Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday said that the Lakhimpur violence on October 3 was “absolutely condemnable” but added that there were similar instances happening and she was concerned about them too.
“[They should] not just raise it when it suits us because it’s a state where BJP is in power, one of my cabinet colleague’s son is probably in trouble, and also assume that it’s actually them who did it and not anybody else,” Sitharaman claimed at a seminar in Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts, United States.
Sitharaman asked citizens, including Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, to bring up similar incidents when they happened too. She said this in response to a question about the prime minister’s silence about Lakhimpur Kheri, and the rise in intolerance in India, which Sen had earlier spoken against.
Eight people, including four farmers, were killed during a protest against the Centre’s farm laws in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district on October 3. Farmer bodies have alleged that a vehicle belonging to Ashish Mishra, the son of Union minister Ajay Mishra, had run over the protestors.
The Uttar Pradesh Police had arrested Ashish Mishra on October 9, a day after the Supreme Court said it was not satisfied with the steps taken by the state government in the investigation of the Lakhimpur Kheri violence.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several senior Cabinet ministers have not spoken publicly about the incident.
At the seminar, Sitharaman said that she was not being defensive about the prime minister or the Bharatiya Janata Party but India itself.
“I will talk for India, I will talk for justice for the poor,” she said. “I will not be mocked at. And if it is mocking, I will be defensive to stand up and say ‘Sorry, let’s talk on facts’.”
On a question about farm laws, the finance minister said the three Acts were discussed by various parliamentary committees for over a decade and all the stakeholders were consulted as well.
“When the farm laws were brought in the Lok Sabha, there was an elaborate discussion and the agriculture minister gave his reply as well,” she claimed. “It was only when it came to the Rajya Sabha, there was a lot of noise and disturbance [on the laws].”
Sitharaman played down the farmers’ protests, saying that the demonstrators belonged only to Punjab, Haryana and some parts of western Uttar Pradesh.
She said that the government was willing to talk to the protestors and was engaging with them. The government has asked them about the aspect of laws that they object to, Sitharaman said.
“Till date, we have not had even one particular aspect which is being questioned,” she claimed. “And therefore, the protesters are not sure on what score they are protesting, what is it that they are objecting.”
Sitharaman also claimed that the highest amount of procurement for each crop, and the largest ever payment per farmer under the Minimum Support Price has happened in the last seven years after the BJP government came to power in 2014.
“The number of farmers, the total quantum of money, total quantum of grain procured in each one of them – the highest has happened season after season in the last seven years,” she said.
Thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have been protesting at Delhi’s entry points since November 2020, seeking the rollback of the agriculture laws passed in September last year.
The BJP-run central government has claimed the new laws are aimed at making farming more profitable, but the farmers argue that they will bring about corporate dominance of the sector.
The farmers claim that once the prevailing authority of the state marketing boards – that provide a shield against exploitation – collapses, private entities will dictate the price of their produce.
Farmers also fear the Minimum Support Price will be done way with under the new laws. While several Union ministers and BJP leaders have reiterated that it will not happen, the Centre has so far conceded to only give a written assurance, while the farmers are demanding it to be included as a clause in the law.