Western UP Gets A Healing Touch

September 5 this year marked a sweet rupture in the green expanse of the sugarcane belt of western Uttar Pradesh, where people are laid-back and love their ‘barfi and laddoo’ as much as their dense sweet tea with lot of milk. The rupture is more than symbolic. It seems its back to old times — of peace, brotherhood and harmony. And that was how it was, before it was violently ravaged by the systematic ‘social engineering’ of organized hate politics, combined with brutal assaults on women, especially those belonging to the minority community.

This was the darkest and most tragic chapter in the contemporary history of western UP. Indeed, it all started in 2013, before the Lok Sabha elections in the summer of 2014. The timing seemed perfect for those who master-minded it all!

What happened in 2013 was unprecedented and unexpected. Huge hate rallies marked by inflammatory slogans and speeches led by the leaders of the right wing. A high-decibel, diabolical discourse driven by the fake narrative of ‘love jihad’. Violence, anarchy and bloody riots let loose. A society which lived in peace was rapidly torn asunder. Homes destroyed, many turned homeless, and internally displaced were forced to move into make-shift camps. Plus, scores of women assaulted, men killed. As usual, rumours floated thick and fast.

Such a nightmare had never visited Western UP ever in the past. Not even before and after the Babri Masjid demolition led by LK Advani and his Sangh Parivar apparatus, when violence erupted across UP and elsewhere, leaving a trial of bloodshed and social divisions. In contrast, in this green expanse, it was always human and social bonding which prevailed – harmony and happiness, taken for granted, trapped in a slow and sweet time warp. And the ‘lotus’, never really had any stakes here – except among sections of the traders and shopkeepers of commercial towns like Saharanpur.

It took a while. A long while. For wounds to heal, and the ruptures to repair.

There were sustained efforts on the ground by secular leaders and activists, local opinion-makers, political parties, civil society activists and farmer’s collectives, to heal the simmering wounds. It was difficult and against the dominant, negative current of the times. It seemed that something short and brutish had changed things for eternity. It was hard to imagine that ‘normalcy’ of the old times would ever return.

This was a land united by all communities – people shared their labour and the fruits of their labour in each other’s lands. Landlords were largely benevolent. People shared resting places under the big tree, and quaint little tea shops, hukkahs and gossip, little, muddy lanes and by-lanes, festivals, weddings and family occasions, love, respect and friendship. An organic cultural and social unity found its presence here – and hate was marked by its absence. 

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That is why September 5 this year marked a historic rupture. The massive farmers’ movement, which began in September last year against the three farm bills, returned like a luminescent sign of stoic resistance and struggle, and brought with it, sweet and shared memories. The smell of harmony and unity filled the air.

Indeed, as the festive season arrives, the memory of the expanse of mustard flowers with its stunning Van-Gogh landscapes will continue to linger in the sugarcane belt of Western UP, like the sticky, delicious fragrance of melting jaggery in the atmosphere. It’s like a childhood memory which refuses to go away – lingering like a precious picture postcard, across the sugar mill factories strewn in the horizon. In the 1970s and 80s, long caravans of bullock carts would carry sugarcane to the mills, with mischievous kids running after them and stealing the ‘ganna’. They still do.

The only difference is that the caravans are often facing tough times. The farmers are suffering not only huge economic losses due to the pandemic and lockdown – but also because they feel that the central and state governments in UP have yet again short-changed them.

From Saharanpur to Baraut and Baghpat, or, back from Meerut and Muzaffarnagar to Shamli, where, at the dusty bus stop, you could still find a Ruskin Bond book, along with Gulshan Nanda and best-selling Hindi pulp fiction, this green revolution belt has been prosperous. Its fertile landscape and canals had turned its fields into gold. The landlords, affluent Jats and Muslims, along with other communities, lived a peaceful life. Many Muslims and Hindus worked in each other’s land. Between sugarcane fields and mango orchards, and a variety of crops and dairy farming, around the transit points of rich commercial mandis in Saharanpur, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar, communalism or ‘love jihad’ was the last thing in their mind.

Therefore, on Teacher’s Day, September 5, 2021, the farmers of Western UP and Haryana, not only gave a stirring and sterling lesson to the nation, the day will mark a social and political rupture in the contemporary history of India. This is especially so because the secular and pluralist social fabric, as well as the essence and spirit of the Indian Constitution, have been under severe strain in recent times.

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On September 5, and reporters will tell you, it was an ocean of people, and not simply a rally. People spilled from over the rally ground in Muzaffarnagar into the town, and across the markets, streets and highway. Every tractor full of people had only one destination – the Kisan Mahapanchayat. Tens of thousands of farmers and their families joined from across Western UP and Haryana, while farmers joined from distant places in solidarity, including from Karnataka, from where a woman leader gave a soul-stirring speech. There were farmers’ unions from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Bihar, and other states, including those with red flags. More than 300 unions joined the United Kisan Morcha, along with all the ‘khaps’ of Western UP.

This is when a sweet moment of symbolism, in chorus, occurred as a remarkable public spectacle. Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader, Rakesh Tikait, son of legendary farmer’s leader, Mahender Singh Tikait, who once laid a long siege at the Boat Club when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, repeated a time-tested slogan of his father. This was the prized moment, which the entire farmer’s movement at the borders of the capital since one year in heat, cold and rain, stoic and resilient, was waiting for. And this moment arrived with a huge orchestra of optimism – when tens of thousands of farmers joined the slogan, originally recited by a father, and, now, repeated by his son.

Allahu Akbar, shouted Rakesh Tikait from the stage. And the crowd roared — Har Har Mahadev!

The die has been cast before the UP elections! The stage has been set. The sweet-smelling wind with the addictive fragrance of melting jaggery will henceforth cross into Eastern UP and across the Ganga – where thousands were buried during the deathly second surge of the killer virus. It will bring healing and hope. And it will teach a lesson, yet again, of what we learnt in our secular childhood textbooks: ‘India is a land of Unity in Diversity’.

Will Covid Crisis Create A Better World?

It is sad that when India is poised to fight back Covid-19 pandemic with the help of a vaccine it has produced in collaboration with the British, it will not be hosting Prime Minister Boris Johnson for this year’s Republic Day celebrations.

The visit was not intended by either nation as a ceremonial, goodwill-good talk event. The media in both countries had painted a bright collaborative picture despite the pandemic and the economic woes that it has accelerated and despite criticism of their respective leaderships in their respective homes and elsewhere.

To the British media, Sean O’Grady of The Independent for one, India was (and remains) an ideal British destination as an economic powerhouse that could help Britain post-Brexit to reach out globally. This has also been the trend in much of the Indian thinking, although Brexit itself is considered a disastrous move.

Much cooperation was in store, on several fronts, and this should continue, visit or no visit.

Going beyond bilateral issues, and the limited impact they would have in both South Asia and in Europe, it is worth stressing on the oodles of hope that the New Year has brought, but without enough effort to apply the correctives that made last year disastrous worldwide.

The New Year has ushered in or reinforced some supreme ironies that are not likely to go away. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, is that of the United States, the most powerful nation with the best of doctors, medicines, hospitals with the support of science and technology –and money to buy anything from anywhere – having the highest number of Corona-casualties.

And Johnson, who could have acknowledged the role of the British-found vaccine in India, had to cancel his visit because of the grim turn Corona has taken at home. The Doctor has failed to heal himself.

Many leaders across the world feel that Donald Trump might have won the US presidential polls but for the Covid-19 devastation. But is the man who threatens to “fight like hell” till his last day in office at all sorry or repentant for his deliberate and conscious neglect, and repeated misdirections in fighting the pandemic? Are other leaders across the world, too, who find scapegoats to justify their omissions and commissions on the Corona front ready to mend their ways?

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Trump will go, but Trump-ism survives. The storming of the Capitol by his supporters on his exhortations was an unprecedented, almost unthinkable, challenge to American democracy. It exposed the depths of the divisions that have coursed through the US during Trumps four years in office. This is how democracy dies.

The incident rang alarm bells worldwide for other leaders. It is gratifying that Johnson and India’s Narendra Modi joined other serving and retired heads of government in condemning the storming of the Capitol, pleading that democratic processes be allowed violence-free.

Having talked of the leaders of the ‘greatest’ and the ‘oldest’ democracies with regard to the pandemic, some observations on the performance of the ‘largest’ are essential because India is also the world’s third-highest for Corona deaths. The shock lockdown ordered on March 24 last year gave barely three hours to prepare to 1.3 billion people. Over 40 million migrant labour were displaced and walked hundreds of miles to seek work or deprived of it, to their impoverished homes.

A bulk of them were from Bihar. After a subsequent election victory in the state, Modi cited them as “endorsement of our policy” to fight Corona. Other chief ministers have also hastened to take credit, while glossing over the failures and miseries they have caused. 

A year hence, the government is to begin a study to examine the impact of this world’s largest mass movement caused by job-loss. If not avoidable, it could have at least been managed better.

India was in an economic mess long before Corona exacerbated it. But the blame continues to be placed at the door of the past government that went out of office over six years ago.

The story is similar to Brazil’s Jared Bolsonaro, the Indian Republic Day’s Chief Guest last year, and quite a few others who have used their electoral mandates to ride the rough shod on political critics and non-government bodies among others, and suppressing popular protests. Sadly, sections of bureaucracy, judiciary and media have played the ball with the politicians in power.

It may sound anti-democratic, but give them large majorities in legislatures, and they run berserk. Does the problem lie with leaders and their parties winning popular mandates with massive majority in legislatures? What tempts them to impose personal/ political agenda with potential to divide people?

The largest functioning democracy, India currently has examples of a chief minister building a 900 million palace (Telangana), another razing an entire city and battling courts that question his decisions (Andhra Pradesh) and at least three chief ministers issuing ordinances that penalize marriages among consenting adults, if they are by a Muslim man and a Hindu woman.

They take their cue from New Delhi that has enacted three federal laws on farming, virtually snatching away a subject that is with the states as per the Constitution. How can there be a single federal law in a country of India’s size with its differing weather conditions, water resources, crop patterns and marketing systems?

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With millions affected, over a hundred thousand farmers have blocked entries to the national capital for the past several weeks. Three scores have died in freezing cold. Talks are dragging on. Notably, the farmer is the only one to produce record quantities of food when India’s industrial output, the service sector and the commercial activity suffered thanks to Covid-19.

In saying all these things, one cannot be ignoring the strong support base such leaders and their governments enjoy. One is the middle class and the other, the corporate sector – both suckers for a ‘strong’ leadership and the political stability that supposedly comes with a popular mandate. All other things do not seem to matter. Modi, at least, continues to enjoy this support, and his party continues to win elections in one state after the other.

India’s middle class embraced the lockdown dutifully and enthusiastically, lighting lamps and clanging food plates. The fleeing migrant worker was a good riddance till his absence was felt. But to its credit, the middle class also organised relief. The lead was taken, not so much by governments overwhelmed by the crisis, but by the NGOs and charities.

Vaccines, both British-found and Indian, may – and must – raise hopes, although Corona is still not going to go away soon. The larger question is: Will this create a semblance of churning, among the leaders and those who place their faith in them by voting them to power, to work for a better world and may be, leave a few good examples for the future generations to emulate?

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com