his twin grandsons.
After the funeral, he sat down with khap elders, mostly BKU members, and others to chat around a rustic hookah. All those who spoke at this gathering began by addressing the khap leaders, but it was Tikait’s name that was always mentioned first.
“One must not be stubborn if one has a demand,” Tikait told the attendees when he rose to speak. “Both sides have to make small compromises to reach an acceptable resolution.”
Later that evening, I sat down with Tikait in his home in Sisauli to talk about the simmering anger against the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, the contradictions in the farmer protests, the support to the movement by the Muslim community, and his brother Rakesh Tikait’s role in the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.
You attended a funeral in a nearby village today. I was there. You told the attendees that one should not be stubborn, and there should be a little compromise from both sides. Were you in any way hinting at the ongoing farmer protests?
It was meant in the context of disputes in villages here. Having a stubborn attitude is not desirable in any situation. It is not the farmers but the government that is being stubborn. The farmers are sitting there with problems, talking about their losses and how the new laws do not provide a fair deal. Everyone desires a profit. So, if the farmers don’t get good prices for their crops, then protests are bound to happen. We are not protesting because it is our hobby.
Many mahapanchayats are being held in western UP and Haryana, organised by Bharatiya Kisan Union and the Rashtriya Lok Dal. What is their objective?
The objective is to show the government the scale of people that oppose the farm laws. So many show up at their own expense to express dissent. The only goal is to let the government know that their farmers are in anguish.
I have observed that there is a lot of anger among the Jat youths against the BJP. There are elections in UP next year. What will be the electoral consequences if the farmer protests continue?
The BJP will lose big time, and they will continue to lose. The party has not paid attention to the farmers.
The politics here is driven by farmers, not by the urban folk. Around 70 percent of people who migrate to the cities are from the villages and are connected to farming in one way or the other. They study, live and work in cities but are originally from villages.
But the government has taken it upon itself to uproot villages. No farmer is thriving. They can’t afford to build their houses. Everything has halted and loans are piling up and they can’t pay bills. It is a tough time.
Protests can be quashed by power and that’s what the government is doing, whether it’s through the heavy deployment of police or the complaints lodged against them. But they cannot quell their fervour. People will grow bitter and they will take the anger out on their MPs and MLAs. They won’t communicate with them.
We are scared; if these peaceful protests become violent, then I do not know what will happen. We do not believe in violence but what if it becomes violent? Who can predict the future? Our country is already facing trouble at the borders.
It is also the government’s responsibility to do something. We have been organising protests for 33 years and have raised many issues and participated in umpteen dialogues and found solutions. However, this government is stubborn. It is not done.
Naresh Tikait at a funeral in the village of Mandwar in Muzaffarnagar on February 11.
A mahapanchayat in UP’s Amroha district on February 7.
The prime minister in the Parliament that the government is in constant dialogue with the protesting farmers and that it is listening to their demands. Do you think that is happening?
No. Nothing. There are no talks happening.
Your brother, Rakesh Tikait, is protesting in Ghazipur outside Delhi. How are you handling the protests from here?
I go to Ghazipur too. There is a big panchayat in Moradabad tomorrow. There are more in Ayodhya, Barabanki and Chitrakoot, and I will go there. There is one in Alwar today. I keep visiting these panchayats from time to time.
I a mahapanchayat and noticed that the BKU and RLD claim that all 36 castes are supporting the farmer protests. I feel that there are two conversations happening in western UP: those at the top are demanding the withdrawal of the farm laws, but on the ground, the average farmer speaks about the problems of sugarcane farming. Why is there this dissonance?
We are talking about making a law that guarantees a minimum support price for crops. There is not much impact of that in the sugarcane belt. Different states face different problems. Our advice has been that everyone should get together and fight with a joint front.
The protest is also concerned with the humiliation faced by farmers. They have been hurt by the actions of the government. The farmers want to be treated politely with folded hands. They are called “Khalistani”, “terrorists”, “aandolan jeevi”, “jamaat”. These are dangerous terms and things can get ugly because of it. Such things should not be said. It seems that the prime minister’s mind is a bit disturbed given these hurtful statements.
If the government withdraws the farm laws in the coming weeks or months, the goal of the farmer protests would have been met. But what about the problems of sugarcane and wheat farmers? They are part of the protests because of the stagnant rates and rising electricity bills. These problems will persist even if the laws are withdrawn.
We do not have much hopes from this government. People will evaluate them when the elections come. The government will have to work a lot to get in the good books of the farmers, especially with all the police cases they have filed against innocent farmers. These cases will go to court and there will be more brouhaha.
The government has to be decent in its conduct towards the farmers, even towards journalists. They are claiming that they [farmers] have land worth crores and whatnot. We are farmers: if we don’t have land, what do we have? We haven’t stolen or robbed it from someone. We have worked hard and bought it on our own. Do they expect farmers to beg? Farmers are educated and wise these days. But the government thinks they are a helpless lot. They should discard these notions.
How many court cases have been filed against members of your union?
We don’t know much about it. From what I have heard, many have been booked. The government, however, should change its mindset. We do not have an interest in agitating aimlessly. We have problems and the government doesn’t want us to speak up. How can that happen?
The government made promises during elections. But once they came to power, they changed their minds. In 2014, they promised to increase the price of sugarcane to Rs 450 per quintal. It has been seven years and they have not done anything. Why did they not do it? Why is electricity so expensive? We use any electricity for 10-15 minutes and then switch it off. But we are charged as if we use it for 24 hours. Farmers try to cut down on electricity as much as they can. We don’t run factories, or use tube wells so often, even among Jats, but we get such big electricity bills.
These points have also become part of the farmer protests, besides the farm laws.
The points must be put forward. All the problems have to be put forward. These are regional issues that should be addressed to the state government...
According to a in the Hindu, a BJP minister said anonymously that the protests in western UP are an “emotional issue”, that the party will not face any stiff challenge “as long as 50 percent of vote bank is with us”. The BJP leader also said, “It is not difficult to come up with an emotional issue in this country.” What do you make of it?
We do not have animosity with the BJP. We voted for them. Ask anyone. Everyone voted for them. But they did not stand up to expectations so how can we help it? We are not here just for votes. We also want some development. There is no development and only suspect deeds are underway.
If governments keep changing, a different set of problems will arise. If a different party forms the government, then BJP will criticise them and this is a never-ending process. The public only wants fairness and a good atmosphere. There is a mentality among people that when the party they support comes to power, they will take revenge from their political rivals who were once in power. This mentality needs to be dropped.
A government does not belong to a group of people. It has to work in the interest of the entire populace.
The Tikait home in Sisauli, Muzaffarnagar.
The town of Sisauli in Muzaffarnagar.
Traveling in Bijnor, Shamli, Amroha and Muzaffarnagar, I have noticed that even though farmers – – accept that there is agrarian distress, they still say that they support the BJP. The Dalit farmers and labourers I met say they have to work for a living, so how will they join the protests? No one has even approached them to talk about the agitation.
This differs from the rhetoric at the mahapanchayat stage, where it is announced that all farmers and labourers are together.
There is nothing like that. It’s the people’s wish to join or not. We can’t invite everyone to the protests. Farmers anyway do not have castes, they are only farmers. We are not keeping tabs on which caste is joining or not. But everyone is together. There might be more representation from one group but we have seen that all groups are joining us, be it Kashyaps, Dalits or Muslims. There is no pressure on anyone.
Socially backward and smaller farmers say that a Jat can afford to protest because he owns more land and employs labour, as opposed to a Dalit farmer.
There is nothing like this. There is no comparison. All of us stay together and there is intermingling. They will vote as we say, and without any pressure, across villages. A few will probably not do so, but they are only 5-10 percent. But no caste group faces any pressure. They can vote for the party of their choice, be it Samajwadi Party, BJP or RLD. We just want everyone to fight together.
At the Muzaffarnagar panchayat in January, farmer leader Gulam Mohammad Jaula said that you had committed two mistakes: that you made [RLD president] Ajit Singh lose elections and that you were responsible for the killing of Muslims during the riots in 2013.
Do you think Muslim farmers have with the Jats that emanated eight years ago?
These things did happen but we had controlled the situation in places like Sisauli. It was the BJP’s strategy and they played a dirty game and succeeded.
Everyone has the right to live. You can’t say that Muslims don’t have a right to live. Both Hindus and Muslims can commit mistakes. If someone is a scoundrel, his religion doesn’t matter. There should not be any distinction. But a person who has power, and the party he is associated with, influences a lot of things.
So, you’re saying the Muzaffarnagar riots was the BJP’s deed?
Yes, definitely. We were present then. A lot of hate against Muslims was stirred, even though it was a very small issue. The mentality of only two percent of the Muslim community might have been affected, but 98% of them were all right. The BJP got a great opportunity to grab electoral gain.
Even we got carried away then. People did not like it. But when it happened, there was a climate against Muslims, that they should be finished. But when people understood the BJP’s game, normalcy returned. Everything is fine now.
When you say you got carried away, are you referring to cases against you and your brother Rakesh Tikait for giving inflammatory speeches at a mahapanchayat?
Yes, there were cases against us. There was an investigation and the matter was closed. When there was a mass exodus of Muslims, we had settled them in Sisauli. However, people are happy now.
Going ahead, what plans do you have for the farmer protests in UP?
The protest will go on and we want the conversation around it to continue. That’s it. The attendance of protesters might ebb and intensify. If tomorrow the government becomes harsher, then we will get tougher too. We will bar their entry, not speak to them, and will not let them carry around their party flags. They should themselves realise that they have made mistakes. Until then, people will not engage with them.
Transcribed by Keshav Pransukhka.
A weekly capsule of our podcasts, part of some of India's most-followed podcasts on media, politics, pop culture, food and more.