NEW DELHI — Farmer Gajendra Singh Rajput had spent his last few days fruitlessly trying to convince government officials that his family was due compensation for the loss their wheat crop, ruined by devastating and unseasonable rain, his family said.
Despondent, the father of three came to a farmers’ rally in India’s capital, climbed a tree and hanged himself — in full view of thousands of horrified onlookers, as well as a large contingent of Delhi police. Witnesses said the officers seemed to be frozen in place as the spectacle unfolded.
The public tragedy Wednesday focused nationwide attention on the plight of India’s farmers, who have suffered mightily from recent rain and hailstorms, which damaged more than 24 million acres of crops — nearly the size of Virginia.
Police Thursday filed a criminal complaint alleging rally organizers abetted the suicide by clapping and cheering and prevented officers in the area from discharging their duties by blocking the way of emergency responders.
The farmer’s suicide also has forced an uncomfortable reckoning at the highest levels on how to assist small and struggling growers facing shifting and erratic weather patterns that some attribute to global climate change.
“He was troubled by the loss. But he was not depressed or anything when he left for Delhi. We have lost him now. Finished,” said Rajput’s uncle, Gopal Singh, before dissolving into sobs.
He said that the family had recently been ruled ineligible for compensation for their crop loss on their five-acre farm in the Dausa district of the western Rajasthan state. But Rajput had been trying to convince officials otherwise.
In Rajput’s village, mourners on Thursday carried his body on a bier covered in marigold blossoms in a long funeral procession.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, said Thursday that Rajput’s death “is felt by all Indians.”
“Nothing is more important than a farmer’s life,” Modi said. “”We will all have to reflect on where we went wrong, which wrong paths we went on, what our shortcomings were earlier in the past and in the last 10 months. But we have to look for solution. We will look for a way. We can’t leave farmers without any support and helpless.”
The government has increased compensation for crop damage in recent weeks, but advocates say that both national and state-level help has been slow in coming and that more is needed.
“It’s sheer desperation. There is no relief and untold damage,” said Sachin Pilot, a senior leader of the opposition Congress party from Rajasthan. “It reflects the lack of hope in Indian agriculture right now.”
Farmers suicides in India are common, according to a December government report. Deaths have been attributed to crop losses because of bad weather and low prices, as well as unpaid debts. Pilot said Rajput was the 42nd farmer from his home state to commit suicide in the past two months.
“For some months, everybody has been talking about farmers’ issues, but there’s no attention to the real damage on the ground,” said Dharmendra Malik, a spokesman for the Bharatiya Kisan Union, a national farmers union that held a rally in Delhi last month.
The farmers are so heavily invested in their land, he said, that “when a farmer faces crop damage, he has nowhere to turn.”
Climate experts say India is increasingly at risk for extreme weather events because of climate change, including last year’s erratic monsoon. This year, there is more bad news for farmers. The monsoon season — roughly July to September — is expected to be drier than normal.
Nagender Sharma, a spokesman for the party in charge of the Delhi government, said that more than 10,000 people attended Wednesday’s rally to protest a controversial land bill that would diminish some farmers’ rights.
The rally had been going on for more than an hour when Rajput began climbing the tree, witnesses said.
Rajput first appeared to be shouting slogans and taking part in the protest, but his suicidal intent became clear when he began fashioning a white towel into a noose.
Witness Joginder Deshwar, 30, said that when he saw Rajput tying the noose, he began frantically scaling the neem tree and was the first to reach him.
“I kept looking down and telling police, ‘Help me, help me, please help me,’” Deshwar said. “I caught a hold of his body and brought him down, but by the time we reached the ground, he was already choking.”
Rajan Bhagat, a spokesman for the Delhi police, declined to comment about accusations that police had done nothing to stop the suicide.
Rajnath Singh — head of the country’s home ministry, which oversees the police — defended their conduct, saying they had called for a fire brigade and a crane and admonished the crowd to stop clapping and shouting because it was encouraging the disturbed man.
The Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, had organized the rally, held just yards from Parliament. The party and its leader, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, were later criticized for carrying on with their speeches even after Rajput’s hanging.
Police are investigating a crumpled note officials said was written by Rajput in which he wondered how he could get home and closed with a popular national slogan from the 1960s and 1970s: “Hail soldier! Hail farmer!”