New Delhi: On the first day of the winter session of Parliament in 2009, Mahendra Singh Tikait, septuagenarian leader from western Uttar Pradesh, marched to the capital with over 50,000 farmers, forcing the government to hold an emergency meeting on the price of sugar cane.
It was the trademark of the founder of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), who died in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district on Sunday morning, succumbing to a year-long battle with bone cancer. He was 76.
Tikait began organizing farmers in western Uttar Pradesh in the early 1980s, predominantly from the Jat community, to fight for their rights, especially seeking better prices for their produce; and, as critics would argue, he never did extend this to argue for the entire agriculture sector, or make out a case for small and marginal farmers.
He fought any corporate or large-scale interests in the farm sector and vehemently protested the World Trade Organization agreement and agricultural subsidies in Europe and the US.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had convened the emergency meeting to address Tikait’s demands in 2009, acknowledged on Sunday that the farmer leader was a force to reckon with.
Crusader for farmers: A file photo of Mahendra Singh Tikait; Photo PTI
“His work was a powerful influence across the country and inspired the formation of many other organizations devoted to the cause of farmers,” Singh said in a condolence message.
Chief ministers Narendra Modi of Gujarat, Nitish Kumar of Bihar and Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh, too, extended their condolences.
Similarly, Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar said: “The interests of the farming community were close to the heart of the popular kisan leader and he always stood with the farmers on all issues concerning them. We will be deprived of his valuable advice and views on matters relating to agriculture.”
Born in 1935 in Sisauli village, Tikait looked up to former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, who had fought for a larger agricultural agenda in governance. Charan Singh, however, was entrenched in a wider spectrum of agrarian issues, perhaps eventually differentiating the two men in the extent of their national influence.
“In the context of his life, he actually nearly became another Charan Singh, except that he didn’t really enter politics. Although BKU, like a lot of other farmers’ unions, was extremely fragmented, he was the one person who could hold a significant portion of it together.” said Abhijit Sen, an expert on agricultural policy and a member of the Planning Commission, India’s apex planning body.
Tikait tacitly acknowledged this difference between two leaders in an interview to The Hindu newspaper in 2005. “Nobody can reach him or be compared to him. We can only remember him, not step into his shoes,” said Tikait of his role model, Charan Singh.
Despite his wide appeal and bargaining power with those in political office, Tikait never contested an election.
“He was a traditional farmers’ leader in that sense—minimum support price and other price issues. He was hugely influential in the area that he came from in western UP, and he was very well respected. In government, in general, he was seen as a difficult person to deal with,” explained Sen, referring to Tikait’s tendency to initiate protests.
Food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma, who has known Tikait since his early days, reasoned that his lack of exposure to geopolitical disputes and their technical nature perhaps did not encourage him to think beyond the basic issues of procurement price.
Tikait also courted some controversy in his life, once pejoratively referring to UP chief minister Mayawati’s caste, and another time when he defended honour killings by khap panchayats.
Tikait believed it was a gross crime for couples to be from the same gothra (clan). “We live by a moral code where honour has to be protected at any cost,” he said to The Times of India newspaper in 2009.
“All said and done, Tikait was casteist in his approach,” said Ashok Chowdhry, a social activist in UP. “He was dismissive of the rights of Dalits, women and labour.”
However, Yudhvir Singh, a close associate of Tikait since 1978, defended him, saying he came from a humble rural background. “He was a simple leader who dealt with the basic issues of farmers. Farmers include Dalits and tribals. He may not be very articulate, so sometimes he was misunderstood. But the farming community benefited as a whole, not just one caste. He is the greatest leader of farmers’ movement and nobody can fill that vacuum.”
His legacy is, however, being challenged, with a section of leaders within BKU blaming Tikait for the vacuum in leadership that he has left behind.
“Tikait was trying to promote his son Rajesh Tikait,” one of them said on condition of anonymity. “So he never tried to promote a second generation leadership that can carry forward his vision.”
It seems Tikait was aware of this crisis. According to Sharma, “Once he told me that he is sceptical of the farmers’ movement. I don’t see anybody rising up to lead it.”
PTI contributed to this story.