‘Deaths in Farmers’ Protest 2020’ portal provides details of over 700 women and men who died during the year-long, peaceful farmers’ movement. The records are a testimony of lives shortened by neglect and harsh living conditions, made harsher due to state apathy. Men and women died of stress, dehydration, by suicides and were ran over by speeding vehicles, the list shows. There is little expectation that the government will pursue the cases of these deaths with compassion, little expectation either that they will express regret and offer reparations. Over 700 dead in a movement which was unequivocally peaceful speaks of the violence people’s movements confront today.
The crushing of farmers in Tikunia, Lakhimpur Kheri, under the wheels of a speeding convoy of cars associated with Ajay Mishra Teni, state minister for Home and a member of the Lok Sabha from the Kheri constituency, is a most disturbing face of this violence. The details of the massacre are brought out in a comprehensive fact-finding report Tekunia Lakhimpur Kheri Massacre, by an all-India team of democratic rights activists.
The background, the incident and, what followed the massacre as described in the report is a chilling account of what has crept up on the state’s body politic. It shows subversion of democracy, rule of law and political power flourishing on intimidation and polarization with disturbing confidence in their impunity.
The report provides an account of the Kheri incident overlain on a highly underdeveloped and deprived, predominantly rural region reeling under agrarian crisis and entrenched structural inequalities which are the result of state’s failure to find a resolution to the land question. This region was a vast tract of forest land which the landless peasants who were brought from other parts of the state toiled to clear and make it cultivable. Subsequent governments made promises but the landless never received the promised piece of land.
The Sikh farmers, also encouraged to settle in the region during the early post-partition years, received land in lieu of the land left in West Punjab. They toiled hard to turn it fertile but are now faced with their own challenges and aspirations. Most of the cultivators are small to medium and like in Punjab they use the same technology package of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and they face the same crisis of mounting debts, rising costs of cultivation, and falling prices of crops. There is a lack of mandis and the crops are not procured by the state. The farm crisis is writ large in this region as it is in other parts of the country. When farmers in Punjab and Haryana rose in anger against the three farm laws, the farmers of this region were not far behind. Local leadership came up, units of Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) were formed, and farmers joined the movement in big numbers irrespective of their religion.
The report narrates the murky past of Ajay Mishra and how the writ of this high caste landowner runs in the area. Called Teni Maharaj, he consolidates his political power through his control over the village social order. His ‘Janta Durbars’, where he listens to cases of dispute and pronounce verdict which have to be accepted without question is only one example of the extrajudicial power concentrated in a state actor. The report describes in detail the alleged sizeable criminal history of the Union minister. The list of allegations includes the murder of a political opponent in 2000 and the Allahabad high court’s subsequent failure to prosecute him; smuggling activities across the Nepal border; various instances of rioting, assault and criminal intimidation, illegal smuggling of sandalwood and foodgrains, all of which have been met with impunity considering his massive political clout in the region.
As the farmer movement for the repeal of three farm laws and a legal guarantee of MSP grew, the state tried to break it by using its police power. It slapped criminal cases on the farmers who were active in the movement. In Terai region, Ajay Mishra campaigned that the movement was infiltrated by Babbar Khalsa separatists. There is no evidence of any links between the two but Mishra’s canard of farmers as disguised separatist, and the scare of infiltration, prepared a fertile ground for the use of force against the farmers. His assembly election ticket-aspiring son contributed by polarising the land question. He directed the resentment of the landless peasants by building a sentiment against Sikh farmers who have been living in the region for decades as ‘outsiders’ and who had grabbed large swathes of land.
The report provides a detailed timeline of the incident which begins with the infamous speech Union minister of state for home Ajay Kumar Mishra ‘Teni’ where he says, “Meet me, it will only take two minutes to discipline you..” A video of the speech subsequently went viral on social media. On October 3, 2021, as farmers concluded their peaceful rally, three speeding SUVs led by Teni’s son, Ashish Mishra aka Monu appeared on the narrow road and ran over the farmers killing four farmers and grievously injuring many others. A local reporter and three workers of the BJP also died. A strong police force was present at the site who provided the cover and facilitated the escape of the perpetrators from the scene of crime, the report notes.
Lakhimpur was turned into a fortress with internet services suspended and section 144 imposed. Farm leaders, press and representatives of political parties were prevented from reaching Tikunia. The internet ban worked to suppress the stories about the actual incident and allowed Mishra to control the narrative by coming on national channels and lie about his son’s involvement and aggressively build a public narrative of lynching of BJP workers by violent farmers. That same night, minister Ajay Mishra gave a TV interview in which he accused the farmers of lynching the BJP workers, throwing stones at the convey and torching the vehicles. He went on to say that his son Ashish was at the dangal from 11 am and could not have possibly been at the protest site.
Ashish Mishra Monu also gave an interview to ABP News the same night in which he echoed his father’s claims that he was at the dangal. He, however, acknowledged that one of the cars in the convoy did indeed belong to him and that the car, along with the driver Hari Om Mishra, had been sent to the area to pick up some unspecified important persons. Ajay Mishra held a press conference the next day in which he reiterated the narrative that it was the BJP workers who were lynched, calling the farmers “anti-national” and “anti-social” elements. He, again mentioned that his son was not present at the site of the massacre. He said that he would resign from his post if a single proof emerges against his son being on the spot where the incident took place.
Despite being named in the FIR filed the day of the incident, Ashish Mishra was only arrested on October 9. He was released on bail on February 11, 2022.
The report also dwells on the role of the UP Police and questions how the brutal incident could take place in the presence of 200-odd police officers who were present at the site of farmers peaceful protest. Videos and eyewitness testimonies are cited to show that the police made no attempts to prevent the violence. In fact, witnesses present on the scene told the investigating team that when the two men fled the Thar SUV after mowing down the farmers, the police actually formed a human barrier to facilitate their escape.
Why is Ajay Mishra not being removed and held to account despite the SIT report, compelling evidence against his son and his complicity in the conspiracy? As the report reveals, he enjoys immense power which ensures a fertile ground for the ongoing investigation in the case to be tempered, manipulated in his favour and subverted to his and his party’s advantage. His protection points to the larger malaise, not just the caste appeasement or the hubris displayed by the Prime Minister by his silence. It is the belief of the state in the success of the politics that stands on the use of state terror, polarization, and impunity.
Justice for the massacre in Lakhimpur Kheri means that Ajay Mishra Teni is divested of his ministerial position and the 120 CrPC complaint against him is pursued, the role of police is thoroughly investigated, the police is held to account for permitting possession of legal weapons by those who have a criminal history and the impunity of the state must be challenged.
Navsharan Singh is a political scientist and activist concerned with women’s rights, human rights, and social and cultural movements. She has a long involvement in the women’s movement in India and has published widely on issues of sexual violence, women’s rights, and impunity. She is co-editor of Landscapes of Fear: Understanding Impunity in India (2014) and Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat (2016) and is co-editor of the series Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia (2017).