About 15 years ago, we passed through Lakhimpur Kheri in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh. We were going on a holiday to Uttarakhand. We found that the area was populated by the Sikhs. Since we were at that time living in Chandigarh, we found the area similar to Punjab in many respects. In fact, we called the area a Mini Punjab. We had food at a Punjabi dhaba like the ones we were familiar with on the Chandigarh- Amritsar route.
I do not know whether the area was part of the greater Punjab which had the present Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir in India and Punjab and what we call the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) in Pakistan and Aksai Chin in China as its constituent parts with Lahore as the Capital. The last ruler of such a Punjab was Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
What is known is that a large number of the Sikhs who were displaced from West Punjab in the wake of the Partition were settled in the Terai region. They were a hard-working lot who invested their money and time in buying and cultivating land there. The prosperity of the people was visible even to a passerby like this writer.
Most of them bought land from the tribals there. There is a theory that the tribals were not paid an adequate price for their land as they were not good at bargaining. Their association has been staking a claim to the land which got alienated from the tribals. However, the fact remains that these farmers and their descendants have been cultivating the land for the last nearly seven decades.
Because of a law which prohibits transfer of land from the tribals to the non-tribals, the title deeds many of them have are not proper. Nonetheless, eviction is not an option for the authorities concerned for reasons I need not elaborate. When farmers in Punjab protested first against the three agricultural laws enacted in a hurry by the Modi government, it immediately found an echo in this area.
A sensitive government would have held discussions with the farmers and addressed their concerns. Instead, the agitation has been allowed to drag on for more than a year. During this period, more than 600 farmers, both men and women, died while taking part in the satyagraha at the Delhi borders in Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
Of late, the Supreme Court has been waxing eloquent on whether farmers should be allowed to protest interminably or not. What it does not realise is that the farmers have been protesting peacefully and it is their right to do so as citizens of the country. And what did the Court do? True, it asked the government to suspend the three laws. That the heavens have not fallen because of holding the farm laws in abeyance is proof that the laws are merely expendable.
The court appointed a committee of experts to study the laws and submit a report. Nobody, including the members who drafted the report, knows the fate of the report. What’s worse, the report has been kept under wraps. Does it support the farmers’ cause? Or, does it want the three controversial laws to prevail at the cost of the farmers’ interests? Why can’t the court release the documents and clear the confusion?
It is a tragedy that the farmers’ agitation continues with no certainty of an immediate settlement. The ruling party and its cadres are agitated over the agitation, which they know will adversely affect their fortunes in the elections due in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in a few months. Since the farmers are not in a mood to relent, they have been badmouthing the agitation.
We saw in Haryana how a young IAS officer ordered his policemen to break the skulls of the farmers if they crossed the barricades. He was upset and angry, as he could not sleep properly. He did not think even for a moment how the farmers had been braving the climate for one whole year at the Delhi borders.
The farmers had to protest at grave risk to their lives to have the young IAS officer punished, though mildly, for his threatening orders. Yet, BJP leaders continued to badmouth the agitation. Take the case of Haryana Chief Minister Manoharlal Khattar. He exhorted his party men, especially the youth, to organise small groups and fight the farmers.
The CM did not even think for a moment that the farmers are mostly elderly persons. He wanted them to be beaten up. What’s worse, he exhorted them not to be afraid of arrests by the police. He told them that nothing would happen to them except that they would remain in jail for a few weeks or months.
Once they remain in jails, they will qualify to become leaders and to hold positions of power. Had the Prime Minister been a responsible person, he would have immediately asked Khattar to leave the post. In any case, nobody in Haryana had heard his name when Modi chose him for the post of Chief Minister. Under his leadership, the party lost its majority in the last Assembly elections. In other words, he is a political liability. To be fair to Khattar, he is not the only one to use foul language and threats against the farmers.
Words like “terrorists”, “Khalistanis” and “anti-nationals” were freely used against the farmers. Why I mention all this is to draw up a picture of the situation which led to what happened at Lakhimpur Kheri on October 3. All this leads us to Union minister of state for Home Affairs, Ajay Mishra.
This gentleman represents the area in the Lok Sabha. He is a loud mouth but has the support of the bigwigs in the party like Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath. Coupled with this is the power he wields as Union minister of State for Home. Power should make a person humble, not arrogant. In his case, power went to his head.
Called “Maharaj”, Mishra was involved in several criminal cases. Last month, when farmers showed black flags to him, he threatened them of dire consequences. While addressing a public meeting, he said, ''Agar main apne par utar aya to inhe (farmers) gaon hi nahi jila bhi chorna par jayega'' (If I decide to show them my true power, they will have to not only leave their village but also the district).
What he hinted at was eviction of the farmers from the district like, perhaps, what the Assam government has been doing to the Muslim farmers in the name of returning land to the local people. Naturally enough, the threat did not go down well with the farmers.
On October 3 when they came to know that he was in Lakhimpur Kheri, they organised a protest. This is democracy. People have a right to protest peacefully. Why should they be cowed down by the designation of a man? If he talks nonsense, he needs to be shown his place. However, he and his son Ashish Mishra saw it differently. How could the farmers challenge the Mishras in their own adda or fiefdom where their word is the law? They, especially the son, reportedly decided to teach them a lesson they would never forget.
When the incident in which eight persons were killed happened, the BJP leaders tried to portray the incident as the result of Khalistanis taking the law into their own hands. They would have persisted with their pet theory but for the paparazzi coming out with photographs and videos that showed what really happened at Lakhimpur Kheri on that fateful day.
A black SUV was shown mowing down people. It is said that the minister’s son was in the car with a gun and he used the weapon to escape from the scene. Four farmers were killed instantly. The enraged farmers and their supporters lynched to death three BJP workers who came there in a convoy to bulldoze the farmers. A journalist was also killed in the incident.
Once the videos were picked up by television channels and beamed into the drawing rooms of tens of millions of people, it was clear that the minister’s supporters acted as agent provocateurs. Most probably, with a sinister purpose. Instead of apologising for his son’s conduct, the minister has been claiming that Ashish Mishra was not there on the given day and time. He said he had incontrovertible evidence to prove his alibi.
Significantly enough, he did not show the evidence which suggests that he is merely bluffing. The news of someone driving his SUV into a crowd to mow the people down shocked the whole nation. How could anyone in his senses do this? Only terrorists can act like this. Instead of letting the truth prevail and arresting all the guilty persons, the UP government tried to cover it up.
Political leaders like Priyanka Gandhi were arrested and prevented from going to Lakhimpur Kheri. What’s worse, Internet connectivity was ended to keep the news from spilling out from the area. The guilt of the ruling party leaders was so palpable that the government was forced to announce Rs 45 lakh as compensation to the kin of all the four farmers besides a government job for one per family.
Many have compared Lakhimpur Kheri to Jallianwala Bagh where the British forces shot and killed hundreds of people in an enclosed area over a hundred years ago. What is most distressing is that the minister has been allowed to continue in his post. He had a meeting with the Union Home Minister, who himself had faced worse charges and was even externed from his home state. He did what was expected of him. He allowed Ajay Mishra to continue as his deputy.
Though the son’s name figures in the FIR, the police have not arrested him till the time of writing. The Supreme Court has taken a serious view of the state’s lapses. Despite the court’s impatience on the matter, all that the UP Police have done so far is to paste a notice on the door of Ajay Mishra’s house. What can ordinary policemen do when the accused is the son of the Union minister of State for Home?
Significantly, the court has in an obiter dicta explored the possibility of finding an alternative way to investigate the incident. The comment should be construed as a slap in the face of the Yogi government, whose incompetence has been exposed thoroughly. It should be possible for the court to ask a particular police team to investigate the case and report the progress from time to time to the apex court or a designated high court. Whatever be the case, the guilty should be punished.
The removal of Maneka Gandhi and her son and MP Varun Gandhi from the national executive of the BJP shows how the Centre has been strongly supporting the Yogi government in the Lakhimpur Kheri case. The mother-son duo has been criticising the highhandedness of those in power and thereby supporting the farmers’ cause. It proves, if at all proof is required, that the party is out to defend the indefensible.
In the ultimate analysis, what needs to be found out is how someone dared to ram a vehicle into a crowd with a view to killing the people at random? Who filled the person’s mind with so much hatred for the farmers? We could see the same thing happening in Assam when a photographer in Darrang district jumped over the body of a farmer killed by the police. There, too, the farmer had not done anything personally against the photographer. Hatred is so overpowering that one can lose one’s balance, ram one’s vehicle into a crowd and kick and jump on a body. What a terrible situation we as a nation are in!