Activists of Congress party's youth wing protest against the killing of four farmers in Uttar Pradesh. Photo: AFP / Imtiyaz Khan / Anadolu Agency

The killing of four protesting farmers, allegedly when the son of an Indian government minister mowed them down with his SUV, is threatening Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grip on power with crucial elections looming.

The four were among eight who died when the car plowed into a crowd on October 3 at Tikunia village in Lakhimpur Kheri district, which borders Nepal.

Witnesses say Ashish Mishra, son of junior Home Minister Ajay Mishra, was at the wheel.

Video shows bodies flying as the SUV drives into the crowd.  Authenticity of the footage cannot be verified but it has been shared widely in India, sparking outrage.

“This incident has come at a very wrong time for the BJP as elections are very near. It has become an emotional issue and it will surely affect the party’s prospects in the coming polls,” said political analyst B K Jha.

He said Modi suffered a plunge in popularity after a second Covid wave hit the country in April and this would further damage his image.

Ashish Mishra has denied the allegations and claims he was not in the car.

Farmers shout burn an effigy of Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh state Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on the outskirts of Amritsar on October 6. Photo: AFP / Narinder Nanu

However, witness Talvinder Singh told news portal Newslaundry he saw Ashish driving one of three vehicles that rammed into the crowd before running off firing a gun.

“Ashish Mishra fired and ran,” he said. “I saw Ashish fire in the air as he ran into the lane. So many people saw him.”

Injured protestor Tejinder Virk told local media from his bed in Medanta Hospital, “This was a conspiracy to kill us.

“Ajay Mishra had given a statement that he would not allow farmers in Uttar Pradesh, let alone Lakhimpur. We were protesting against this statement. We were constantly in touch with the police and administration. We were standing along the route to wave black flags at him.

“We were told at 3pm that their route has changed. We started going back peacefully. Suddenly, speeding cars hit us from behind.

“The car was at over 100km/h. They ran us over on purpose. Ajay Mishra’s son and his men were in the car. Then I lost consciousness.” 

The local government of Uttar Pradesh filed a report against Ashish Mishra and others alleging murder, dangerous driving and grievous injury. He has not been arrested.

The state government announced a judicial probe in a bid to defuse escalating tensions. Farmers’ protests that have been continuing in India for more than a year are turning uglier by the day.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi seized on the issue while addressing a press conference recently.

Indian Paramilitary force soldiers detain an activist of Congress party’s youth wing during a protest against the killing of four farmers in Uttar Pradesh. Photo: AFP / Imtiyaz Khan / Anadolu Agency

 “It is a systematic attack on the farmers of this country and it is arrogance because the government does not realize or understand the power of the farmers and they are provoking the farmers, they are insulting the farmers, they are killing the farmers,” he said.

“Farmers are being mowed down by a Jeep, they’re being murdered, the name of a union minister and his son is coming up in this incident. It’s a systematic attack on farmers.”

Another senior Congress leader and chief minister of India’s northwestern state of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot said, “I strongly condemn the violence against farmers by BJP leaders in Lakhimpur Kheri.

“Such cruel treatment with peaceful protesting farmers is a reflection of BJP’s culture. I pay homage to the farmers who lost their lives in the violence.”

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, General Secretary of Congress and in charge of UP in a tweet in Hindi said, “Those who have crushed the farmers are roaming freely. The voices of justice for the farmers are being imprisoned by the BJP government. But we will not let the voice of justice be suppressed.”

Analyst Jha said, “The. BJP is finding it difficult to defend. The party needs to do crisis management in a big way before this issue goes out of control.”

Congress leaders were the first ones to visit the incident site and meet families of the farmers who were killed. Other opposition party leaders have also started to visit the site.

Thousands of farmers across the country, mainly in the north, continued their protests after the bill were passed by both houses of parliament in September 2020.

Narendra Modi’s government is vulnerable after the deaths of the farmers. Photo: AFP / Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency

The government says the reforms will enable barrier-free trade in agricultural produce and empower farmers to engage with investors of their choice.

However, farmers say these farm acts will only benefit corporate or big industrial houses and that farmers will be left at their mercy.

Some political analysts feel that the incident has given enough ammunition to the opposition to corner the Modi government as the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) faces state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh within six months.

Uttar Pradesh has 403 assembly seats and the BJP won more than 300 of them in 2017. The state polls are expected to set up a tone for the Lok Sabha, or lower house of the national parliament, polls due in 2024.

The state has 80 Lok Sabha seats out of 543 in the lower house and BJP in the last Lok Sabha polls had won in more than 60 of the constituencies.