From a former policeman’s point of view, I would state that it is difficult to affirm that it was Ashish Mishra, the son of Union minister of state for home affairs Ajay Mishra, who was driving the vehicle that ploughed through the peaceful procession of farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri. The video of the vehicle driving headlong into the rear of the procession and killing four farmers is not very clear on the identity of the driver.

The fact that the offending vehicle was registered in the name of the minister has been admitted. That the paid driver of the vehicle was killed by the enraged mob is also true, leading to a suspicion that it was the hired driver who was at the wheel.

In accident cases, it is common for the public to target the driver of the offending car. In this case as well, it would not have been different except that two occupants, besides the driver, were also assaulted and killed by the farmers. I would expect Ashish Mishra to have been severely assaulted, if not killed, if he was in the car. That he seems to be alright, though in hiding, will help his version of not being at the site.

Provocative statements

The moral and even legal responsibility for the gruesome act must, however, rest with the Mishras. Ajay Mishra had made shocking and boastful statements preceding the murder about what they were prepared to do to the agitating farmers. That the boast proved to be a threat was clear when the lead car in the convoy decided to run over the processionists without any warning.

The charge, that there was an intention to commit murder, a conspiracy to do so and an incitement to the driver of the vehicle through the medium of the boasts or threats, should stand. Arrests will be in order and should not be postponed any further.

Many of the witnesses have mentioned that they heard gunshots. Some have even testified that they saw Ashish Mishra with a gun. This is a serious charge that prompted the relatives of the dead farmers to refuse to cremate their bodies because bullet injuries were not mentioned in the post-mortem reports of the government’s doctors.

Finally, the farmer leaders agreed to cremate three of the four bodies. The fourth was subjected to a second post-mortem, probably because the farmers suspected that the dead man had been shot. It turned out that no bullet injury was found. If it had, the investigations would have become more complicated and contentious.

The Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh has decided to ride out what they felt was a temporary blip on the political landscape by not making hasty arrests of the type it is known to do when the culprits are opponents of the regime. Here, the natural course of action would be to arrest those who drove over peaceful protestors because that was obviously a horrific crime.

The FIR filed by the Uttar Pradesh Police states, “Ashish was seated on the left side of his vehicle and fired at farmers as it rammed into them. Due to the firing, a farmer, Gurwinder Singh, died on the spot. Three other speeding vehicles rammed into the farmers walking along both sides of the road. The vehicles overturned and passersby were also injured. Ashish then ran towards the sugarcane fields while firing and hid there.”

It adds, “The farmers had gathered to protest against provocative statements of Ajay Mishra.”

This would amply justify their arrests.

Moreover, a similar charge of making provocative statements was laid at the doors of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia students sitting in dharna at Shaheen Baug in Delhi in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens.

They were charged with incitement to provoke the riots that erupted in Northeast Delhi though the only thing they did was speak out against the Citizenship Act and the National Register of Citizens that could not be construed as a provocation to take up arms and riot on the streets.

The Bharatiya Janata Party government was very quick to arrest the students and apply the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in that case while condoning the utterances of their own leaders who spewed venom on the minority community. In this case, the Adityanath government had decided to be gentle.

Adityanath’s (in)action

Another rather extreme action the Adityanath government has taken in this imbroglio is to prevent Opposition leaders from proceeding to the spot of the offence and to meet the relatives of the dead men. In fact, some leaders were detained under the Code Of Criminal Procedure’s Section 151. They should have been produced before a Magistrate within 24 hours of their detention, but that was not done.

An overturned car that was set ablaze during the violence at Tikonia in Lakhimpur Kheri district. Photo credit: Nand Kumar/ PTI

The Uttar Pradesh government has shown that it has scant respect for the laws of the land and for democratic practices. In my entire service in Maharashtra, I know no instance when the political Opposition was prevented from visiting the scene of a political crime.

The Lakhimpur Kheri murder of four farmers was avenged on the spot by the farmers by the murder of Mishra’s driver and two BJP workers travelling in the vehicle. A journalist who was covering the farmers’ protest march was caught in the melee and was also killed. The post-mortem should disclose the cause of death. His family did not see any evidence of beating with sticks, as alleged by some BJP sources. The family alleges that journalists supporting the ruling party are pressuring them to blame the farmers. The post-mortem should tell the truth.

Who started it all?

The identity of the culprits who lynched Mishra’s driver and the two BJP workers has been established in the video that has gone viral. These farmers will have to be prosecuted. They have not been arrested just yet obviously because Adityanath will find it unnerving to proceed against the avengers before first grappling with the instigators, who belong to his own party.

It is a chicken and egg situation. Who started it all? The agitating farmers marching to gherao the state’s deputy chief minister? The riposte to that would be the government that made the three farm laws without first taking the beneficiaries into confidence. The beneficiaries have now become obstinate. They say they do not really benefit – only the government says so. Who is right? The query should not have arisen in the first place. The Modi government should take stakeholders into confidence before enacting laws, especially such laws that are meant to benefit them. Too much drama may not go down well with those it is meant to titillate.

In the meantime, the farmers have now an added grievance and an added cause to continue with an agitation that is inconveniencing the public of Delhi and its adjoining states.

How long is this to continue? It is time the government unravels a situation that it itself has created.

Julio Ribeiro served in several senior positions as a police officer and was India’s ambassador to Romania.