MANDSAUR: Five farmers were killed after firing at a protest in western Madhya Pradesh, marking an escalation of violence as a rural strike demanding debt relief spread. Home Minister Bhupendra Singh told that the police did not shoot at the crowd in the central city of Mandsaur, 325 km from the capital of Bhopal.
"There was no firing by the police, an investigation has been launched," he said, adding that bullets were shot by "anti-social elements."
But he was contradicted by a senior official, Ujjain Division Commissioner OM Jha, who told news agency IANS, "Around 2 pm, in order to control the agitated farmers, the police had to open fire in which two farmers died and several others were injured."
"The police started firing to disperse the crowd. Farmers were not carrying weapons," said Gajendra Tokas of the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh, a national farmers' union, which has called a state-wide tomorrow.
The farmers allegedly threw stones at the police before the firing. Last night, they reportedly tried to vandalise train tracks in the area.
"This government is at war with farmers," tweeted Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. He will visit Mandsaur to meet the families of the farmers who had died, reported ANI.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who has led the government since 2005, blamed the opposition for inciting the violence and said his administration stands with farmers.
"The Congress party has conspired to make this a violent agitation. Congress leaders have been trying to do this... The Mandsaur incident is sad and unfortunate," he said.
"Unfortunately, anti-social elements have crept into the agitation," he claimed.
The Chief Minister, late on Tuesday, raised the compensation for kin of those killed from 10 lakhs to 1 crore and also government jobs; 5 lakhs to injured.
Internet services have been suspended in areas like Indore, Ujjain and Dewas, all in the western part of the state which has witnessed anger by farmers who say the government is not providing enough relief from rural distress.
For days, farmers have been holding large protests, demanding higher prices for their produce including onions and dal. They also want loans to be waived, like in the states of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, which are also governed by the BJP. In many parts of Madhya Pradesh, the demonstrations, part of a 10-day strike that began on June 1, have erupted in violence, with police men being assaulted with stones, vehicles being set on fire, and shops being vandalised and looted.
Chief Minister Chouhan met with representatives of farmer unions recently to pledge support including the creation of a price stabilisation fund of Rs. 1,000 crore to purchase produce at a minimum price agreed upon with farmers.
The agitation by farmers has led to a shortage of vegetables; farmers have been pouring thousands of litres of milk on roads to call attention to their demands.
The western part of Madhya Pradesh adjoins Maharashtra, where farmers have been holding similar demonstrations. They want Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis' government to take steps to boost farm incomes and output including waiving all agricultural loans, similar to the $5.6 billion in debt forgiveness announced in April by Yogi Adityanath after he took over as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
Prices of vegetables and milk have jumped more than 50 percent in major cities such as Mumbai and the information and technology hub of Pune after farmers cut supplies from Thursday.
The outbursts of rural discontent in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh pose a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has promised to double farm incomes over the next five year.
Maharashtra, India's second most populous state, is the country's second-biggest producer of sugar, cotton and soybean.
Chief Minister Fadnavis has said the government will waive the debt of marginal farmers who defaulted in the last few years, adding a panel would be set up to find ways to implement the "biggest loan waiver in Maharashtra's history" though he did not elaborate on the amount.
Maharashtra needs to spend 30,500 crore rupees or $4.7 billion to write off debt owed by about 3.2 million farmers who had defaulted on bank loans, he said last week.
But farmers say they want the government to waive all debt and not just marginal, or poorer, farmers who defaulted on loans.