In western Uttar Pradesh, the Rakesh Tikait factor
From policeman to farmer to a key leader in the farm movement, Rakesh Tikait's popularity has grown significantly and may play an important role this election season
Meerut: Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait has declared that he will not contest in this election or support any political party. However, he remains still the most talked about name in the assembly elections in western Uttar Pradesh (UP). The seven-phase assembly elections begin from the western region on February 10.
Tikait’s popularity increased after his active role in the 13-month-long farmers’ agitation against the Centre’s three new farm laws, which have now been repealed. It was Tikait who coordinated the farmers’ movement in UP, especially the west, which is also known as “the agrarian belt” of the state.
Local people animatedly discuss his influence on the election in the Jat belt of western UP. Though opinion is divided, a majority of people in the region believe that he may have turned the tide against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by reviving communal harmony, which had been ruptured after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.
Tikait did not start out as a farmer leader. Born in 1969, Tikait joined the Delhi Police as a constable. By then, his father Mahendra Singh Tikait had made a name for himself by launching farmers’ movements in the region. As the farm leader’s son, Rakesh Tikait was under pressure from senior officials to manage his father during these agitations, those close to him say.
The BKU’s media in-charge, Dharmendra Malik, says Rakesh Tikait eventually quit the police force and joined his father. He began assisting him in the movements and meetings of the BKU. That is how he got to know how things work in public life, Malik adds.
Malik also says the Tikait family is the chaudhary (head) of the Balyan khap, one of the biggest khaps in the region. The clan has its members in 84 villages of western UP. Khaps are a clan-based council.
The title “Tikait” was conferred on the family by the Raja of Thaneswar Harshvardhan in the 7th century. According to tradition, the eldest son of the family becomes the head of the khap. Currently, Naresh Tikait, Rakesh Tikait's elder brother, is the chaudhary of the Balyan khap. Naresh also heads the BKU after Mahendra Singh Tikait’s death on May 15, 2011.
Amit Sharma of Baraut, who belongs to a prominent political family, says that while Naresh largely focused on farming and family affairs, Rakesh was groomed by his father and, gradually, his political aspirations grew.
He contested the assembly election from the Khatauli constituency in 2007 seeking the support of the Congress, but lost. He tried his luck again in the 2014 Lok Sabha election as the Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate from Amroha — and lost again.
Amit Sharma says that contesting two elections helped Rakesh Tikait understand the nuances of politics and he became more mature in issuing statements and cultivating links with political parties and their leaders.
On the other hand, his critics call him a leader of “compromises” who can shake hands with anyone for his benefit. That, to an extent, was the image he had before the farmers’ movement.
The farm movement
In the initial days of the farmers’ agitation, there was the buzz among people that the Centre had planted Rakesh Tikait to marginalise farmers’ organisations from Punjab, who formed the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) to run the movement.
But the events of January 28 last year established Rakesh Tikait as a farmer leader in his own right. The transformation came when he burst into tears at the Ghazipur border that night and blamed the government for trying to end the farmers’ movement forcibly.
Making an emotional call, he had also said the water supply at the venue of the protests was stopped. He vowed to drink water brought from his village Sisauli only. This emotional call hit the pride of the Jat community and farmers. The same night, thousands of people converged at the dharna (protest) site carrying water and the farmers’ movement, which was on the verge of fading out, suddenly got a new lease of life.
Rakesh Tikait’s move helped mobilise support in the Jat belt and resulted in a series of mahapanchayats in the region. Khap chaudharies also extended support to the movement, which put BJP leaders on their toes.
Then, Rakesh Tikait pledged that he would not go home until the withdrawal of the three contentious farm laws — and kept his word.
Even when he attended a mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar on September 5, 2021, he didn't visit his home. He gradually became a popular face of the movement.
His critics now say that Rakesh Tikait has become more thoughtful and knows how to connect with people and the media to spread his message. His close association with the leaders of the SKM also helped him.
However, he was criticised for his role as a mediator in the Lakhimpur Kheri incident where minister of state for home Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish Mishra mowed down protesting farmers. His critics also alleged that he helped the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh to play down the issue.
Later, it was alleged that the Lakhimpur Kheri incident was a conspiracy to pit Hindus against Sikh farmers, but Rakesh Tikait defused the tension with his presence.
Meanwhile, Rakesh Tikait intelligently played the card of communal harmony to hit the BJP, his supporters say. His father Mahendra Singh Tikait was a champion of promoting communal harmony. The son took a leaf out of his father’s book.
The senior Tikait’s most trusted aide, Gulam Mohammad Jaula, says that Mahendra Singh Tikait promoted harmony among people of all castes and communities, but his sons fell into the BJP's Hindutva trap after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.
Naresh Tikait later admitted in public that supporting the BJP in the 2014, 2017, and 2019 elections was a “big mistake”.
The BJP made a clean sweep on six assembly seats in Muzaffarnagar and three seats in Shamli district in 2017. These two districts, the stronghold of the BKU, were badly affected by riots. Jayant Chaudhary and Ajit Singh had also failed to breach the Hindutva of BJP and had lost the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
Rakesh Tikait's direct hit at Hindutva by propagating communal harmony worked wonders and both the communities (Jats and Muslims) started coming closer to each other, forgetting the hatred of the riots.
A farmer Neetu at Kaserwa village of Shamli district said, “We have understood the divisive policy of the BJP and are not going to fall into their trap again. The Muslims are our brothers who work in our fields and help us in many other ways in our daily life.”
A cloth vendor in the same village Akoob explains that people in villages are dependent on each other. "I am a cloth vendor and would earn a livelihood for my family only after farmers purchase my clothes,” he says.
The message of harmony is now written on the walls in the villages and even young residents like Prateek Choudhary and Suraj credit the 13-month long farmers’ movement, the Tikait Brothers and the hard work of Jayant Choudhary.
BKU's strong organisational network in villages also serve as an effective media for spreading the message of Tikait brothers. The BKU has its office bearers and supporters even in the remote villages of the region.
For his part, Rakesh Tikait shouted slogans of communal harmony (Har Har Mahadev and Allah Hu Akbar) from the mahapanchayat stage in Muzaffarnagar on September 5 last year.
Earlier, on January 30, 2021, Gulam Mohammad Jaula shared the stage with Naresh Tikait for the first time after having earlier parted ways with the BKU following the death of Mahendra Singh Tikait in May 2011.
The mahapanchayat on September 5, 2021, witnessed large a turnout of Muslims, bringing the two communities closer after the 2013 riots.
In a bid to counter the BJP, Rakesh Tikait has also said Jinnah, Pakistan and Aurangzeb will be guests in UP elections and thereafter disappear.
Dharmendra Malik says Rakesh Tikait’s strength is that he is accessible to all and uses the local village language to connect with people. He drove a tractor at the Ghazipur border to connect with farmers.
Villagers believe Rakesh Tikait has kindled hope among farmers and given them the courage to speak up. Reviving communal harmony in the region will promote peace among communities who are dependent on each other for agriculture, they say. The BJP’s extensive campaign in the region also indicates that Rakesh Tikait and his organisation have made things difficult for the party in its Hindutva lab, they add.