Lakhimpur Kheri: The cauldron boils over
In the history of India’s farm protests, the tragic violence in Lakhimpur Kheri on Sunday is a potential turning point. A convoy of cars, associated with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Union minister of state for home, Ajay Mishra, allegedly ran over a group of protesting farmers, killing three farmers and a journalist. The angry farmers lynched four of those in the vehicles, including two drivers. There are conflicting versions of the event (one says the journalist wasn’t run over but lynched by the mob), but all those responsible for the deaths (of the farmers as well as the others), irrespective of political stature and connections, must be held accountable. And this needs to be done irrespective of the nature of provocation. But beyond the immediate event, Lakhimpur Kheri underlines the urgency of finding a resolution to the prolonged farm agitation. With farmers taking a maximalist position on the repeal of the farm laws, the government preferring to wait and watch (until now), the Supreme Court largely staying away from the matter, and political parties of all hues fishing in troubled waters, an incident such as the one at Lakhimpur Kheri was waiting to happen.
The state police have registered an FIR, which names the minister’s son (the minister was not at the site and claims nor was his son); and the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government has hammered out a deal with a leader of the farmers, promising a judicial enquiry, and compensation. But the state has also, as it has every time there is a politically sensitive crime or incident, sought to prevent politicians from opposition parties from reaching Lakhimpur Kheri, detaining some in the process, a clear indication of its coercive instincts.
The politics around the killings will only intensify as UP, India’s most populous, and electorally most significant, state heads for polls early next year. But the incident may well indicate that the status quo which marked the impasse between the government and farm unions since January is decisively over. From the Karnal protests (when farmers were enraged by a local official asking their heads be smashed) to Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar encouraging small vigilante groups to “use sticks” against protesting farmers to the violence at Lakhimpur Kheri, the cauldron is clearly boiling over, but the solution is not coercion but engagement. The BJP’s top leadership must step in. If there is a time for statesmanship to resolve this issue, it is now.