It was 1987, Akbar and Jaipal died in police firing during a Bhartiya Kisan Union-convened panchayat meeting to protest against power tariff hikes.
Next day, when BKU leader Chaudhary Mahendra Singh Tikait walked with his followers to take part in the last rites of the two boys, the crowd grew from 20,000 to 100,000 during the 20-km stretch. And the story of Tikait began.
A Satyanarayan, an Allahabad University teacher who has studied the history of the Jats of western UP, said, “In the 1980s, it was Tikait who had started using panchayats as a platform to discuss the grievances of farmers. They were vocal against the administration, and even violent when provoked.”
Even 13 centuries before Tikait, the Chaudharys (chiefs) of panchayats functioned as the interface between their clans and the government of the day. And it’s mainly because of them that western UP had always been known for communal amity.
Today, the panchayats are neither discussing farmers’ issues nor their traditions. They are focused only on how to save their clansmen from the “other community” and a hostile administration.
The reason is simple: Panchayats are being used by politicians in the absence of people like Tikait — he died in May 2011 — and gradually drifted to religious bigotry. For, they were the easiest pick for communal politics.
It was quite clear during the recent Muzaffarnagar riots, which were followed by the arrests of one BSP, one Congress and two BJP legislators. Also, cases were registered against Congress leaders.
But the factor that surprised everyone is the rise of women power in the riot-ravaged villages. Jat women have come forward against the authorities — their menfolk having fled the villages to avoid arrest.
“Hum par hamle ho rahe hai. Sarkar unke (read Muslims) saath hai. Nirdosh bête, pita, pati ko jail bhej rahe hain. Ab to aage aana hoga,” (We are being attacked as the government is with them. They are sending our innocent sons, husbands and fathers to jail. Now we have to come forward),” said a woman activist on condition of anonymity.
Intriguingly, even after the Muzaffarnagar riots, which left 48 people, including Jats and Muslims, dead, the women are not keen on going to war against their Muslim neighbours. They blame the authorities, instead, for the mess.
The activist said while several political parties had visited Muslim-dominated areas, those who were sympathetic to Jats were keeping away, fearing police action. “Who is there for us? Even the chief minister did not hear our grievances.”
Social scientist Ashok Baliyan said, “Even after the clashes, Tikait would have contained the government and controlled the mobs. Do you think any government could have dared to ignore his voice?”
But, Satyanarayan said Tikait’s tremendous clout had a negative effect. It made the scheduled castes insecure as they had hardly any space in the scheme of things. They started migrating to urban areas in the mid-1980s.
Around the same time after the 1987 Meerut carnage, when 42 Muslims were killed by the police, Muslims moved from urban to rural areas, selling their properties to buy agricultural land. And parties saw an opportunity to build their bases in a divided society.
Observers say the Jat women are getting organised for a major showdown, but no one is sure with whom. Satyanarayan said the government would have to understand that Jats “are sincere, honest people. But instigated, they can turn violent.”