Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan convener VM Singh has been instrumental in securing better remunerative prices for sugarcane farmers of Uttar Pradesh through the many court cases he has fought. Over the years, it must have earned them crores of rupees. First cousin of Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi, he was a key member of her team, but subsequently fell out, going on to even contest elections against her and, later on, her son and Member of Parliament Varun Gandhi.
In this interview, Singh explains why cow-vigilantism is detrimental to farmers, tracks the origin of Maneka’s passion for animals, and why her pursuit is at the expense of people. Singh says both Maneka and Varun Gandhi have failed to curb cow-slaughter in Pilibhit, which both have represented in Lok Sabha. One of the reasons for their failure is that they haven’t taken economics into account. Excerpts:
How would cow-vigilantism affect farmers?
To begin with, I’d use the word cattle, as the word includes cows and buffaloes too. The farmer, who barely has enough to feed his own family, will not feed the animal which has become old and stopped giving milk. He’d want to pass it over.
Are you saying his decision is influenced by economics?
What is happening today across India is that landholdings have become fragmented – and, therefore, their size has reduced. The reduction of landholding doesn’t make farming viable. Under this circumstance, without cattle, they won’t be able to make ends meet.
It is very simple – if I have three cows, I can feed them only through the money I earn by selling their milk. Now if all these three stop giving milk, I’d rather sell than feed them for nothing. It makes economic sense for me sell them and buy one which will give me milk.
People would say why not donate the cow gone dry to gaushalas.
Sure, they can donate it, but their experience of gaushalas hasn’t been good.
What do you mean by that?
Forget other gaushalas. (Union Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development) Maneka Gandhi ran a People For Animal gaushala at Bawana in Delhi, and the mortality rate there was high, according to government reports.
Farmers feel that if gaushalas are not going to look after the cows they donate, why shouldn’t they sell it to someone who is ready to purchase them?
Nearly 85-90% of farmers in western Uttar Pradesh are Hindus…
Are you saying they will come under the influence of cow-vigilantes and not sell cows?
They don’t have to react to what you and I say. Ultimately, though, they will sell the cow because they need money to buy its replacement so that they can feed their own families. You need to understand that it is the kitchen which matters to people. Agar chulha bujh raha hai mein use jalane ki baat karunga, bachchon ko khilane ki baat karunga. (If my hearth is getting extinguished, then I will speak (or think) about keeping the fire burning, about feeding my children.) Sentiments can’t feed you.
I may be digressing here, but when (Bharatiya Janata Party MP) Varun Gandhi was contesting elections from Pilibhit in 2009, he issued a press release and read it out as well. He said, to the effect, that bones of cows are being thrown into Hindu households.
He meant there was cow-slaughter in Pilibhit. Thereafter, he spoke against cow-slaughter on other occasions as well. But who had been the MP of Pilibhit for two decades before 2009? It was his mother, Maneka Gandhi. If cow-slaughter could be stopped, Maneka would have done it in Pilibhit. Varun was MP of Pilibhit for five years. Could he stop cow-slaughter there?
You have worked for Maneka in Pilibhit and subsequently, after both of you drifted apart, you contested against her on the Congress ticket in 2004 and against Varun in 2009. I assume you are very familiar with Pilibhit. Are you sure cow-slaughter happens in Pilibhit?
Go to Pota Kalan and Sherpur Kalan in Pilibhit – you will find trucks of cattle going out of from these places. Why don’t Maneka and Varun walk the talk on cow-slaughter in Pilibhit?
These trucks go out of Uttar Pradesh?
Out of Pilibhit, I don’t know where they eventually go. Everybody knows this. And I will again say that I wish both Maneka and Varun would walk the talk.
Guess those selling cows have a fair idea what is to happen to them.
When Hindutva people come in and say you can’t slaughter cow, people wishing to sell their animals need protection. A lot of people now take protection money for that. Isn’t this inevitable? When you want to sell something because you have to – and there are people who say it can’t be sold – then you would need protection.
How are you related to Maneka Gandhi?
Maneka’s mother and my father are real brother and sister. Her maternal grandfather is my paternal grandfather, Sir Datar Singh, who invented the Sahiwal cow breed. The Green Revolution in 1967-1968 began from our farm in Delhi.
Didn’t your grandfather, Sir Datar Singh, and Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, swap land at the time of Partition?
He had land in West Pakistan, in Chak Datar Singh, which is today Sahiwal. People there were nice enough not to change the name as long as he was alive. (Dattar Singh died in 1973.) My grandfather and Liaquat Ali Khan swapped lands. My grandfather got 1500 acres in India, of which he gave away 1200 acres, which were spread over in Muzaffarnagar, here and there. (Khan’s family got Singh’s property in Pakistan.)
The 300 acres were in Punjab Khor, northwest Delhi, and we still have about 200 acres.
Is the holding held jointly between your family and Maneka’s?
No, the 200 acres is our share. This was my father’s share, which my brother and my sisters own together.
What happened to the share of Maneka’s mother?
This is the irony. After the Supreme Court gave a verdict in 2005 on the civil property dispute, which was fought for 31 years, they sold the share they received.
So if the civil suit began 31 years before 2005, how come Maneka made you an officer on special duty (OSD) when she became a Union minister for the first time in 1989-1990?
Not OSD, but she did position me as a special secretary when she was the Minister of Environment and Forest. We were fine with each other, we were together, despite the suit having been filed.
What was it like when both of you were young?
It was fun, we were thick as thieves.
Did you all grow up together in one house?
Yes, when they would come down to Bhopal, where my grandfather shifted after he retired in 1960. There too we had a farm, which was once the property of Nawab of Bhopal, Hamidullah Khan. He was Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi’s grandfather. So Maneka’s family would come there. And we were very, very close.
Was Maneka always so involved with animals?
Her instinct for animals was always there. But it was subjective. She had pets, Sanjay had pets. She was very fond of dogs, no two ways about it. But I had never seen her get so involved with other animals. Then, in the 1989 election, the whole of Pilibhit saw her taking a horse and giving it a wash at the Circuit House. People thought, Gosh! Such compassion for even a lame horse! And it worked. I think it grew into a passion thereafter.
Are you suggesting that this is the origin of her excessive passion for dogs, cats and monkeys?
It is very weird.
When you mention monkeys, I am reminded of an incident of 1999, when she was a minister in the AB Vajpayee government. Once on a drive from Delhi to Pilibhit, she saw a monkey with a madaari. She had the monkey chained. For someone who talks so passionately about animals, she drove with the monkey to Pilibhit, crossing five-six districts. This was in violation of the Wildlife Act, which says if you catch an animal somewhere, it should be deposited with the wildlife officer there. You can’t take it from one place to another.
I have a hazy recollection that this monkey became quite controversial.
Well, in Pilibhit, she gave the monkey to the pujari of a temple, which is called Garrah temple. It is 125 years old. Maneka gave the monkey to the pujari (called Baba), asked him to keep it chained, and look after it until she took it back on her return journey to Delhi. When you chain a monkey, all other monkeys will come and kill you. So when all the monkeys got together to have Maneka’s monkey released….
She had moved away by then?
Yes, she had. The Baba had no choice but to unchain Maneka’s monkey. Two days later, she returned and asked the Baba for her monkey. The Baba said that other monkeys had forcibly released her monkey.
Monkeys broke the chain?
No, no, the Baba was so frightened once the monkeys got together, he released Maneka’s monkey. So Maneka is said to have remarked that one who can’t look after a monkey, how can he look after a temple? Maneka had the temple demolished.
Are you serious?
Thereafter, a troupe from Mathura was to come for performing Raas Leela on the temple premises. Maneka happened to be there. She asked the district authorities to pack off the troupe. I went to the High Court and got an order from Justice Hyder Abbas Raza that Raas Leela should be conducted there, that status quo should be observed. Today, the same temple is ten times bigger than what it was when it was demolished. The Baba even got security from the High Court.
This is the Pilibhit formula for the country – a temple of Hindus is demolished, a Sikh goes to the court, a Muslim judge delivers a verdict. This is what the nation needs and wants.
Could the monkey business have been a reason why Prime Minister Vajpayee dropped Maneka from his ministry in 2003?
No, it wasn’t. She was then accused of misappropriating government money. Government grants are given to Muslim minorities, especially weaker section women, under the Maulana Azad Education Foundation – for building hostels for girls, technical education, setting up laboratories, etc.
Maneka’s sister, Ambika Shukla, who runs an NGO, was granted Rs 50 lakh. The decision was taken at a meeting she chaired. This grant, by the way, has a limit of Rs 5 lakh. But to receive this money, you have to have an education system going somewhere, a building somewhere. They showed a government hospital building as their own building to get the grant! That is criminal.
Isn’t this part of the CBI case?
Yes, it is.
The next hearing in the case is Nov 3, right?
But the CBI has filed a closure report.
It filed two closure reports. The first one the court didn’t accept. I am going to be there on Nov 3. (The case is subjudice. Read here - Closure report in Maneka's case opposed before court)
When did you part with Maneka?
In 1996 and it wasn’t because of property. Our interest became different and we drifted apart. She developed passion for animals, and I for the welfare of farmers. The 1605 paddy procurement centres in the state today are there because of my petition in the Supreme Court. It is because of my petitions that sugarcane farmers have got thousands of crores of rupees over the years.
Yes, but Maneka still keeps winning from Pilibhit.
Absolutely, to keep winning a seat for 30 years but for once is no mean achievement. She lost in 1991. After that, she said she wouldn’t go to Pilibhit. That is how I came in. I worked hard in all the constituencies. I fought and won the Assembly election of 1993. It was agreed that whenever she returned to Pilibhit, I would move out. She returned in 1996, and won by a margin.
But when we split, I began looking after Pilibhit in whatever way I could, particularly after farmers who were ill-treated there.
You then contested against Maneka in the 2004 Lok Sabha election and against Varun in 2009.
Yes, I contested on the Congress ticket against Maneka, and polled around 1 lakh votes. Against Varun, I polled over 1.40 lakh votes.
The 2009 election in Pilibhit was very controversial, wasn’t it?
It became controversial because of the hate speech Varun made (he was let off by the court). An FIR was lodged against him. It is a very interesting story on how Varun went to jail for allegedly making those virulent communal statements. He took a convoy of cars, almost 500 of them, to Pilibhit and surrendered there. It was on TV 24X7. There was an affidavit given to the court by the district BJP president saying that Feroze Varun Gandhi wanted to surrender, please permit him. The court said, why not. But the court didn’t order him to surrender. It gave him all the electoral advantage. His people created a big ruckus there. It helped Varun.
Even though you are no longer in the Congress, you’d be happy to see Rahul Gandhi focus on farmers in the recent yatra he undertook there.
Rahul Gandhi kept saying that within 10 minutes of his party coming to power in Uttar Pradesh, he is going to ensure that all the loans taken by farmers are waived. Where have these loans come from? Banks, which come under the finance ministry. 80% of loans come from these banks. Only 20% of loans come from cooperative and gramin banks, which come under the state government. So 20% of loans, yes, you can waive. What happens to 80%? You can’t waive it unless you come to an agreement with (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi.
If he can do that, why doesn’t Rahul get the Congress government in Uttarakhand waive 80% of loans? The farmers there are as badly off as those in UP. Rahul has three months. He should get his Uttarakhand government to do it, and all farmers will fall for him. But don’t say things for the sake of it.
Maybe the Congress is very sure it won’t come back to power?
Don’t fool the farmers who are already such a beaten lot. He has been betrayed by every political party.
(Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.)
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