On the afternoon of August 31, Joginder Singh, a leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, an influential farmer outfit in North India, stood on the grounds of the government inter-college in Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh, briefing a few of his associates. “We should set up the bhandara outside,” he told them. A bhandara is a community kitchen.
Preparations were underway for what is being touted as the largest ever Kisan Mahapanchayat, or farmer congregation, in recent times. The government inter-college grounds in Muzaffarnagar, the size of a large football field, will host the event on September 5, but farmer leaders say it will spill out onto the streets. “Every road in the radius of 20 km from here will be occupied,” Singh said.
After a lull induced by the second wave of Covid-19, farmers in North India are hoping to intensify their stir, which began last winter, against the three contentious farm laws that the Centre rushed through Parliament without any substantive discussion in September 2020. While the Bharatiya Janata Party-run Central government claims the new laws would free up India’s troubled agricultural sector by giving farmers more choice of buyers for their produce, farmer groups say the laws are a ploy to corporatise the sector and would lead to crony capitalism.
The mahapanchayat on Sunday, the farmer outfits said, would be the beginning of a renewed phase of protests.
But there is more to the upcoming mahapanchayat, evident in the choice of venue: Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh.
The district, located 130 km north east of the national capital, had been riven by Hindu-Muslim riots in 2013 that left over 60 dead. At the centre of the clashes were Jat farmers, led by influential peasant leaders, who clashed with their Muslim neighbours in an unprecedented bout of violence in a region where the two communities have long shared ethnic ties and common economic interests.
Many political observers hold the riots as a watershed moment that polarised Uttar Pradesh in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and paved the way for the rise of the BJP as India’s ruling party.
Uttar Pradesh alone accounts for 80 seats in the 543-seats Lok Sabha. The BJP won 71 of 80 seats. In western UP it won all but three of the 27 Lok Sabha constituencies.
The party continued its successful run in western UP during the 2017 assembly elections, when it won 105 of the 136 seats in the region.
However, the ongoing farmer protests may have complicated the political equation in the region. Not only did Jat farmers from western UP join the protests at the borders of Delhi in the winter, when the government tried to evict a protest site in Ghazipur in January, the teary-eyed appeal of a prominent Jat leader Rakesh Tikait led to an outpouring of support, with large gatherings organised across the region.
Many claimed then that the protests had doused the communal tensions in the region, rekindling old solidarities between Hindu and Muslim farmers, which threatened to weaken the BJP’s political grip in western UP.
Now, with the upcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh just six months away, some farm leaders have explicitly said the Muzaffarnagar mahapanchayat is being envisioned as a symbolic end to the communal strife that helped the BJP in the previous elections and the beginning of a fresh political mobilisation against the party ahead of the 2022.
Already, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, a Jat-centric party with strong roots in western Uttar Pradesh, has tapped into the farmers’ anger by unequivocally putting their weight behind the protests. The party is an official ally of the Samajwadi Party, which is likely to be the BJP’s main challenger in the upcoming elections.
But among ordinary Jat farmers, the sentiment is mixed, as Scroll.in found while reporting from Muzaffarnagar and its neighbouring districts this week. While most farmers that this reporter spoke to confirmed that someone from their families would attend the mahapanchayat, many Hindu Jat farmers kept a cautious distance from the larger political messaging the rally sought to send out.
“Farmers are undoubtedly angry with the government so someone from every family will go,” said Sharan Singh, a 74-year-old Jat land-owning farmer from Meerut’s Sandhan village. “But who knows if it will really benefit the Opposition.”
‘Who knows what the future holds’
Indeed, a section of Jat farmers seem to have not completely closed their doors on the BJP. This is partly a result of the Uttar Pradesh government’s recent announcement that it would increase the state-advised price for sugarcane before November – the minimum rates that sugar mills must pay farmers. The government has also asked sugar mills to clear the pending dues of farmers.
In western Uttar Pradesh, discontentment over stagnant sugarcane prices was the primary factor that led farmers to join the protests last winter. In sharp contrast, in Punjab, where the protests first began, the opposition to the farm laws is more deep-rooted and reflects a wider range of concerns about the emerging agrarian economy.
As Sharan Singh said: “If there is a substantial increase, farmers will support the BJP; if the rate offered exceeds Rs 360, there will definitely be a change in heart.” The current state-advised price is Rs 315 per quintal of sugarcane.
Ravinder Singh, a sugarcane farmer from Muzaffarnagar’s Bopara village, concurred. “After all, the whole fight is about sugarcane prices, so there will obviously be some impact if there is a proper hike.”
Saranveer Singh Deswal, a sugarcane farmer and a senior Khap leader from western Uttar Pradesh has been mobilising people for the mahapanchayat. Khaps are clan-based organisations in north-western India, mostly prevalent among Jats, that have great influence over community life in rural areas.
While Deswal insisted that the Adityanath government’s latest announcements amounted to too little, too less, he conceded that if the government really did walk the talk on its promises, things could still change. “We are not against the government, we are only against some of its policies,” said Deswal. “So if the government really does something good for farmers, maybe people will change their mind. Who knows what the future holds.”
Minds made up
A section of Jat farmers, however, seems more resolute in their opposition to the BJP. For instance, Saranveer Singh Deswal’s father, Rajender Singh Deswal, an octogenarian who heads the Deswal clan Khap, with his writ extending to 57 villages.
“Five years, they did not give us anything, now they are saying they are withdrawing cases – weren’t they the ones who made that law?” he asked, referring to the Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Act that has a provision for the collection of compensation from farmers over activities like stubble-burning that contribute to air pollution.
Last year, when it was still an ordinance, the Uttar Pradesh government had pressed charges against several farmers in the region under its provisions. Now, the government has said it would consider withdrawing those cases.
Dismissing the recent announcements as political expedience, Deswal said: “There are too many issues. It is not just about sugarcane prices. What about electricity which is more expensive for farmers here than in Punjab and Haryana?”
In adjoining Shamli, Jitender Singh Hooda, agreed. “For four years you broke the farmer, tortured them mentally,” he said. “Now no one is going to be taken in by such promises.”
Land-owning Muslim farmers Scroll.in met were particularly steadfast. “The government did what it had to in the last four years,” said Mohammad Tahir, who grows sugarcane in Muzaffarnagar’s Purbaliyan village. “Now they and the media will see our strength on September 5. We are all united now, Hindu-Muslim, everyone.”
A fragile truce
The prospect of Hindu-Muslim unity in the region might hold considerable appeal, but scratch the surface and it is quite evident that is not quite true.
Sharan Singh from Meerut spelled it out. “Beyond sugarcane prices, things like security also matter,” he said. “Under SP, mohemmadan ka manobal (the confidence of Muslims) was high; now ours is higher.”
Speak to Hindu Jat farmers across the region and you are more often than not likely to come across such comments in unguarded moments.
Most of them say that while the 2013 riots may have indeed been forgotten, it will not take much to reactivate hostilities. “One big incident and all the vidroh (protests) will finish,” said Vishal Chaudhury, a cousin of Ravinder Chaudhury, the farmer in Bopara village.
Add to that, a sharp hike in sugarcane prices, and western Uttar Pradesh’s Jat farmers, Ravinder Chowdhury said, “will do balle balle and go vote for BJP.”