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Lakhimpur Kheri violence: Family members of victims allege pressure and witness intimidation | The Probe investigation

Witness intimidation, pressure tactics on victims' families, ineffective investigation, police high-handedness, unkept promises, and a complete lack of accountability from the government - the Lakhimpur Kheri violence case has seen several twists and turns since last October.

By Bhaswati Sengupta & Ashutosh Dixit
New Update

Lakhimpur Kheri Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Ajay Kumar Mishra (left) and his son Ashish Kumar Mishra (right)

"I lost my son in the Lakhimpur Kheri incident. A vehicle rammed into him, and a second vehicle ran over him. He was grievously injured. When I reached the spot, I learned that some protesters had taken my son to the hospital. But before he reached the hospital itself, he succumbed to his injuries," says Satnam Singh, the father of Lovepreet Singh, who was a victim of the Lakhimpur Kheri violence. 

Satnam is one of the many protesters sitting on a 72-hour-long protest at the site where the massacre occurred that resulted in eight people's deaths. Hundreds of farmers from many parts of the country travelled to the Lakhimpur Kheri district to participate in the protests. 

For Satnam, the events of October 3 had turned his world upside down. His son, Lovepreet, was the youngest of the victims who were killed in the violence. Speaking to The Probe, Satnam explains how his family was pressurised, and the police investigation was subverted in the case. "The day his dead body had reached home, the district administration was pressuring us to do the final rites immediately. I resisted a lot because I wanted to see his post-mortem report. I can't tell you the agony I was put through. There were targeted attacks against the witnesses in the case. They were threatened and beaten up as the ones involved in this killing wanted the witnesses not to speak up the truth. We have gone through much pain in the last so many months," says Satnam.

Video of the October 3 incident where a convoy of vehicles rammed into a group of peaceful protesters in Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh | Video courtesy: Special arrangement 

In the months preceding his killing, Satnam's only son Lovepreet was undertaking IELTS coaching to go to Canada or Australia to pursue a professional career. "I am a poor farmer, and I toiled hard in my farmland to fulfil my son's dream of going to a foreign country to work. All our dreams are shattered today."

The Lakhimpur Kheri violence occurred on October 3 last year when a vehicle rammed onto protesting farmers. The incident was followed by mob lynching and violence that killed eight people and injured ten others. The farmers were protesting against the contentious farm laws passed by the union government. Two of the vehicles involved in the incident were owned by Ajay Kumar Mishra, who is the Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs. According to eyewitness accounts, the minister's son, Ashish Kumar Mishra, was in one of the cars in the convoy that had rammed into the protesting farmers. 

During the investigation, Ashish Mishra and several others were charged with murder, criminal conspiracy, rash driving and rioting. For many days, the minister's son evaded police questioning and later he was arrested by the police. After two lawyers wrote to the Chief Justice of India, the apex court criticised the Uttar Pradesh government over its lackadaisical investigation. The court also expressed dissatisfaction over the Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up by the Uttar Pradesh government as the team members were all local officers. 

A new SIT was later constituted in the case by the Supreme Court comprising three IPS officers and a retired judge. In January this year, the SIT filed a 5000-page charge sheet against 14 people, including the union minister's son Ashish Mishra. A month later, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court granted bail to Ashish Mishra. But soon the Supreme Court set aside the Allahabad High Court’s order, which forced Ashish Mishra to surrender before a local court and he was once again sent to jail.

The events that occurred on October 3 have affected many families in Lakhimpur Kheri district, one of India’s 250 most backward districts. The Probe spoke to Pawan Kashyap, the brother of journalist Raman Kashyap who was killed in the violence. Like Satnam Singh, Pawan Kashyap, too, speaks about the high-handedness of the police. 

"If the administration wanted they could have saved my brother's life because the incident took place at 3 p.m and for three and a half hours he did not get any treatment. At around 6.30 p.m they wanted to shift him to the post-mortem house directly. He did not die on the spot after the incident. He was alive for a few hours. His life could have been saved, but they left him to die. Why was he not put in an ambulance and taken to the hospital? Why did they put him in a post-mortem vehicle instead and take him to the post-mortem house? Why did the police initially refuse to share the FIR copy with the family? Why were they not providing the post-mortem report to us? The police pressured us and told us to say that the farmers had killed my brother. They had openly stated that to us. But despite all the pressure, I stated only the facts in my statement to the police," says Kashyap.

Scenes that ensued moments after a convoy of vehicles rammed into a group of peaceful protesters in Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh | Video courtesy: Special arrangement 

Raman Kashyap was Pawan's elder brother. Pawan adds that the events of October 3 have completely changed his family's lives. "It was one of the worst days of my life. My brother used to do independent journalism. He had gone to cover the farmer's protest but ended up losing his life. Our lives have been changed forever. We don't have any privacy now. There are policemen stationed in our house all the time. There are cops always with us. Ten months have passed since the incident. But so far, we have not got justice". 

Pawan was returning from Nainital when he received a message on his phone about the Lakhimpur Kheri violence. Pawan says there was a concerted effort by the administration to show that the farmers were indulging in violent protests. He talks about the evidence in his possession that can prove otherwise.

"I was on my way back from Nainital when I learned about the violence. I immediately called my father and asked him where my brother was and he said he had gone to the protest site. That's when I started getting stressed. We didn't get to know his whereabouts that day for a long period. We filed a complaint with the police at around 9 p.m. We didn't get any response and at about 3 p.m, we got a call that his dead body was kept in the mortuary. We got the post-mortem done, and we did the final rites. When I saw my brother's phone and looked at the data, I found that he had taken many pictures and videos of the protest that day. He had videos of the peaceful protest of the farmers and many videos of the farmers returning after the peaceful protest. When we looked at the video, we were more than certain that these protests were very peaceful, but the vehicles aggressively rammed onto the protestors and killed them despite this. All the claims that the farmers' protest was violent was not true at all."

Speaking about the biased investigation, he says the influential people involved in this case became the biggest obstacles to the investigation. "Those involved in the crime are very powerful. They have been trying to influence the case indirectly. The central minister had also given a statement initially that, along with his men, he also lost a journalist. Right from the beginning, they wanted to use my brother's killing to their advantage. The government had given many promises to the farmers, but these assurances have not been kept. We want Ajay Kumar Mishra, the minister, to be sacked. We want the release of the farmer in the Tikunia case, and we also want the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for the farmers' produce. The families of the victims who died in the violence and those who have been injured must be provided the right compensation by the government. Our current protest must only be seen as a trailer protest. We will continue our protests in the future till the time the promises are kept. We will go to every house in the region and explain to every family, every child about the unkept promises of the government," asserts Pawan.

Lakhimpur Kheri protest Farmers protesting at Lakhimpur Kheri district in UP | Photo courtesy: Kisan Ekta Morcha | Facebook

During the course of our story, we also spoke to advocate Shiv Kumar Tripathi, who had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Supreme Court on the matter.

"The major violation, in this case, is that the SIT did not interrogate the minister. Without the minister's interrogation, nothing much will emerge from this investigation. Furthermore, we wanted the families of the victims to be adequately compensated. The PIL was disposed of because the Supreme Court cancelled the prime accused Ashish Mishra's bail. The government assured the farmers that it would do its best to serve justice in the case. But nothing much was done. They should have sacked the minister."

After Ashish Mishra was sent to jail, numerous media reports emerged on how he was being provided VIP treatment in prison. "We all know how rules were subverted in this case. We have seen how he was given VIP treatment inside the prison. Indian Motor Vehicle Act clearly states that if we cause a vehicle accident, the FIR should be registered against the vehicle owner. One of the vehicles involved in this incident was in the name of union minister Ajay Kumar Mishra. But there was no action against him. The insurance of that vehicle had expired. The investigation, in this case, was so weak that the police could not prove who exactly was in the driving seat. The government had promised that they would provide a government job to the victim's family members. So far, this has not been done. The minister should have been asked to step down, but the government allowed him to continue in his post. Why is there no action against the minister?" asks Saif Ali Naqvi, General Secretary of the Congress party. He contested from the Palia constituency in Lakhimpur Kheri in the 2017 elections.  

Lakhimpur Kheri district has eight assembly constituencies: Mohammadi, Gola Gokarannath, Kasta, Lakhimpur, Srinagar, Nighasan, Dhaurahara and Palia. Nighasan is the constituency where the violence took place but surprisingly, during the recently held elections, the BJP won this seat with a margin of 41,207 votes, which is the maximum margin in the district. That apart, BJP won all the rest of the seven seats as well, showing to its detractors that the Lakhimpur Kheri violence did not cast any shadow over the party's electoral prospects. 

"It is not as simple as it sounds. Logically speaking, the BJP should not have got such a huge margin of votes in Nighasan. The BJP polarised this place between the Sikhs and the others. Nighasan was the eye of the story. It was a catalyst point. Nighasan and Palia were where the protests took place, but these were the same areas where the BJP got the highest margin of votes. The elections that took place here was not based on development or for that matter even Hindu versus Muslim or Samajwadi Party versus BJP. It was apparent that polarisation had taken place, and the BJP made it to be a Sikh versus anti-Sikh election, and they won all the seats," alleges Naqvi.

The farmers who are at the moment holding a 72-hour-long protest over the Lakhimpur Kheri case have told The Probe that the demonstrations are a precursor to a larger chain of events that will be held in various parts of the country if the government does not act on their demands. 

Lakhimpur Kheri protest Farmers protesting in Lakhimpur Kheri district in UP | Photo courtesy: Kisan Ekta Morcha

Surender Dalal, a farmer from Rohtak in Haryana who had participated in the year-long farmer's agitation against the three contentious farm laws - which the government later revoked - says the Lakhimpur Kheri protest is an ultimatum protest to the government of India to remind it about the assurances that were made to the farmers. 

"I have come all the way from Haryana to participate in the Lakhimpur Kheri protests organised by the 31 farmers' bodies under the Samyukt Kisan Morcha. When the Lakhimpur Kheri violence took place the whole day, the union minister Ajay Kumar Mishra kept telling the media that his son was with him, but later it was revealed that it was not true. The union minister lied before an entire nation, but instead of sacking the minister, the government allowed the minister to continue in his position. The farmers of this great nation have starved to fill the stomachs of the country's citizens, and when our farmers were killed so mercilessly, we are seeing that the government cares least about delivering us justice. We asked for MSP, and the government set up an MSP committee, but the people who are part of that committee are flatterers of the government. How will we ever get justice in such a situation?" asks Dalal. 

We spoke to another farmer Harpreet Singh Jhabelwali from Sri Muktsar Sahib district of Punjab, who was at the farmer's protest site. "We are standing with our farmer brothers who have been martyred. The father and son both should have been arrested. The father, being a central minister, is in a position of power. Moreover, he is a Minister of State in the home ministry. He has the position and the power to influence the case, but no action has been taken against him. Those people whose names figure in the FIR are today moving about freely. Why?" asks Jhabelwali. 

This year, Dilbag Singh, a leader of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), who is also a witness in the Lakhimpur Kheri violence case, was allegedly attacked by unidentified armed men. Singh, however, escaped unhurt. Hardeep Singh, another witness in the case, had accused a local BJP leader of threatening him in April this year. The police, however, dismissed this case as an incident of road rage and told the media that this was not connected to the Lakhimpur Kheri violence case.

The Probe spoke to the District Magistrate (DM) of Lakhimpur Kheri on the allegations of witness intimidation and harassment of family members of victims. "As far as I know, Dilbagh Singh's allegations were found to be fake. Regarding Hardeep Singh, he can make any allegations. Everybody has the right to speak, but as far as the Supreme Court's order is concerned, we have been complying with it, and we have provided police protection to all the witnesses in the case," said Mahendra Bahadur Singh, the DM.

Witness intimidation, pressure tactics on victims' families, ineffective investigation, police high-handedness, unkept promises, and a complete lack of accountability from the government - the Lakhimpur Kheri violence case has seen several twists and turns since last October. 

"We have suffered a lot, and we continue to suffer. I lost my son, and nothing can bring him back. My last and only wish is to see that justice is served so that my son and the other victims of this violence can rest in peace," says Satnam Singh.