Farmers' Movement

Lakhimpur Kheri could prove to be BJP’s Achilles heel

Print edition : December 17, 2021

Farmers gather to listen to BKU leader Rakesh Tikait in Tikunia, on October 12. They were participating at the antim ardas (last prayers) for the farmers killed in the Lakhimpur Kheri violence of October 3. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg

Farmer Guru Sevak Singh poses with a photograph of his brother Guruvinder Singh, one of the four persons killed in the Lakhimpur Kheri incident on October 3. Photo: Saurabh Sharma/REUTERS

Ashish Mishra (centre), son of Union Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra, being produced in a court in Lakhimpur on October 22. Photo: PTI

If the reactions on the ground in Lakhimpur Kheri are any indication, mere withdrawal of the farm laws will not be enough to placate the farmers. Two months after the murder of four people, in which the son of a Union Minister is an accused, farmers in this district continue to wait for justice.

Lakhimpur Kheri, which burst onto the national stage as the brutal face of repression of the farmers’ movement on October 3, remains completely unimpressed by the withdrawal of the three farm laws because neither the State government nor the Centre has shown the urgency required to provide justice to the victims. Even after almost two months, the case has not made much headway. Ajay Mishra, the Union Minister of State for Home, whose son Ashish Mishra is allegedly the main culprit and has been arrested, still remains in office, making a mockery of the entire process of investigation.

Even though some arrests were made in the case, the investigation was so tardy that the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of the case on October 26 and reconstituted the Special Investigation Team (SIT). It indicted the State government for the shoddy manner of investigation and expressed reservations about the fact that only a handful of eyewitnesses had been summoned to record their statement, while hundreds of farmers were present when the crime took place. The Supreme Court took matters under its control after two lawyers wrote to the Chief Justice pointing out glaring irregularities in the investigation.

The reconstituted SIT is now headed by senior IPS officer S.B. Shiradkar, who is currently posted as ADG, Intelligence, in Lucknow. It includes two more IPS officers, Preetinder Singh and Padmaja Chauhan, and Rakesh Kumar Jain, retired judge of Punjab and Haryana High Court. While Preetinder Singh is currently posted as DIG Saharanpur range, Padmaja Chauhan is IG, Recruitment. The Supreme Court had expressed serious reservations on the manner in which the previous SIT headed by DIG Upendra Agrawal had conducted the investigation.

The new SIT began its investigation on November 25 by visiting the crime scene in Tikunia village and taking stock of the situation. It also visited Banbirpur village, where a wrestling match had been presided over by Deputy Chief Minister, Keshav Prasad Maurya, on October 3. The incident had happened as agitating farmers were marching towards Banbirpur village to meet the Deputy Chief Minister on their demands. It was then that three SUVs, one of them allegedly driven by Ashish Mishra, had mowed through the crowd, killing three farmers and one journalist on the spot and injuring many others. Videos of the incident, where Ashish Mishra can be seen driving through the crowd, had gone viral but it took the Uttar Pradesh Police almost a week to arrest him after a 12-hour interrogation.

Also read: BJP turns Lakhimpur Kheri into new Hindutva battleground

If the Bharatiya Janata Party thought it could do some damage control by repealing the laws and reap political benefits by placating farmers then it is mistaken. If the reaction of farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri is any indication, mere withdrawal of the laws will not be enough to placate the farmers. And this was obvious by the farmers’ huge show of strength on November 25 when the new SIT visited the area. The farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri remain adamant that unless the government accepts their remaining demands, they will not end their stir.

Aman Sandhoo, a farmer leader, said: “It is good that the black laws have been withdrawn. But what about the MSP [minimum support price] guarantee? What about the cases slapped on farmers? What about the electricity law? And last but not the least, what about the resignation of Minister Ajay Mishra? How can there be any fair investigation into the case when the main accused is the son of the Union Minister of State for Home? It is a farce.”

Demand for Ajay Mishra’s resignation

The demand for the resignation of Ajay Mishra has now gained traction, with Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, too, joining the chorus. The continuation of Ajay Mishra in the Narendra Modi Cabinet has created a classic cleft stick-like situation for the BJP. It is doomed if it allows him to continue; it is doomed if it removes him, because this will defeat the purpose for which he was recently inducted into the Union Cabinet with much fanfare—to placate Brahmins, who are supposedly upset with the BJP’s indifference towards them.

It is obvious that the sudden withdrawal of the farm laws was with an eye on the upcoming State elections, especially in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, because farmers from these two States had been the most visible and the most adamant during the agitation. But it is equally obvious that the move has proved to be counterproductive. While the farmers in Uttar Pradesh remain adamant on their other demands, those in Punjab have been jolted back into the caste realities of their society, after some Nihang Sikhs brutally beat to death a Dalit farmer, Lakhbir Singh, on October 15 at the Singhu border for allegedly desecrating their religious scripture called Sarbaloh Granth. Although the person who committed the murder has been arrested, the incident has created a ripple effect in Punjab where Lakhbir Singh’s family was boycotted by the village, and even refused permission to conduct his last rites in the village. The Dalits versus upper caste debate, which had receded into the background during the agitation, has once again occupied centre stage in Punjab, and could cost the BJP dearly.

Also read: Masterstroke that misfired: BJP unlikely to gain in Uttar Pradesh

The alleged collusion of BJP Ministers Narendra Singh Tomar and Kailash Chaudhary in the crime, as photographs of them with the same group of Nihang Sikhs had gone viral after the killing, has emerged as another headache for the BJP. Although one Saravjeet Singh has owned responsibility for the crime, and has been arrested, the hidden BJP hand behind the killing has become a talking point in Punjab villages.

According to political observers, Lakhimpur Kheri could prove for the BJP what Muzaffarnagar was for the Samajwadi Party: the proverbial Achilles heel. The nervousness in the BJP is only too evident, else the Prime Minister himself would not have made the announcement for withdrawal of the farm laws.

The only redeeming feature in the Lakhimpur Kheri saga is the role of the Supreme Court, which has taken up the case in the right earnest and has been monitoring it closely. Even if there are some positive outcomes in the case, the credit would go to the Supreme Court and not to the State government or the BJP.

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