Tracing the journey of an impressive farmer leader, who once was employed as a lowly police constable in Delhi.
In hindsight, his tears did the trick. On a cold wintry night last January, Rakesh Tikait sobbed uncontrollably. He said he wouldn’t leave the farmers’ protests at Ghazipur, on the outskirts of Delhi, until three farm laws enacted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government were repealed.
The farmers had been protesting for months, fearful that the laws would loosen rules around sale, pricing and storage of farm produce and lead to the entry of private buyers. But that eventful night, barely 48 hours after some unruly farmers had gone on a rampage with their tractors in the capital city, the protests nearly unravelled. Public sympathy for the agitation in the wake of violence had greatly dissipated. The police were all set to move in and forcibly disperse the protesters. That’s when Tikait broke down.
Tikait’s tears, which were broadcast on television, helped turn the tide. As video clips of him weeping were widely shared, many farmers who had been trickling back home returned to the protests in large numbers. This forced the police to retreat. The protests survived and gathered in strength over a period of months, ultimately resulting in a rare success last week in which Modi capitulated. The prime minister, despite rarely bowing to public pressure, announced the repeal of the laws.
Because of their scale and tenacity, the farmers' protests raging across several states have been in the headlines for nearly a year. But appearing alongside these headlines has been the portly 53-year-old Tikait. Though dozens of farmers’ groups coalesced under the umbrella group Kisan Samyukta Morcha, Tikait has been the most visible face of the protests. As spokesman of one of the biggest farmer groups, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), Tikait, who speaks in a rustic rural dialect, has proven to be both charismatic and influential. Following last week’s victory, his stature has grown even more.
In a country where opposition leaders have struggled to stand up to the hugely popular Modi - a man often accused by detractors of being autocratic - Tikait’s feat has been remarkable. In all likelihood, the farmers’ victory will galvanise the dispirited opposition ranks and reignite people’s faith in the power of democratic protests, which had been all but delegitimised by the current government with its brute parliamentary majority. That Tikait helped guide the farmers to this victory also has profound personal significance. He has lived up to his pedigree.
His late father, Mahendra Singh Tikait, was one of the country’s most prominent farmers' leaders. In 1988 he brought Delhi to a virtual standstill by mobilising tens of thousands of farmers to demand better prices for their sugarcane crops. The elder Tikait passed away in 2011 and many believed that the family that traditionally headed a powerful clan of locals from across numerous villages have ceased to enjoy enormous clout.
Doubts over the Tikaits swelled when Rakesh Tikait ran for election in his home state of Uttar Pradesh and came in an embarrassing sixth place. The family’s reputation was also sullied when Rakesh and his siblings were accused of complicity in the communal riots of 2013 in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. That conflict claimed around 60 lives, mostly Muslims. Police cases were registered against Tikait, whom it was alleged worked in tandem with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to foment tension and polarise voters along religious lines with a view to consolidate Hindu votes.
But all that is forgotten now, and Tikait – once employed as a lowly police constable in Delhi – has emerged as an impressive leader. Elections in the bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh are due early next year along with several other states, such as Punjab. Political leaders – particularly those aligned against Modi – are competing to have Tikait on their side. Farmers make up 58 percent of India’s electorate, and their support is critical. Historically, they do not vote as a bloc and are instead divided by caste, religion and other factors. But now they are united by the farmers’ agitation, and they could swing the results. Tikait is certainly an important key to secure their backing.
Tikait, though, is a tough nut to crack and is keeping his political cards close to his chest. For the moment, his focus is firmly on the farmers’ protest that the Modi government hoped would be called off once the laws were withdrawn. Instead, an emboldened Tikait and other farm leaders have upped the ante. They have now made a raft of other demands, including monetary compensation and a guaranteed minimum support price for produce. They are also requesting a memorial for the 700-odd protesters who died during the year-long protests. Also, Tikait and the protestors insist they are not going anywhere. In a further challenge to the government, they have announced a big rally in Delhi towards the end of this month.
Tikait’s tough talk resonates within the farming community, whose members nurture deep resentments. The government has failed to address a plethora of problems besieging the farmers, from falling farm prices to the black market for fertilisers. Even the population of stray cattle has exploded along the countryside. This is because Hindutva vigilantes, who regard the cow as holy, have been cracking down on cattle traders and slaughterhouses. For that matter, no less than a million stray cattle routinely feed on and destroy standing crops in Uttar Pradesh alone.
Ultimately, Tikait gives voice to myriad grievances. And with the vast farmer community solidly behind him, none can ignore what he says. He will, in more ways than one, determine the trajectory of the farmers’ protests – whether they will continue or be called off. How the current agitation plays out, and which political party does what, will impact the electoral battles set to be fought next year.
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