Meerut: Farmers from across western Uttar Pradesh poured into the Government Inter College (GIC) grounds in Muzaffarnagar on Friday in a show of strength after a government crackdown on protests against three agriculture laws led the region’s most prominent farm leader, Rakesh Tikait, to issue an emotional appeal for support.
Farmers said they left their villages in the middle of the night after calls for mobilisation given from temples, mosques and panchayats. Viral videos of Tikait breaking down late in the face of police ultimatum on Thursday and vowing to not vacate his protest site of Ghazipur, on the eastern fringe of Delhi, cemented their conviction.
“The ongoing movement is a battle for the honour of farmers and, if it ends, it will damage our very existence,” said Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) chief Naresh Tikait — Rakesh Tikait’s brother — after the seven-hour meeting, calling on farmers to strengthen the movement at Delhi’s borders.
Naresh Tikait said that defeating Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leader Ajit Singh in the 2019 Lok Sabha election by supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a mistake. “We will not commit this mistake again…they are like our family,” he added, with Singh’s son Jayant Chaudhary next to him.
Jayant lashed out at central and state governments. Holding a pot of water from the Ganga, Jayant asked the crowd to swear that anyone who didn’t support the farmers stir would be socially boycotted. He then dropped a fistful of salt in the pot, a local oath-taking tradition, to seal the promise.
“It is a matter of life and death for farmers, but do not worry. All have to stay together, united in this — this is Chaudhary sahab’s (Ajit Singh’s) message,” he said.
The mobilisation began late night on Thursday after videos of Rakesh Tikait in tears while vowing to occupy the Ghazipur protest site until his death went viral on WhatsApp and social media.
Tikait’s emotional appeal for support came after the Ghaziabad administration gave him an ultimatum to vacate the site, as part of a wider crackdown on the two-month-old protests in the aftermath of violence in Delhi on Republic Day.
“Tears of the son of Chaudhary Mahendra Singh Tikait and my younger brother Rakesh Tikait will not go waste,” Naresh Tikait tweeted soon after, referring to their father, a legendary farm leader who brought Delhi to a halt in 1988 over demands such as free power and water for cultivators.
“A sea of humanity will reach Ghazipur border,” Naresh Tikait said shortly afterwards, calling for a mahapanchayat on Friday.
By morning, farmers from Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Saharanpur, Meerut, Baghpat, Bijnor and other districts of western UP had taken tractors, cars, scooters and trucks to come to the GIC grounds, which can hold up to 100,000 people.When the mahapanchayat began, the venue was packed with people, many of whom were defiant in front of the heavy police presence.
“Thousands of people arrived for the mahapanchayat and it was self-driven,” said Anuj Baliyan, a resident of Soram village. “I have not seen such a self-driven and motivated crowed in my life. Roads of Muzaffarnagar were jammed with tractors and the entire ground was packed with people,” he added.
Emotions ran high at the meeting as people recalled Rakesh Tikait’s vow to not touch water until the farm laws were rescinded by the government. Earlier on Thursday, farmers said the administration cut off power and water supply to the Ghazipur protest site.
“Panchayats were convened in villages after watching Rakesh Tikait in tears on TV screens and then it was decided to attend the mahapanchayat to show our strength,” said Sudhir Balyan, a resident of Goyla village.
Slogans of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” (Hail farmer, hail soldier) rent the air as young men on motorcycles openly challenged policemen to come arrest them.
“We can’t tolerate ill-treatment of our leader and farmers who have been fighting against the three farm laws for over two months braving cold and rain,” said Meharban, a resident of Soram village.
Vice president of BKU (Bhanu) Chaudhary Diwakar Singh said he defied his leader Bhànu Pratap’s decision to withdraw from the movement. “Rakesh Tikait’s tears have turned it into a complete farmers’ movement,” he added.
Commissioner of Saharanpur NAME along with DIG U K Agarwal were at the venue to maintain law and order. “We have deployed sufficient force to ensure a peaceful panchayat and to maintain law and order during the event,” said the DIG.