Alka Patidar is angry. A year ago, the police shot her 17-year-old son Abhishek Patidar in the stomach and the back of his shoulder while he was participating in a farmers’ protest in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district to demand fair prices for their produce and a loan waiver from the Bharatiya Janata Party government. Abhishek was one of six people to have died in that police action.
Since then, the state government has paid the families of the victims compensation of Rs 1 crore and promised a government job to one member of each affected family. But Alka Patidar is not satisfied. She wants the state government to file a criminal case of murder against the police officer who was in charge at the time of the firing. After four extensions, a government enquiry commission was supposed to submit its report on May 11. It has not yet done so.
“Is any amount of money enough to pay for the life of my son?” Patidar asked. “If I give the government Rs two crore, will they give up their own sons?”
In the year since her son died, politicians and journalists have come and gone to the Patidar’s house at Barkheda Pant, a village along a highway in Mandsaur. But the local Bharatiya Janata Party MLA came to visit her only once, two days before chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan came to visit her, Patidar said heatedly. This is why she and her husband decided to attend a rally Congress leader Rahul Gandhi addressed in Mandsaur district on Wednesday. The event kicked off the Congress’s campaign season for the Madhya Pradesh elections expected later this year. While the Patidar family had voted for Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014, they now want other options.
“Last year, two days after my son died, Rahul Gandhi tried to visit us, but he was stopped by the police,” Patidar said. “Now that he has come so near us, we should go. Otherwise we have nothing to do with him.”
Rahul Gandhi’s rally was one of several events being held in Mandsaur and several other parts of the country to both commemorate the victims of last year’s violence and to highlight the demands of farmers. Over the last year, the demands of various farmer groups have coalesced to agree on two items. One, that farmers need an immediate loan waiver and two, that they need better prices for their crops.
To highlight these demands, the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh, with around 110 member-organisations, had called for a ten-day village strike across India from June 1 to 10. However, the call has yielded uneven results so far in most states. The Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh had intended to hold a memorial rally in Mandsaur on June 6 but was denied police permission to do so. It will now hold it instead on June 8.
But a three-day event by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee to commemorate the victims of the firing went ahead as planned. The Committe has 192 organisations and will soon add a new organisation comprised of farmers from Mandsaur.
‘Stay away or lose your job’
On Wednesday, the front page of Mandsaur Patrika carried a story that created a bit of buzz in the area. On Tuesday night, a sub-divisional magistrate phoned Madhusudan, Abhishek’s elder brother who got a compensatory job at a government tehsil office in Bhanpura in Mandsaur, and asked him whether he or his parents would attend Rahul Gandhi’s rally. When Madhusudan told the magistrate that his parents were indeed planning to go, the magistrate asked him to tell them not to do so and allegedly told him that he could lose his job if he went ahead with the plan.
Instead, Madhusudan phoned his father Dinesh Patidar, who in turn called the media. The magistrate has denied that he threatened to sack Dinesh, but not that he did spoke to Madhusudan.
The police have attempted to control the narrative in other ways too in the run-up to these commemorative events. Last week, the police in Mandsaur issued bonds of Rs 25,000 each to 1,000 “unsocial elements” in the district via executive magistrates. According to the police, these are people with more than two registered criminal offences against them who also participated in last year’s farmer agitations. The bonds require the signatories to promise not to engage in violence during the current protests or pay a forfeit of Rs 25,000. Seven hundred police officials have been called in to Mandsaur to handle any potential violence.
“This was only mental pressure to discourage violence,” said Rakesh Shukla, City Superintendent of Police in Mandsaur. “If anyone refuses to sign, we will force them to do so. We have the constitutional power to do this.” The bonds have been issued under Sections 107 and 116 of the Criminal Procedure Code, he added.
While Shukla says that this was a routine police procedure to prevent unrest, there was widespread outrage when the families of the six victims told journalists that they too had been required to sign bonds not to protest. The police later withdrew the bonds against the families.
“Why is the administration trying to scare us?” Alka Patidar asked. “This is our private matter, we will go wherever we feel like.”
Families of other victims also attended Rahul Gandhi’s event and the Congress leader felicitated them on stage. His first promise to the crowd was that he would ensure a full loan waiver within ten days if a Congress government were to come to power in the state. His second promise was that he would ensure a criminal investigation against the police officials who presided over last year’s firing.
Both promises were met with loud cheers from the crowd.
“This will definitely win voters,” said Mohanlal Jangde, a Congress worker from Malhargarh, after the rally. “We are Congress workers so we will vote for Congress anyway, but farmers after hearing this will also support them now.”
Around 20 kilometres from Khokhara, the village near Piplia Mandi where Gandhi’s rally was held, a much more quiet memorial service was underway in Chillod Pipliya village. At least five jeeps and minivans left the village bearing residents to Gandhi’s rally while this reporter was there. Two nights before, 2,000 people are estimated to have attended the service, organised by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee.
“Everyone in the village is a farmer so they don’t have much time for politics,” said Karulal Patidar, brother of Kanhaiyalal Patidar, whose bust is now installed in the village square. Kanhaiyalal’s mother had gone to attend Gandhi’s rally, while Karulal remained in the village. “Party people keep coming to visit us. But they [BJP] have broken our home. Our daughter-in-law has returned to her parents’ house and my brother’s children are here.”
Karulal was reluctant to speak at first, but opened up when the subject shifted to farming. As with other farmers, the last few years have not been easy for Karulal’s family. They have stocks of methi from three years ago for which they have not yet been offered a good price. There is also chana and urad from the previous year, both harvested at around the time the farmer strike began in 2016. His two demands are justice for his brother and the implementation of the recommendations of Swaminathan Commission report on the farm sector.
For all Karulal’s diffidence about the support of other farmers, numbers indicate that farmers in Mandsaur have also supported the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh’s call for a village strike across India from June 1, where farmers were to keep their produce in their homes and not sell it to markets. The strike has been particularly successful in this district. Arrivals in Mandsaur town’s agricultural market for grains had fallen to 10% to 15% of regular arrivals at this time, said OP Sharma, secretary of the Mandsaur Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee.
But support is not uniform. In Chillod Pipliya, some farmers were seething at their fellow farmers attending rallies and events. While they claimed that they did not have any links with the Bharatiya Janata Party, they were vociferous about the good qualities of chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“We will support any kisan andolan, but it must not be of the Congress,” thundered Mukesh Patidar, a short, slightly heavyset man in a group of around five people sitting a few metres away from the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee tent. “There is as much land here as there ever has been and production has increased on that land. How much more do these people want?”
He took a deep breath. “I am sorry for shouting,” he said. “All this makes me so angry. But people should understand the BJP is the only party which has the will to end reservations and all subsidies. We do not want anything from the government.”
Added Madanlal Patidar, an older man in the group, ““All these farmers are traitors of the country. If they want more money, they should just work more instead of staying idle for eight months in a year.”
But as with other farmers in the village, they too have not taken any of their produce to the market since June 1. Why?
After an uncomfortable pause Mukesh Patidar said reluctantly, “The others in the village would not let us.”