‘For 13 months we have sustained a protest against the government, and this won’t go anyway in hours. Farmers still have anti-BJP sentiments,’ said the Baliyan Khap headman and national president of BKU
Orphaned raindrops fell through the fog hanging over fields of sugarcane even as stands of mustard rippled gently in others. I was one in a bus-load of people on a single-lane road whose regular bumps were giving the middle-aged suspension of the vehicle a hard time. Suddenly, the engine roared to life and we touched the incredible speed of 50 kmph: Our destination, Sisauli village, was finally in sight.
“It is believed that Sisauli was settled over 1,000 years ago, when Baliyan Jats from Haryana settled in this village. This was a fertile region with ample water and good soil. They grew sugarcane, paddy, tobacco and raised cattle,” my co-passenger Vijay Singh, a Sisauli native, told me. “Over centuries, this village gained a reputation for producing good farmers and fighters,” he added proudly.
This tradition appears to be alive and kicking, judging from the fact that Sisauli remains the soul of the waning farmers’ protest. I had travelled from Delhi to meet one such modern-day fighter, Naresh Tikait, the Baliyan Khap headman and national president of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU).
From the village bus depot, I strolled to the Tikait residence — an old two-storey house with mosaic floors from the 1960s. At the entrance was Gaurav Tikait, Naresh’s son. I was led straight inside, where hot rotis drowning in fresh butter were served. Soon, Gaurav left for the family’s fields and I sat with a motley group of young and old farmers awaiting an audience with Naresh Tikait.
We sat by an unlit hookah; conversation veered to the good old days of the Persian water-wheel and non-mechanised agriculture, with digressions into state politics and the farmers’ movement. “Most people from our village have visited the borders,” Pravin Singh said. He was interrupted by Sanjeev, a sugarcane farmer. Sanjeev had a set of keys in one hand, and the locks they opened led us into a low-ceilinged room. Inside was a string bed (charpoy), a hookah and photos of Mahender Singh Tikait, Naresh’s father and the founder of BKU (Tikait). This room also housed a Kisan Amar Jyoti which had unfortunately gone out; it was quickly relit by Sanjeev.
It was past noon but the sun was yet to pierce the fog. Naresh had woken up from a nap. Our group, which now had a young Bhim Army ticket aspirant, more farmers, and other villagers, was soon led further into a hall.
Naresh Tikait greeted us; he was all wrapped up in a marron-white blanket. He looked unwell, the kurta failing to hide a shoulder harness. He had undergone shoulder surgery recently and was in considerable pain. Yet his mood was calm.
I sat next to Tikait. “When Baba Tikait (Naresh’s father) was alive, I used to look after the farm. We followed his leadership on issues and supported him,” Naresh said, describing how life revolved around Sisauli, most of the time taken up in tending to the sugarcane crop and cattle. Politics was distant then, he said. “With time I started to help out in local campaigns, raise issues and resolve minor squabbles. With my father’s death, all that changed.”
The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 were a major event, Tikait said. “2013 was a mistake. Hindus and Muslims, both have suffered and both have mended ways. We are keeping a close watch in Sisauli, and we didn’t let any incident happen here,” Naresh said, blaming “disinformation through communal videos depicting victimisation of various people from both sides” for sparking the riots. He added, albeit a little unconvincingly: “The youth (18-25 year olds) fell prey first and then started to get agitated and reacted. But then, the violence was limited to a few villages; everyone didn’t take part.”
“Parties should talk about development and not confuse the people with Hindu-Muslim issues,” Naresh said. He was interrupted by a loud “Ram-Ram”; new visitors had arrived.
We moved on to the farmers’ movement. Who won, I asked. Tikait was refreshingly candid. “In 13 months, neither the government has been defeated, nor the farmers have won,” Naresh said, perhaps referring to the Minimum Support Price (MSP) issue. He acknowledged a stalemate.
So was it right to leave Delhi’s border without an MSP law?
“When the Prime Minister tells you that our demands have been met, there is a consensus on MSP and court cases will be withdrawn, you need to believe him. Why should he go back on his promise?”
“For 13 months we have sustained a protest against the government, and this won’t go anyway in hours. Farmers still have anti-BJP sentiments. And there is strong opposition against the BJP,” Tikait said calmly.
Then came the killer punch. “We are not on any side, but let me tell you the people are firmly against the BJP. They (BJP) will suffer losses.”
Naturally, reports about his declaration of support to the Samajwadi Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance came up in the conversation. Naresh didn’t flinch. “The party symbol was here in Sisauli and it was taken to Kisan Bhavan (in Sisauli). Local SP leader Chandan Chauhan came and gave their symbol to us. This is the house of Mahendra Singh Tikait, and he has come asking for support. We received the symbol and then the news flashed. Soon after Sanjeev Baliyan, a member of our khap, MP and Union minister, came to our house. Then we said that people should decide what they want, we are better outside this mess.”
I asked about personal attacks on his family, slander against their children. Could Naresh forget that too? “Well, people know everything. Plus, we are not supporting the BJP. We have left it to the people and people know everything. They have weighed the pros and cons. People are largely supporting the alliance (SP-RLD),” he said.
But what does Naresh Tikait himself think? He replied with the desi version of once-bitten twice-shy: “Once a wrong deed has been done, it’s not easily repaired. But we will keep silent. The wounds are not going to heal soon. For 13 months, farmers have suffered humiliation, they have been called many names, and they won’t forget.”
A new group of people entered. One was wearing a white Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) cap. “There are many people here, look there is an AAP person. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); all people visit us. We try to maintain the grace of this house and welcome everybody and treat all with respect. If we become a party, it doesn’t look good.”
I again asked: Will the farmers forgive and forget? Tikait understood that I was seeking a definite answer. “The farmers are indignant, they were attacked, accused of wrongdoings. Their pride is hurt. Now that elections are here, the BJP people have started coming, but can they explain where they were for the past 13 months? And farmers are not going to be easily placated. These people, whether in Punjab, Uttarakhand or Uttar Pradesh, know what to do. Many questions are still unanswered. The election results will show how much respect they have for the 750 martyrs. The real gravity of the farmers’ movement will be felt then.”
My time was up, and Tikait had other meetings. I bid farewell, and hit the road again for the journey back to Delhi. The sky remained a stubborn grey, mirroring perhaps the dreary uncertainty of the political future in western Uttar Pradesh.
The writer is the Director of Policy and Outreach at the National Seed Association of India. Views expressed are personal.