Crime usually has a motive. The way eight people were killed in a village in Lakhimpur Kheri district, Uttar Pradesh, a week ago indicates that the gruesome incident cannot be without a motive. Yet the probe so far, and the arrest of the son of a Union minister of state and two others by UP Police, as well as the public debate kicked off by the incident have shed little light on the possible motive behind the incident.
This is so even as the case has set off a huge political turmoil in not only Lakhimpur, but in most parts of Uttar Pradesh. It indicates that the motive in this case may have political underpinnings too.
But first things first: On October 3, in broad daylight, at least three vehicles led by a Mahindra Thar jeep rammed into rows of farmers moving with black flags in village Tikonia and chanting slogans to protest against the visit of UP Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya. Maurya was to attend a function in the nearby village home of Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Ajay Mishra. Four farmers and an unsuspecting local journalist, covering the protest, were hit and crushed by the fast moving jeep, which was followed by the two other vehicles.
The jeep went off the road due to the impact of the accident and its occupants started fleeing in a bid to escape the farmers’ wrath. The accident looked like a wilful act on the part of the driver and its occupants. The lead vehicle belonged to the central minister and the farmers allege that it was occupied and might well have been driven by Ajay Mishra’s son, Ashish.
Mishra Jr allegedly fled and hid in a nearby sugarcane field while opening gunfire to deter the mob from reaching him. The minister has denied this, saying that his son was attending a family function graced by Maurya in his village, which is a good four kilometres away from the site of the incident.
Besides the five people dead, a few were injured. Among them is a prominent Sikh farmer, Tajinder Singh Virk. Virk was leading other farmers on that fateful day and was a little ahead of others. After being hit, he fell down and suffered injuries, and had to be taken to a hospital in a Delhi suburb.
Ajay Mishra, in his subsequent interaction with media, pointed to Virk’s presence in the crowd. He did not take Virk’s name but said a Samajwadi Party leader from Rudrapur, in Uttarakhand, was instigating the mob to attack the vehicles in question.
Mishra indicated that Virk was either leading or taking a prominent part in the farmers’ protest outside his own state. On the other hand, farmers’ leaders led by Hannan Mollah and Rakesh Tikait claimed at a press conference in Delhi on Saturday, October 9, that the minister’s accusations against Virk of instigating attack on the vehicles and their occupants were unfounded, since he was badly injured, and thus in no position to call for revenge. About the three people from the BJP who died in the violence, Tikait said they were among the attackers. They included the Mishras’ driver, Hari Om, and two other BJP workers.
So as per the farmers’ leaders, the motive behind ramming the jeep into the crowd could be to target Virk, who has a political background besides being a farm leader with inter-state influence. Virk’s support among farmers beyond his hill state is also said to be strong because most of the relatively better off farmers in Lakhimpur, formed by the fertile Tarai region near the Himalayan foothills, are Sikhs like him. This is so despite the fact that Sikh farmers in the Tarai region have only a share of a little over six per cent in the population of the area.
The BJP is known to bank on its mainly ethno-centric majoritarian support and it would normally like Sikhs too to rally behind it in the UP election. But the farmers’ agitation against the government’s farm laws has attracted quite a lot of Sikhs from Punjab. This has given rise to fears in the BJP that the Sikhs of Tarai in UP and Uttarakhand will also support their Punjab brethren and oppose the party in next year’s polls in all three states. This is so despite the BJP’s protestations that the farmers’ movement is confined to only a few regions like Punjab, parts of Haryana and a few districts of western UP.
The UP spokesman of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, Prabal Pratap Singh, said: “The jeep attack was not meant to teach a lesson to Virk and protestors led by him alone, but Sikhs of the area in general. The BJP is playing anti-minority card this time against Sikhs in the Tarai region, as it generally does in case of Muslims elsewhere. Ajay Mishra openly pointed to Sikhs in Lakhimpur protests with Khalistani presence among them.”
Similar fears were expressed by Lok Sabha member from Pilibhit in UP Varun Gandhi. He has been supporting the farmers’ stir despite being in the BJP. In a tweet posted on October 10, Gandhi said: “An attempt to turn Lakhimpur Kheri into a Hindu versus Sikh battle is being made. Not only is this an immoral and false narrative, it is dangerous to create these fault-lines and reopen wounds that have taken a generation to heal. We must not put petty political gains above national unity.”
The Lakhimpur violence should, indeed, serve as a wakeup call. It has furthered complicated the farmers’ stir and has too huge a cost compared to the small electoral gains that this or that party can hope to make.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi and NCR. He tweets @abidshahjourno