When the coronavirus pandemic was raging across India last year, the federal government passed three farm laws. The government has claimed these changes will benefit farmers, but unions fear they could take away the protections provided by state-run markets.
These contentious laws have led to protests and demonstrations across the country for the past 10 months. More than 500 participants have reportedly died during this time, most due to illnesses and some by suicide. Except for one protest in January, these demonstrations have largely been peaceful — until this month.
On 3 October, a protest in Lakhimpur Kheri in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh turned violent, leaving eight people, including four farmers, dead. Though political violence is commonplace in India, these clashes have triggered condemnation from several quarters, including the Supreme Court of India.
Moreover, the state police did not arrest the main accused, a federal minister’s son, for five days after the attacks, leading to national outrage.
Why are farmers protesting
Thousands of farmers from the western states of India have been camping at three Delhi borders asking the government to repeal the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, which were bulldozed through the Indian Parliament in September 2020.
Farmers have insisted that these laws will devastate their livelihoods and earnings and force them to sell their crops to corporations at cheaper prices. But, the government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, has said that it was necessary to modernise the agriculture sector and that these laws will boost production through private investment.
Experts say that the farm laws were the last straw for the already distressed farmer community in India — there have been more than 350,000 farmer suicides since 1995 in the country.
For months now, even though the media attention on these protests has considerably reduced, several huge gatherings of farmers have taken place across various other states. On 5 September, a gathering of farmers at Muzaffarnagar in north India saw about 100,000 attendees. The protests are also gaining solidarity from several farmer unions across other states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, and Manipur.
The farmers have maintained a rota system and take turns sitting at the protest sites near Delhi borders. They bring weeks’ worth of vegetables and food from their respective villages to feed protesters. Several others donate essential items to them as well.
These protests are being coordinated by an umbrella organisation, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, which comprises at least 40 farmer unions. The community has made it clear that they will continue these protests till the government completely repeals the laws.
Farmers have said: “We will stay as long as we have to. We will win because we are not in a hurry.”
What happened in Lakhimpur Kheri
On 3 October, thousands of farmers had gathered at Tikunia area of Lakhimpur Kheri district in Uttar Pradesh, where the state’s deputy chief minister was scheduled to attend an event. The farmers say that they had gathered there to protest Keshav Prasad Maurya’s arrival since he belongs to the BJP.
Mr Maurya was initially supposed to arrive by helicopter. But, those who had gathered found out that the deputy chief minister had decided to take another route by land instead. Local reports quoted a farmer as saying that they “were all set to go back to our homes”.
But then around 3.30pm, three SUVs — one of them belonging to a junior minister in Mr Modi’s government, Ajay Mishra — rammed into the farmers. Videos reportedly filmed at the site of the incident show an SUV mowing down a crowd of standing protesters, besides bloody images of the injured.
Farmers alleged that Ashish Mishra, the junior home minister’s son, was in the vehicle that killed some farmers on the spot. Some witnesses alleged that Mr Mishra was driving one of the SUVs, and when farmers tried to stop him from fleeing, he shot at one in the head.
Soon, the angry protesters allegedly beat the men inside one of the vehicles, killing three people. Local reports also said that two vehicles were torched during the violence. Two of the three killed in the vehicle were BJP workers, while the third person was Mr Mishra’s driver.
A local journalist was also killed that day, taking the total toll to eight.
Mr Mishra has denied the accusation but has been unable to establish that he was elsewhere at the time of the accident. He claimed that he was at a wrestling event around 5km from the scene of the violence.
News website NDTV reported that Mr Mishra was missing between 2pm and 4pm that day, based on testimonials of police personnel posted at the event and people gathered at the venue.
Why the outrage
Questions have been raised over the special treatment meted out to Mr Mishra just because he is a minister’s son. He was arrested only on Saturday, a week after the violence at Lakhimpur Kheri, after several critics raised questions about the Uttar Pradesh government’s handling of the probe and said it was a “severe erosion of democracy”.
The Supreme Court of India had said that it was not satisfied with the steps taken by the government and had reminded the police to “treat him [Ashish Mishra] same way we treat other persons in other cases”.
The violence came days after the junior minister, Ajay Mishra, delivered a threat to farmers: “Mend your ways, or you will be forced to mend them. It will take only two minutes.” Referring to this video, farmers have alleged that the 3 October violence was premeditated.
Leaders from the opposition Indian National Congress (INC) have demanded that Ajay Mishra be sacked from his job. Several Congress leaders and workers were on a silent protest near the lieutenant governor’s office in various parts of the country on Monday, demanding the resignation and arrest of Ajay Mishra because he “may influence the probe in the Lakhimpur incident”.
Protesting the violence on farmers, bus services were shut in Mumbai, Maharashtra. Local reports said that several buses were vandalised on Monday in Dharavi, Mankhurd, Shivaji Nagar, Charkop, Oshiwara, Deonar and Inorbit Mall. Several shops and businesses also remained shut in solidarity with the farmers.
Ms Gandhi, the general secretary of the All India Congress Committee, had attacked the BJP for shielding the minister’s son. She said that families of the victims said they want justice but the government was shielding the minister and his son. “Have you seen in any country that a person who mowed down six people is being ‘invited’ by the police to talk to them,” she had asked.
The farmers have planned a massive protest — blocking train services — on 18 October and another big gathering in Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh on 26 October to protest the Lakhimpur Kheri deaths.