It took only the death in custody of a 25-year-old Jat man in Budhana village, Muzaffarnagar, to bring back visions of a farmer rebellion in western UP. The agitation, led by Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Mahender Singh Tikait, culminated in thousands of farmers laying siege to the Budhana police station for three days last week. When the cops on duty fled, the protesters opened a temporary BKU office there. Finally, persuasion, not force, made the farmers vacate the police station.
The scale of the protest has set the alarm bells ringing. The administration fears trouble in the coming days given the burgeoning discontent among farmers. In an effort to pacify the protesters, the state government promptly transferred the DM and suspended the ssp and the DSP. However, the agitating farmers relented only when the administration agreed to appoint a subdivisional magistrate of their choice to probe the death.
According to district administration officials, what the entire episode has revealed is that in western UP, the generally assertive farmers are becoming even more vocal and desperate. Consequently, outfits like the BKU and Rashtriya Lok Dal (of Ajit Singh), which have traditionally derived their strengths from this agrarian constituency, are clamouring to harness and exploit this discontent to the hilt. And Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, an arriviste in the Jat belt, is unwilling to be left behind. A common complaint one encounters in the villages is that the state government has been harsh on the farmers and has failed to meet their legitimate demand for higher minimum support prices for their crops.
For the BKU, the custodial killing came as an opportunity to consolidate its position in this agri-belt. Tikait's influence had weakened over the past few years. But successive drought, poor harvest and overall displeasure with the government's agriculture-related policies has helped the BKU regain its hold among the farmers. The ongoing agitation of farmers demanding a hike in the minimum support price for sugarcane has already reached a flashpoint with farmers going in for distress sales and even setting their standing crops on fire in protest. Against this backdrop, the incident at Budhana saw farmers take to the streets.
That is not to say that Anil Baliyan's death in police custody was not shocking. Admits IG police (Meerut range) P.C. Sabarwal: "This is definitely a setback for the police force. We have formed nine teams to grab the culprits. We will not spare the guilty cops." Baliyan had gone to the Budhana police station on December 19 to complete a legal formality to recover his impounded jeep. The vehicle had been confiscated by the local police a few months ago during a routine check. That Baliyan, a poor farmer who sold off his land to buy a second-hand jeep to ferry passengers, used the legal path to recover his vehicle and never thought of bribing the police inspector angered the latter. The inspector, Lal Singh Verma, along with his juniors, illegally detained Anil in custody and allegedly beat him to death. Anticipating trouble, Verma along with sub-inspector Rattanlal Tomar and constable Raj Kumar allegedly fled with Baliyan's body on December 21 and have been absconding ever since.
Furious villagers in Budhana say they were witness to Verma tying Anil to a tree in the police station premises and beating him with a cricket bat. Initially, the local police came out with several theories to pacify the agitated villagers. "First they said Anil was wanted in connection with cases of kidnapping and murder in Manglaur police station in Uttaranchal. Then they said that he committed suicide. Whatever the case, at least they should hand over the body," says Yashpal Singh, Anil's maternal uncle.Though the local police still maintain that Anil was a wanted criminal, senior officials say this is no justification for his killing. "Even if he was wanted in hundred cases the police has no right to kill him," asserts Sabarwal.
The BKU, meanwhile, is all set to use the Budhana incident to heighten its agitation. Says BKU national spokesman Rakesh Tikait: "The BKU has always actively involved itself in social issues. The overall fight is for justice. The farmers won't keep quiet if they continue to be treated like this."
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