A spate of farmer suicides has soured the sugar bowl of western Uttar Pradesh, but there’s an eerie calm in the region once abuzz with sweeping agrarian movements headed by grassroots leaders like Chaudhary Charan Singh and Mahendra Singh Tikait.
Dozens of farmers deep in debt and battered by unseasonable rains have ended their lives over the past year while sugar mills in the state owe the community more than Rs 5,000 crore. However, there hasn’t been a major protest movement in the area after the bloody Muzaffarnagar riots two years ago that ripped through the area’s lanes and fields.
The sectarian violence of September 2013 drove a wedge between the Jats and Muslims in the region’s agrarian society and bruised the non-profit Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) founded by Tikait in 1986.
While the country witnessed a wave of farmer campaigns this year in protest against the NDA government’s land policies, an edgy peace held sway in western UP.
Gulam Mohammad, a 70-year-old resident of Jaula village, recalls sitting on a month-long dharna led by Tikait to protest against the abduction and murder of a Muslim girl in the 1990s.
Farmers from different castes and faiths protested in Muzaffarnagar district’s Bhopa town led by the BKU, he says with pride. At least 14,000 of them were arrested for the stir that forced the state government to act on their demand for justice.
Tikait united Hindus, including the Jats, and Muslims as a close-knit community. Gulam Mohammad and his supporters built a relationship with Tikait that lasted for almost three decades until the BKU leader’s death in 2011.
“Had Tikait been alive he would not have allowed the riots to take place,” Mohammad said with confidence.
Clashes between a handful of Jats and Muslims triggered the violence that spread like wildfire across the district with inflammatory speeches from local politicians fanning the flames.
Houses were torched, women raped and people hacked to death in front of their families, while hundreds were displaced and some still live in makeshift dwellings, too scared to go back.
“The community was united under Chaudhary Charan Singh and Mahendra Singh Tikait.,” said V M Singh, farmer leader and president of the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan. “However, the riots filled the Jat and Muslim communities with bitterness and distrust towards each other.”
After the violence, many factions broke away from the BKU and became independent groups. As they strive to establish their own identities, the farmers’ movement that’s being pulled in different directions is going nowhere.
“The riots have hit the farmers’ movement in the region,” said Naresh Tikait, BKU president and son of Mahendra Singh Tikait, as he blamed the state’s Samajwadi Party government for the communal divide.