Eight people were killed on Sunday as violence erupted during a farmers' protest, claiming the lives of both farmers and BJP workers ahead of a visit to Lakhimpur by Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya, officials said. Two SUVs were set on fire by angry farmers in the clash near Banbirpur in Lakhimpur Kheri, the bloodiest incident of violence since the protest over the contentious farm laws of the Union government began last year.
Four of the dead were people in the cars, apparently a part of a convoy of BJP workers who had come to welcome the UP minister. They were allegedly thrashed to death. The four others were farmers, officials said. Several people were hospitalised, according to the two sides.
Farmer leaders claimed that the son of Union Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra was in one of the cars which they said knocked down some protesters who were opposing the Deputy CM's visit. The minister rejected the claim. He said the vehicle overturned when farmers hurled stones at it, and according to another official account, two farmers died after it fell over them.
The violence triggered an outburst with opposition parties blaming the state government for the farmers' deaths. Within hours, it turned into a rallying point for the opposition at a time when the state is gearing up for the Assembly polls early next year. Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait along with several supporters reached the area early on Monday in the wake of the violence. "We will first meet the farmers and villagers and discuss the situation with them. The future course of action will be done on the basis of the discussion with the villagers and farmers. Their decision will prevail," Tikait told reporters at Banbirpur village.
While the BKU members were allowed to go to Banbirpur, a group of Congress leaders, including Priyanka Gandhi, kept waiting outside the village where they reached early on Monday braving inclement weather.
In Lakhimpur, police said in the evening that the law and order situation was under control. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath expressed grief over the loss of life and said the state government will probe the incident, unmask the elements involved and take stringent action against the guilty. A state government official said farmers waved black flags as the cavalcade passed. At its rear end, a vehicle overturned, collapsing over two farmers who were killed.
Four people were then pulled out of the vehicles and beaten to death, officials said. Union minister Mishra told PTI that these victims were three BJP workers and a driver, beaten to death by "some elements" among the protesting farmers. The car turned turtle after the protesters pelted stones at the cavalcade, he said.
Mishra said he and his son were not present at the spot as alleged by some farmer leaders and he has photo and video evidence to prove it. "My son was present at the venue of the (Deputy CM's) event and thousands of people, officers of the administration and police were present there. All through, I was accompanying the Deputy Chief Minister," he said.
"One of the vehicles which were set afire was ours. The second vehicle was that of our worker, which was also torched. My driver was murdered," Mishra told a TV channel.
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha identified the four dead farmers as Lovepreet Singh (20), Daljeet Singh (35), Nachattar Singh (60) and Gurvinder Singh (19). There are around 12 to 15 persons injured and hospitalised, the farmers' group said in a statement in the evening. The Union minister said about 10 BJP workers were injured and several cars damaged.
BKU leader Tikait has demanded Mishra's dismissal and the registration of a case of murder against his son and other goons. The farmers' unions have also announced a protest at district magistrates' offices across the country on Monday.
Tikait claimed that the farmers were attacked while they were returning from the Lakhimpur protest. Some of them were run over and they were also fired upon, he alleged in a video clip. Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav blamed the Union minister's son for the violence, and said the farmers were protesting peacefully. UP will not tolerate the oppression by the BJP, he tweeted in Hindi.
RLD chief Jayant Chaudhary also alleged that minister Ajay Mishra's cavalcade ran over protesting farmers. The BKU alleged that it was the car of the minister's son. "Our cars were torched and workers attacked. Would I be standing if I had been in one of the cars," Ashish Mishra, the minister's son, told reporters.