India: Lakhimpur Kheri violence made a bad situation worse

Security personnel at the spot after protesting farmers were run over by a vehicle of union BJP minister Ajay Mishra in Lakhimpur Kheri on Sunday
Image Credit: ANI

On Oct. 3 in an extremely grave incident in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh, India, eight people (including four farmers) were killed during a protest against farm laws passed by the Modi government in 2020.

India was shaken by the chilling video that showed three VIP vehicles, including one car belonging to Ajay Mishra, union minister of state for Home, ploughing through farmers, mowing down people on both sides of the road.

Senior leader Sharad Pawar dubbed the incident similar to the Jallianwala bagh massacre of 1919 when the British had intentionally crushed a peaceful gathering in Amritsar.

In retaliation, angry farmers burnt down two cars and killed three activists of the BJP, including one of the drivers. Police investigation hasn’t established yet the exact details of the deaths of local BJP men who bore the brunt of the angry farmers, whose colleagues were mowed down by the minister’s car.

A report filed by the local police mentions that minister’s son Ashish Mishra was present in the car that mowed down the agitating farmers. Ashish Mishra, the accused, denies it strongly but there are many independent eyewitnesses telling the media that he was present at the site.

Affecting the sociopolitical situation

Ajay Mishra, who was known as Bahubali (muscleman) of his area before he became the junior minister in the Modi’s cabinet was vocal against the farmer’s agitation and had been itching to ‘teach them a lesson’. The violent event is the tragic culmination of the tension when Ajay Mishra threw — on camera — an open challenge to the local farmers, largely Sikhs, in his area.

The agitation that began at the borders of Delhi — led by Rakesh Tikait and others — has affected the sociopolitical situation in Haryana, Punjab and Western UP. Despite the fierce opposition by section of the farmers, the Modi government hasn’t budged.

Initially union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar conducted a few rounds of serious talks with the leaders of the agitation and even conceded some important demands, but the leaders maximalist demand was to repeal the laws, which the Modi government stoutly rejected.

Not enough parliamentary debate

The farmer’s main grouse was that the farm-related laws were passed without enough debates through parliamentary committees and public hearings. It’s a fact that the Bills were rushed through in Rajya Sabha merely by voice votes. This resulted in a trust deficit between the government and section of the farmers who were directly affected by new laws.

The Supreme Court has stayed the Farm Laws and the government is also keeping low profile on it. It’s not that the BJP is politically unaffected by the agitation. There is pressure within the BJP and in the government — due to the farmers resilient opposition — that has resulted in deep antipathy against BJP leadership in Punjab and within the cadres of the opposition parties who are actively supporting this agitation in Haryana and West UP.

Congress’s Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra too have been taking sides of farmers and tweeting feverishly against PM Modi’s silence on the matter.

Huge media coverage of suppression of the agitation by the police and disruption of daily life of the chief minister and the ministers in Haryana has created tension within the society. Those BJP leaders who are away from Delhi and facing the direct brunt of the agitating farmers are having no clue how to face these angry farmers.

As the UP elections are just five months away, Chief minister Yogi Adityanath is trying to minimise the political damage of the horrific incident even at the cost of disregarding democratic norms. In violation of laws, Yogi administration initially disallowed any visits of the opposition leaders to the homes of the victims in Lakhimpur Kheri.

However in a twist in the story, Yogi — in middle of such huge crisis — seemed to win over Rakesh Tikait, farmer’s leader. Irony died a thousand times when Tikait, the high-profile leader helped the Yogi government to diffuse the crisis a bit by announcing the compensation for the victim’s families.

Time for introspection

The event in Lakhimpuri requires introspection for the government. In normal times, the minister’s son Ashish should have been taken into police custody without delay because there were many eyewitnesses accounts vouching for his presence on the scene of crime but in Uttar Pradesh, local politics and the caste matrix takes precedence over everything else.

In the coming days, as the legal process starts, politically the Sikhs of Terai areas are now likely to be pitted against the local Brahmin groups as three people who have died were Brahmins.

The law will take its course in the UP way, but the important question is what will happen to the Farm Laws that are creating so much tension within the farming community.

According to a high-level source in the government, who has full knowledge of the issue, “The government has little doubt that the farmer’s agitation is overwhelmingly dominated by the people who belong to “Sikhs For Justice”, the secessionist Khalistani group based in US.” The BJP government claims to have evidence of it.

Experienced Marxist farm leaders from Punjab and elsewhere are alleged to be the brains behind the agitation. Obviously, they are politically against the BJP and Modi. They want the government to repeal the laws to register a historic success.

Most importantly, the BJP and the Modi government, both think that till the Punjab and the UP election the agitation may remain on ground. In other Indian states there are no troubles due to the farm laws, nor have the small farmers joined the agitation in big numbers.

The government claims that the final word on the agitation against the farm laws will come only after the crucial elections in Punjab and UP. However, the deaths of eight people has lent a sudden urgency to the whole matter and may compel the BJP government to restart the talks with the leaders of the agitation.