New Delhi: With just a few drops of tears at a press meet, Rakesh Tikait has made himself a prestige symbol for the Jats in western Uttar Pradesh, and given a new direction to the ongoing farmers’ protest, days after violence in the national capital on Republic Day threatened to incarcerate the agitation.
On 28 January, as the end of the protest seemed imminent amid police action, the Bhartiya Kisan Union leader made an emotional call at the Ghazipur protest site, saying he would commit suicide but not end the protest.
The tears in his eyes, police fortification of the site and suspension of internet galvanised the Jats in the region to take on the government over the farm laws.
Tikait, who contributed significantly to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s impressive electoral show in the region in the post-2014 period, has now denounced the BJP and said the protest would continue until October-November, “if needed“.
In many western UP districts, Jats have also held panchayats, threatening to intensify the agitation and boycott BJP leaders as well.
A mahapanchayat held by Tikait’s elder brother and BKU chief Naresh Tikait in Muzaffarnagar on 29 January saw the attendance of lakhs of Jats. On Wednesday, Tikait held a mahapanchayat in Haryana’s Jind, where he other leaders resolved to seek repeal of the three contentious farm laws, making a new law to ensure MSP, farm loan waiver, implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendations and withdrawal of criminal cases against the farmers in Delhi on 26 January.
Tikait’s emergence has also reminded farmers in the region about the exploits of his father Mahendra Singh Tikait, who had staged a massive sit-in protest in the heart of Delhi in 1988 and had spooked the then ruling governments in the national capital and Lucknow.
How Tikait united Jats
According to a close friend of Tikait, the farmer leader’s call came after he saw that the BJP can send police to arrest him — on 28 January — despite him having good relations with the party. He decided that there was no need to sympathise any further with such a party, said his friend.
“In a way, these were his tears of remorse. It sent a message among the Jats that the powerful government is suppressing a weaker Tikait. It was a direct affront to Jat community’s honour and pride. Suddenly, Tikait emerged as a symbol of Jat community’s battle for its honour. From then onwards the Jats started being mobilised in greater numbers,” he said.
“In 2019, Tikait had helped BJP’s Sanjeev Balyan to win from Muzaffarnagar. By accepting his error in judgment, he has made an effort to create a special place in the hearts of Jats,” said his friend.
The Ghazipur site has also become a show of opposition unity, with Jat leader Ajit Singh, Akali Dal’s Sukhbir Badal, AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal and Congress’ Sanjay Nirupam taking advantage of the opportunity.
Who is Tikait?
The 52-year-old is the second among four sons of BKU founder Mahendra Singh Tikait. After the senior farmer leader’s death in 2011 due to cancer, according to the traditions of Balyan Khap, his eldest son Naresh Tikait was anointed as the president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union and Rakesh Tikait was appointed as its spokesperson.
However, persons considered close to the Tikait family say Rakesh has a larger say in leadership of the organisation due to his enhanced leadership qualities.
Over the years, Rakesh, who quit his job with Delhi Police to support his father, kept changing his political alignment with every shift in power politics, unlike his father, who kept away from power circles.
“All the leaders of his time used to respect Tikait sahib due to his blunt nature, honesty and his trait of staying away from all the temptations offered by various governments. He used to meet with all kind of persons in his open fields only. After the historic movement in Meerut, The Times of India had written, ‘The second Mahatma has been born’,” said professor Sudhir Panwar of Lucknow University.
From helping BJP to turning against it
In 2013, after the Kanwal panchayat and riots claimed 63 lives, Tikait mobilised the Jat community in western Uttar Pradesh and aligned with the BJP to such an extent that they did not vote for Ajit Singh, the son of Chaudhary Charan Singh, the biggest leader of the community.
A former BJP MP said Rakesh Tikait, while contesting from Amroha on Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal symbol in 2014, extended support to the latter in Muzaffarnagar, but tacitly his khap panchayat and “polarisation” helped the BJP.
The polarisation broke the unity in Jats and Muslims in the region and in 2014, the BJP won all Lok Sabha seats in the region.
“Later, he helped the BJP in 2017 assembly election and 2019 Lok Sabha election. He has confessed this reality today and has made an attempt to regain his support among the Jat community members. Now, only time will tell as to how long the emotional anger of Jats keeps them to stay in his corner,” said the BJP leader, who didn’t wish to be named.
Tikait’s new bid to regain his political clout with the help of a troika comprising Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (who herself is trying to find a greater political place for Congress in UP), Samajwadi Party (which is out of power) and the RLD chief, could become a new political headache for UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
However, the BJP leaders feel Tikait’s political standing isn’t much.
According to Sudhir Balyan, former BJP minister in Kalyan Singh’s UP cabinet, when Tikait tried his luck in the political arena for the first time in 2007 by contesting as an independent, he could not win the respect of Jats.
“Rakesh Tikait could never earn the same respect among Jats as was enjoyed by his father Mahendra Singh Tikait. He got only 8,000 votes in the election while contesting for the first time. He could not win the election even when he contested from Ajit Singh’s RLD in 2014,” said Balyan. This means that Rakesh could not transfer votes even in favour of Ajit Singh, he added.
When PM Narendra Modi and then BJP chief Amit Shah came to Delhi in 2013, they rejected the idea of having any alliance with Ajit Singh and worked with Tikait even as they groomed their own leaders.
“At one point of time stitching an alliance with Ajit Singh used to be a cumbersome task, but even though they enlisted support from Tikait in implementing their western UP project, they started to groom their own flock of Jat leaders,” said Balyan.
‘Opportunity for Tikait to emerge big leader’
Speaking about the government strategy in dealing with the farmers’ protest, a former BJP MP from western UP said initially the party felt Tikait was one of their own and sooner or later, he could be persuaded to break away from the fight.
“Since the farmers’ organisations of Punjab are more in sync with the Leftist idea and the Sikh community has never been a traditional vote bank of the BJP in Punjab, the party thought it will not be able to break their unity. Especially in the case when they had gathered with all the essential supplies for a longer haul,” said the former MP.
“However, a single mistake from the government side has provided Rakesh with an excellent opportunity to emerge as a big leader. Rakesh also felt that there could be no better chance for him to regain his lost ground,” he said.
As the Sikh farmers were being repeatedly ridiculed as “Khalistani”, the Jats questioned why they were being humiliated despite voting for the BJP, he added.
A former Samajwadi Party MP from western UP noted how the Jat pride works.
“Ajit Singh never carried out any major development works in the areas dominated by the Jats, but at the time of elections, he used to reach out to the khap panchayats with folded hands with a plea that this is a matter of ‘Jat pride’. The Jats have always voted for them in the name of Chaudhary Charan Singh,” said the ex-MP.
“Similarly, when the Jats saw Mahendra Singh Tikait’s son weeping in public, they thought that this was not the right way to treat Tikait senior’s son. Mahendra Singh Tikait is still a part of their families’ memories. Every village has its own anecdote associated with him. It might haunt BJP in the long run,” he added.