Violence at Farmer Protests in India Deepens Modi’s Challenge

Oct 8, 2021 | Brutality by Occupying Forces

A son of a government minister is being investigated over violence that killed eight

NEW DELHI—The deaths of eight people during a farmers’ protest in northern India have sparked days of demonstrations around the country and deepened anger against an overhaul of the country’s agricultural laws.

In a country where two-thirds of the population lives in rural areas dependent on farming, the protests are presenting a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push for market-oriented changes.

It is nearly a year since Mr. Modi dismantled longstanding rules that gave farmers a guaranteed minimum price for their crops, yet the uproar set off by the overhaul shows no signs of easing. The Supreme Court of India has temporarily suspended the rules.

On Thursday, authorities summoned the son of one of Mr. Modi’s ministers for questioning over a deadly melee in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh on Sunday in which eight people, including four farmers, were killed.

Local police said the farmers were killed after a convoy of vehicles drove into a demonstration and ran people over. Four others were beaten to death by protesters after their vehicle overturned, authorities said.

Authorities are investigating the minister’s son, Ashish Mishra, on suspicion of murder and conspiracy, said Balendu Gautam, a local police officer. A police complaint, based on the accounts of farmers at the protest, accused Mr. Mishra of firing on protesters and leading the vehicles that drove into the demonstration.

Mr. Mishra couldn’t be reached for comment, and calls to his father, Ajay Kumar Mishra, who is Mr. Modi’s minister of state for home affairs, weren’t returned.

In an interview on an Indian news channel Monday, the younger Mr. Mishra said he was at a wrestling match in another village at the time of the violence. Mr. Mishra said he sent employees in his sport-utility vehicle to pick up a politician who was to join him at the match, and he said the vehicle came under attack from protesting farmers.

Mr. Mishra blamed the deaths on the leaders of the farmers’ movement.

“India’s farmers are not so heartless and cruel,” he said. “People who did such things cannot be called farmers.”

Representatives of the farmers’ movement accused the Mishras of inciting violence. Hundreds of protesters gathered Thursday in Uttar Pradesh, blocking cars and choking traffic.

Under Mr. Modi’s changes, farmers no longer have to sell most of their crops through government-sanctioned markets, a deregulation move that economists say is likely to benefit many farmers in the long run by giving them more options to sell at a higher price. However, protesters believe the changes threaten farmers’ livelihoods.

The protests are the culmination of years of anxiety as a slowing economy depressed incomes for farmers and others working in the agricultural sector, said Himanshu, an associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

“The anxiety is spilling over,” said Mr. Himanshu, who goes by one name. It is “the anxiety about what is going to happen to agriculture, what is going to happen to the employment in the economy, what is going to happen to distress in the rural economy.”

Authorities didn’t specify why the younger Mr. Mishra was involved in the matter, but his father has been a vocal supporter of the farm overhaul.

The leaders of the farmer’s movement have vowed to continue protesting. In January, farmers riding tens of thousands of tractors clashed with police in New Delhi and broke through protective barricades.

Mr. Modi is trying to revamp the economy through changes including restrictions on labor unions and expansion of the country’s social-security program. The country is slowly rebounding after one of the world’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks and an associated recession.

Sunday’s violence has galvanized opposition parties, which were badly defeated in 2019 when Mr. Modi won a mandate for a second five-year term.

“It is a systematic attack on the farmers of this country and it is arrogance, because the government does not realize or understand the power of the farmers,” Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the Congress party, said Wednesday before leaving the capital to meet farmers.

Sambit Patra, a spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said the government has uplifted farmers across the board. Prashant Kumar, the additional director general of police for law and order in Uttar Pradesh, said Wednesday the state government has provided financial compensation to the families of those who were killed or injured.

By Krishna Pokharel and Shan Li | The Wall Street Journal