MUMBAI: Violence has spread across the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, after police opened fire on crowds of protestors Tuesday killing five. Over 1,000 paramilitary troops have been sent to the state in a bid to quell the unrest, which has seen buses torched and buildings set ablaze.
The outbreak of discontent began over a week ago in the district of Mandsaur, as farmers – frustrated with the state’s current agricultural policies – took to the streets to demand higher crop prices and a waiver on existing bank loans.
The drought-ridden state is one of several in India to have suffered from back-to-back crop failures in recent years. Police had initially denied responsibility for the deaths of the protestors, blaming it instead on “anti-social elements” and crowd violence.
But on Thursday the state’s Home Minister Bhupendra Singh backed away from the claims, announcing that it had become “clear from the investigation that the five people died from police bullets.”
Curfew, suspended internet
The intensity and size of the protests appeared to have caught Indian authorities off guard. A round-the-clock curfew has since been enforced in Mandsaur. Internet services have also been suspended in multiple districts, according to police reports.
Protest leaders, however, have denied accusations of violence. “The farmers did not come to the protest with any petrol or anything that can be used to start a fire,” said Sunil Gaur, a spokesperson for the National Farmers Labor Union, one of the groups behind the protest.
In light of the deaths, the state’s Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan took to Twitter to issue an emotional plea to farmers to end the violence. “I appeal to my fellow brothers to maintain peace. I am deeply pained by the turn of events today. I stand by families in this hour of grief.”
‘A people’s movement’
Madhya Pradesh, which is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is considered part of India’s farming heartland, owing to its large agricultural output.
Farmers in the state have long demanded a government-backed minimum fixed price for their produce to help protect against fluctuations in crop prices.
According to a 2006 report, later endorsed by the BJP party in its 2014 general election manifesto, but yet to be implemented, all crop prices should be fixed at a minimum of 50 per cent higher than the production costs.
Protestors felt betrayed by the government’s failure to follow-up on their pledge, said Gaur. “The demands we have are not for the state government, it is for the central government,” he added. “Now this movement will go from Madhya Pradesh and spread across the whole country, this will become a people’s movement.”
Almost 70% of India’s population of 1.3 billion live in rural areas, according to India’s census, but agriculture accounts for just 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Last year, Modi promised to boost the country’s agriculture sector with a target of doubling the income of farmers by 2022.