India’s main opposition Congress party leader Priyanka Gandhi has said she would continue to protest and put pressure on the federal government until one of its junior ministers at the centre of a political storm resigns and his son arrested.
“You have a minister in the cabinet whose son has allegedly mowed down six people in public…. and you are refusing to take action?” she told the BBC Hindi.
Eight people were killed on Sunday after a car linked to junior home minister Ajay Mishra ran into farmers protesting the farm laws in Lakhimpur Khiri in Uttar Pradesh state.
Farmers allege the vehicle was being driven by minister Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish Mishra. The minister has denied the charge, maintaining that his son was not there when the incident happened.
Videos circulating on social media have shown a car ramming into the protesters from behind. State police say they are investigating the matter.
“How can we expect a fair enquiry to be made by anyone who is reporting to him about his own son, having allegedly mowed down six people?” Ms Gandhi said after meeting the families of the deceased farmers on Wednesday. She was accompanied by other Congress leaders, including her brother Rahul Gandhi.
Political leaders were initially stopped by the state police from going to meet the kin of the dead. Several of them, including Ms Gandhi, were also detained for many hours.
Footage of Ms Gandhi confronting the police officers after being stopped was widely shared on social media. The Congress leader was later arrested and placed in a guest house “under guard” for “around 70 hours”, she said.
“I was not allowed to move out. I was not allowed to meet my lawyer. I was never charged with any crime, nor was I told what section I was being held in,” Ms Gandhi said.
“When such a horrendous thing has happened, do they expect everybody to just keep quiet?”
Police say the leaders were stopped to prevent the volatile law and order situation from deteriorating, and the restrictions have now been eased.
‘Congress playing politics’
Leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power both at the centre and in Uttar Pradesh, have accused the opposition of playing politics and stoking peoples’ emotions ahead of the crucial state elections.
“Goons posing as farmers are carrying out the violent stir,” claimed BJP leader Y Satya Kumar.
Elections are due in battleground Uttar Pradesh next year. While the Congress is looking to revive its sagging fortunes, the BJP does not want to loosen its grip on power in the state.
Ms Gandhi said the families told her they are “not interested in compensation and wanted justice”.
“I asked them, do you recognise the person who was driving the car? They said yes,” she added.
“The brother of one of the victims showed me a video in which he clearly pointed out his brother and he showed me the brother falling as the car mowed down these people….
“They are basically saying, unless the minister resigns and unless the culprits are arrested, we will not get justice and we want justice.”
Taken together, the controversial farm laws will loosen rules around sale, pricing and storage of farm produce – rules that have protected India’s farmers from the free market for decades.