MEERUT, India, Feb. 18, Reuter: The leader of striking North Indian farmers told his followers on Thursday to boycott a mass meeting to be addressed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and to gather here instead for a counter-ally.
Indian Farmers Union leader Mahendra Singh Tikait spoke in Meerut, 55 km northwest of New Delhi, and called on farmers to ignore a meeting in the Uttar Pradesh state capital Lucknow on Friday which Gandhi is expected to attend.
Tens of thousands of farmers have staged violent protests over the past three weeks demanding debt relief and higher government prices for sugar cane.
At least two people have been killed by police who opened fire ‘on angry crowds, authorities said, but unofficial reports put the death toll as high as 16.
Shriram Arun, Meerut police deputy inspector general, said there was only one violent incident on Thursday when students set fire to a bus in nearby Bullandshahr district.
He said road blocks had been cleared but a section of railway line damaged earlier this week had not been restored.
Farmer’s spokesman said tension was high as a result of the deaths and that more than 200 people had been arrested.
Tikait has called a mass rally in Meerut for Saturday and he asked his followers to camp in the city until then.
Police sources said the Saturday tally could match one held last Thursday which drew more than 100,000 people.
Volunteers have opened roadside medical clinics and farmers have organized soup kitchens in preparation for a drawn out battle.
Meerut, 55 km north east of New Delhi, has a dismal record in communal relations. Last year more than 120 people were killed in Hindu Moslem clashes.
But Tikait, 55, has united the two communities. Their leaders share the same platforms, alternately shouting “AllahOAkbar” (God is great), to Moslems and “Har Har Mahadev” (Hail the great God) to Hindus,
According to police, Tikait’s last big rally attracted 100,000 people.
The Gandhi government has rejected his demands and says only big farmers are backing him.
Sunday mail columnist and economist Prem Shankar Jha says the demands would bankrupt the government.
Uttar Pradesh, the largest Indian State with a population of 110 million, is the core of the Hindi heartland. Gandhi has so far avoided testing his popularity by postponing Parliamentary by elections.
“As the situation stands now, these farmers will vote for whoever Tikait says they should vote for,” said a Meerut police officer.
With the peasant leader’s popularity at a peak, opposition leaders have seen the potential for their ‘own gain and trooped to Meerut to back him.
Tikait has accepted their support but denied them the opportunity of addressing the big crowds from his platform. He has studiously presented himself as a nonpolitical farmer.
Dressed in a dirty white homespun shirt and Indian Sarong, he takes center stage at all meetings, chatting to the crowds rather than addressing them.
“What we are doing in Meerut, they don’t understand in Delhi,” he says. “They are heartless and we have nothing but truth and devotion to god on our side.”