Amidst ongoing farmers’ protest and Congress showcasing their immense ‘love’ and ‘support’ for the farmers, it is essential to point out one incident that took place in 1998, Madhya Pradesh. The inability of the Digvijay Singh-led then-Congress government in Madhya Pradesh resulted in the death of around 24 farmers in Multai.
The farmers’ protest of Multai
In 2017, Bharatiya Janata Party released a video on Multai agitation and police firing on farmers. The video narrated the chronology of events that led to the Massacre of January 12, 1998, and the events in coming months.
In 1997, the farmers faced heavy losses due to crop damage. The farmers were on the verge of starvation. The loans were piling up. The farmers started protests against the MP government with several demands, including compensation for the damaged crops, loan waiver, electricity bill waiver, payment against crop insurance and several others.
On December 25, 1997, the farmers gathered outside Multai Tehsil. After 13 days, the police uprooted farmers’ tents. It was alleged that the police came in at night and demolished the tents. The protesters claimed that the police snatched money that they had brought for ration and forced them to leave the protest site. The protests continued peacefully even after police action against the farmers. On January 11, police allegedly picked some farmers who were close to Sunilam to interrogate them. They were asked about the whereabouts of Sunilam, but the police could not get any information.
The ‘Jalianwala Bagh’ of 1998
On January 12, 1998, Madhya Pradesh police fired on protesting farmers in Multai as the protests went violent. The farmers were seeking compensation for the damaged crops due to adverse weather. Thousands of farmers gathered on the call of then-newly-formed Kisan Sangharsh Samiti. The group had announced a program to lock and gherao the Multai tehsil office.
The group of farmers pelted stones and tried to attack officials. Some vehicles were set on fire. The violence resulted in police opening firing at the protesters. While the official count states 19 farmers lost their lives with over 150 injured, the unofficial count of the dead as per the activists is around 24. BJP was in opposition at that time. They equated the incident to the Jalianwala Bagh massacre.
The role of Sunilam in the protests
Sunilam (Sunil Mishra), who was a legislator at that time, was allegedly behind mobilizing the farmers on January 12, 1998. He was suspended from Samajwadi Party for some time, but later his suspension was revoked. According to a judicial commission, the officials were suspended in haste and blamed Sunilam for the deaths due to violent agitation. then SP (Betul) G P Singh, who is now IG (Lokayukta), said, “Property worth crores were damaged and a fire brigade employee was killed only because he was trying to put out a fire and wearing a uniform similar to a policeman’s.” He added that farmers tried to snatch away rifles from the policemen.
As per the judicial commission, the mob not only killed a fireman but caused injuries to several police personnel and government officials. Police fired shots at them only in self-defence. The report suggested that Sunilam was shouting slogans using a microphone and provoking protesters against the government officials.
The testimonies recorded by the commission gave a picture of how government and police officials had to hide under the tables and requested police officers to open fire to save them from the mob. It was alleged that Sunilam was shouting not to be scared if police shoot them as they only use rubber and plastic bullets.
Sunilam did not join the judicial commission’s proceedings and asked for a probe by a judge from Madhya Pradesh High Court or the Supreme Court. He said that he was implicated as Congress was scared of his popularity in the region. He said the ruling party was afraid that the agitation he started in 450 villages would soon spread across Madhya Pradesh.
On the day of the violence, Sunilam was arrested by the police and later released in the last week of March. In a contested election as an Independent and in 2003 elections, he got the ticket from Samajwadi Party. In 2008 he lost the elections by a considerable margin. During Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, Sunilam decided to join the movement.
Congress MLA Sukhdev Panse defeated Sunilam in 2008. He said that when someone is leading an agitation, he should make sure that the mob does not turn violent. He added that Sunilam could not deny the responsibility for the death of so many farmers. “If he was right, he should have been able to convince the courts,” he added.
A total of 66 allegedly fake cases were registered against Sunilam and other farmers. Most of them were withdrawn in later years. However, Sunilam was convicted in three cases, including the alleged lynching of a fire brigade personnel. It took 15 years for the sessions court in Multai to pass the judgement in the cases, and sentence Sunilam to life imprisonment for his role in the protests. Apart from these three cases, all other cases were either dropped, or the court found him not guilty. Appeals on these cases are pending in Madhya Pradesh High Court.
Farmers claim police fired without warning
Amidst the claims from leaders and administration, farmers who were protesting at the site narrate a somewhat different story. The farmers stated that the police did not warn them before opening fire on them. As per the eyewitnesses’ testimonies in BJP’s video, farmers were standing outside the tehsil when suddenly the police started firing. They fired several rounds from the nearby hospital as well. The massacre continued for over 2.5 hours, after which a curfew was imposed in the area.
Farmers, who were named in several cases, alleged that there were no cases filed against the officers who shot them. Fines as much as Rs.10,000 were imposed on all accused, and many of them are still struggling to get justice in the courts.