The son of a federal minister is at the center of an investigation by Indian police after a peasant protest resulted in death in a case that sparked a national outcry and re-drawn attention to the year-long movement that has rocked the nation.
At least eight people, including four farmers, died on Sunday when a car belonging to Interior Minister Ajay Kumar Mishra crashed into protesters in Lakhimpur Kheri, a district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Protest leaders have alleged that Mishra’s son was in the car when it ran over protesters, but Mishra has denied this.
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After mounting pressure from opposition politicians, protest groups and the Indian Supreme Court, police confirmed on Thursday that they had opened an investigation into Mishra’s son Ashish and 15 to 20 other unnamed people.
No formal charges have been made and the minister’s son has been summoned for interrogation, police said.
The incident sparked outrage across the country and put the protest movement back in the spotlight. Demonstrations against controversial changes to agricultural laws pose a rare threat to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and have also received high-profile international support.
Several opposition politicians accused the government of failing to properly investigate the incident, prompting the Supreme Court to open the case. During a hearing on Thursday, the court asked the Uttar Pradesh government to provide a status report on the investigation announced earlier that day.
Mishra told local news outlets earlier this week that the vehicle was his but denied that his son was in it.
He said his driver and three members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who were in the car were killed by protesters in violence that broke out after the incident, according to The Associated Press.
NBC News contacted Mishra and the police, but they did not respond immediately. NBC News was unable to contact Ashish Mishra.
India’s farmers are demonstrating against three agricultural laws that they say will ruin their livelihoods and make them open to exploitation by large corporations.
The reforms passed in September last year relaxed the rules for selling and pricing products that protected farmers from an unrestricted free market for decades. Modi said the laws were necessary for modernization.
Tens of thousands of farmers camped on the streets of the Indian capital New Delhi for months and blocked main roads and highways in protest. The demonstrations subsided earlier this year as the country suffered a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections.
The Supreme Court suspended the law in January, but farming groups continue to call for the law to be repealed completely.
The protests present a rare challenge to the BJP, which is trying to stay in power in next year’s state elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
Farmers are the most influential electoral bloc in India and an important part of its economy, so further angering them could cost the BJP a significant number of votes.
After the violence on Sunday, authorities in the region temporarily shut down internet services and banned some politicians from entering the city as tensions ebbed.
Farmers groups said they would step up their protests in response to the deaths.