Lakhimpur Kheri: Politicians’ Might vs Farmers’ Right

No hour passed without action at Tikunia in sugar bowl Lakhimpur Kheri in India’s most populated state Uttar Pradesh on the fateful day of October 3. Things went from bad to worse by 4 pm, as three SUVs at breakneck speeds ploughed into a peaceful procession of farmers, instantly killing three of them.

Bodies were dragged along the road before the first two vehicles in the convoy lost control and veered off the road. And from the first one allegedly emerged the son of a central minister, who ran into a lane lined with sugarcane fields and was helped by the obeisant local police to make a safe exit.

If this does not beat a Bollywood script yet, here’s the next detail. The fleeing passengers from the first SUV allegedly fired in the air and in other directions, which, farmers claimed, left another dead. As if the police did not want to be left behind, they too emptied bullets in the air to intimidate the crowd.

Though the farmers missed a beat, they recovered fast to transform into an irate mob to allegedly lynch those stuck inside the second SUV, besides torching both vehicles. Two workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party at the helm of affairs in the country, and the driver of the minister’s son died in the attack.

An eighth person, a local journalist working with a TV channel, was also reportedly hit by the speeding vehicles. Despite the melee, the third SUV belonging to a local politician had sped away, and it was recovered by officials only on October 19.

As several theories on who started the violence, and whether Ashish Mishra, the son of Minister of State for Home Affairs Ajay Kumar Mishra, was at the wheel did the rounds in the following days – a time when the devout observed Navratri fasting to reaffirm their indomitable faith in the victory of good over evil – many things emerged clearer: that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would neither sack Mishra nor offer a word of condolence to the bereaved families; that police would simply summon the men with powerful connections, even in a murder case, than play a proactive role to nab them; that the heady concoction of power and politics still runs deep through the veins of the country’s northern heartland.

The prelude

Thousands of farmers, primarily from Punjab and Haryana, have been blockading Delhi borders in their bid to enter the national capital since November 26 last year, seeking repeal of three farm laws enacted two months earlier. Several farmer unions claimed the “anti-farmer” laws will leave them at the mercy of corporates, who would have “the power to control prices of produce”.

The Union Government held 11 rounds of talks with Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella body of over 40 farmers’ unions spearheading the protest, till January this year, but the deadlock remained. Around the same time, the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the laws until further orders. It also appointed a four-member committee to listen to both farmers’ grievances and government’s views on the issue. Subsequently, the Centre offered to put the three laws on hold for 18 months, but the farmers rejected it saying they won’t settle for anything less than a repeal.

Months passed by as farmers – senior citizens form the core group at protest venues – braved COVID-19 surge and unforgiving weather to perennially choke the capital. According to the SKM, 477 farmers have died in the first six months of agitation due to illnesses or by suicide. The situation was so grave that police dug deep trenches on NH-44 to stop farmers from entering Delhi. Rows of barbed wires were set in concrete in those trenches, while strips of sharpened nails and iron rods were placed on roads that were still intact.         

The issue became highly politicized after the Republic Day fiasco, when a group of farmers stormed the Red Fort complex to hoist their organization’s flag on the iconic monument. Barricades were broken and vehicles smashed using sticks and stones, thereby scripting a new low in the history of farm protests.   

The plot

Lakhimpur Kheri violence would have been passed off as a mysterious hit-and-run case, had there been no video evidence. Every year, Union Minister Mishra holds a wrestling match in his ancestral village Banveerpur on October 2. This year, the match was held a day later due to Mishra’s busy schedule. Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya was the chief guest.

Farmers had resolved to show black flags at Mishra as he had threatened to send them out of the village for holding protests during his earlier visits to the district. On learning that the leaders would land at a makeshift helipad at a college playground in Tikunia, roughly 60 km from Lakhimpur Kheri town, farmers seized the area. Police then arranged an alternative road route located five km away and both Mishra and Maurya travelled to Banveerpur by road. They took the same route during their return journey.

The drama

Why was Ashish near the playground when the guests had been provided with a safe entry some five km away? Had the leaders landed in Tikunia, they would have taken the Tikunia-Banveerpur Main Road to reach the village. Since that was not the case, there was no reason for him to come there with bouncers other than to teach the protesting men a lesson, farmer leader Paramjeet Singh Pummy told Outlook magazine. He believed Ashish was infuriated after learning that the VIP convoy route was changed due to farmers’ protest.

Pummy claimed several explosions were heard when an overturned SUV went up in flames, suggesting that it was well stocked with arms and explosives. “What we believe is that they had come with a clear mind to kill… but as their vehicle overturned, he (Ashish) was left with no option but to run away from the spot under police cover,” Pummy was quoted as saying.

The Uttar Pradesh Police lifted a finger against Ashish only on October 7, when they meekly pasted a summons in front of the minister’s house asking his son to appear before them on October 8. When he did not, a second summons was issued.

Ashish finally turned up at the Crime Branch office on October 9 and was arrested after 11 hours of questioning by the special investigation team. “To every question, he had one answer – I was not present at the spot where the incident took place,” a police officer told IANS. However, he admitted that the SUV that killed farmers belonged to him. 

Ashish could not give a proper explanation on where he was between 2 pm and 4 pm on October 3, but Ajay Mishra claimed his son was present at the wrestling match site “from 11 am till the event concluded”. However, eyewitnesses told Newslaundry that they saw him driving the SUV first and firing in the air while running for cover later. A woman said she heard people shouting “Monu bhaiya, Monu bhaiya”, which is Ashish’s nickname, soon after the incident.

The union minister, meanwhile, claimed that the SUV hit farmers and turned turtle after the driver was hurt in an attack by rogue elements among farmers. He said they pelted stones and fired at the convoy, before assaulting the passengers with sticks, stones and swords. Some others pointed to the ‘broken’ windshield of the first SUV, as seen in a viral video clip, to back the minister.

However, it could not be ascertained whether the windshield was actually smashed or whether light reflection created such an impression. Even if the windshield was cracked, the driver would have instinctively hit the brakes,instead of crashing into the crowd at high speed.

After the violence, even before a single accused was nabbed, Opposition leaders were arrested while on their way to Lakhimpur Kheri district. Indian National Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra confronting the police who tried to arrest her and sweeping the floor of the guest house where she was detained, and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav staging a sit-in protest in front of his house make some of the defining political images from the state, where Assembly polls will be held early next year. Incidentally, Ashish also nursed an ambition to contest the polls from Nighasan this time.   

Though 10 arrests have been made so far, how fair can the probe get when the case involves the son of a junior home minister? That too, when the country’s top investigating agencies such as the National Investigation Agency and Intelligence Bureau come under the direct supervision of the Union Home Ministry.

While hearing a PIL seeking fair probe into the Lakhimpur Kheri incident on October 20, the Supreme Court (SC) also expressed its apprehensions. “We think you are dragging your feet. So please dispel that impression,” the SC Bench led by Chief Justice N V Ramana said, after the state government informed that statements of four out of 44 witnesses have been recorded. Expressing displeasure over the probe status, the Bench said the case cannot be an “unending story”, and also directed the government to identify and protect “vulnerable witnesses”.

Lakhimpur Kheri incident was by no count an aberration, but a cold-blooded act propelled by the hallucination of privilege. Luckily, the issue did not snowball into a caste clash between Brahmins and Sikhs, with farmer leader Rakesh Tikait swiftly reaching a compromise formula with the state government. Ajay Mishra is the lone Brahmin face from Uttar Pradesh in the Union Cabinet, whereas the farmers’ protest is primarily driven by Jats and Sikhs.   The danger of aggressive elements in the farmers’ protest taking law into their hands – the recent lynching of a Dalit by Nihang Sikhs being an example – also cannot be ruled out. So, it’s high time the Centre engaged with the protesting farmers to reach an amiable solution, rather than giving room for subversive elements to deal with them, because we may not be as lucky next time.

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