A half-eaten packet of Kurkure snacks. That was the last thing 20-year-old Lovepreet Singh, one of the four farmers who lost their lives in Lakhimpur Kheri on October 3, gave his mother. That morning, his mother was busy threshing wheat and could not prepare his breakfast. “He left after eating just a half-packet of crisps. He gave half to me because he didn’t eat anything without sharing with me,” Satvinder Kaur, Lovepreet’s mother, tells Outlook before breaking down. Her wrinkled lavender dupatta spotted with tear stains tells the tale of many days of pain. “He and I were very close. I miss him a lot. I want the killer to be hanged. I want him to die just like our son died,” Satvinder manages to say between gasps and tears.
Lovepreet was among eight people who lost their lives in the violence that erupted in Lakhimpur Kheri when a car carrying Union minister Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish Mishra allegedly mowed down protesting farmers. Four farmers, a journalist and three BJP workers were killed in the violence. Following investigations, Ashish Mishra was arrested. He has recently been released on bail.
Satnam Singh, Lovepreet’s father, is angry over the bail granted to the Ashish Mishra “while the government is hunting farmers”. Since Lovepreet’s death, Singh senior has been the sole breadwinner of the family. He has two daughters, aged 17 and 18. Following the flare-up on October 3 last year, families of the slain farmers had demanded Rs 1 crore compensation and a government job for each of the affected households. “They offered Rs 45 lakh and a job at the government sugar factory. It has no women staff. We refused the job. We can’t send our daughters to work there,” says Satnam. None of the families, in fact, accepted the jobs. “It’s not a favour they are doing for us. We want a proper job in a government office,” he said. The farmers have also demanded the resignation of Union minister for state (home) Ajay Mishra “Teni”, and death or life sentence for his son Ashish.
Ashish was arrested on October 9, a week after being named in an FIR filed by UP Police, along with 12 other people. The arrest came after the intervention of the Supreme Court. Days before elections in Lakhimpur, Ashish was granted bail by the Allahabad high court on February 10.
Farmers in Lakhimpur claim the move was a game plan by the BJP to woo the Brahmin vote bank. “This says something about the mentality of this anti-farmer government,” Gurtej Singh, a resident of Lakhimpur, tells Outlook. Gurtej was one of the thousands of people who had swarmed to a field near Nighasan and Lakhimpur Kheri to attend a rally of Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav on Saturday, February 19. During one of his earlier rallies, Yadav had promised to bring the perpetrators of the Lakhimpur Kheri violence to book and mete out strong punishments.
“There is a lot of anger among farmers. During the year-long farmers’ protests against the black farm laws that the Centre passed without consulting farmers, over 700 of our people died. More innocent lives were lost on October 3 here. Four of our farmer brothers are still in jail,” says Dilbagh Singh Sandhu, a district-level Bharatiya Kisan Union leader from Lakhimpur. The organisation—an umbrella body of farmers led by Rakesh Tikait, was at the forefront of the protests under the banner of Samyukta Kisan Morcha. BKU has also been fighting to get justice for Lakhimpur’s victims.
The farmers, including Lovepreet’s family, have now approached the SC to reverse Ashish’s bail. “We have faith in the courts. But we don’t trust this government. That is why we are here,” Dilbagh Singh tells Outlook after Akhilesh Yadav’s rally.
Kulwant Singh Joshan, another Lakhimpur-based member of BKU, said that while farmers had been angry with BJP for some time, the Lakhimpur incident has ensured no farmer from their village will vote for the party. Kulwant was an eyewitness to the events that unfolded on that fateful day.
On October 3, the government had organised a programme in which BJP’s Keshav Prasad Maurya was scheduled to participate in Tikonia, Ashish Mishra’s hometown near Lakhimpur Kheri. Protesting farmers had planned to show black flags to the deputy CM and other BJP leaders following inflammatory comments against farmers made by him at a previous rally. But Maurya’s convoy changed its route at the last minute. “Our programme was almost over and many attendees were on their way back,” Kulwant recalls. Suddenly, three cars—a Toyota, a Mahindra Scorpio and a Mahindra Thar—hurtled down the narrow road and hit a group of farmers, killing four, including Lovepreet. In the ensuing violence, four more people died, including three BJP workers. Several protesting farmers were arrested later for the ‘lynching’ of the BJP workers.
Lakhimpur is the biggest district of UP, and has a sizeable Sikh population. It also contributes the most to the state’s economy. While the deaths in Lakhimpur Kheri have brought farmers’ issues to the forefront, farmers here have to deal with endemic problems like flooding, fluctuating prices of produce, and now, an increasing number of hungry cattle running astray, destroying farms.
Away from the milling crowd of Sikh farmers who had gathered near Nighasan, Baiga Ram and his wife Rekha were busy hacking sugarcane. Unlike the landed Sikhs, Baiga Ram is a landless farmer who had taken on lease 3 bigha (less than an acre) of land from a rich farmer to grow sugarcane. “We have not been paid any money by the private sugar factories that buy our cane since last year. Nobody is doing anything about it,” he rues. A local journalist whose family owns several acres of sugarcane farms in Lakhimpur as well as a potash factory says only poorer farmers had to face the problem of non-payment. “We have inside contacts with the factories here, so our payment is not hindered,” he tells Outlook. But for farmers like Baiga Ram, the sugarcane menace is a bigger problem than the killings in Lakhimpur. Baiga did not participate in the farmers’ protest, but he supports the farmers leading the movement.
On the day when violence broke out in Lakhimpur Kheri, Baiga was on his field fending off a stray bull that had invaded his plot. “I would have liked to join the protests as well. But I can’t leave my crops unattended. Who will feed my children otherwise?” Baiga asks. He is also not interested in politics, but appears to be politically shrewd. “SP might benefit from the farmers’ anger. Congress is not a player in Lakhimpur, and BSP has done nothing for us in recent years. Some are saying our only hope is Akhilesh.” Baiga, nevertheless, plans to vote and like most others in UP, is cagey about his choice. “All leaders behave the same way when it comes to paying the poor,” he signs off.
The Sharda river that bisects Lakhimpur after crossing the Nepal border gives both life and loss to farmers and agricultural labour of the district. Last year, the district was one of many in UP that were hit by untimely floods, which not only destroyed crops but also swept away homes. The river bank is lined with bare-bones thatched huts that house the families of hundreds of landless farmers. These flood-prone stretches of land are easily available to the poor. “No one wants to live here. The river floods every now and then. We don’t have any money to buy land or a house, so this is home for us,” says Ramesh, a resident of one of these makeshift houses. He tells Outlook that his family has stopped trying to build a pucca house.
“We get nothing from the government, we don’t make it to any vote banks, so no one notices us. Our lives are as transient as our homes,” Ramesh says. Whether Lakhimpur sees a change of guard, post polls, is yet to be seen. But in the politics of protest that have become the central poll issue in the farmer-dominated district, poor farmers like Baiga Ram, Ramesh and countless others struggle to find space in electoral politics.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Grief and Anger in Sharda Floodplains")
Rakhi Bose in Lakhimpur Kheri