It is now my turn for martyrdom, says victim’s father: Notes from Lakhimpur Kheri

Hundreds of people gathered at the Chaukra Farm area in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district on 5 October for the cremation of 20-year-old Lovepreet Singh, who was among the youngest to have died in the violence that unfolded in Lakhimpur Kheri two days earlier. NABEELA PANIYATH FOR THE CARAVAN
10 October, 2021

On the morning of 5 October, hundreds of people had gathered at a house in the Chaukra Farm area in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district amid heavy police deployment. The crowd had gathered for the cremation of 20-year-old Lovepreet Singh, who was among the youngest to have died in the violence that unfolded in Lakhimpur Kheri two days earlier. That day, cars in a cavalcade associated with the minister of state for home affairs, Ajay Mishra Teni, ran over protesting farmers near Lakhimpur Kheri’s Tikunia town. Protesters present at the scene alleged that Teni’s son, Ashish, and his men had run their SUVs over the farmers. Simranjit Singh, who was present at Chaukra Farm on 5 October, said he was among the people who rushed Lovepreet to the hospital after the violence. “He told me, ‘I have two sisters, save my life. I have no money,’” Simranjeet said. “He gave up when we were just five kilometres away from the hospital.”

Along with Lovepreet, seven men died in the violence—three farmers, two Bharatiya Janata Party workers, a driver of one of the cars and a journalist. Over the next four days, The Caravan visited the homes of two of the deceased protesters—Lovepreet and Gurvinder Singh—and the deceased journalist, Raman Kashyap. Families of the two protesters refused to cremate their kin without the administration accepting certain demands they had raised—they had to wait for over two days to carry out their last rites. During the wait, hundreds of people thronged the homes of the farmers. Many of them called the deceased farmers martyrs of the movement against the 2020 farm laws.

On the morning of 5 October, Lovepreet’s body lay in a glass coffin in the courtyard of his house. A flag of the farmer union Bharatiya Kisan Union (Tikait)—with pictures of the organisation’s president Narendra Tikait and its founder Mahendra Singh Tikait—lay on his body. The family refused to cremate him till the administration provided them with a copy of a first-information report that named Ashish.

Members of the crowd at Chaukra Farm were discussing the possibility of Ashish’s arrest. The FIR in the case was registered only around twelve hours after the violence. It booked Ashish and “15–20 unknown persons” under eight sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Sections 302 and 304A that pertain to murder and punishment for accidental death. Yet, there was no information about Ashish’s whereabouts at the time. Before the violence, Ashish had begun campaigning as a potential candidate in the upcoming elections in the state. Ajay, the minister, denied his son’s presence during the violence. He represents the Kheri constituency in the Lok Sabha, of which Lakhimpur Kheri district is a part. It was only on 9 October that Ashish was arrested.

Tikait had arrived at Lovepreet’s house that afternoon. Till then, he was the only prominent farmer leader to participate in discussions with the administration about the investigation into the violence and the compensation for the families of the deceased. His involvement in the matter was conspicuous given how opposition leaders were stopped from visiting Lakhimpur Kheri in the immediate aftermath of the violence.

As soon as he entered the courtyard of Lovepreet’s house, Tikait said that a second postmortem for Gurvinder had to be done. Eyewitnesses and Gurvinder’s family had told the media that Gurvinder was shot during the violence. On 9 October, The Caravan reported that according to Anil Kumar Maurya, an eyewitness, a black SUV lost control after ramming into farmers and plunged into the fields. “While the enraged farmers pulled out the driver, another farmer, later identified as Gurvinder Singh, caught hold of Ashish, who was trying to make his way through the sugarcane fields,” the report noted. “It was at this moment, Anil said, that he heard gun shots and saw Gurvinder collapse, even as the police helped Ashish escape.” However, Gurvinder’s post mortem report did not reveal a bullet wound.

At Lovepreet’s home, Tikait said, “Hum Gurvinder Singh ka postmortem dubara karvayenge. Dilli ke AIIMS mein.”—We will get Gurvinder’s postmortem done again. It will happen at All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. A few minutes later, he again said, “We have demanded for the post mortem to be done outside, in AIIMS.” After Lovepreet’s last rites were performed that evening, Tikait visited Gurvinder’s house, in the adjoining Bahraich district’s Mohraniya village.

Hundreds of people, including farmer leaders, police personnel and media persons, had gathered at Gurvinder’s house as well. His parents were inconsolable, determined to get a second post mortem done. At one point of time that evening, Tikait told Akhil Kumar, the additional director general of police of the Gorakhpur range, “Agar doosre post mortem mein bhi goli nahi nikli to bauhut dikkat ho jayegi”—If the second post mortem doesn’t reveal a bullet injury, it will create trouble. A member of the contingent that came with him, whom we could not identify, also made a similar comment while talking to Gurvinder’s family—“What if the second post mortem also doesn’t reveal a bullet injury?” We reached out to Tikait for a comment but did not receive a response.

The second post mortem was ultimately done in Uttar Pradesh itself. It did not reveal a bullet injury either. Gurvinder’s family was unconvinced with its result. His father, Sukhvinder Singh, told the Indian Express, “Whatever the doctors have said, we have to make peace with it, because we are not doctors. But goli toh lagi thi”—He had definitely been shot. Gurvinder was cremated on the morning of 6 October, at 7.30 am. “It is not just us, there are others too whose children have been martyred. Many farmers have been martyred earlier as well,” he told us, after his son’s cremation. “Bass sarkaar apne teen kanoon wapas lele, nahi to yeh aise hi chalta rahega bilkul”—The government should just withdraw its three farm laws otherwise things will continue like this only. Sukhvinder said he will now participate in the farmers’ movement. “It is now my turn for martyrdom,” he told us.

That evening, we visited the family of Raman Kashyap, the local journalist who died during the violence. The Caravan’s 9 October report mentioned that according to the eyewitness, Ashish’s car had mowed down Kashyap. But Pawan Kashyap, Raman’s younger brother, told us that a journalist from a Hindi news channel had tried to force the family to say that the protesting farmers had killed Raman by beating him with lathis. Pawan told us that the Hindi news channel journalist “almost threatened us.” Pawan later told us that he only received the post mortem report on 9 October, but the document was unreadable as it was badly printed.

Guramneet Mangat, a farmer leader who was also present at the Tikonia protest, told us that straight after the incident he had “handed over” three people who were with Ashish to the police. But, he said, the police is “not putting this on record.” Mangat said that on 4 October, he was a part of a discussion with the police about the violence in which it appeared that the police was delaying Ashish’s arrest due to his father’s stature. The Caravan reached out to the superintendent of police of Lakhimpur Kheri, Vijay Dhull, for a comment but did not receive a response.   

Days before the Lakhimpur Kheri violence, Ajay had given a threatening speech: “Sudhar jao, nahi toh hum aapko sudhaar denge, do minute lagega keval”—You better mend your ways, or we will teach you a lesson, it will only take a couple of minutes. The 3 October protest in Tikonia was held in response to this comment.

The people we met during our trip were angry at the BJP. Gurvinder’s father, Sukhwinder told us, “We will neither vote for BJP nor allow any campaign for the BJP in our area.” On the night of 5 October, we visited the Mehngapur Gurudwara near Lovepreet’s house. Jassa Singh, a farmer who manages the Gurudwara, told us, “Our campaign against the BJP will gain momentum as people are angry.”