Indian MPs trade blame over farmer’s suicide

The death occurred in front of thousands of people and has set off a firestorm in India's parliament, writes Samanth Subramanian.

Indian supporters of the Delhi Pradesh Youth Congress shout slogans against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal as they clash with police outside his house during a protest against the suicide of a farmer at a rally organised by Kejriwal's Aam Admi Party in New Delhi on April 23. AFP Photo
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NEW DELHI // India’s parliament was dominated on Thursday by the alleged suicide of a farmer attending a political rally, even as prime minister Narendra Modi promised increased government support to the country’s agriculture sector.

Gajendra Singh, a 41-year-old farmer and aspiring politician from the village of Dausa in Rajasthan, had climbed a tree during an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) rally in New Delhi on Wednesday. As speakers from the AAP – which sits in opposition in the national parliament – were decrying Mr Modi’s proposed land acquisition bill as detrimental to farmers, Singh hanged himself from a branch using his white scarf.

The incident occurred in front of thousands of people, mere metres away from where Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi chief minister and AAP chief, was seated. Volunteers from the party had tried to convince Singh to descend, without success.

Minutes before killing himself, Singh had allegedly flung a suicide note into the crowd.

“My father threw me out of the house because my harvest was destroyed,” the note, written in Hindi, said. “I have three children.”

Media reports floated various theories about Singh’s death: that AAP volunteers had prevented policemen from approaching the tree and rescuing Singh, that his foot had slipped off the branch, and that the suicide note was not in his handwriting.

Meanwhile, politicians traded accusations in parliament on Thursday over where responsibility for the incident lay.

The opposition Congress party staged a walkout, claiming that the suicide was a by-product of Mr Modi’s keenness on his land acquisition bill, which makes it easier for companies to acquire rural land for new industrial and infrastructure projects.

Farmers were in dire straits, said Randeep Singh Surjewala, a Congress spokesperson, because of “the Modi government and the weather.”

“The crop is not being bought by government agencies, the farmer is not given adequate compensation, he has no money to buy fertilisers and seeds, he has no agriculture credit and he is being driven to suicide by the anti-farmer policies of the Modi government,” Mr Surjewala said.

Mr Surjewala’s party has opposed Mr Modi’s efforts to slacken the existing land acquisition policy, which was passed during the previous Congress-led government and ensures stricter scrutiny of corporate purchases of rural land.

Mr Modi, speaking in the Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house, said that Singh’s suicide saddened him.

“For many years, farmer suicides has been a cause of concern for the nation and governments” the prime minister said, referring to the well-publicised suicides of debt-stricken farmers in states such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. “We have to see which wrong road we walked and what were the wrong steps taken in the past and present.”

“We should all vow to work together and find a solution for this age-old problem,” he said.

The suicide is likely to ratchet up pressure against Mr Modi’s bill, possibly forcing him to amend it in favour of farmers. Such an amendment would likely call for increased scrutiny of the social impact of infrastructure projects, as well as higher levels of consent from farmers whose land is earmarked for acquisition by companies.

Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the AAP on Wednesday of politicising Singh’s death.

“It is very painful to know that politics has become more important than human life,” said Sambit Patra, a BJP spokesperson. “We want to ask AAP: Why didn’t they stop their speeches when they heard that the farmer had died?”

For its part, the AAP insisted that Singh’s death, as well as his suicide note, pointed to the desperation of farmers under Mr Modi’s government.

“The loss of the life of this farmer in distress is an extremely sad incident,” Mr Kejriwal said. “That man had to come from Rajasthan to try to kill himself in the national capital, taking our attention to the plight of farmers for which we are gathered here.”

Mr Kejriwal blamed the Delhi police for not acting promptly to prevent Singh from jumping. “I kept telling the police to save him, but they did nothing,” he said. “The police is not under our control.”

Since Delhi is the capital of the country, its police force is controlled directly by the Indian home ministry, and not by the Delhi government itself. In other Indian states, however, police forces are under the control of the state governments.

Sanjay Singh, a senior leader of the AAP, suggested on Thursday that by allowing the suicide to happen, the Delhi force was trying to undermine his party.

“Several people and news channels recorded the incident as it happened and should put out the tapes in public to establish the Delhi police’s culpability,” Mr Singh said.

In another statement, the AAP said that it had initiated an inquiry into the incident by a magistrate, and that the police force was refusing to cooperate. Separately, Rajnath Singh, India’s home minister, said in parliament that he had instructed the force to conduct its own inquiry.

Vijendra Singh, Gajendra Singh’s brother, told India’s ANI news agency on Thursday that a senior AAP leader, Manish Sisodia, had invited Gajendra to the rally. “I personally hold Arvind Kejriwal responsible for this incident,” he said.