Indian official's son faces murder investigation over deadly attack on protesting farmers
New Delhi — Indian police on Thursday said they had launched a murder investigation into a government minister's son, who has been accused of planning a deadly vehicle attack on protesting farmers. Eight people, including four farmers, were left dead on Sunday after an SUV and other vehicles slammed into the protesters on a road in Uttar Pradesh state's Lakhimpur Kheri district.
Under mounting pressure from farmers protest groups and opposition politicians, Uttar Pradesh police confirmed that they had registered an FIR (First Information Report) for murder against Ashish Mishra. An FIR indicates the beginning of a formal police investigation, but no charges have been formally filed and Mishra was not taken into custody. His father Ajay Mishra, a junior government minister, is also named in the FIR but not on any specific charges.
Police announced the FIR as India's top court demanded the Uttar Pradesh state government explain why it had failed, after four days, to make any arrests over the incident.
A video shared widely online shows a vehicle convoy led by an SUV crashing into the group of protesters at high speed on Sunday as they walk calmly down a road. The incident was immediately seen as an attack on the farmers, who have staged an almost year-long protest against government policies, and it has sparked widespread outrage.
Rakesh Tikait, the leader and public face of India's long-running farmer protests, told CBS News that the movement was giving Uttar Pradesh authorities one week to place both Ashish Mishra, who was purportedly in one of the vehicles, and his father under arrest. If that doesn't happen, Tikait said the farmers would stage nationwide disruptions.
India's Supreme Court had asked Uttar Pradesh authorities earlier on Thursday why the police investigation had failed to make any headway.
"We need to know who are the accused against whom you have registered FIR (First Information Report) and whether you have arrested them or not," the court said, ordering the government to file a status report by Friday.
The driver of the lead vehicle in the convoy and two workers of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were beaten to death by angry protesters right after the vehicles slammed into the group. Raman Kashyap, a journalist, also died in the violence.
Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella group representing dozens of Indian farmers unions, has claimed that one of the four slain farmers was shot dead by Ashish Mishra during the incident, while the three other farms were killed by the vehicles.
"When all the farmers were gathered near the road, the son of Ajay Mishra Taini, the parliamentarian from this area and the country's junior home minister, Ashish, came with his friends with a convoy of vehicles. He left a trail of destruction behind, crushing the farmers under his vehicles," local protest leader Jagtar Singh Bajwa told India's ANI TV network on the day the events unfolded.
Protest leaders have claimed since the incident that it was a premeditated attack, and the inaction by authorities for four days fueled anger and calls for the son's arrest and the father's firing from the government.
Ajay Mishra, who serves in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government as Minister of State for Home Affairs, has denied the allegations.
Modi, whose government has refused to repeal the agriculture reforms that sparked and continue to fuel the farmers protests, had not said anything about the incident as of Thursday.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress opposition party, has dubbed Sunday's deaths murders and called the incident part of "a systematic attack on farmers," whom he said were being robbed of their livelihoods by the government reforms.
The deaths have refocused attention on the protests staged by tens of thousands of India's farmers for the past 11 months. They're demanding the complete repeal of three laws that officially hit the books in September 2020 – efforts by the government to deregulate the country's agriculture sector.
The farmers say the laws will help big businesses but destroy the livelihoods of smaller farmers, who make up the backbone of the country's agriculture sector, which amounts to almost 15% of India's $2.9 trillion economy.
The government hasn't given into the demands, and although the Supreme Court in January put the implementation of the three laws on hold while it considers their validity, the farmers haven't halted their protests.
They've set up makeshift camps on the borders of New Delhi and have staged several large, tractor-led marches into the capital city. One such march, coinciding with India's Republic Day on January 26, turned deadly.
The ongoing protests are one of the longest-running labor agitations India has seen in decades. They're also one of the biggest challenges Modi has faced during his seven years in office.
Earlier this year, climate activist Greta Thunberg, singer Rihanna, and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris' niece Meena Harris all spoke out in support of the farmers.
India's farmers have suffered in recent decades from climate change-fuelled drought and flooding, and even locusts destroying thousands of acres of crops. The circumstances have pushed thousands of debt-ridden farmers to suicide. More than 10,000 Indian farmers died by suicide in 2019 alone, according to government data.
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