On October 3, four farmers and a journalist were run over by a vehicle belonging to Ajay Mishra, India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs. The incident, which occurred in Lakhimpur Kheri in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, has generated enormous outrage.
Not only was the minister’s son, Ashish Mishra, in the car when it mowed down the five people; he is also alleged to have fired at the farmers while making his escape from the scene of the crime.
The farmers had been protesting against the Center’s controversial farm laws.
The Uttar Pradesh government and the central government – both are run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – tried to brazen it out initially by denying the allegations. However, when several video clips emerged, showing how the minister’s SUV rammed into the peacefully walking farmers, crushed them and then drove on, the BJP was put onto the back foot.
The Uttar Pradesh government tried to quell the protests by announcing compensation payments of around $60,000 for the families of the slain farmers. It also announced an inquiry to be led by a retired High Court judge.
The Uttar Pradesh Police initially did not arrest Ashish Mishra. In fact, investigating authorities merely issued “summons” to the murder accused to appear as a “witness.”
Then on October 8, the Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramanna of the Supreme Court came down heavily on the Uttar Pradesh government. Explicitly stating that it was “not satisfied,” the court said that the government’s intent to fairly investigate the Lakhimpur Kheri violence and deaths, including allegations of murder against a Union Minister’s son, seemed like “just all talk and no action.”
The Chief Justice further questioned the Uttar Pradesh counsel, saying, “What is the message that we are sending? In normal circumstances, if a section 302, IPC case (murder) is registered, what will the police do? Go and arrest the accused!” But this was not done in the Lakhimpur Kheri incident.
It was only after the apex court’s criticism of the Uttar Pradesh government’s handling of the minister’s son with kid gloves that Ashish Mishra was arrested. His arrest came six days after the killings.
The farmers have demanded not just the removal of the minister but his arrest as well, if there is to be an impartial investigation.
The Lakhimpur Kheri incident has brought back into focus the ongoing farmer protests against the Narendra Modi government’s three farm laws, which dismantle the Minimum Support Price assured by the government for crops. The farmers allege that this will leave them at the mercy of corporate agribusiness.
Farmers have been protesting and camping on the borders of the capital New Delhi for close to a year now, but the Modi government has refused to concede their demands for a roll back of the controversial laws. Rather, the state has repeatedly used force to quell the protests.
It was when farmers were walking back after participating in a peaceful protest that some of them were mowed down by the minister’s vehicle at Lakhimpur Kheri.
As expected, opposition parties including the Congress have upped the ante and demanded the resignation of the minister. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi drove down from Delhi to meet the families of the slain farmers, but was detained by the Uttar Pradesh police and even arrested for two days. Live footage of her standing up to the Uttar Pradesh government’s coercive tactics and of her brother and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi demanding they be allowed to meet the victims’ kin have embarrassed the BJP. Leaders of other parties have also visited the victims’ families.
This is making for bad optics for the BJP, especially when Uttar Pradesh is due to vote in Assembly elections early next year. This incident has reinforced the opposition’s criticism of Uttar Pradesh under Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath as a “lawless” state.
It is significant that while the Modi government has been successful in crushing protests, be it those opposing the Citizenship legislation at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh or those by university students and civil rights activists criticizing Modi’s authoritarian rule, it has failed to silence the protesting farmers.
Initially, it had hoped to tire them out. But despite camping under the open sky through blistering heat and bone-chilling cold for almost a year, during which time some 600 farmers have lost their lives, the protesters have not buckled.
BJP leaders have been openly inciting their supporters to unleash violence against the farmers. Two videos taken just prior to the Lakhimpur Kheri incident have surfaced. In one of the videos, the Chief Minister of Haryana M.L. Khattar – Haryana has been at the heart of the farmer protests – can be seen inciting people to “pick up sticks” against the protestors. In another, Ajay Mishra is seen threatening to “finish off” the protests in “two minutes.”
The brazen arrogance of BJP leaders and their total lack of empathy has hardened the resolve of farmers to soldier on.
“In the wake of the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, we have intensified our agitation,” Yogendra Yadav, leader of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of 40 farmers’ unions, told The Diplomat, adding that the SKM will be marking October 12 as Shaheed Kisan Diwas (Farmer Martyrs Day) across the country. “We are urging ordinary citizens to join in and pay their respects to the slain farmers,” he said, adding, “after all, today it is the farmers who are the strongest force to take on the current (Modi-led BJP) regime.”
The Lakhimpur Kheri violence and the overwhelming anger against the government has also blunted the perception of the farmer protests as being restricted to cultivators from Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. Farmers across the country will participate in a Rail Roko (blocking of rail tracks) next week.
While the SKM has not allowed politicians to share their platform, the farmers are clear about their intent to “punish the BJP.” The SKM has said it will campaign against the BJP in the upcoming elections to the Uttar Pradesh assembly. In the Bengal Assembly elections in May this year, farmers also campaigned against BJP candidates.
The Lakhimpur Kheri violence has proved to be a turning point in the ongoing farmer protests. The image of the jeep plowing through a group of peaceful protestors, and the prospect of a minister’s son getting away with murder, has jolted even BJP leaders.
“Protestors cannot be silenced through murder,” Varun Gandhi, a BJP parliamentarian tweeted. He has demanded “accountability” and called for justice for the farmers. He was promptly removed from the BJP’s National Executive committee.
Farmers are now preparing for the long haul, even if that means fighting the BJP until the 2024 general elections. As a result, the quest to retain power at the Center and in Uttar Pradesh is set to get more difficult for the BJP.