Sisauli (Muzaffarnagar): For Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait — one of the most prominent faces of the year-long protest by farmers against the now-repealed three controversial farm laws brought in by the Narendra Modi government in 2020 — the agitation may be over, but the battle against the Centre for their remaining demands is on.
The demands include ensuring minimum support price (MSP) for crops and to get police cases filed against some farmers during the agitation dropped.
Speaking to ThePrint, Tikait dismissed reports that has BKU has softened its stance against the BJP following Union minister Sanjay Balyan’s meeting with its chief and his brother Naresh Tikait earlier this month. Rakesh Tikait, the secretary of the union, said farmers across India will observe 31 January as ‘Vada Khilafi Day’ (broken promise day) to protest against the Centre not yet fulfilling the promises it had made. The farmers, said Tikait, will also hand over their demands to district magistrates (DM) and sub-divisional magistrates (SDMs) across India on that day.
The 52-year-old farmers’ leader has just returned from Lakhimpur Kheri, where locals are demanding that the BJP government at the Centre remove Union Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra ‘Teni’, whose son is accused in the incident of a convoy of cars mowing down a group of protesting farmers.
Sitting at his home in the Sisauli village, considered a stronghold of the Jat community, Rakesh Tikait also claimed that Home Minister Amit Shah’s efforts to “polarise voters” in next month’s crucial UP assembly elections by using the “Kairana example” will not succeed, as that model of fighting elections is dated.
During a door-to-door campaign in UP’s Kairana last week, Shah had visited families said to have been affected by the alleged exodus of Hindus from the area in 2017 owing to communal violence. The Home Minister had claimed their return was made possible by the improved law and order situation under the Yogi Adityanath government in the state.
‘Farmers know what to do in election’
Tikait spoke to ThePrint on a range of issues from the farmers’ protest, to CM Yogi’s claims of the UP elections being a “battle of 80 per cent vs 20 per cent”, widely interpreted as a reference to the Hindu and Muslim population percentages in the state, and farmers’ unions in Punjab fighting next month’s assembly elections.
“We are not sitting here silently. Last week, I had gone to Lakhimpur Kheri. We are demanding that Union minister Teni be sacked and those guilty of killing the farmers there be punished. We are also demanding that the government formulates laws on MSP,” he said.
“We have given time to the government to fulfil our demands. Ensuring MSP was one of them. Though we had mutually agreed on this, a committee for it has not been formed yet.”
On charges filed against some agitating farmers not being withdrawn yet, Tikait said “except in Haryana, cases have not been withdrawn”.
“We will observe 31 January as betrayal day all over country. On this day, we will hold protests at DM, SDM offices across the country. If they (the government) do not fulfil their commitment, we will start agitation again,” he said.
Answering a question on whether the current lull in protests may be interpreted as the unions not putting enough pressure on the government over the Lakhimpur Kheri incident owing to the assembly elections, Tikait clarified that they were not going in for gatherings at the moment because of the current surge in Covid cases.
“We are observing Covid guidelines, but silent movement is going on. Sometimes silent movements may not be visible at the time, but their effect is felt when they ensure impact on the establishment. It is due to our pressure that the government has paid compensation to those affected in the Lakhimpur Kheri incident,” he claimed.
Referring to the upcoming elections, Tikait added, “(All farmers) know what they have to do in elections, where they have to cast their votes. After suffering for 13 months during the agitation (against the farm bills), if they still don’t know this, it means there is a fault in my training.”
‘BJP’s polarisation model as dated as NGT-banned old cars’
Asked whether CM Adityanath’s reference to the “80 per cent vs 20 per cent” votes and Home Minister Amit Shah bringing up the issue of the alleged Hindu exodus from Kairana may result in a religious divide among the farmers, Tikait compared BJP’s “religion-based polarisation” to old vehicles that have been banned by the National Green Tribunal.
“The BJP is trying to start the old election model of polarisation. But farmers have become wise to this chunavi (election) model of the BJP and will not be trapped by this trick any more. If any farmer wants to sell his or her produce at half the rate, they are free to vote for the BJP,” he said.
The BKU leader also elaborated on his earlier comment that farmers were not against any particular party, but the policies of the government, which could be interpreted to mean that he was not against the BJP.
“Our opposition is against the government, and not any political party,” reiterated Tikait. But he also added: “The time has come to debate on the distinction between the government and the party, so that no prime minister or chief minister works for his or her party (but for the government and the country), so that no prime minister can sell the country’s assets.”
“There is an ongoing conspiracy to make this a country of labourers. Unemployment is a big issue in this country. In Bihar, job aspirants are agitating for employment in the railways for so long, but nobody is listening. Rather, tear gas was used against them. Is this the way to treat them?” asked Tikait, referring to an incident in Gaya Wednesday.
“Unemployment is on our agenda too. This is a fight of 70 years (since independence) versus seven years (of the Modi government), versus the next 70 years. There needs to be a roadmap for those coming years. Every political party only works for votes. This should be stopped. Why should any prime minister work for the benefit of his or her party? Why can’t all parties unite on issues of national importance and come up with an unanimous health and education policy, which will be followed by governments irrespective of party affiliation?”
“But there is a race to win elections and parties are only focussed on getting votes. Whoever becomes CM or PM, works for his party. This is sad,” said Tikait.
‘Was prepared to continue agitation till 2023’
Asked whether Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav and Rashtriya Lok Dal’s (RLD) Chaudhary Jayant Singh had called him to offer him a seat for the upcoming elections, Tikait said, “I have relations with all leaders. They have called me, but my role as a leader who fights for farmers and students is more powerful than fighting elections.”
“I had tweeted about an attack on my convoy in Rajasthan last year. Within eight hours, the problem was solved. That is the power of agitation. Agitation should continue,” he said.
Though SP and RLD had both supported the farmers agitation, Tikait has been hesitant to show open support to the parties. But said, “people understand my language, they know whom to vote for”.
On whether the law and order situation in UP had indeed improved during the Yogi government’s tenure, as claimed by the BJP, Tikait said, “Now cases are not registered, so number does not show. But corruption has risen. If earlier there was corruption of Rs 500 (paid as bribes or kickbacks), the extent of it has now reached Rs 5,000.”
The leader also answered questions on why some members of the agitation had chosen to fight elections, despite the farmers’ protest being touted as an apolitical one. “We have decided we are not fighting polls. Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM, the umbrella organisation of farmers unions spearheading the protest) will be apolitical. But a few members have taken leave from the morcha to fight elections for four months. After the elections they will return to the morcha. Fighting election is every one’s right, it’s a democratic right of every one,” he said.
Returning to the question of farmers’ interests, the issue top-most on his mind, Tikait touched upon the need of a robust agricultural policy for the country.
“In 1966-67, MSP was introduced for the first time in the country, for wheat. For three quintal wheat, you could purchase one tola gold (at that time),” he said.
“Since then the price of other items have increased, gold prices have gone up manifold, the market has grown, but the government will not give Rs 15,000 for one quintal of wheat (the current price of wheat is Rs 1,500-1,600 per quintal). The government gives free education and healthcare, but you will not give anything to farmers. There is no concern for farmers,” he alleged, adding, “This will not work in the long run. Farmers have realised their strength.”
Asked whether at any point he felt the farmers would have to bow down to pressure and withdraw their agitation without the government rolling back the three farm laws, Tikait said, “We were prepared to carry on the agitation till 2023. But the government realised sooner that these laws were not in favour of farmers and decided to withdraw them. Now we are waiting for the Prime Minister to keep his words (on ensuring MSP for crops).”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)