At Lakhimpur Kheri, these days, ‘Thar’ is the word which strikes a chord with the people. Three years ago, while the protracted farmers’ struggle was at its peak, eight people were killed in Lakhimpur Kheri district’s Tikunia on October 3, 2021.

Farmers were then protesting against Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya’s visit to their area. Among the eight killed were four farmers and one local journalist.

They were crushed to death, allegedly intentionally, and with the will to hurt, under the rampaging wheels of a Thar Mahindra. The SUV was driven by Ashish Mishra, son of Union Minister Ajay Kumar Mishra Teni, the incumbent BJP MP and a bahubali from the area.

Like the endorsement of another bahubali, Brij Bhushan Singh, accused of relentless sexual harassment by India’s world champion women wrestlers, whose son has been given a ticket from his bastion, Kaisergunj, Teni’s candidature too has been endorsed by the BJP.

None of them have faced any damage to their political career, despite the magnitude of the allegations, the prolonged agitation by the women wrestlers, and the killing of farmers.

Teni was retained in the Cabinet, despite several appeals made by the farmers’ collective, and Brij Bhushan Singh has neither been arrested nor expelled from the party. Instead, his son has been rewarded by the party leadership bestowing on him a MP ticket.

However, Teni is facing a double-whammy this time around. Not only are the farmers totally hostile towards him, even the Tharu adivasis living inside the core area of the tiger reserve of the famous Dudhwa National Park, are up in arms against the BJP.

Most of them said they are supporting the I.N.D.I.A. Bloc, and its Samajwadi Party (SP) candidate, Utkarsh Verma, a popular and young MLA from the area, who first won when he was just about 25 years old.

In a rally on May 9, 2024, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, rubbed the ‘Thar’ metaphor in, while speaking in a public rally. He said: “Senior (BJP) leaders from Delhi came here. The pavilion was not occupied (not) even half of this.

“Why would people come to hear the speech of those who came from Delhi and Lucknow? Because the farmers and people of Lakhimpur have decided this time to give a befitting reply to the Thar with their vote.”

He was referring to the earlier visit of Union Home Minister Amit Shah who had declared that he would make Teni a ‘big man’ if he is elected once again.

Akhilesh Yadav, instead, raised key issues stalking the region, striking a chord with the audience. He referred to the unresolved issues of the farmers, the paper leaks in recruitment tests and mass unemployment.

Yadav spoke about the loan-waiver worth lakhs of crores to industrialists while not an inch of financial relief has been given to the farmers, and how the Covid vaccine might create a health disaster in the days to come, even as pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has decided to withdraw its Covid vaccine, Covishield, from the market.

“The firm making it is withdrawing its deadly vaccine from the market on the pretext of excess supply. The public is asking the BJP government that how will this vaccine come back from the bodies of those who have taken it?” Yadav asked.

Indeed, the pandemic has etched deep and simmering wounds inside the public consciousness. Hundreds of dead bodies were seen floating on the Ganges, while others were quickly buried on its sandy shores, with tattered clothes as desolate flags of identification.

In Lucknow, the crematorium could not accommodate the massive queue of dead bodies. The UP government quickly erected huge boards outside it so as to block journalists and photographers from reporting on the mass funerals. In Ghaziabad, dead bodies were being burnt in public parks and on the streets, while in Delhi thousands were gasping for breath, stranded outside hospitals, with no oxygen, medicine or medical care.

The ‘Thar tragedy’ is still fresh in the people’s minds. Ashish Mishra was arrested after sustained protests. The Supreme Court had last year imposed certain conditions to Mishra, who is out on interim bail, allowing him to stay in Delhi.

It extended his bail in February this year. He has been asked not to attend any public function in the capital or interact with the media on any issue regarding the murder case. He has been barred from entering Uttar Pradesh, unless it is for legal purposes.

Lakhimpur Kheri is located near Pilibhit, erstwhile constituency of BJP MP Maneka Gandhi, close to the India-Nepal border. Like the agricultural fields inside the dense Salwan forests of Dudhwa National Park, this is a highly fertile zone, with flourishing sugar cane agriculture.

Super-rich Sikh farmers who own sprawling farm houses and drive swanky SUVs, many of them are living abroad, control the lucrative sugar cane trade, in the lush green fields across the rural belt of the area. Some of them own big farms stretching from 1,000 to 1,500 acres. Like the banias, the Aggarwals and Guptas, of the Lakhimpur town, they have earlier voted for the BJP. Not this time, claim the locals.

The Sikhs, with strong ties to Punjab and parts of Haryana, have supported the peaceful farmers’ struggle for more than one year at the borders of Delhi. They understand the unresolved issues, including the long-standing demands seeking the implementation of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for sugar cane and other crops, and the recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee report.

And not only the death of the farmers crushed under the Thar Mahindra SUV of the Mishras, they share the sorrow of over 700 farmers who died during the struggle. The farmers had continued the peaceful protest facing a harsh summer and winter, thunder, storm and rain, facing police lathi-charges, tear gas, iron nails driven on the streets, water cannons and barricades. Thousands of women and children joined them. While the PM called them ‘andolanjeevi’, derogatorily, inside Parliament.

Locals say that a large section of Sikh farmers here might not vote for the BJP this time. Between them and the prosperous Bania community, they have around 20 percent of the vote share. The Banias, a traditionally flourishing trading community, are committed BJP supporters, and they will continue to vote for the party. Despite the Thar tragedy.

Meanwhile, the entire population of the Tharu adivasis are adamant to vote against the incumbent MP and instead vote for the Opposition alliance candidate. Utkarsh Verma is a well-known politician in the area, and is popular among the people, especially the young.

However, the Tharus claim that he, like most other SP politicians who have been elected from this area in the past, has not cared about the fundamental rights of the forest-dwellers, even as they faced relentless exploitation and repression at the hands of the notorious Forest Department at the Dudhwa National Park.

The Tharus are 50,000 strong in population, and their collective vote might mark a paradigm shift in the final tally, especially during a close fight. They are stretched out in 46 villages inside the forest core area.

Around 30 of these villages are strongly unionised, politically committed, and they have waged prolonged, peaceful battles for their inherited rights as indigenous communities. The movement, united with men and women, is led by women, and it is they who lead from the front, and have also suffered physical violence at the hands of the forest department in the past.

Sahwaniya, a young law student who drives a bike all alone inside the thick of the forest said, “We have to defeat these forces who are out to damage and divide India using vicious and relentless hate politics.

“Our protracted battle for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, enacted by Parliament during the UPA1 government, is in synthesis with this secular and democratic struggle to preserve the Indian Constitution, and for the rights of the Dalits, Adivasis, minorities and women. We will not spare the BJP this time.”

Rajnish, leader of the Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch, under the national umbrella of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) said: “The SP leadership has over the years chosen to ignore our demands. Even Akhilesh Yadav is well-aware of the issues, but has willfully chosen to ignore them over the years. Some of them do not even know the intricacies of the Forest Rights Act.

“Utkarsh Verma came to our office in Pallia and spent two hours with us. He met the Tharu people who live in the forest. He has committed himself to the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in the days to come. We believe that he will stick to his words.”

The Tharu adivasis, a self-sufficient, hard-working, resilient and innovative community, live in beautiful mud and wood houses, with open-to-sky courtyards and big windows. Many of their homes do not even have doors!

Their aesthetic and sturdy architecture has been showcased by the tourism department by creating fake ‘Tharu resorts’ for cash-rich tourists who have no clue about their ancient civilization and culture. “We grow everything here, except tea and coffee,” they say, proudly.

Due to their self-sufficient local economy, they did not suffer financial hardship or scarcity of food, during the pandemic. They make huge containers with mud and the grass of ‘masoor dal’, and store food grains in special, airy rooms in their homes.

They also have indigenous herbs and medicine for diabetes, cough and cold, fever, and even ‘knee cancer’. Many girls drive motorcycles, while mothers bringing back their children from school, or carrying a sickle on their shoulders, while driving a cycle through the dense forest, is a common sight.

The forests of tall Salwan and other trees surround them with their clean and cool wind, and their shade is their other home. They have grown up here since their childhood, and the tigers and other predators live in close proximity, in peaceful co-existence.

There has been no recorded incident of man-animal conflict in the distant or recent past here. “We see them, they see us. The tiger has no threat perception. We have no threat perception. It is his homeland. It is also our homeland. We live in peace and harmony with each other, Sahwaniya said.

The adivasis believe that life was better during the British times. “They would occasionally come to enjoy and hunt, and leave us in peace. We could go and live in the forest, gather fallen branches and wood, fruits, medicinal herbs, fodder for our cattle, fish from the ponds, and, most crucially, grass (‘ghaas phoons’),” Nevada, a feisty leader of the movement said. Nevada’ was injured, allegedly by the forest department guards in a scuffle with women collecting wood and grass in the forest.

The grass is crucial for the community for many reasons: food for the cattle, roofs for the cattle-shed, and for the consolidation of the roofs and walls of their mud homes, especially during winters and rain.

Old-timers recall that when the tiger population was very high in the area, and even in the pre-Independence era, several women would take their cattle carts and go deep into the forest and camp there for weeks. To collect grass and store them, especially for the rainy season. Grass is crucial to the existence of the community.

Since the Forest Department has taken over, especially after the area was declared as a National Park, the atrocities have become relentless and unbearable, the community member said.

They said that the department members would land up in the villages at odd hours and demand a huge quota of rice, wheat, garlic, ginger, jaggery – and the local drink. Adivasis alleged that the officials would make a huge amount of money by selling the crops grown after months of hard labour.

“Or else, the adivasis were threatened that they would be beaten up, picked up, or sent to jail. Even now, they try to take a fake road tax on the day the adivasis want to sell their products in the local market nearby. They would even behave badly with the women,” the locals said.

“All this was stopped once we made the Union. It’s been more than 15 years now, and not a drop of grain can go to their kitty. No atrocities of any kind will be allowed or tolerated. We stand united and strong,” Neveda said.

As revenge, the Forest Department would not allow the women to collect grass and wood, nor herbs and fruits, from the forest. In response, 500 women would gather on a particular day, inform the district administration in writing in advance, take their sickle and hammer, and enter, on foot, or on their cattle carts, and collect the forest produce. In front of the armed guards.

“The forests are our homeland. We have inherited it. Its produce too belongs to us. We preserve and protect these vast tracts of lush-green forests. We cherish the wildlife, the birds, the butterflies, the insects, the trees, the wild flowers. How can they deny us our civilisational rights in our own, cherished, homeland,” Sahwaniya said.

Sahwaniya’s name tells a tale. It means, friend of the forest – ‘van ka saathi’. Her father, Jawahar Rana, was a pioneer of the movement, and one of the main organisers of the first phase of the collective struggle. He was assaulted badly by the police, tied and beaten up for hours, she recalled.

Very weak and suffering physically, he succumbed to Covid during the pandemic. Since then, he has become an icon of the movement. No public rally can be held without paying an emotional tribute to him, while remembering his great contribution to the struggle.

His portrait is on the walls of their main office in Pallia. Thereby, his young and fearless daughter is now one of the fiery women leaders of this incredible movement, unreported and hidden from the mainstream media.

That is why, the Forest Rights Act and its implementation, remains the most emotive and crucial issue for the Tharu adivasis. “It took seven long years for the administration to accept the legitimacy of our collective claims, made with absolutely meticulous documentation.

“The agricultural land and homes of the adivasis belong to them, and they have proper documents as evidence. It is their right to the forest, and to enter the forest as and when they like – that is the main issue. The Opposition alliance has to recognize this fact. And we are happy that Rahul Gandhi has included this fundamental right, enacted by the UPA1 government, in the Congress manifesto,” Rajnish said.

Last year, the villagers led by Sahwaniya and other women leaders petitioned the district administration with impeccable proof of a huge scandal. The charges were explosive.

They showed photographic and video evidence to prove that the Forest Department was cutting down trees worth lakhs, and was thereby part of a flourishing timber mafia. This has been going on for long, while the adivasis would be eventually blamed. This time, even the local media covered this news.

High officials descended on the villages asking the leaders to withdraw the charges. They refused. Thereby, as an act of revenge, all kinds of cases were resurrected against them, including against dead people, the locals said.

Rajnish said that he has a host of cases filed against him, “But I am not backing down, nor are the adivasis.”

Hence, the 50,000 Tharus, along with the farmers, with the Sikh farmers joining them, along with the unemployed young and women with their households hit by high inflation, may give a tough fight to Teni this time.

However, ‘Thar’, as a metaphor, remains a simmering and unforgettable wound. “The BJP might pay a high price for yet again giving a ticket to a man, whose very existence reminds us of the farmers crushed by his son’s SUV,” a farmer said.

Lakhimpur Kheri polls on May 13.