The son of a federal minister is at the center of an Indian police investigation after a farmers' protest turned deadly, in a case that has set off a national outcry and drawn renewed attention to the yearlong movement that rocked the nation.
At least eight people, including four farmers, died Sunday after a car owned by Ajay Kumar Mishra, the minister of state for home affairs, 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 the protesters, but Mishra has denied it.
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After mounting pressure by opposition politicians, protest groups and India's Supreme Court, police on Thursday confirmed 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 questioning, police said.
The incident sparked outrage across the country and thrust the protest movement back into the spotlight. Demonstrations against contentious changes to agriculture laws have posed a rare threat to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while also garnering high-profileinternational support.
Several opposition politicians accused the government of failing to investigate the incident properly, prompting the Supreme Court to take up the case. During a hearing Thursday, the court asked the government of Uttar Pradesh to file a status report on the investigation it had announced earlier in the day.
Mishra told local news outlets earlier this week that the vehicle was his, but denied his son was in it.
He said that his driver and three members of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who were in the car had been killed by protesters in violence that broke out after the incident, according to The Associated Press.
NBC News has reached out to Mishra and the police, but they did not immediately respond. NBC News was unable to find a way to contact Ashish Mishra.
India’s farmers have been staging demonstrations against three agriculture laws they say will ruin their livelihoods and leave them open to exploitation by large companies.
The reforms, enacted in September last year, loosened rules around the sale and pricing of produce that have protected farmers from an unfettered free market for decades. Modi has said the laws are necessary for modernization.
Tens of thousands of farmers spent months camped on the roads of India’s capital, New Delhi, blocking major 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 laws in January, but farmer groups continue to demand a complete repeal of the legislation.
The protests pose a rare challenge to the BJP as it tries to hold onto power in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, in a state election next year.
Farmers are the most influential voting bloc in India and a key part of its economy, so further angering them could cost the BJP a significant number of votes.
In the wake of Sunday’s violence, authorities briefly suspended internet services in the region and barred some politicians from entering the town as tensions simmered.
Farmers' groups said they would strengthen their protests in response to the deaths.