Two years since the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, the victims are yet to get justice, but the main accused, Ashish Mishra, the son of Bharatiya Janata Party leader (BJP) and Union minister Ajay Mishra, is out on bail, highlighting the depredations that mark rural India. Four farmers, a journalist, and three BJP workers were killed in the incident. Of all the planned and obstructionist violence against the farmers’ movement, none is as reprehensible and shocking as the massacre at Lakhimpur Kheri.
In their comprehensive, fact-finding report, Tekunia Lakhimpur Kheri Massacre, democratic rights activists from several organisations highlight details of the incident, the socio-economic background of the region, and its political culture. What stands out are three key dimensions – the unresolved agrarian questions, the distortions of democracy, and the culture of impunity – which coalesce to render our democratic apparatus, its structures, processes, and culture ineffective against the rising tide of ‘electoral authoritarianism’ in which violence against innocent citizens is legitimised.
Unresolved land issues
What the authors detail about the region that is underdeveloped economically and socially (with all its socio-economic parameters below the national average) also encapsulates the fall-out of the unresolved land questions. As part of the ecologically rich Tarai region, in which Sikh farmers were encouraged to settle and render productive, there are now economic and political tensions as to who is the ‘outsider’ and who the ‘insider’. That such a region manifests all the key features of agrarian distress (over-indebted farmers, inadequate farm incomes, exhausted lands, etc.) also highlights the failure of the current dominant model of agriculture.
Most of the farmers who had gathered at the site of the massacre were supporters of the farmers’ movement led by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, and were seeking solutions to the myriad problems that they faced and which would have been exacerbated with the now-repealed three farm laws.
Distortions of democracy
The second dimension that the report brings to the fore is that of the distortions of democracy which have been built on the fact that as a nation we have consolidated what Ambedkar cautioned against: the deployment of an electoral or political democracy without the indispensable and important economic democracy. That the minister of state for home affairs, Ajay Mishra or ‘Teni’, holds a “janta adalat (people’s court)” at his house, and is the local, wealthy patron who has been elected by impoverished rural citizens indicates how a ‘patron-client’ culture constitutes the foundation on which patronage and pelf, protection and exploitation form two sides of the coin of our rural democracy.
Combining muscle power with legal and illegal political and economic transactions, elected leaders ride on predatory capitalism to co-opt customary institutions and transactions. That the regional sport form of wrestling or dangel, once a community-based physical prowess that was a form of recognition and entertainment for a rural culture, is now within the ambit of the organising strength of politicians indicates the extent to which such collective and community activities have been subverted and subordinated to become sites and processes for political big-manship.
Ajay Mishra’s rise and rise to unlimited power resulted from such a configuration. The report provides a summative portrait of the man: a bully who posed as an arbitrator of justice, primarily because democracy’s own institutions especially that of the police and judiciary are out of reach of the average citizen, whose wealth grew unbounded into multiple crores, who flaunted the symbols of power and status (including expensive cars), and who was repeatedly elected despite a record that shows no contribution to his constituency, and whose son had aspirations to contest for the forthcoming assembly elections.
The fact-finding report reproduces a photograph of the primary health centre at Tikunia, a neglected set of buildings amidst slush, weeds and waste. That this is the state of a health centre during the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic speaks volumes for the state of underdevelopment in the region. Such distortions of democracy have also laid the foundations for a culture of impunity in which gross criminal and civil violations are not made accountable to the laws of the state or to the moral strictures of society. That Ajay Mishra is accused of murdering his political opponent in his very first election at the Zilla Panchayat level, but is able to be exonerated and then elected repeatedly to the parliament is a record of the travesty of not only justice but also that of humanity and democracy.
As a minister of state for home affairs, Mishra was able to threaten farmers in public and then, despite clear evidence and a report by a special investigation team (SIT) that implicates him and his son (now out on bail) for the massacre at Lakhimpur Kheri, continues to hold one of the highest offices in the nation, makes a mockery of not only our administrative system but also of the BJP’s disdain for any moral accountability to its citizens.
The Lakhimpur Kheri massacre will be a litmus test case for the judiciary to deliver justice and for the farmers’ organisations to persist in their assertion for justice. Its key learning will be that violence is now both a means and an end for political power and that the vehicle for such impunity is our compromised democracy and a culture of subordination among citizens. Even the state apparatus becomes an instrument of such violence.
This, the report notes, is evident in the misinformation that the police provided to the farmers, the enforced cordoning of the protest site at Tikunia into a narrow strip that provided no escape for the speeding, killing vehicles, and the mystery of the death of one BJP worker who was alive when handed over to the police but was later found dead.
As a planned massacre of innocents by powers that assumed they were beyond accountability, Lakhimpur Kheri will be the new ground in which the strength of the farmers’ movement and their assertion for the rights of farmers and for democracy will stand to be tested. All kudos to the Samyukt Kisan Morcha for continuing to seek justice for the victims.
Let their perseverance be a way of asserting our democratic rights and of honouring the memories of all the victims of the massacre.
Remembering farmers Nachattar Singh, Daljit Singh, Gurvinder Singh, and Lovepreet Singh, BJP workers Shyam Sundar Nishad, Hari Om Mishra, and Shubham Mishra, and journalist: Raman Kashyap.
A.R. Vaasavi is a social anthropologist based in Karnataka.