Mayhem in Mandsaur

The Shivraj Singh Chouhan government remained complacent as resentment was building up among the farmers of Madhya Pradesh over the unremunerative prices of farm produce. Then came Mandsaur to wake it up.

Published : Jun 21, 2017 12:30 IST

Agitating farmers staging “chakka jam” with the body of a farmer killed in the police firing on the Mhow-Neemuch highway in Mandsaur district on June 7.

Agitating farmers staging “chakka jam” with the body of a farmer killed in the police firing on the Mhow-Neemuch highway in Mandsaur district on June 7.

AN outburst of indignation from members of the farming community, who had been loosely gathered for a protest at Pipliya Mandi near Mandsaur in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh on June 6, spiralled out of control. Blood and thunder followed.

Farmers’ resentment had been gathering strength for some weeks in the State. Distressed farmers had called for a 10-day agitation from June 1 to draw the government’s attention to their plight: abundant crops but low returns. On June 6, thousands of farmers gathered at Pipliya Mandi to stage a protest. Soon they went on the rampage, forcing shops, particularly vegetable shops, to down shutters. The agitation quickly spread to Indore, Dewas, Shajapur, Sehore, Bhopal and other places in the State. The government was not prepared for such a massive agitation. On June 5, completely unaware of the storm that was brewing, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had announced, in the presence of some farmers affiliated to the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, that the farmers had called off their agitation in the State.

The next day, angry farmers blocked the national highway, torched buses and trucks, looted and set fire to shops and forced the closure of markets, especially fruit and vegetable mandis, in order to cut off supply to the cities. The police and paramilitary forces opened fire on the stone-throwing farmers, killing five of them instantly and injuring several others. One farmer succumbed to injuries three days later. What prompted the firing is a mystery. On camera, the District Collector, S.K. Singh (who was subsequently transferred), denied giving orders to open fire. The Home Minister also said no order had been given to open fire. The situation in Mandsaur was so volatile that the government imposed a curfew.

The government tied itself up in knots explaining the whole situation.

The Home Minister, who was in denial mode, admitted after two days that the police had indeed opened fire. The Collector and the police chief were immediately replaced and the government announced a compensation of Rs.5 lakh each to the family of those killed in the firing. It subsequently increased the compensation to Rs.10 lakh and again to Rs.1 crore. All this, however, only added to the farmers’ angst because senior Ministers continued to maintain that farmers were not on an agitation in the State as there was no issue at all for an agitation and that it was a conspiracy by the Congress to defame the BJP government.

The farmers, based on the previous years’ experience, had sown and reaped a bumper harvest of pulses, soya bean, onions and wheat. But the prices crashed following a glut in the market, forcing them to hold on to huge stocks of the produce, which was not fetching them even a fraction of the production cost. This resulted in a situation where the farmers began to dump truckloads of onions on the roads because they did not have the storage capacity and no agency was ready to purchase the produce. Farmers became restive and demanded that the government declare a minimum support price for the produce and buy pulses, onions, soya bean and wheat from them at remunerative prices.

Resentment kept simmering. These were localised agitations, but these did not evoke any response from the government. Then one farmers’ organisation sprang out of the blue, held parleys with Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and the Chief Minister promptly declared, on June 5, that the “farmers” had accepted his offer of Rs.8 for a kilogram of onion and decided to withdraw the stir. This infuriated the agitating farmers as the new outfit had not even been a part of their agitation. They announced that they would intensify the agitation, and on June 6 tried to force a complete bandh. During an attempt to force the closure of shops at Pipliya Mandi as part of the bandh, a few traders beat up some farmers, who then went on the rampage. They started throwing stones, looted and burnt passing trucks and buses and almost lynched a jawan of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) forcing his colleague to open fire, in which a farmer was killed. When the news of the death spread, farmers gathered near the Pipliya Mandi police station in protest. Soon things started getting out of control and the police opened fire killing four farmers.

Six farmers, who were wounded in the firing, were taken to MY Hospital in Indore. Dashrath Gayri, a farmer from Jalodia village in Mandsaur, told Frontline that farmers resorted to stone throwing, and chaos prevailed as the police lathi-charged and beat them up. He said the police firing began without a warning.

When this correspondent visited Mandsaur, there were telltale signs of a violent agitation. Trucks carrying cars and bikes and heavy machinery lay gutted along a two-kilometre stretch on the Mandsaur-Neemuch highway. There were at least 16 trucks, some of which were still smouldering, and flames could be seen leaping out of them. Even private cars were not spared. “They were simply torching everything that came in their way,” said Lalchandra Saini, a dhaba owner on the highway, who was witness to the violence. His shop, too, was damaged by the rampaging crowd.

The violence at Pipliya Mandi had its echo elsewhere in the State. Four Volvo buses were torched on the Bhopal-Indore highway, arson and mayhem was witnessed in Shajapur and Dewas, and in Sanchi an ugly situation erupted, but the administration managed to control it.

Senior officials, who were roped in to control the situation, admitted to Frontline that “this was big time intelligence failure because an agitation of this scale must have been planned elaborately, it could not have been done overnight”. They also admitted that the Chief Minister’s kid-glove treatment in the beginning worsened the situation. “He kept saying jyada sakhti mat karo [do not be too strict]”, a senior official told Frontline . Government officials said the Chief Minister erred in his judgement because he simply could not believe that farmers, who are relatively well off in the Malwa region, would actually go on the rampage.

Most of the farmers belong to the Patidar and Dhakad communities. Hardik Patel, who had mobilised Patidars in Gujarat successfully, has made several visits to Madhya Pradesh in the past three months. Shiv Kumar Sharma, who has emerged as the face of the farmers’ agitation in Madhya Pradesh, had his own reasons to be upset with Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

He was the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-affiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh in the State and had successfully organised two massive farmers’ protests, in December 2010 and in May 2012, highlighting their problems. However, he was removed from the post at the behest of the Chief Minister. He now heads the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Mahasangh, which is mobilising farmers across the country. Since these activities were taking place over a period of time, Shivraj Singh Chouhan should have been more alert, but he was complacent in his belief that he was popular with farmers, being a farmer himself.

Like everywhere else in the country, farmers in Madhya Pradesh are in distress. Not getting remunerative prices is their biggest complaint. According to senior government officials, demonetisation has had a cascading effect on the farm sector because rural banks do not have enough cash and even if farmers sell their produce through the government machinery, their payment is received in the form of cheques, which take days or months to be encashed. Compensation for crop loss is not paid in cash. Officials admit that these factors do add up to the farmers’ distress and cause resentment to build up.

Although BJP leaders are at pains to prove that the Congress was behind the unrest in view of the Assembly elections next year, the Congress had a minimal role in the Mandsaur agitation and only tried to gain some media visibility and make some political capital out of the situation. Party vice president Rahul Gandhi’s sudden burst of energy during his visit to Mandsaur was more of a knee-jerk reaction.

The Mandsaur violence is simply an outcome of the mismanagement by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government. In his bewilderment, the Chief Minister took resort to a fast and an emotional appeal to the farmers.

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