The son of an Indian minister has been arrested on suspected murder charges a week after his car rammed into a group of demonstrating farmers, killing at least four in an incident that has galvanised the country’s rural protest movement.
Ashish Mishra, the 40-year-old son of junior home minister Ajay Kumar Mishra, was taken into custody by Uttar Pradesh police, who alleged he had been evasive and uncooperative this weekend while being interrogated about his whereabouts during the violence on Oct 3.
His arrest comes after farmers and opposition parties accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of a lax initial reaction to the incident, which they said was evidence of its deepening culture of impunity as Uttar Pradesh gears up for closely watched state elections next year.
The outcome in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, will be seen as a critical test of voter sentiment towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling party after the Covid crisis, as India heads towards general elections in 2024.
“The BJP had no choice other than to get the minister’s son detained and questioned because it claims to be the party of law and order in UP,” said Gilles Verniers, a political science professor at Ashoka University.
“They can’t afford to do nothing because of the upcoming elections and because there is irrefutable video evidence that the incident took place,” he said
Farmers in north India have been protesting for more than a year against controversial agricultural market reforms that the Modi government pushed through parliament with little debate more than a year ago.
Implementation of the three laws, which will permit greater private participation in agricultural markets, was suspended 18 months ago but protests have continued with farmers demanding the legislation be fully repealed.
The violence occurred in the district of Lakhimpur Kheri, the parliamentary constituency of minister Mishra, a local power broker and BJP member who was given his cabinet post in a reshuffle in July.
Protesting farmers claim that Mishra’s son deliberately drove his four-wheel drive SUV convoy into them, just days after the minister warned the protesters that he would discipline them if they did not “change their act”.
In a disturbing video uploaded on to social media, farmers are seen walking slowly down a rural road, carrying flags and chatting, when the SUV ploughs into them high speed, without any visible attempt to slow down or stop. Another two cars in the convoy also whizz through at high speed.
At least four farmers were killed and others seriously injured when they were hit and dragged by the vehicles. Another four people were killed in a melee that erupted afterwards.
Mishra has denied his son was in the vehicle but the farmers are adamant that he was behind the wheel.
Yogi Adityanath, the Hindu cleric handpicked by Modi to run UP as its chief minister, initially tried to mute anger with offers of financial compensation to the next of kin of those mowed down by the vehicle.
But farmers and opposition groups have continued to demand that minister Mishra be sacked and his son arrested and criminally prosecuted, finally forcing the ruling party to act.
“The BJP is concerned with any form of protest or dissent regardless of their consequences or ability to pose a natural political problem to them,” Verniers said. “They saw the opposition parties were making hay of it.”