The accused in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri incident were “at large roaming scot-free” because they “wielded the thunderbolt of police power through political clout,” Shiv Kumar Tripathi, a lawyer, submitted in an application before the Supreme Court on 8 November. Tripathi had earlier submitted an application in the Supreme Court as well, as a result of which the apex court began monitoring the case. The prime accused in the case is Ashish Mishra, the son of Ajay Mishra Teni, a minister of state for home affairs in Narendra Modi’s cabinet. Days after the minister gave a speech threatening those protesting the 2020 farm laws, a convoy with his son allegedly mowed down protesting farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri. While the first-information report in the case said that the incident was a result of a “planned conspiracy” by both Teni and his son, it only named Ashish as an accused. In his 8 November submission to the Supreme Court, Tripathi wrote that Teni—who he described as the “main accused/culprit”—deserved to be subjected to legal action for his “complicity in the said murder.”
Tripathi said that the probe would not be “impartial” if Teni continued to be a minister. He was not the only one who believed this. Many opposition leaders from different parties have questioned Teni’s continuation in the office and asked the prime minister to remove him. Even the parliament has seen protests demanding the same. But even three months after the incident, Modi has kept mum. His silence on Teni continues even after the withdrawal of the farm laws that primarily underpinned the plot for the 3 October farmers’ protest at Lakhimpur Kheri.
It is the sphere of influence that comes with Teni’s ministerial post that raises concerns about the probe in the case. Government press releases and posts on social media since the carnage itself demonstrate that as a minister, Teni has easy access to anyone from state police chiefs and the union home secretary, to intelligence officers. In fact, Teni’s chair demands subordination from officials who have the power to investigate the incident. This in itself may not be enough to say if he has misused his chair to pivot the investigation in his favour, but it certainly casts a doubt on the integrity of the probe. Apart from this, the ruling party’s state and union leadership, aided by a pliant media, appears to be tilting the narrative around the incident in Teni’s favour, brazenly mischaracterising the protesting farmers and the facts of the case.
Multiple events over the course of over three months have only increased such doubts about the probe. For instance, on Teni’s second police remand, he was to be cross questioned with seven other accused. But, before that could happen, he was shifted to the hospital on health grounds. Around the same time, Upendra Agrawal, the chief of the special-investigation team probing the matter, was also transferred to a different police range without the court’s permission.
The Supreme Court’s orders in the case so far suggest that it shares some of these concerns. On 17 November, it appointed a former high court judge without “roots in the state” to monitor the investigation, which was till then being led by a SIT that predominantly comprised local police. The judges also ordered the government to upgrade its local investigating team with three more officers from the Indian Police Service who did not hail from Uttar Pradesh. While the Supreme Court expressed its concern on the “slow pace, manner and outcome of the investigation” that day, it refrained from naming anyone who or whatever caused so. Tripathi told me, “If Teni is not questioned, we will consider the probe as incomplete and move another application to the Supreme Court pleading an order for questioning Teni.”
As one of the three ministers of state for home affairs, Teni is only next to Amit Shah in the ranks of the ministry of home affairs. India’s entire central armed police forces, internal intelligence agencies and disaster management forces fall under the jurisdiction of the ministry. The MHA has a police division which, among other things, acts as a performance assessor of members of the Indian Police Service. Since the incident, he has held several official meetings with police and intelligence officers who, if they want, can easily swing an investigation in his favour.
One of the starkest of examples was Teni being one of the guests at the national conference of director generals of police and the inspector generals of police that was held at the Uttar Pradesh’s police headquarters in Lucknow on 20 and 21 November. DGPs are the highest-ranking police officers in a state and in-charge of the state’s entire police force. IGs are the second in command. The attendees included a total of 62 DGPs and IGPs from across India. Around four hundred officers of various ranks from the Intelligence Bureau also joined the conference virtually.
The guests were Modi, Shah, national security advisor Ajit Doval, the director of the Intelligence Bureau Arvind Kumar, and the home secretary Ajay Bhalla. On 20 November, Priyanka Gandhi and Varun Gandhi—the state-in-charges of the Congress and BJP, respectively—had both written to the prime minister asking for action against Teni. Modi remained unfazed; he went ahead with the conference, although he did not share the dais with Teni. Pictures posted on social media—on a Facebook account called Ajay Mishr Teni—showed Teni, Nisith Pramanik and Nityananda Rai, the other MoSes in the union home ministry, sitting on a sofa. Shah was seated on a sofa next to them. In one of the pictures, Teni stood on a podium and could be seen saluting to the policemen.
Here, it is pertinent to flag that following the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, the government tried to maintain peace on the ground through senior police officials. An IGP and an additional DGP, both from the Lucknow Range, were also on ground to ensure “strict vigil,” according to a status report the state government filed before the apex court. The government wrote that “under the supervision of IGP, PHQ”—police headquarters—it had deployed, nine additional superintendents of police, 11 deputy superintendents of police, 20 station-house officers, two companies of the Rapid Action Force and 200 constables, among other personnel, on the ground.
Soon after an SIT was formed to investigate the case, Akhilesh Yadav, the opposition leader, pointed out the dilemma the cops would have to face while standing up to a cabinet minister who had authority over them. “Allegations are levelled against the union minister of state for home affairs and his son,” Yadav told journalists, “Somebody please make me understand, if a police official goes to the house of the minister of state for home affairs to investigate, then he will have to first salute the minister of state for home affairs. And an official who salutes him, how will he probe the minister’s family?’” The same week, Rahul Gandhi, also tweeted, “By not sacking this minister, the BJP is obstructing the process of justice.” Farmers’ union leader Rakesh Tikait has reiterated several times that Teni should face of Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code, which pertains to criminal conspiracy, and that he will influence the probe against him. The farmers even called for “Rail Roko”—protest by stopping trains—to demand Teni’s resignation.
But the union government did not just let Teni stay in the office, it appears to stand firmly behind him. On 29 October, Shah shared the stage with Teni, the chief minister Ajay Singh Bisht and the state’s party president Swatantr Dev Singh during a political rally held in Lucknow to ask the BJP’s workers to organise membership drives in their respective areas. Since Bisht also keeps the state’s home portfolio with him, the Uttar Pradesh Police will likely have to pass any file regarding the Lakhimpur Kheri case through him.
Earlier, on 21 October, Teni was again one of the main guests at a tribute ceremony at the National Police Memorial in New Delhi. He sat along with his fellow MoS, Rai; the IB director, Kumar; the union home secretary, Bhalla; and the Delhi police commissioner, Rakesh Asthana. The Modi government had built the memorial, a monolithic slab of granite stone, built in October 2018 to honour policemen who died in line of duty. Different police units organise their own memorial there at least once a year. Two days later, on 23 October, Border Security Force, which functions under the union home ministry, organised its own tribute ceremony at the memorial. Here, too, Teni was the chief guest. Apart from public events, Teni also participated in home ministry meetings.