Dehradun: The Lakhimpur Kheri violence in Uttar Pradesh is likely to cast its shadow on the prospects of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2022 Uttarakhand elections.
Sikh farmer leaders in the state, who have been associated with the agitation against the Modi government’s three new farm laws, have said they will force members of the community to boycott the BJP in the elections.
Speaking to ThePrint, these leaders said community members in Uttarakhand’s Udham Singh Nagar — where Sikhs are believed to have a decisive say in around nine assembly segments — and other districts have been told to not just vote against the BJP, but also to stay away from the party’s election campaign.
The Sikh farmer leaders of Uttarakhand said the Lakhimpur Kheri violence — which led to eight deaths — compelled them to issue a diktat on community lines.
Lakhimpur Kheri is home to the largest Sikh population in Uttar Pradesh, most of whom are involved in farming. The violence in Lakhimpur Kheri erupted after Union minister Ajay Mishra’s convoy, suspected to include his son Ashish, allegedly ploughed into a group of farmers. The eight people killed included four farmers.
“Farmers, especially those from Sikh community in Uttarakhand, will not align with the BJP leaders in the coming assembly elections,” said Karam Singh Padda, Uttarakhand president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU).
“We always supported them and the (CM Pushkar Singh) Dhami government has been kind to us, but the Lakhimpur Kheri killings of protesting farmers, and then delay in the arrest of the accused have forced us to keep away from the ruling party in the state,” Padda added.
Ashish Mishra was arrested on 9 October, six days after the 3 October violence.
“The situation is so grave that the Sikh community of Uttarakhand will have to express solidarity with those killed in Lakhimpur Kheri. Protesting farmers of the Tarai-Bhabar belt, who are largely from the Sikh community, will not join election campaigns of the BJP, let alone vote for them. Sikh community members found attending the BJP rallies will not be allowed to enter their villages,” said Uttarakhand BKU vice-president Ranjit Randhava.
He stressed that the Lakhimpur Kheri victims “were our brothers and it’s our duty to express solidarity with them in every possible way”.
Another Sikh farmer leader, Bijendar Singh Dogra, said nobody from the community would be allowed to take part in the BJP’s campaign.
“Earlier, protests were against the farm laws and no one was asked to oppose the BJP unilaterally. Sikh voters were free to have their own views and association for casting votes. However, after Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttarakhand Sikhs have been asked to boycott the BJP. Those siding with them will face the music,” said Dogra.
Analysts say the diktat could have some impact on electoral results in Tarai region — depending on the Aam Aadmi Party’s performance — but BJP leaders are unfazed. They say they will win back the community in time for elections, which are scheduled for early next year.
The Sikh factor in Uttarakhand
The warnings from protest leaders in Uttarakhand, who have been agitating at the Ghazipur border for close to a year, could spell trouble for at least the sitting Kashipur BJP MLA Harbhajan Singh Cheema, who said this month that those present at protest sites are not farmers but political activists.
Dogra said Cheema’s statement “can’t be tolerated”. “He said this despite being the son of a farmer. It will cost him heavily in the elections. He never lost the Kashipur seat in the last 20 years but this time it (his win) may not happen,” Dogra said.
Kashipur is one of the assembly constituencies where the Sikhs and the Rai Sikhs have a decisive say in election outcomes.
Other constituencies in the Udham Singh Nagar district where Sikh voters have a strong influence are Bazpur, Gadarpur, Khatima (currently represented by CM Pushkar Singh Dhami), Nanakmatta, Jaspur, Kichha, Sitarganj and Rudrapur.
Barring Jaspur, all other constituencies were won by the BJP in the 2017 elections for the 70-seat assembly.
According to the 2011 Census, Sikhs account for 2.34 per cent or 3.4 lakh of Uttarakhand’s nearly 1.4 crore population. Over 80 per cent of them are concentrated in the plains of Udham Singh Nagar.
On average, all nine assembly constituencies of Udham Singh Nagar bordering Uttar Pradesh’s Pilibhit have 15,000 Sikh voters.
The area’s Sikh farmers are key participants in the anti-farm laws protests along the Ghazipur border of the national capital. Groups from the area, along with their Pilibhit, Lakhimpur Kheri and western UP counterparts, maintain rotational participation at Ghazipur.
Sikh farmers own more than 50 per cent of the farmland in the region while others, including non-Sikh Punjabis, Tharu and Boxa tribals, Jats, Muslims and east UP migrants, own the rest.
While non-Sikh Punjabis and Muslims have kept themselves away from the agitation so far, Sikh leaders claim they will vote with the protesters.
“Currently, almost all the anti-farm-laws protesters are only Sikh farmers but we have the support of Muslims and other farmers who are not coming out openly with us due to their own compulsions. Results can be seen in elections as almost all Muslim farmers are with us,” said Randhawa.
Dhami is a ‘nice’ man but will be boycotted, say leaders
Udham Singh Nagar farmers have claimed that they will also boycott the functions of Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami in the next few days.
“The Narendra Modi-led central government and BJP’s national leadership have caused huge anger among Sikh community members and farmers. Today, no one even wants to speak to the BJP leaders. The CM is a nice person but he too will have to face the consequences of the Lakhimpur Kheri incident,” said farmer leader Kulvinder Singh Kinda, who claims to have withdrawn his personal support to the BJP now.
Earlier this month, Dhami and his cabinet minister and Gadarpur MLA Arvind Pandey had to cancel their trips to the region immediately after the Lakhimpur Kheri incident over fears of opposition by the farmers.
While Dhami refused to attend a public function at Kashipur, Pandey didn’t turn up to address a gathering in Roshanpur (Gadarpur) a couple of days after the incident.
“Farmers raised a parallel stage to oppose Pandey at the venue,” said Dogra.
Hope still for BJP? Analysts point to AAP
Political commentators in the state say anti-farm-laws protests by Sikhs will impact electoral results in Tarai region and other seats in Haridwar and Dehradun.
However, they also claimed that the BJP may be able to save a few of them if the AAP makes a substantial dent in Sikh votes.
“In addition to the nine seats of Tarai, a few others from Haridwar and Dehradun will also be impacted in the 2022 elections. The BJP would have salvaged the situation in Uttarakhand had the Lakhimpur Kheri incident not happened. They can still minimise impact of Sikh opposition if AAP conjures up good support here,” said Prem Punetha, a political analyst based in Pithoragarh, Kumaon.
However, Punetha noted that this will depend on the AAP’s strength in Punjab. The Arvind Kejriwal-led party, which emerged as the second-largest player in the 2017 Punjab assembly election, could still act as a vote-cutter, he said.
Will win back Uttarakhand Sikhs, BJP says
Having realised that Sikh anger could cost the party heavily, the BJP has said it will be able to win the community back by the time elections near.
“The BJP will definitely have losses due to the ongoing protest by the Sikh farmers but we will try to mitigate it. The anti-farm-laws protest and the Lakhimpur Kheri incident have distanced them from the BJP but they are our traditional supporters and we will win them back,” Rudrapur BJP MLA Rajkumar Thukral told ThePrint.
“They may be angry today but we have close community relations and bonding. We have tolerated their abuses inflicted on us and the Uttarakhand government has always heeded to their demands. I am the lone legislator in the country to have used nearly Rs 2.5 crore of my MLA fund in the development of gurdwaras,” Thukral added.
“The party leadership is trying to find a solution for Sikh community anger against us. Our political rivals and some anti-national forces are trying to project the entire issue as BJP versus Sikhs but it will be resolved and we will again sweep Tarai region,” said BJP state spokesperson Manbir Chauhan.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)