Ahead of UP Polls, Lakhimpur Kheri Unites Opposition Against BJP Like Never Before

Over the last two days, several Opposition leaders have extended support to the farmers' families, and termed the Adityanth government’s handling of the incident as a 'severe erosion of democracy'. 

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New Delhi: No other incident after the gang rape and death of the Dalit woman in Hathras has drawn so much attention as the recent brutal mowing down of protesting farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri.

The Uttar Pradesh government’s reticence in taking concrete action beyond tokenistic measures has only fuelled farmers’ anger instead of quelling it. The business-as-usual approach has prompted politicians across the spectrum to hit back at the Adityanath-led government’s failure to arrest Union minister Ajay Mishra’s son, Ashish, the primary accused in the case, even while it has mobilised its forces to prevent Opposition leaders to visit victims’ families in Lakhimpur Kheri. 

On Wednesday morning, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi lashed out at the UP government and called it a “dictatorship”. He added that the UP government has singled out Congress leaders to prevent them from visiting Lakhimpur Kheri. “Yesterday, Trinamool Congress and Bhim Army were allowed into Lakhimpur Kheri. What mistake have we made,” he asked.

“All the institutions of this country have been hijacked by the RSS-BJP. While no action has been taken against the home minister’s son, there is a systematic attack on farmers of the country. Opposition leaders are not allowed to even visit Lakhimpur Kheri. Only in a dictatorship, such things happen,” the Wayanad MP said, adding that the issue here is not his sister’s detention but of farmers’ concerns.

Priyanka has been detained. That is concerning but fine. The primary issue here is that farmers are being looted, attacked, and denied justice,” said Gandhi. 

Alleging that criminals were being protected and victims were being sent to jail under the BJP-led governments, he said the intent behind Congress leaders’ attempt to visit Lakhimpur Kheri is to build pressure on the UP government to act against the culprits of violence against farmers. “We want to show our support to the families of those who died (during the Lakhimpur Kheri violence). We want to go there and understand what happened on the ground. Our work in the opposition is to build pressure on the government to act, or else all culprits would remain scot-free,” he said, adding that only when Opposition leaders built pressure during the Hathras gangrape case, did the government begin to act. 

An image tweeted by Rahul Gandhi, showing Congress leaders waiting at Lucknow airport amidst high security presence. Photo: Twitter/@RahulGandhi

Earlier, Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra and Haryana leader Deepender Singh Hooda were detained for more than a day at Sitapur when she was on her way to Tikunia, the village in Lakhimpur Kheri where farmers were killed. On Tuesday, Chhattisgarh chief minister and All India Congress Committee-in-charge of UP Bhupesh Baghel was stopped at Lucknow airport, forcing him to stage a dharna and a virtual press briefing on the spot.

Also read: Before Murder Charge, Ashish Mishra Had Begun Campaigning as Potential up Polls Candidate

In what appeared to be a challenge to the UP government, Rahul Gandhi announced Wednesday morning that he, along with two chief ministers Charanjit Singh Channi and Baghel, will visit Lakhimpur Kheri. High drama ensued when they were first stopped at the Delhi airport and then allowed to board the Lucknow-bound flight.

Even at the Lucknow airport, the police personnel insisted that Gandhi’s team will be taken to Lakhimpur only in a state vehicle before allowing it to go on its own after protests. Meanwhile, the UP government released Priyanka and conveyed to the media that the Gandhis will not be prevented from meeting the victims’ families anymore.   

Several Congress leaders and workers have been protesting at different towns and cities for such high-handed state action. Priyanka has been claiming that the UP government has detained her without any charge or a warrant or a notice, even while she wasn’t violating Section 144 (law that prevents a gathering of four or more people) imposed in Lakhimpur Kheri.

Similarly, various Samajwadi Party leaders, including former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, were detained to prevent them from visiting the victims’ families. They were released only after state-wide agitations by party workers. 

Akhilesh Yadav at a Lucknow protest. He was not allowed to reach the spot where the incident occurred or meet the victims’ families, and was reportedly detained on his way there. Photo: Chandrani Banerjee

Opposition raises pitch

Over the last two days, several other leaders have extended support to the families who lost their kin in the fatal violence, and at the same time termed the Adityanth government’s handling of the incident and illegal action against Opposition leaders as a ‘severe erosion of democracy’. 

Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar said that the saffron party will have to pay a heavy price for such an attack on farmers while demanding a judicial probe in the matter. “Whether it is the government at the Centre or in Uttar Pradesh, they are not sensitive at all. The kind of situation that was created in Jallianwala Bagh, we are witnessing a similar situation in Uttar Pradesh. Today or tomorrow, they will have to pay a heavy price for it,” Pawar said.

Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin said only a total repeal of the three farm laws will end the impasse between the government and the farmers, and condemned the Lakhimpur Kheri violence. He added that the Centre’s “indifference” towards farmers’ issues have led to such violent events.

Former Congress chief minister of Karnataka Siddaramaiah also equated the incident with the ‘Jallianwala Bagh massacre’, while making an equivalence between the Modi government and “a Hitler government”.

Similarly, alleging that democracy was “under threat” in the country, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot said, “The situation is dreadful. What happened in Lakhimpur Kheri is not a small thing; this has shaken the whole country.” 

Also read: Lakhimpur Kheri: Editors Guild Demands Court-led Sit Probe Into Journalist’s Death

Several other senior party leaders, including P. Chidambaram and Sachin Pilot, and Pradesh Congress Committees (PCC) like those in Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and other states staged demonstrations in their respective states. Punjab and Chhattisgarh governments led by the Congress also announced a compensation of Rs 50 lakh each for the families of victims.

Punjab PCC chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, who has been engaged in a battle over leadership within his own party, announced his plan to march to Lakhimpur Kheri from Chandigarh, if Priyanka was not released in a day.

The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), which has barely been critical of the Centre, also pitched in to condemn the violence when K.T. Rama Rao, TRS working president and son of Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao tweeted, “Shocked and horrified to see the ruthless and cold-blooded murder of farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri of Uttar Pradesh. Strongly condemn the barbaric incident and hope the perpetrators will be brought to justice the soonest.”

BJP leader Varun Gandhi, who had earlier shared the video purportedly showing a car mowing down the farmers, amidst a false narrative that the farmers were killed in a clash, also demanded immediate police action against those involved in the incident. “This video of vehicles deliberately crushing farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri will shake anyone’s soul. Police should take cognisance of the video, identify the owners of these vehicles and their occupants, identify others involved in the incident and immediately arrest them,” he said.

Shiromani Akali Dal patriarch and former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ensure justice to the victims, while expressing shock at the Centre’s “insensitivity and inaction”.

Sanjay Singh of the Aam Aadmi Party, which has been trying to get a foothold in UP, said in a letter to the prime minister, “I would urge you with folded hands that in this great hour of grief and sorrow, you should change your intention of organising any festival and visit Lakhimpur Kheri with the leaders of all the parties to meet family members of the farmers who were brutally crushed under the car of your minister and murdered for no reason.”

“Sitting among those families, you should repent, apologise, sack your minister immediately, arrest the culprits and, being the head of the council of ministers, take the responsibility for this incident… Not only UP but the whole country is also immersed in mourning and shock, how can you celebrate a festival,” he wrote.

While demanding justice for the farmers, Mayawati alleged that Bahujan Samaj Party’s national secretary Satish Chandra Mishra, too, was put under house arrest by the UP Police to prevent him from visiting Lakhimpur Kheri. 

The Left parties also condemned the Lakhimpur Kheri violence. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury sought the dismissal of Ajay Mishra, and asked the government to ensure an impartial judicial enquiry.

Opposition unity against BJP

The Adityanath government appears to be yielding to the political build-up around Lakhimpur Kheri. The optics of blatant mowing down of protesting farmers may hurt the saffron party, especially when the assembly elections are only a few months away. At the same time, the incident has given the Opposition the opportunity to launch a united attack on the Adityanath government and build electoral momentum around the state government’s alleged authoritarian impulses. 

The way the UP-based Opposition parties amplified their criticism of Prime Minister Modi in light of him visiting Lucknow on Tuesday but not uttering a word on Lakhimpur Kheri’s victims also appears to be a reason for the Union government to take note of the matter.

Immediately after Gandhi addressed a press conference, highlighting the larger issue of “farmers being under systematic attack”, news started pouring in that the Minister of State for Home Affairs Ajay Mishra met Union home minister Amit Shah. Around the same time, the UP government released Priyanka Gandhi, who was under house arrest for almost two days, and allowed the Congress team to visit Lakhimpur Kheri. A team of UP Police has also reached Mishra’s house to look for his son Ashish and, perhaps, arrest him.   

The resolve with which the Opposition ranks have united against the BJP over the Lakhimpur Kheri violence signals to an extent the high-pitched campaign that awaits the state ahead of assembly elections early next year.

On the other hand, such has been the furore over the killings of the protesting farmers that the usually adept BJP has struggled to manage the crisis in an effective way. Adityanath’s high-handed action has only worsened its party’s position. With the Opposition gaining momentum, the saffron party will face a tough task to placate the dissident voices in the days to come.