At least eight people were killed in clashes between supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party and farmers protesting in northern Uttar Pradesh on Sunday.
Tens of thousands of farmers in several Indian states have protested for nearly a year against three national farming laws passed by Mr Modi’s government in September last year.
Mr Modi said the reforms, to loosen restrictions on the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce, would increase productivity. But farmers’ groups said the laws would make them poorer.
Police said four of those killed in the violence at Lakhimpur Kheri district were farmers and remaining victims were members of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
“There are eight deaths ... four farmers and four BJP supporters, including the driver of the minister,” Om Prakash Gupta, sub-divisional magistrate Lakhimpur Kheri, told The National.
More than a dozen people were injured in the clashes in the Sikh-majority Tikonia region, where rival groups attacked one another with sticks, swords and cars.
Each side accused the other of triggering the violence during the visit by BJP leaders including State’s Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya and Federal Junior Interior Minister Ajay Mishra. But officials said they did not know what had sparked the deadly clashes.
Farmers accused BJP workers of opening fire on them with weapons without provocation and then mowing them down with cars, one of which belonged to Mr Mishra’s son Ashish.
They said three protesters were killed and one received gunshot injury, sparking fierce battles between the rival groups.
Video footage broadcast on television channels showed smoke billowing from cars and protesters beating their occupants with sticks.
Mr Mishra denied the allegations and said his party workers were first pelted with stones by farmers, causing the driver to lose control and hit the protesters.
He said the farmers later chased the cars, set them on fire and beat the occupants to death with sticks.
“Three of our workers and a driver were killed and cars were set on fire,” Mr Mishra said in a video statement late on Sunday.
He said anyone found guilty would be dealt with as per the law, and denied that his son Mr Ashish was driving the car or was present at the site of the collision.
Local police officer Gyan Prakash Tiwari told The National an investigation into the violence had been opened but that no arrests had yet been made.
He said the situation was under control and farmers were continuing with the protest peacefully.
Rakesh Tikait is a farmer and spokesman for the protesters who is leading the demonstration at Ghazipur, on the border with Delhi.
He condemned the killings and urged farmers to reach Lakhimpur.
“The farmers who were protesting were returning when they were attacked by cars. They were fired at,” Mr Tikait said.
Opposition parties, including Congress, condemned the violence.
The farm protests have emerged as one of the biggest challenges to Mr Modi’s rule. He has failed to win over the farmers, despite several rounds of talks and crackdowns.
Thousands of farmers at three crossing points on the border with Delhi have staged sit-ins and formed tent cities since November 2020, after they were blocked by police from entering the capital city.
They demand that the new laws are repealed and want assurance from the government that it will set minimum prices for their produce.
Many violent clashes have erupted between farmers and police in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, where the high-security Red Fort was stormed on January 26.