On the evening of 28th January, 2021‚ Rakesh Tikait—national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU)—had an emotional outburst—while addressing the media. His outburst however became a major call back to the farmers across the Western Uttar Pradesh and was a turning point in the protest of the Centre’s new farm reform laws. But who is Rakesh Tikait? And how did he emerge as the new face of the protest? These are the questions which this article is going to answer.
51-year-old Rakesh Tikait hails from Sisauli village of Muzaffarnagar district, Uttar Pradesh. He is the second son of the elder farmer leader, late Mahendra Singh Tikait, who was the president of the Indian Farmers Union. Rakesh Tikait also has four brothers, the eldest one being Naresh Tikait—the national president of the BKU. Rakesh Tikait married Sunita Devi from Dadri village in Baghpat district in 1985. They have a son Charan Singh and two daughters, Seema and Jyoti. Tikait holds a Master of Arts degree from Meerut University.
Tikait joined the Delhi police force in 1985. He was a part of the police force until 1992—an year before which his father Mahendra Singh Tikait held a series of protests against the enhanced rate of fertilisers, hike in electricity rates, and regulation in supply of sugarcane to the sugar mills. He also pitched in for local farmers who were seeking higher compensation for land acquired on the outskirts of Lucknow for setting up a TELCO unit. The movement started fading due to pressure from the government. Hence, Rakesh decided to quit his job in 1993-94 and started taking part in the farmers’ fight with BKU. In the recent past, he has contested two elections, one on a Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket and another as an Independent, but was unsuccessful both times.
As the Tikait family hails from Sisauli, Muzaffarnagar, the family heads Baliyan Khap of 84 villages, giving it considerable influence within the Jat community of Western UP and Haryana.
Due to the Jat community's custom of passing on authority to the eldest son, Tikait’s elder brother Naresh Tikait took over the mantle of both the BKU and Baliyan Khap from Mahendra Singh Tikait. The BKU also has strong influence among the Malik and Deshwal Khaps. The Tikait brothers have been trying to live up to the towering standards that their father has set. Mahendra Singh Tikait was a well-knows figure among both Hindu and Muslim farmers of Western UP, who had shared economic interests.
He has led numerous massive demonstrations against the Centre and state government on farmers' issues and was the voice of farmers. In 1988, lakhs of farmers gathered at Boat Club in the heart of Delhi and placed their 35 point charter of demands, seeking various concessions for farmers including higher prices for sugarcane, cancellation of loans, lowering of water tax and waiver of electricity dues. The protest was Tikait’s biggest protest which eventually brought the Rajiv Gandhi government to its knees.
In 2007, Rakesh Tikait, for the first time contested independently from Khatauli, Muzaffarnagar. In 2014, Rakesh Tikait Joined the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Amroha. This came as a shock to many as Tikait had been critical of RLD and some argue a BJP supporter. A striking case in point being Mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 that led to communal riots in west UP was in fact jointly addressed by leaders of BKU and BJP.
“I had to choose between RLD and others. I found RLD better. It is the party that has taken up the issue of farmers,” Tikait told the Times of India. However, Tikait failed in both his attempts.
Rakesh Tikait has constantly been the voice of farmers. In 2014, Tikait organized the Dunkal movement at the Red Fort in Delhi demanding the government to increase the price of millet in the interest of farmers of Rajasthan. Tikait’s demonstrations against the government landed him in Jaipur Jail. However, his protests were successful as the government eventually agreed to the farmers’ demand.
The ongoing farmers protest lost support after the unfortunate events which took place at Red Fort on 26th of January. On this day, the Indian tricolor was allegedly disrespected, several farmers and policemen were victims of violence, the protest aggravated to an extent where a farmer even lost his life. The leaders and the decision makers of the movement did not realize that it is always difficult to control and discipline a rally. A rally on move is more vulnerable to anti-social elements and government linked saboteurs to blend with the crowd and create mayhem. This not only discredited the farmers’ movement but over 13 prominent leaders of the movement including Yogendra Yadav were detained by the police. On 28th of January, Tikait’s turned emotional as he said “ I saw the BJP MLA [allegedly identified by the farmers as Loni MLA Nand Kishore Gurjar] who had come here to attack our elders, my sardar brothers. I could not let that happen, they have all come here on my call, I am responsible for them. This is wrong, the people have chosen them, the people cannot be harmed. I had told the government that I would surrender, but it is my responsibility to make sure all my farmers are safe. I knew what could happen if the police took them if they left from here on their tractor’s trolleys. I knew when they reached Hapur and beyond, BJP and RSS workers would begin pelting stones on them. I cannot let that happen. The farmer was never scared, the farmer will never be scared. Those who incited violence on (January 26th) must be investigated by the government. Tell people the truth.” With a parched throat and welling eyes he said, “I will drink water when the farmers send it from their homes.” This emotional video went viral across Uttar Pradesh through WhatsApp and television telecast. Hundreds of people packed food and water and set off from Uttar Pradesh to reach Delhi. They all broke their fast after Tikait sipped the water that they brought. Tikait’s tears not only guarded the Ghazipur protest site from what seemed like a crackdown but he also reignited the spark and revived the dying protest.
Critics said that the government had committed a blunder by falsely assuming that the protest had lost its support and sympathy amongst the public after the unfortunate events of Jan 26th. The police did not face much difficulty vacating the camps at the Ghazipur border by late evening of 28th Jan. The government too perceived Tikait as a loose canon and an irresponsible leader. Furthermore, the police did not detain Tikait along with other leaders. At a point of time, he was the only leader left on the stage at the protest site in Ghazipur. Critics speculate that they did not detain him as he previously was a supporter of BJP and in fact voted for the party in the 2019 elections and hence the BJP thought they could still convince him to take a middle ground and further dilute the movement. However, Tikait turned the tables on the administration. His address resonated across the entire Jat community of western UP, which till then had been passive in extending support to him. The Yogi government cannot afford to take any more chances as the “Jat land” has firmly supported BJP for the past six years, especially after the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. In addition to this, since the Yogi government came to power in 2017, they have increased the state advised price of Sugarcane by only Rs.10 per quintal. The state advised price for 2020-21 has not been announced yet although the crushing operations have begun at mills as early as November 2020. What is more is that the UP government owes the farmers over Rs.12,000 crore against the cane purchased in the current and the previous season. In UP, a greater source of farmer anger apart from the three reform laws and the SAP of sugarcane is for doubling electricity charges for both irrigation pumps and domestic use. The hike in diesel price by Rs.10/L in one year has further fueled their anger.
Now, a Kisan Mahapnachayat is also taking place in Muzaffarnagar. The same district where the Mahapanchayat was held after the riots in Muzaffarnagar. The latter Mahapanchayat played a crucial role in the 2017 elections.
The Indian Farmers Union has constantly been in talk with the government. Rakesh Tikait has once again been the voice of farmers. Now, the government has to decide whether the movement will end or not given that the Farmers are demanding a complete withdrawal of all three laws.