Rakesh Tikait, a Jat man, who also happens to be a gutsy peasant leader, wept and whimpered on camera a few days ago. The entire nation watched. His face tore in pain, his voice was almost chocked. The video went viral and the tables were turned politically. This is not something the standard political language of antagonism is quite accustomed to.
Despite being a man, Charles Dickens once asserted, “We need never be ashamed of our tears.” (Great Expectations). However, the hegemony of gender expectations seldom allows a man to do so. What is a male child’s initiation to pain and grief like? The other day we were returning from work when my male colleague’s mobile rang. The little boy whom he has left home has hurt himself during a fight in school. The father consoled the child, but rebuked him as well, ‘Why are you howling for a scratch? Be a man!’
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An attempt to customary indoctrination it was, handed down from grandfathers to fathers to sons, Even if men cry, there is a protocol for it. They should not make a big show of it. They should just let it roll off their cheeks silently. No drama. Men should cry with restraint, with dignity. Undoubtedly, it involves a lot of swallowing. History noted this and the myth that men don’t cry was created.
This is exactly why the image of Rakesh Tikait, a powerful man, hailing from the male-dominated UP, moaning loudly and publicly, breaks so many stereotypes. In fact, Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait’s emotional outburst on the evening of 28 January proved to be a major turning point in the farmers’ protest against the Centre’s farm laws. The protest site at Ghazipur was facing a flak after the fiasco on 26th January. The mainstream media, with a clear intention of defaming the farmers, chose to report the day’s incidents partially, as well as blamed the peasants solely for perpetrating violence and anarchy. To worsen the situation, four of the forty unions, hitherto fighting hand in hand, withdrew support from the ongoing peasants’ movement. Section 144 (no assembly) was imposed and there was heavy police deployment at the protest site. Being demoralised by these developments and plagued by power cuts and disruptions in water supply since Wednesday (27th January), thousands of farmers set off for their home on their tractors. They came to terms with the fact that the protest site would soon be cleared out. ‘Is the spark dwindling?’, we wondered.
Rakesh Tikait, along with other peasant leaders, was named in multiple FIRs. However, the leaders boldly declared that no one was going to surrender and the movement would not be called off. Rakesh Tikait said that he will rather prefer dying by suicide than to give in. At this juncture, while speaking on national television, he broke in tears. He also announced that he would sit on a hunger strike at the protest site and only drink water from native villages. Rakesh Tikait claimed that BJP goons were being sent to vandalise the movement and they would harm his fellow farmers. ‘If they have any plan, I’ll be the first one to receive the bullets.’
And lo! Rakesh Tikait’s vulnerability, far from being the Achilles’ heel, was rather proved to be the elixir that revived the thinning protest. Tikait’s last straw effort to save what he thought a lost battle worked as a catalyst to rejuvenate it. Hearts melted and tides turned. The homebound tractors turned around too. The aftermath was incredible. Within two hours of the social media circulation of the video, where the distressed leader’s voice drowned down in sobs, two thousand people gathered in Ghazipur border. By the morning, the number of protesting farmers increased manifold. Even those who were not supporting the movement before were moved by Rakesh Tikait’s emotional outburst and set off for either Ghazipur or the Mahapanchayats, that were declared in support of Tikait. In Muzaffarnagar, one such Mahapanchayat was headed by Rakesh Tikait’s elder brother Naresh Tikait. After western UP, Mahapanchayats were also held in Haryana. Thus the anti-Rakesh Tikait outcry of the BJP leaders and pro-government media backfired.
The Tikait brothers, however, have a strong connection with the Khaps and its principles. The family heads Baliyan Khap of eighty-four villages, giving it considerable influence within the Jat community of Western UP and Haryana. They also exercise influence among the Malik and Deshwal Khaps.
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Indian khaps are infamous for their feudal and regressive policies and enjoy a free hand in oppressing the dalits and minorities, harassing couples and passing down bizarre sexist diktats like banning girls from wearing jeans, using mobile phones and the internet. A feminist, therefore, at the juncture of the peasants’ movement, shares a tense liaisons with the Khaps. Naresh Tikait, the head of the Balyan Khap, in response to the Supreme Court’s criticism of khaps for their regressive forceful marriage policies, once threatened to destabilise society by not giving birth to girls. He also said that in case a girl was born, they wouldn’t allow her to be educated, and so she wouldn’t have a mind of her own. In a nutshell, the Tikaits are expected to have imbibed the culture of misogyny, sexism and male chauvinism.
All comrades involved in gender politics are well aware of the long-term role of khap panchayats in promoting gender inequality. It can be said that khap panchayat and gender inequality or gender violence are almost synonymous. However, in this postmodern, post-colonial political milieu, linear, one-dimensional, ‘modernist’ alliance theory has become obsolete and multi-dimensional alliances, based on particular issue-based clauses have become a new political reality. We even have a new term for it: fluidarity ( instead of solidarity), that means joint action of various groups that reject collective identity towards a common goal.
That being the backdrop, when Rakesh Tikait abruptly broke into tears, it was very unlikely for a Jat leader, who is deemed to be the epitome of masculinity. His tears, as said before, exercised an emotive pull that even he may not have envisaged. What might Rakesh Tikait be thinking after viewing the revolt being reinvigorated? Does he realise that the tears of a man may have a strong impact as well? Does he perceive that display of emotions does not make one less of a man? The ‘Tikait moment’ not only changed the course of the peasant movement, but also expanded the language of protest.
Towards the beginning of the peasant movement, we were mesmerised by the gigantic leap of a Punjabi youth from the tractor to the water canon in order to stop the tap. His valour was celebrated as a symbol of masculine machoness. However, the strong presence of the women farmers in the borders has reminded us that protest is not only about boldness and physical prowess, but also about resilience and tenacity. It is rather the balance of both sets of virtues and hence both the sets should be internalised by individuals, irrespective of gender. Rakesh Tikait’s tears, too, gave us a scope to rethink political expression. It does not always need to be aggressive. An honest display of vulnerability has its own strength too.