Eight killed as tensions around India’s farm protests worsen

Eight people were killed Sunday in an incident that protesting farmers said was the fault of a prominent Indian leader, as nearly yearlong demonstrations against a government revamp of the country’s agriculture laws threatened to enter a more volatile phase.

>> Emily SchmallThe New York Times
Published : 4 Oct 2021, 04:05 PM
Updated : 4 Oct 2021, 04:25 PM

The police have said they are investigating the deaths of four farmers and four others in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Protest leaders said a vehicle plowed into demonstrators as part of a convoy traveling past the site.

The police said they were investigating whether Ashish Mishra was in the car that struck the protesters, as the protest leaders have claimed. He is the son of Ajay Kumar Mishra, India’s minister of state for home affairs.

Ashish Mishra told Indian TV news channels Monday that the allegations against him were “baseless.”

Reaching the authorities became difficult after the state police temporarily shut down internet service in the area, in an apparent effort to calm tensions.

The incident has injected fresh political vitriol into protests that have plagued New Delhi, India’s capital, and the surrounding regions since late November. Huge numbers of north Indian farmers have occupied protest camps on the outskirts of the capital in demonstrations against a trio of market-friendly farm laws that they say will put many of them out of business.

The laws, which have been suspended by the country’s supreme court, are intended to overhaul a system that economists call wasteful and ineffective in meeting the country’s needs. But many farmers fear that the overhaul will undermine government-run markets for grain, leading to plunging prices. A majority of people in India depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and the country lacks job growth in other areas to take up the slack.

Police officials did not immediately confirm details about who was killed during the Sunday incident. Local news reports identified three of the others killed as members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the fourth as a freelance journalist working for a TV news network that is sympathetic to the ruling party.

The incident drew further attention after Uttar Pradesh police detained Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a leader of India’s main opposition Congress party who oversees the party’s activities in Uttar Pradesh. She was detained early Monday after her convoy, taking her to visit the families of the farmers who were killed, was stopped by Uttar Pradesh police.

Gandhi’s visit to the area came against the backdrop of an upcoming state election in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most-populous state, which is seen as a bellwether for the political fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Uttar Pradesh was hit hard by the coronavirus, but its leader, Yogi Adityanath, has been a vocal proponent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda and has worked hard to fire up the party’s Hindu base.

“Either show me a warrant for why you are detaining me, or I will go from this place,” Gandhi told a police officer in footage shared by her party. “There is law in this country, even if there is none in your state.”

On Monday afternoon, Gandhi told the Indian TV news channel NDTV that she had been arrested on charges of unlawful assembly.

The deadly incident and the arrest of Gandhi, the great-granddaughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, are likely to galvanise a new phase of the protests. Worsening tensions could force Modi’s government and farmer leaders to revive negotiations that stalled this spring amid a catastrophic second wave of COVID-19.

Farmers continued sit-ins and gatherings through the pandemic and harsh monsoon rains.

The tensions have repeatedly flared into violence. The worst incident took place in January, when farmers stormed New Delhi with thousands of tractors and broke through police barricades. In return, the government sent forces to try to arrest farmer leaders and clear the tents where they had been camped out for months. However, the sprawling protest camps remained.

The protests intensified last month in the state of Haryana, next door to Uttar Pradesh, after a local official was captured on video ordering the police to use violence to break up one gathering. The state authorities deployed additional troops and switched off the internet, but the tensions eased only after the government agreed to investigate the official’s conduct.

The incident Sunday took place in the Uttar Pradesh district of Lakhimpur Kheri after a series of run-ins in recent weeks between protesters carrying black flags and the elder Mishra and his supporters.

Mishra, who represents the district in Parliament, warned the protesters to “behave, or we will teach you how to behave. It will take just two minutes,” according to local newspaper reports.

In an apparent response to the statement, protesters tried Sunday to block a visit by Mishra and a state minister from Modi’s party.

As Mishra’s convoy was traveling past the site, a vehicle occupied by his son and others deliberately plowed into the farmers, according to farmers’ union leaders.

Footage showed two vehicles ablaze. Mishra accused protesters of attacking party workers with sticks and swords.

As farmer leaders, police officers and top Uttar Pradesh officials converged on the scene, a police barricade was erected more than a mile away to keep out journalists and opposition politicians.

Farmer leaders and state officials agreed on a sum of about $62,500 in government compensation for the families of the four farmers killed.

“None of the criminals will be spared,” Prashant Kumar, a top Uttar Pradesh police officer, said at a news conference Monday. “Arrests will follow soon.”

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