Union minister Meenakshi Lekhi apologised on Thursday for referring to those protesting against the Centre’s contentious agriculture laws as hooligans.

Lekhi had made the remark at a press conference earlier on Thursday when she was asked to respond to an alleged attack on a journalist near Jantar Mantar. Two hundred farmers were protesting against the laws at Jantar Mantar on Thursday as part of their “Kisan Sansad” programme. They plan to hold a parallel parliament during the ongoing Monsoon Session of the House.

“You are again calling them farmers...they are mawalis [hooligans],” she told the reporter. Several social media users posted clips of her comment demanding an apology. Later, Lekhi retracted her comment, but added that her remark was reported out of context by the media.

Contrary to Lekhi’s comment about farmers, there is no confirmation yet that the protesters were responsible for the alleged attack on a News18 journalist. The news channel showed visuals of the journalist with injury marks on his right hand.

However, speaking to a News18 reporter, Deputy Commissioner of Police Deepak Yadav said they have detained an individual in relation to the incident who also identified himself as a mediaperson.

“The incident took place inside the media enclosure [at the protest site],” Yadav said. “We have not received any complaint on the matter and our investigation is under way.”

Meanwhile, farmer leaders criticised Lekhi for her statement and denied links with the incident, ANI reported.

“It is wrong to make such remarks for farmers,” Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait said, while speaking to reporters. “We are farmers, not hooligans. Farmers are ‘annadatas’ [food providers] of the land.”

Another farmer leader Shiv Kumar Kakka said that Lekhi should stop eating food produced by farmers if she thought they were hooligans.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh demanded Lekhi’s resignation and said that the comment mirrored the anti-farmer mindset of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, PTI reported.

Farm law protests

Thousands of farmers have been camping outside Delhi since November, demanding that the central government repeal the three new laws that open up the country’s agriculture markets to private companies.

The farmers fear the laws will make them vulnerable to corporate exploitation and would dismantle the minimum support price regime. The government, however, continues to claim that the three legislations are pro-farmer.

In January, nearly two months into the protest movement, the Supreme Court suspended the implementation of the farm laws. It instead set up a committee and tasked it to consult stakeholders and assess the impact of the laws.

Talks between farmers groups and the central government to resolve the protests came to a complete deadlock after farmers rejected the Centre’s offer to suspend the laws for two years. The last time both sides met was on January 22. Since then, most farmer leaders have said they were willing to speak to the government again.