The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Madhya Pradesh government has blamed “anti-social elements” for the firing in Mandsaur that killed at least five people and wounded two during a clash between the police and agitating farmers on Tuesday morning.

State Home Minister Bhupendra Singh denied that the bullets had been fired by police. “The police force has exercised utmost restraint in the face of violent hooliganism by certain anti-social elements in the name of agitation since June 1,” he told the media. He went on to accuse the opposition Congress leaders of “instigating violence from behind the scene”.

Archana Chitnis, the minister in charge of Mandsaur district, echoed Singh’s view.

Later in the day, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced that a judicial commission would investigate who exactly had fired the bullets that killed the farmers.

The government also declared Rs 10 lakh compensation for families of each of the dead farmers, even though the chief minister had only on Monday alleged that those protesting were not farmers but anti-social elements. He had warned that the police would deal with them sternly.

The agitation, which began on June 1, was called by Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and at least three smaller farmers’ groups. However, on June 5, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, which is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, dissociated itself from the agitation after Chouhan said that his “pro-farmer government” had accepted 11 of the agitating farmers’ 13 demands, and announced a slew of relief measures.

The relief measures include a corpus of Rs 1,000 crore to purchase farm produce during exigencies and help poor farmers. The state will buy not only onion but pulses, moong and tuar at minimum support prices given the market prices have slumped.

However, the farmers’ two main demands – loan waiver and remunerative prices for farm produce – were not accepted. Madhya Pradesh farmers have loans valued at around Rs 39,000 crore.

The government’s refusal to accept these two demands and the secret deal between the chief minister and the RSS-affiliated union infuriated the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh, which is spearheading the agitation, as well as the other farmer organisations. Describing the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh’s withdrawal as a betrayal of farmers, Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh president Shiv Kumar Sharma announced that the agitation would continue until the two main demands were met. Sharma was angry that the chief minister did not even invite him and other leaders for talks although his organisation has the largest following among farmers.

Backfiring ploy 

The government’s positions suggested that only those owing allegiance to the RSS-affiliated body were true farmers and the rest were “anti-social elements”. This only escalated the agitation in western Madhya Pradesh as many farmers felt cheated. In the last week of May, small groups of farmers had pressed for their demands by dumping milk and vegetables on the roads. Vehicles were damaged at many places. On June 1, early in the morning, members of farmers unions, wielding sticks, blocked roads and choked off the supply of milk and vegetables to the state’s cities and towns.

Since then, farmers have been holding large demonstrations, demanding higher prices for their produce, including onions and dal. They also want their loans to be waived, like in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, both of which are also governed by the BJP.

In some places, the protestors turned violent, throwing stones at the police, setting vehicles on fire, vandalising and looting shops. On June 4, three police officers in Sehore and one in Ratlam were injured in clashes. But overall, the situation was under control.

However, the government-engineered split in the farmers’ bodies leading the stir provoked protestors to escalate the violence. On Tuesday morning, over a thousand farmers gathered at Pipaliya in Mandsaur, 350 km from the capital Bhopal. Angry at the state’s lack of response to their demands, some of them torched a few vehicles before protesting at the local police station. A mob also broke through the gate and attempted to remove fish plates from the railway track at Daloda near Mandsaur. Incidents of arson and hooliganism were reported from Neemuch, Ratlam and Dhar districts as well.

At the police station in Pipaliya, when a battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force joined the police to disperse the mob, the farmers started pelting stones, witnesses said. In turn, the security forces opened fire, killing five people. Police officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, claimed it was the CRPF personnel who opened fire.

Curfew was soon declared in the district and internet services in Mandsaur and three neighbouring districts suspended.

Later, enraged farmers blocked the Mhow-Nasirabad road and held up traffic for hours until a large police force drove them away. The farmers also ransacked and set a police station aftire, and beat up several security personnel.

“The situation would not have gone so horribly out of control had the chief minister tried to engage all leaders instead of disingenuously talking to only the BKS,” said Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh president Shiv Kumar Sharma.

Deep trouble

BJP leaders said the violence had taken the party’s elders, including the chief minister, by surprise. “Our chief minister’s image is of a humble farmer’s son and this government has won Krishi Karman award for topping in food production in India for four years consecutively,” said one leader. “So, this widespread anger among farmers is a huge shock for all of us.”

Perhaps they had not bothered to look at statistics of farmer suicides. In 2016, as per data from the National Crime Records Bureau, at least three farmers killed themselves every day in Madhya Pradesh. The government’s own records submitted in the Assembly last year confirmed that at least 1,695 farmers and agricultural labourers had committed suicide from February 1 to mid-November. In all, there have been at least 18,687 suicides by farmers in Madhya Pradesh between 2001 and 2015.

The reasons for the suicides, according to the bureau, were crop failure, the inability to sell the produce, the inability to repay loans, poverty, property disputes, marriage-related issues, family problems and illnesses.

A senior bureaucrat said the government seemed to have believed its own claim that farmers were impressed by the chief minister’s claims about Madhya Pradesh being top of the world in agriculture growth, at 25%. “Perhaps this smugness led the chief minister to believe those agitating against his government could not be farmers but anti-socials,” he said.

Indeed, this belief is reflected in the tough stand the government has taken against the agitating farmers. The police have filed cases against Rajesh Purohit, district president of Kisan Union, and 521 other people. Instructions have been issued to round up those “misguiding farmers and provoking them” to continue the agitation, officials in the state secretariat said.

Commenting on the killings, Leader of the Opposition Ajay Singh accused the chief minister of holding talks with “middlemen” instead of with the farmers. “The BJP is misleading farmers for the last 10 years by making tall claims,” he added. “It has been exposed with this agitation.”