Namdar Purva, Lakhimpur Kheri: Harpreet Singh remembers the happy faces of the farmers as protests concluded peacefully just moments before they weren't. Singh, a farmer who was present at the protest spot that turned into a violent one in Lakhimpur Kheri, told BOOM, that farmers were walking back while some of them took selfies when the 'accident' happened.
"That road was full with farmers, in fact jam packed," he narrated remembering the violent Sunday in Lakhimpur Kheri of Uttar Pradesh leading to the death of eight people, including four farmers, a journalist, a driver and two Bharatiya Janata Party workers.
BOOM visited the site, met eyewitnesses, and families of victims in Lakhimpur Kheri to understand what exactly happened on the fateful day of October 3. While there are conflicting reports on the sequence of the events, the eyewitnesses say that moments before the violence it was largely peaceful as farmers who had gathered in Tikunia were coming back following their protest.
'I had never seen anything like that in my life'
It was the morning of October 3, 2021 when thousands of farmers from across Lakhimpur Kheri, Shahjahanpur, Pilibhit and Sitapur districts gathered at the playground of Maharaja Agrasen Inter College in Tikonia area of Lakhimpur Kheri district situated on the border of Nepal in Uttar Pradesh to lodge a peaceful protest against Minister of state for Homer Ajay Mishra alias Teni. Tikonia is around 60 kilometers from the district headquarters of Lakhimpur Kheri and is home to a large number of Sikh farmers.
There was a crowding at one particular spot, Harpreet said, as the farmers gathered there chit-chatting with each other, celebrating a successful and peaceful protest.
"I saw cars leaving the grounds of Maharaja Agrasen Inter College and then I saw a speeding car hit the farmers. Few came under one car and many of the farmers had a close shave from the other cars. Some of the farmers jumped into the ditch in order to save themselves from the speeding cars and got injured. There was a stampede-like situation and I had never seen anything like that in my life," recalled Harpreet.
Over the few days, cellphone video footages have emerged from the area showing SUVs plowing into a group of farmers from behind and driving on. It shows the occupants of the car exiting the vehicle even as a person seems to be caught under the wheels. A 29-second video which became viral on social media shows a Thar jeep hitting a group of men walking on a rural road, some holding flags. Soon after, a second SUV drives past as well.
Meanwhile, a Sumit Jaiswal, who was spotted leaving the vehicle in the video, claimed that it was the protesters who had attacked the vehicle using sticks and stones, in turn, breaking the windshield.
But, Harpreet, who is also a local resident of Tikunia, said that it had nothing to do with the farmers' protest. "The car's windshield may have been broken but it had nothing to do with the protest. The farmers did not do anything prior to this car incident and they only retaliated after it," Harpreet said.
The farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri and adjoining districts were irked with Mishra's remarks on farmers on September 25 when he had said, "farmers should reform themselves or they will be reformed". The protest which many anticipated to be peaceful was going well until a car owned by a minister's son Ashish Mishra advanced towards the crowd ramming four protestors who were returning to their respective places after the protest was over.
Ajay Mishra, the junior Home Minister who oversees law and order and policing issues for the country have remained defiant in the face of calls for his resignation from the opposition.
The ramming of the car in the crowd of protesters resulted in retaliation. The driver of the car was caught by the farmers and allegedly assaulted resulting in his death. The driver's autopsy has not been made public yet but the officials posted in the district say that he died of multiple injuries on the body and a head injury.
'He went to the protest and came back dead'
Jagdeep Singh blames himself for his father's death. His 65-year-old father Nakshatra Singh was one among the four people mowed down by the SUV car owned by a minister's son.
"Had I visited the protest site instead of my father. My father would have been alive," he said. A night ago when the family sat down for dinner, it was decided that Jagdeep would go to the protest site. In the morning, his father changed his mind and told him that he would going to the protest instead. Jagdeep said that his father always talked about the farmer's welfare and was against the three farm laws passed by the Central government.
"My father went to the protest site and came back dead," he said.
Nakshatra Singh hailed from the Namdar Lahbadi village about 54 kilometers east from the district head-quarters. He is survived by two sons, a daughter and a wife.
Another eyewitness, Sunil Kumar Maurya said that he saw the SUV car mowing down the protestors. Maurya had gone there to see the protest along with a few of his friends. "Things were going very peacefully and protestors were returning from the Tikunia protest site. Many of them had black flags in their hands," the 32-year-old resident of Nighasan in Lakhimpur Kheri remembered.
Then, he said, all of a sudden a few cars sped fast and approached the Tikunia road from Babnipur side. "There were three cars and this jeep car which rammed into the crowd. The cars were running so fast that I could not see if the windshield was broken but I am very sure that everything there till this event of car ramming into protestors was peaceful," he said.
The eyewitness said that the protestors managed to stop SUV and soon after people inside the car came out of it and started fleeing the spot.
Following this, Maurya said that he definitely heard a sound which was similar to the sound of a gun shot although he did not see anyone firing or even brandishing any kind of firearm.
'Farmers had assured that it will be a peaceful protest'
The Uttar Pradesh Police has lodged a case against Union minister Ajay Mishra's son, Ashish Mishra, but no arrest has been made. Both Ajay Mishra and Ashish Mishra have denied all charges, and said they were not at the scene of the incident.
Local farmer leader Ram Singh Dhillon told BOOM, "About a month ago the accused son Ashish Mishra made an objectionable remark against the farmers protest and later on September 25 the minister made similar remarks. While returning back, he teased the farmers by making a thumb down gesture. The farmers got angry and on September 29 the farmer leaders decided to protest."
The date of the protest against the Union Minister for his remarks, initiated by the Samuykta Kisan Morcha, was decided.
"The accused son of the minister tried to approach a few farmer leaders before this wrestling program which was scheduled on October 3 with a request that farmers should let that happen," the farmer leader said. The wrestling programme is held every year in the minister's village for the last many years. The farmers assured the minister's son that the farmers will protest peacefully and return.
The Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya was in Kheri, he went to Babnipur village to attend the wrestling match then returned without attending it because of the protest. "The farmers did not even go to the wrestling site which was just two kilometers from where we were protesting. We all saw what happened later. All we need now is justice from the government," Dhillon said.
Another farmer who was working in his field that day when the incident took place said that bullets were indeed fired.
"I was repairing the fences that day in my field and I saw everything. The farmers made way for the cars to go, black flags were waved peacefully," he said. "Then the SUV mowed down the farmers," he added. The farmer said that he saw a man running with a gun. However, he said he couldn't see clearly who it was because of the distance. "Later when the car was torched by the angry farmers then I also saw some sparking which I think was from the cartridges kept inside the car," he said.
It is to be noted that the Uttar Pradesh police through a press note said that two cartridges .315 bore were recovered from one of the two cars that was torched in the incident.
Out of the eight people who died, the local police said that "four people were killed on the spot which was sort of lynching and this included a local journalist, a driver and two people." They also said that the vehicle which hit the farmers was torched by them before the police could reach.
'My son was crushed by the minister's son's car'
The claims of the police about the journalist lynched by the farmers were rubbished by the slain journalist's family. Santosh Kashyap, the mother of journalist Raman Kashyap, told BOOM, "My son was not killed by the farmers but he was crushed by the minister's son's car."
Journalism was passion for Raman that he started exploring two years ago. He was also a part time teacher. "That day he went there to cover the farmer's protest and did not return home by night. We reached out to police and every possible person to know about his whereabouts. At around 3 am in the night we got a call from the mortuary to come and identify the dead body of a person. My younger son identified Raman's body and all the injuries we saw were only from the car accident," his mother said.
"There was a hole on his palm which we think is from a bullet injury," she said.
Prashant Kumar, Additional Director General of Police (ADG) for law and order, told BOOM, "The forensic team is going through the evidence that has been found from the spot. We cannot confirm whether or not a bullet was fired during the incident."
The family members of Gurvinder Singh had alleged that he died because of a bullet injury. However, no bullet injury was found on his body in both the autopsies performed.
Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh police on late Thursday evening summoned accused Ashish Mishra, he has been directed to appear before police on October 8 and record his statement. Inspector General Lucknow Range Lakshmi Singh has confirmed to BOOM that two people were detained.
"Summons have been issued to Ashish Mishra and he has been asked to come for questioning as soon as possible and two men Luv Kush and Ashish Pandey have been arrested. They were in the same car which ran over the farmers and journalists and now an eight member team of the state police will investigate this incident," the senior police officer said. The government of Uttar Pradesh has also formed a single member judicial commission under Retd Justice Pradeep Kumar Srivastava who would submit the report within two months.
"I have seen ploughing of the field by tractor but never ploughing of humans by a car. This was unreal and horrific-- and I had to witness it," Harpreet said.
The main accused Ashish Mishra has been summoned again by the Uttar Pradesh police, tomorrow. He didn't show up today.
Saurabh Sharma is a freelance journalist from Uttar Pradesh.