Six farmers, who were among the hundreds agitating on the streets for a better price for their agricultural produce, were killed in Madhya Pradesh's Mandsaur district last June. Farmers constitute two-thirds of the voters in the state, whose 230 constituencies will cast their vote later this year and each of those six deaths matter. The BJP has been in power here since a decade and a half and election campaigns will only intensify because the electoral outcome in Madhya Pradesh can impact mood, morale and more ahead of the General elections in 2019.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi and its campaign manager for Madhya Pradesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, were seen delivering fiery speeches in Mandsaur on 6 June, the anniversary of the firings. Flashed on the website of the Indian National Congress, next to a photograph of Gandhi consoling the kin of a dead farmer is this message:
"A year later, farmers across the country are once again up in arms, demanding better prices, loan waivers, and other relief measures. They are unable to recover their production costs let alone earn any profit and have taken to blocking roads and even dumping supplies in protest, and Madhya Pradesh is once again the epicentre of the unrest. The BJP-ruled government hasn't withdrawn those cases that were registered against around 200 people for participating in the protests. Many claim they have been arrested without a shred of evidence that they were even there, while others are rightfully asking if protesting is now a crime in this country. The government, meanwhile, is taking no chances with any further blot on its image, having identified over 1,200 potential protestors and asked them to sign exorbitant bonds of good behaviour."
One government has wounded the farmers and another one is ready to walk in with the promise of relief; a pattern all too familiar. In the context of Mandsaur, a longer story of farmer distress must be told. The year was 1998. The place was Multai. The district was Betul on the southern fringes of Madhya Pradesh. The chief minister was Digvijaya Singh and the ruling party was the Indian National Congress.
Here, the police opened fire against farmers on protest and 24 persons were killed on the morning of 12 January, two decades ago. The firing went on for no less than two and a half hours. "There were 67 cases registered against nearly 250 farmers out of which 64 cases have been suspended. In all these years, 25 farmers who had cases filed against their names have died. Which government has done justice?" asked Sunilam, formerly Sunil Mishra, who served as the national secretary of the Yuva Janata Dal in the 1990s.
In the Multai of 1998, farmers were suffering huge losses especially on the soyabean crop and were demanding compensation for the spoilt crop along with loan waivers. On the 13th day of protest, the police went hook, line and sinker – with unprovoked lathi charge and tear gas where the farmers sat in protest day and night. Section 144 of the CrPC was imposed to declare the assembly unlawful. And so, the unarmed and peaceful protesters, Sunilam shared, who had collectively agreed that protest is a more effective alternative to suicide realised they had made a mistake.
Drawing a comparison between Multai and Mandsaur, he remarked that this time around the superintendent of police and the district collector hasn't been suspended. "Shivraj Singh Chouhan has withdrawn 2.5 lakh cases, which include cases of theft and charges of crimes against women. What about cases against farmers?” asked Sunilam, who elaborated that the procedure for taking back a case is the chief minister has to write to the state home minister, who then writes to the state law affairs ministry.
He asked if any such letter had been issued. In 1998, Sunilam had won the Legislative Assembly seat of Multai by a margin of 50 percent votes and later, united big and small farmer organisations into the Kisaan Mazdoor Adivasi Kranti Dal that merged with the Samajwadi Party. The consistency in his popularity in the region reflects in the 60 percent of the poll votes he secured in the Multai Assembly seat in 2003.
Sunilam was present at Rahul Gandhi's recent event and hopes that he introduces strict amendments to laws pertaining to public firings. Aside from the usual political promises, what about discussing the possibility of a change in the law?
Case in point: The Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) filed a writ petition in 2006 after Communist Party of India (Maoist) State secretary and seven Maoists were killed in the Nallamalla forest in what was described as a police encounter. A five-judge bench comprising Justices Ramesh Ranganathan, Goda Raghuram, R Subhash Reddy, VVS Rao, R Subhash Reddy, and G Bhavani Prasad had ruled: "Where a police officer causes death of a person, acting or purporting to act in discharge of official duties, or in self-defence as the case may be, the first information relating to such circumstance shall be recorded and registered an FIR."
In 2009, a bench headed by then chief justice KG Balakrishnan stayed the decision of the Andhra Pradesh High Court when Harish Salve appeared for the Andhra Pradesh Police Officers Association in the Supreme Court. Salve had argued that if such directions are passed then all police officers involved in thwarting an attack on the Parliament and the National Security Guard commandos who killed the terrorists involved in Mumbai terror attacks would have to face criminal cases.
Mahesh Patidar, the lawyer arguing on behalf of the victims of the Mandsaur firings of June 2017 feels the decision of the five-judge bench in the Andhra High Court was a crucial one. He said that the farmers filed a petition in the Indore High Court against the refusal of local police stations to register their FIRs regarding the Mandsaur firings.
On the day that Mandsaur went up in flames, Prafull Patidar, a farmer from the region, saw his friends and neighbours dying in front of his eyes. In conversation with Firstpost, he narrated the story of how Abhishek Patidar (one of the victims) and his brother Madhusudan Patidar were crossing over to the Piplya Mandi police station side and were fired at because the police suspected they were approaching the police station to burn it down.
If the allegation of the police is true, he asked why the police did not release CCTV camera footage. Kaluram Patidar, older brother of slain Kanhaiyalal Patidar, told Firstpost that his FIR was not registered in the Narayangarh police station close to his house. He asked why the accused have not been taken into custody under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code which entails punishment for murder.
"IPC Section 202 entails that intentional omission to give information of offence by person bound to inform shall earn him or her imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both. In case of the Mandsaur incident, even existing IPC sections failed," Mahesh told Firstpost. He asked why the National Human Rights Commission hasn't intervened, demanding fast-tracking of justice, if nothing else.
Gunwant Patidar, the Zila Upadhyaksh of Mandsaur, added that the minister for home affairs in the state, Bhupendra Singh, had gone on record and made a statement that the farmers died while clashing against themselves. "The statement came on the same day. That is when we decided to videograph the post-mortem of the farmers at the district hospital as evidence," he said the post-mortem revealed that the farmers succumbed to gunshots fired by the police.
With regard to police firings, what may also need to be reconsidered is Section 96 to 106 of the Indian Penal Code, that lay down the law relating to the right of private defence of person and property. It states: "The provisions give authority to a man to use necessary force against an assailant or wrong-doer for the purpose of protecting one's own body and property as also another's body and property when immediate aid from the state machinery is not readily available and in so doing he is not answerable in law for his deeds."
How can the burden of proof shift to the person who claims this right and in turn punish a subject? One needs to consider if most of the FIRs registered in encounter cases state that the other party threatened to attack seeing the police and whether the said FIRs factor in the possibility of the death being a murder and not the result of the private defence.
Two decades have passed and Multai has come back as Mandsaur. The farmer is still walking around with colourful flyers of andolans and sangathans that list out the same demands. The Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana launched by the current chief minister Chouhan, a populist scheme that promises the farmer the bhavantar or the price difference between the MSP and the market price.
As a result, traders are reluctant to increase the wholesale price above the MSP and once the crop is no longer in the scheme, the traders increase the prices and derive maximum advantage. Meanwhile, distress sales take place because there's just a tiny window within which farmers can avail benefits of the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana.
Farmers complain that on one hand, it takes a long time for the price difference to be credited into their accounts, sometimes the money comes in fragments, and on the other hand, debts incurred during production have to be repaid at once. And then there are those who are unable to claim any benefit because their farming capacity is greatly reduced with the death or arrest of their family members at the hands of the police.
"In the last decade, even after the suicide of more than two lakh farmers, mostly laden with non-institutional debts, there is no sign of implementation of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission, though it was a part of the BJP's election manifesto," said advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, a civil rights activist against land acquisition.
The Swaminathan Commission had spelt out that farming was becoming a loss-making occupation and recommended that food crops be procured at a minimum support price of one and a half times the cost of production. It had also pointed out the failure of institutional credit to percolate down to the small and marginal farmers. But neither the Congress nor the BJP has implemented it.
The epicentre of injustice may have shifted from Multai to Mandsaur, the fact that the peasant is being shot at remains an unfortunate, unchanged reality, despite the revolutions and the martyrs it makes out of ordinary people. There was once a man called Mahendra Singh Tikait, who had led 100,000 farmers to siege Meerut for 40 days. His march towards the capital had brought the Rajiv Gandhi government to a grinding halt. One of the prime demands of this leader of a small peasant organisation called Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) was regular and cheap electricity for farmers to run their tubewells.
Just last month, Narendra Tikait, current president of the BKU from the same sugarcane rich western Uttar Pradesh belt, threatened to pull out electricity poles in the rural belt of western Uttar Pradesh if increased rates of power tariff were not withdrawn. Farmers in the Baghpat region were on a 10-day agitation, demanding sugarcane dues and a reduction in power tariffs around the time of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally there earlier this month.
It seems that even though the destinies of parties in power change, the despair of those who grow their grains remains uninspiringly eternal.
Updated Date: Jun 12, 2018 17:38:22 IST