What happened is disputed. Farmers say a convoy carrying the son of Ajay Kumar Mishra, India’s junior minister of state for home affairs and a powerful member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh state, deliberately rammed into the back of protesters marching along a country road; some allege that the younger Mishra shot Singh in the ensuing chaos. Mishra supporters and members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) say the SUVs were pelted with stones by an angry mob and veered into farmers in trying to flee.
By the end of the day, four farmers, three BJP workers and a freelance journalist were dead.
Police are investigating and have not filed formal charges. But the basic contours of the incident and its aftermath — which saw Mishra’s son ignore a police summons for days before he was arrested Saturday — have touched a raw nerve in a country where political violence is not uncommon and perpetrators are not always held to account.
The fallout from the clash, which was captured in smartphone videos, has dominated Indian headlines for the past week and carries potential ramifications for Modi’s BJP. Not only did the incident play out in Uttar Pradesh, a bellwether state that will hold crucial elections in four months, but it has also galvanized a nationwide movement of farmers that presents a potent challenge to Modi’s economic reform agenda — and perhaps even to social stability in India’s northern farm belt.
Sitting in his courtyard near his son’s blazing funeral pyre in Mohraniya and surrounded by scores of angry farmers, Gurvinder’s father, Sukhvinder Singh, spoke defiantly of “rebellion” if the BJP did not oust the elder Mishra and withdraw its farm bills.
“My son was a martyr, and now it’s my turn to be a martyr,” he said, drawing approving murmurs from the crowd. “The protests will get bigger. Look around, now they’re everywhere.”
‘Sons of the soil’
Since the deaths, Uttar Pradesh has been on edge.
Immediately after the Oct. 3 bloodshed, authorities closed schools and cut cellphone service for a huge swath of the state, covering more than 4 million people. Police intercepted political opposition leaders traveling to visit the families of the dead farmers and held them briefly to forestall the possibility of more violence. As hundreds of members of a national farmers union flocked from across India to the dead farmers’ homes in a show of solidarity, rifle-toting police manned checkpoints and blanketed their villages to watch for signs of potential unrest.
As pressure mounted the last week, the BJP closed ranks around the elder Mishra. Modi inaugurated an expo in Uttar Pradesh but didn’t mention the violence. Mishra continued to make public appearances, including a speech at a national prison wardens conference, and denied that his son, Ashish, was ever at the scene of the violence.
Last Friday, Uttar Pradesh police summoned Ashish Mishra after Supreme Court judges demanded to know why they had not questioned him. The minister’s son was taken into custody the next day, after investigators said he declined to answer questions about his whereabouts on Oct. 3, or to explain two bullet casings that were found in his vehicle.
The minister, his personal assistant and his lawyer did not respond to written questions and calls seeking comment from Mishra and his son. RP Singh, a BJP national spokesman, said it was too early to cast blame because farmers have been harassing and attacking BJP supporters across the country. If Mishra’s son is found guilty, “then he will be punished,” he said. “But let the law take its time.”
Asim Ali, a political analyst at the Center for Policy Research think tank in New Delhi, said the BJP’s response to the incident risked souring public opinion.
“There is sympathy for farmers in India and a sentiment that they’re sons of the soil,” he said. “But the reflex of an authoritarian government is to not concede anything and always double down. That’s their strength, but also their weakness.”
At the foot of the Himalayas, in Mohraniya village where Gurvinder Singh grew up, farmers say it was precisely the BJP’s uncompromising governing style that fueled their fury.
In October 2019, Modi unveiled proposals to open privately run markets where farmers and buyers could freely trade, a departure from a long-standing system established by India’s socialist government in the 1960s that offered highly subsidized, guaranteed prices on rice and wheat in tightly regulated local markets.
Today, even farmers acknowledge that the old system, which generates massive surpluses and drains government finances, is broken. Mohraniya’s farmers take their goods to local markets, but buyers refuse to pay the state-mandated price, forcing them to sell at a steep discount or leave their crops to rot. Meanwhile, rural inflation has averaged 6 percent each year since 2012, outpacing farmers’ income growth, while farmers’ debt rose nearly 60 percent.
Gurvinder’s family lived on about $70 a month. His father, Sukhvinder, said he supplemented their income by installing tiles in New Delhi. “Hardship is growing the last five years,” he said. “Farming just isn’t enough anymore.”
Mekhala Krishnamurthy, a sociologist at Ashoka University, said many academics agree with the rationale of Modi’s reforms, if not their execution. When the government pushed the bills through Parliament last year without winning over farmers, it sparked accusations, mostly unfounded, that Modi was selling the entire farm sector to Indian tycoons.
“If you’re making decisions that will be contested, you need to be prepared to explain them,” Krishnamurthy said.
As negotiations over the farm bills have dragged out over the past year, a cycle of acrimony between farmers and BJP officials has continued. In January, farmers held a tractor rally in New Delhi that spiraled into violence. For more than half a year, they have set up permanent encampments blockading highway lanes leading into the capital.
BJP officials have hurled incendiary accusations likening the farmers to traitors and Sikh separatists. Mishra, who revels in his reputation as a no-nonsense strongman, was one of the politicians who talked tough.
In a speech a week before the Oct. 3 clash, Mishra challenged farmers to “come and face me and I’ll fix you in two minutes.” He hinted at a rough-and-tumble personal history: “I’m not only a minister,” he said. “Those who know me from before know I’m not afraid of challenges.”
Beginning in the 1990s, Mishra, a successful local businessman who ran a rice mill and gas station, was accused of rioting, assault and, in 2000, shooting a political rival, according to local newspaper accounts and police records. He staunchly denied the allegations and was acquitted in the 2000 shooting case. (An appeal is pending in the Uttar Pradesh high court.)
In 2012, Mishra won a seat in the state assembly. Less than a decade later, in July, he was named to Modi’s national cabinet.
Yogendra Verma, a local BJP lawmaker who has known Mishra for 20 years, described Mishra as a tough but generally respected leader who acquired funding for two reputable schools, an agricultural university and a medical college in his district.
BJP leaders will stand by him once the recent farmers controversy blows over, Verma predicted: “He has qualities of a great leader.”
As dusk settled over a busy junction in Mishra’s district on a recent evening, his constituents offered sharply different opinions of their lawmaker — and what really happened up the road on Oct. 3.
Ashish Gupta, a 21-year-old student working at a hardware shop, said he was present that day and caught a glimpse of Mishra’s son’s car being pelted with stones. The controversy would in fact strengthen the minister’s public image and his popularity among Hindu voters, he predicted. “Those people aren’t farmers,” Gupta said. “They’re terrorists.”
Opposite the shop, the road was lined with defaced campaign posters for Mishra. Iqbal Singh, a Sikh pharmacist who lived next to the Mishra clan and befriended them in the 1980s, withheld benefit of the doubt. He simply sighed.
“They did what they did because of arrogance,” he said, “because he has the law in his hands.”
Shams Irfan contributed to this report