As you enter Lakhimpur by road, Priyanka Gandhi seems larger on the Congress hoardings. There she is, smiling widely, alongside a local leader, while Rahul Gandhi has now joined their mother Sonia and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the ceremonial line-up of smaller picture boxes at the top. You can’t miss, either, the wall writings and posters felicitating Union Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra “Teni” and his son, Ashish Mishra or “Monu Bhaiyya”, who belong to Nighasan which falls in this district.
Ashish Mishra — currently in jail for the incident at Lakhimpur on October 3, in which four farmers were mowed down by a car owned by the minister, and four more were killed in the retaliatory violence — is on the BJP poster not because he is a party leader or office-bearer. He isn’t. But as they tell you here matter-of-factly, he is “mantri putra (minister’s son)”. Ahead of the 2022 polls, he was/is also “prabal daawedar (strong contender)” for the BJP ticket. “Nighasan janata ki pukaar, Monu bhaiyya ab ki baar”.
Both the Congress and BJP hoardings can give a misleading first impression to the reporter who has arrived here to set off on a longer journey — from the scene of crime in Lakhimpur to Gorakhpur, the chief minister’s constituency.
If the Congress hoardings exaggerate the presence of Priyanka and the party in UP, the BJP posters do not tell that the apparently fond nicknames “Teni Maharaj” and “Monu Bhaiyya” mask something akin to awe and fear with which local residents regard the father-son duo — the minister, seen as a “bahubali” or strongman, is no stranger to the criminal case or controversy.
A month on, and ahead of Assembly elections early next year, what happened at Lakhimpur Kheri is not an event that is shaping a new politics. It has subsided into an inset in a larger political drama, in which both Priyanka Gandhi and the father-son of Nighasan are bit players.
Priyanka Gandhi was earlier stopped from visiting Lakhimpur Kheri. (PTI)
At the site of the October 3 incident in Tikonia, a yellow tape flutters alongside a plastic rope that cordons off the low-lying areas on both sides of a narrow road. On the yellow tape, written in black, is the stentorian injunction: “Police Crime Scene Do Not Disturb”. No one takes note, as traffic kicks up dust as usual on the road and, on both sides, paddy fields stretch into the distance.
What happened in Tikonia has travelled farther afield, through viral videos and TV, and it has also been carried by politics.
The spread is not even, of course. On the route to Gorakhpur, via Bahraich and Gonda, there are pockets and swathes where Lakhimpur still means a place, not an event. In this belt, streaked with several rivers and dense with jungle areas running along the Nepal border, large numbers still live in dread of frequent floods and the animals who venture out from the forests.
While the pandemic is seen as a receding crisis, the urgent refrain is about mehengai or rising prices, especially of petrol and diesel, and about rice selling below MSP and the sugarcane dues still unpaid. There is talk of berozgaari or unemployment and “chhutta janwar”. The last refers to the pervasive problem in UP of abandoned cattle wreaking havoc on crops ever since the Yogi government cracked down on cow slaughter.
In a people beset with these and other problems in common, Lakhimpur, the event, where it has reached, touches the divides, some active, some latent.
To begin with, a distinction is made among farmers, between Sikh migrants and those who are the original inhabitants of the Terai, called “sardar” and “desi” respectively. This, then, connects to other cleavages and divides — between majority and minority, Hindu and Muslim, BJP and non-BJP.
More broadly, Lakhimpur Kheri appears subsumed in a dominant narrative that has been driving another wedge — which may also be blunting at least some of the caste divisions on the ground. In UP today, in this belt at least, you are either with those who consider “suraksha (safety)” to be the overriding issue, or against them.
The former, loud and vehement, hold that a conspiracy is afoot against the “nation”, by internal and external “enemies”, which includes the protesters or “aandolankari”.
A conversation on Lakhimpur begins on the same standard note: “Durbhagyapurna tha, dukhad tha, nahi hona chahiye tha (it was unfortunate, should not have happened)”. And then it forks into different versions.
“The provocation was the minister’s speech, in which he threatened the farmers earlier,” says Aftab Alam, “berozgar (unemployed)” in Nighasan. “It was planned killing, no accident”, says Hoshiar Singh, a farmer from Ramnagar village. The killing of BJP workers was a “reaction”, they say, to the first crime.
“The videos don’t show it, but there were actually four events that day”, says Monu Dikshit, a farmer in Nighasan. “First, the targeting of BJP hoardings and cars. Then, sticks were wielded by the sardars, the car’s window panes were broken. It was after this that the car went out of control. Lastly, BJP workers were beaten to death.”
“Agar dekha jaaye, shuruaat upadraviyon ne ki thi (rowdy elements started it). If you want to protest, there is a system for that. You can’t break the system,” says former pradhan Raja Ram Maurya in Babar Pur village, about 4 km from the scene of the crime.
Munna Lal Vishwakarma, in the same village, sums up the aftermath of Lakhimpur: “Kabhi kabhar aankhon dekha, kaanon ka suna bhi jhootha ho jaata hai (sometimes you cannot believe what you see and hear)”.
If many separate “sardar” from “kisan”, others blur the line between farmer and “upadravi” (riotous or unruly). This is prodded and aided by the framing of Lakhimpur by the dominant party in UP.
“Suraksha mukhya mudda hai (security is the main issue)”, says district BJP chief Sunil Singh at the party office in Lakhimpur. He speaks grimly about “videshi taakatein” or foreign forces.
At the sprawling, heavily policed Gorakhnath math-mandir complex, home of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in Gorakhpur — where an exhortation to distrust, “Kisi aparichit par vishwas na karein”, is pasted on walls and boards — Dwarka Tiwari, secretary in-charge of the math, evades a direct question on Lakhimpur. And speaks of “asuraksha ka mahaul (climate of insecurity)” in “desh-pradesh (state and nation)” against which “Yogi ji-Modi ji” stand as a bulwark.
Daljeet Singh Virk was one of the four farmers killed in Lakhimpur Kheri on October 3. At his home in village Banjaran Tanda, district Bahraich, silences are long and heavy, as family members struggle for words. “We still think, gaya hai, aa jaayega (he will be back),” says his elder brother Jagjit Singh.
In a framed photo, taken on the day he died, is a trim man, wearing a black-blue turban and an orange T-shirt, a yellow scarf folded loosely around his neck. He is carrying a flag across his shoulder as he looks straight into the camera.
He liked to wear branded clothes, was very polite, never got into a fight, his relatives say. On days that his wife, who works at the local aanganwadi, brought home a friend, he would insist on dropping her back home. His 16-year-old-son Rajdeep Singh was with him on that fateful day. Parneet Kaur, 20, his daughter who studies nursing in Lucknow, says, “He would participate in the farmers’ programmes. He wanted me to study and for my brother to join the Army”.
“There cannot be a fair investigation till he (MoS Mishra) is removed (from office),” says Daljeet’s wife, Paramjit Kaur.
Daljeet’s family lives in a jhala, or a homestead in the fields, on the edge of the village. In Bahraich, as in Lakhimpur and Pilibhit, the Sikhs who came to UP after Partition and in the years after that, were often given uninhabited and inhospitable jungle lands. They tamed and cultivated these, and built their homes in the fields in which they worked, outside the village.
“Jungle tha, hamne basa diya (we made it productive),” says Daljeet’s uncle Charanjit Singh.
A similar pride is visible in sections of the Sikh community that live in the UP town, in settlements like Punjabi Colony in Lakhimpur. “We came here in 1947, and by 1958, we had set up our social works,” says Sewak Singh Ajmani, a businessman who also runs community schools.
Today, the farmers’ movement against the Centre’s three farm laws finds vocal support in Sikh families like Daljeet’s, who live in the geographically scattered jhalas. But the scatter of the homesteads-in-fields may also be circumscribing the movement’s coherence and spread.
Agitation against the farm laws does not seem to have caught on in the smaller farmers among the desis, who are far more poorly off than their counterparts in Punjab. “Our children cannot go abroad, to America or Canada,” says Sameer Khan, a farmer, in Nighasan. “We go out to work as labour in the factories in Himachal or Uttarakhand, and that too after borrowing money for the bus fare.”
Apart from inconvenient geography and a greater burden of poverty, a largely leaderless agitation is up against a party that prides itself on its machine — the coming election will see one BJP worker for every 60 voters, ‘per booth 20 youth’, they say at the BJP’s office in Lakhimpur.
BJP MLA from Bahraich, Anupama Jaiswal, who was minister in the Yogi government till a year ago, has not visited Daljeet Singh’s bereaved family in the same district. “It is not necessary that everyone should go… I am satisfied with the way my government is proceeding on the issue,” she says.
Not everyone speaks about Lakhimpur, but as the Assembly election draws nearer, almost everyone talks of the impending polarisation.
Some talk of the coming divisiveness with a sense of helplessness — as if the people will have no role to play, as if they will be swept up by forces larger than them, that are outside them and inside them too.
In the Nishad belt that stretches from Gorakhpur’s Mahewa Mandi to its rural fringe — jostling for this backward caste vote has already begun, with Priyanka Gandhi making specific promises to fishermen at her “Pratigya rally” held here on October 31 — Param Nishad, a property dealer, says that the government is trying to suppress the truth in Lakhimpur, and that it is not listening to farmers opposing the farm laws. He talks of “police utpeedan (harassment)”, recalls the case of the businessman killed during a police raid at a Gorakhpur hotel. Two issues are important, he says: “Price rise and tanashahi (authoritarianism)”.
But he is scared, says Nishad. “Andar ka dar hai, aisa kuch na ho jaye ki main badal jaaoon (I fear that something might happen that will change me). Last time, there was Pulwama.”
At his home in the city’s Maitripuram colony, S K Tiwari, who taught psychology at St Andrew’s PG College, also shares a sense of foreboding. “Aane wale dinon mein aapas mein baithna mushkil ho jaayega (in days to come, it may become difficult for people to sit together).”
Prof Tiwari tells a story close to home. “Just outside this colony, a mazaar (Muslim shrine) is coming in the way of the construction of a drain, work has stopped for about two months. But when a group of residents wanted to submit an application to the CM’s portal on the issue, one of them, a Yadav, held back. The administration will be less responsive if they see a Yadav name, he said.”
The professor himself feels torn. “Upar ka avaran budhijeevi ka hai, par andar kya pal raha hai … Hindu ki tarah soch rahe hain (the facade is that of an intellectual, but I sense a Hindu inside me). I am 60 plus, at this age I am changing. Kuch ghul mil gaya hai, aab-o-hawa mein (something has infiltrated the very air).”
At the Muslim mohalla in village Noorpur in Bahraich, they tell the story of the moorti (idol of a deity) that appeared in the burial ground some years ago. “This Navratri, again, the moorti was taken in a procession of vehicles over the ground where our ancestors are laid to rest. In the name of keeping the peace, the police placed us under house arrest,” says Mijjan Khan.
And in Gonda, Dhananjay Mani Tripathi, zilla maha mantri, Hindu Yuva Vahini, a saffron outfit founded by Yogi Adityanath in Gorakhpur in 2002, talks of its social work and “prashasan ka sahyog (coordination with the administration)”. He describes the Vahini’s campaign against Hindu-Muslim marriages.
Two months ago, when the Vahini heard of a case of a Hindu woman marrying a Muslim man in Colonelganj thana area, it rushed in. Due to its efforts, says Tripathi, there was “ladki ki baramadgi 24 ghante mein (recovery of the woman within 24 hours)”.
He swats away the question of consent: “Hamaari behnein udaar hain, unki udaarta ka faayda leke… (Hindu girls are naive, they are being exploited)”.
Priyanka Gandhi’s rally filled the Champa Devi Park in Gorakhpur, and many say it was the Congress’s most successful programme here in three decades. The Congress has embarked on political activity in UP, especially after Lakhimpur, with Priyanka leading the charge. And yet, even Congress supporters talk of a possible revival in the state only by the election after this one.
The BSP’s airtight top-down command structure seems strikingly out of step with the political agility demanded in times of the BJP. At his home-office in Gonda town, Haji Mohammad Zaki, who fought the nagarpalika chairman election from the BSP earlier, and is a ticket aspirant in the coming poll, says “Party ka nirdesh-aadesh hoga toh… iske ailawa hum nahi kar sakte… (we can only do something when the party tells us to).”
The Samajwadi Party is the BJP’s intimate enemy in UP. Many who profess support to the BJP government still do so while pointing a finger at earlier SP regimes — for their perceived failure to uphold the law, especially in cases of crime or hooliganism involving members of the minority community; for their alleged favouritism to Muslims and Yadavs; for the inability to rise above family. Akhilesh Yadav is trying to change the SP, many say, but he is still being pulled in different directions within the family and party.
Yogi Adityanath is widely credited with improving law and order in the state, even though often, the commendation seems to be approval for cracking down on high-profile criminals belonging to specific communities.
But on Lakhimpur, and other issues, it is not easy to be in the Opposition’s shoes in Yogi’s UP.
In Bahraich, district SP president Ram Harsh Yadav and senior vice president Zafarullah Khan, a founder member of the SP, say that they were placed under house arrest after Lakhimpur, and on several occasions before that. “If CM Yogi comes to Bahraich, a day before his programme, we are likely to be put under house arrest. This curbing of the Opposition party did not happen in any previous regime,” says Yadav.
Local journalists in Bahraich count the instances in recent months when SP leaders were reportedly placed under house arrest: after Lakhimpur; when the CM came to Bahraich to unveil a statue of Maharana Pratap close to a college in the city; ahead of his visit to inaugurate the expansion of the memorial to Maharaja Suheldev, who has now become a prominent cultural figurehead in the political courting of the Rajbhar community; ahead of the CM’s trip to oversee flood relief operations in Bahraich.
“We don’t even come to know when Section 144 is imposed,” says SP spokesperson Zafar Amin Dakku in Gorakhpur. And Anil Dubey, a young Congress leader in Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gorakhpur University, who was active in the ABVP during the SP regime, says: “The difference is this: In this government, the police rush to the spot more quickly if an effigy is being burnt by a political group than if there is a chain snatching”.
BJP MLA Anupama Jaiswal denies that her party’s government is curbing the Opposition’s political activity: “I have not heard of SP leaders being put under house arrest in Bahraich.” And in Lakhimpur, district BJP chief Sunil Singh says: “There is nothing extraordinary about imposing Section 144… It is the people who are supreme in a democracy. What does one say about an Opposition that doesn’t even have the numbers to be recognised as such? These are not parties, but properties of families.”
In the classroom in Bahraich’s Kisan PG College, a group of about 45 young women students argue about Lakhimpur and other things.
They are divided on the big questions — roughly half of the group thinks MoS Mishra must step down because of the case against his son. “The father must not be blamed for his son’s deeds. And protesters must only protest on designated spots,” says Shivani Singh. “But if you only protest at designated spots, how will you draw attention, make an impact?” says Seema Tiwari.
A majority in the classroom say the Internet should not have been shut down after Lakhimpur. “I had to fill a scholarship form, and couldn’t. The government should have managed things differently”, says Chandni Chauhan.
The classroom is divided, again, on the arrest of students in UP, under sedition charges, for raising pro-Pakistan slogans after its cricket victory over India.
“Let the students raise slogans, it is only a game. This should not become a big issue,” says Aarti Verma. And Ruchi Pandey says: “Some slogans can be unwise, but the government could have counselled the students. It is wrong to put them in jail.”
Aarti and Ruchi may be staking out a possible middle ground that seems increasingly shaky outside their classroom, from Lakhimpur to Gorakhpur, in UP.