Making sense of the Bharatiya Kisan Union split
The farmers’ movement captured the national imagination in 2022-21 and continues to do so. Agricultural unions have inscribed their discourse and analysis on rural society, politics and policymaking programs related to rural India. Thus, the policy, history and ideological differences of farmers’ unions also deserve our attention.
The recent mobilization was not without precedent. Crossing the boundaries of religion, region, caste and language and uniting them into one kisani identity, such alliances have already been formed. Leaders such as Ajmer Singh Lakhowal of Punjab, MD Nanjundaswamy of Karnataka and others have united with Mahendra Singh Tikait of Uttar Pradesh against the despotism of neoliberal policies in agriculture.
Read also | BJP government engineered BKU split: Naresh Tikait
Mahendra Singh Tikait’s Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) was the standard bearer of the protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO)/GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) in the 1990s. galvanized the support of other agricultural unions. There were many BKUs at the state level, but the higher leadership and authority remained with Mahendra Singh Tikait, known by his honorary title Baba Tikait, as he had traditional roots and enjoyed the support of the khaps (clan organizations ).
The BKU faced many internal organizational conflicts – several factions of the BKU sprung up from time to time. The BKU first faced an organizational revolt in 1998 when Rishipal Ambavata, a Gujjar farmer leader from Haryana, left the group and formed the BKU (Ambavata). Rishipal was the national chairman of the BKU youth wing and a respected leader.
Another setback came in 2008, when in his Haridwar Mahapanchayat, VM Singh left the BKU and formed the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan. It was widely believed that the reason behind this was a fight against the “pagri” of the BKU. A section of the BKU wanted him to become president of the organization, which sparked friction at the Haridwar conference of the BKU. Later, VM Singh distanced himself from the organization which led to the BKU losing its leader in the terai region of Uttar Pradesh.
Read also | After splitting up at BKU, the Tikait brothers face more problems
The BKU’s protest against the rape of a Muslim girl, Naima, in 1988 and the Meerut riots which stopped the spread of violence in the villages reinforced the BKU’s secular image, but the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 missed the presence of Baba Tikait because he was deceased. Last year. At the time, the National Vice President of the BKU was Gulam Mohammad Jaula, a contemporary of Baba Tikait and his close associate. He left the BKU due to his alleged involvement in the riots and formed the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Manch. Mahendra Singh Tikait invoked slogans like Allahu Akbar and Har Har Mahadev together through the BKU platforms. He also included many Muslim agricultural leaders in his local and national leaderships.
Another agricultural union considered close to the Bhartiya Janta Party is the BKU (Bhanu), a faction of the BKU (Tikait). The main support for the organization comes from the middle part of western Uttar Pradesh (Braj region) and lower Doab and mainly among the Thakurs in the region. Bhanu Pratap was part of the BKU (Tikait) until 2013. He was the state president of the union when he left Tikait and formed his union on ‘differences’. He played an important role in the counter-mobilisations against the 2020-21 farmers’ protests due to his union’s favorable equation with the ruling government.
Read also | Bhartiya Kisan Union splits, Tikait brothers ‘suppressed’
The BKU (Tikait) lost vital constituencies of different agrarian castes through these splits. The BKU (Tikait) has always claimed to be apolitical. Yet in 2004, Mahendra Singh Tikait’s son Rakesh Tikait formed Bahujan Kisan Dal and contested a few seats but could not win any. All of these attempts to politicize farmers and farm workers into one working class through unique typologies of Bahujan and Kisan were unique, at least in the sphere of the farmers’ movement.
Recently, a faction of peasant leaders severed ties with the BKU (Tikait) and accused the Tikait brothers of engaging in “active politics”, defying the apolitical tradition of the BKU. These leaders, namely Rajesh Chouhan, Dharmendra Malik and Harinam Singh Verma, formed a new union called BKU (Arajnaitik), or apolitical BKU.
However, the logic behind this is flawed. Even in the past, the Tikait family has been associated with active politics and even contested elections, but these leaders did not object at the time. Interestingly, the head of the Gathwala Malik Khap, Rajendra Malik, is the adviser to the BKU (Arajnaitik). There was an attempt by the ruling party to divide the khaps and delegitimize the farmers’ protest, which Rajendra Malik had supported.
When the BKU (Tikait) held a massive rally in September, he refused to join. Rajendra Malik instead joined the rally of the Hind Mazdoor Kisan Samiti, the organization that supported the Farm Bills. BKU (Tikait) media chief Dharmendra Malik also developed a painful relationship with the Tikait brothers. They ostensibly assured that he would not get a ticket for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in 2022.
One must also examine the role of castes while analyzing the factional politics of agricultural unions. Caste mobilizations within BKU (Tikait) now have different implications with the formation of this new faction instead of another where other non-Jat leaders of the organization faced a sense of contempt. Such issues can be dealt with effectively when there is a balance of resources and positions, unlike BKU (Tikait), which revolves around the axis of a family.
However, the BKU (Tikait) has gained solid ground to reclaim its glorious history after the 2020-21 farmers’ protest. This gave the BKU (Tikait) the well-deserved boost to establish its credibility with its supporters. The Tikait family used it to revive their heritage.
Two fundamental paradoxes are visible because of the rise of the peasant movement in India. The first is the inability of farmers’ organizations to deal properly with their problems. The second paradox is the practice of caste mobilization creating hostilities between inter-caste relations and giving carte blanche to politicians who exploit caste divisions, and this newly formed formation also contributes to this. The fact remains that politicians do not want farmers’ organizations to strengthen their pillars regardless of the political party to which they might be affiliated.
The political dynamics of caste have changed nowadays. The mere support of a particular caste to a peasant organization is no longer useful. Instead, inter-elite and intra-elite caste-based competition is at the center of politics. Caste-based rivalry eventually leads to competition between different families, who compete to share power between castes. And the ruling party, on the receiving side, is more likely to benefit from power struggles between elites of different castes because many castes are directly and indirectly aligned with the ruling party. Consequently, the political party ultimately defines the rules of the farmers’ organizations on which the social and political agenda is played out. This newly formed union might be prone to fall into such a trap.
(Shivam Mogha and Harinder Happy are scholars at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.