For the sixth time in the last 10 months, Digvijay Singh's firing squad—the police force—made itself busy. On January 12, as hordes of farmers gathered at Multai in Betul district to demand compensation for crops damaged in severe rain and hailstorms, a posse of 100 policemen swooped on them, opened fire and killed 17 on the spot.
Multai's farming community had gathered under the banner of the Kisan Sangharsh Morcha, which was floated by Dr Sunilam (Sunil Mishra), a PhD from Delhi University and member of the Janata Dal national executive, to fight for their rights. The agitation, led by Sunilam and his colleague Anirudh Mishra, was launched on December 20 to press for an 11-point charter of demands—the most important being the demand for a Rs 5,000 compensation for each hectare of damaged crop and a waiver of farm loans. The land revenue code provides a compensation of Rs 1,000 per hectare for crop failure due to natural calamities.
The Kisan Morcha issued an ultimatum to Digvijay that if the demands were not met by January 11, they would resort to a road blockade and gherao Multai's tehsil office. On January 12, a 15,000-strong farmer contingent gathered outside the building and as tempers ran high, a few farmers started pelting stones at the policemen. At about the same time, a BSP election meeting, which was being held nearby, broke up and the crowds spilled over to the road and to the tehsil building. This added to the confusion and as the crowds swelled, the policemen tried to disperse the people. In the melee, two police vehicles were set on fire and superintendent of police G.P. Singh was stoned.
This enraged the police force so much that it began shooting at random. Farmers injured in the firing told Outlook that the policemen first beat up the women representatives and opened fire at the farmers from the tehsil building's roof.
"I was standing in the hospital complex opposite the tehsil office and two bullets hit me in the stomach," says Munnalal. Recuperating in a Bhopal hospital, he alleges that the policemen went insane and aimed their guns at the people.
A BJP team, which visited the spot, says some innocent bystanders fell to the bullets—including Raju, 14, who was playing in a nearby playground; and Nand Kishore, 28, who was working in his shop.
"They were shooting to kill," says Shailendra Pradhan, MLA from Bhopal and member of the BJP team. "They killed innocent children, patients and hungry farmers demanding the rightful compensation. I would say it was more barbaric than the Jallianwala Bagh incident."
This couldn't have come at a worse time for Digvijay. He received the news while campaigning at Jhabua against Dilip Singh Bhuria, who recently deserted the Congress for the BJP after a prolonged tiff with the chief minister. The incident adds to the woes of Congress leader Arjun Singh and Kamal Nath as well whose constituencies, Hoshangabad and Chhindwara, are close to Multai. Though Arjun Singh has tried to downplay the incident, Kamal Nath issued a statement demanding the resignation of three men in the Digvijay cabinet: home minister Charan Das Mahant, agriculture minister B.R. Yadav and the minister in charge of the district Hazarilal Raghuvanshi.
But perhaps collector Rajneesh Vaish has come out in the worst light. As the crowds swelled and the police opened fire, he sat in his Betul office, 35 km away, and came to know of the incident only when principal secretary, home, D.B. Mathur, called him up and asked him to take immediate action.
Though the Multai incident was not an isolated case of dereliction of duty at the highest level in Madhya Pradesh, this was a worst case scenario. A few months ago, the collector and SP of Dewas district fled from an accident site—a bus had fallen into a river and the angry relatives wanted the administration to launch rescue operations. Then, a student was killed in Jatara last March when the police opened fire at a demonstration; two months later, six workers were killed in police firing at Maihar cement factory in Satna.
A beleaguered Digvijay is struggling to put things in order. He visited the site on January 15, admitted it was a shameful incident, and ordered the transfers of the district collector and the superintendent of police but didn't say a word about how he would address the farmers' problems. "Almost 7.5 million hectares of crops have been damaged. If we agree to pay at the rate of Rs 5,000 per hectare, we need Rs 7,500 crore, which is beyond our means, especially when the Centre has not responded to our repeated pleas for help," was Digvijay's feeble explanation.