One question kept haunting me on the journey back from Lakhimpur Kheri: Must we divide victims between ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’? How do we acknowledge multiple victims on different sides of the divide? I kept thinking of Shubham Mishra’s one-year-old daughter, playing in the room oblivious of the tragedy, of the blank look in his wife’s eyes, of the questions his father hurled at me.
I had gone to Tikunia in Lakhimpur Kheri, the site of the massacre, to participate in the antim ardas (final prayers) of the four farmers and a journalist. I could connect more to the ardas – it triggers childhood memories – than the many fiery speeches to the congregation. Years of visiting people after various forms of tragedies have taught me to look at women, for theirs is a spectrum of felt emotions. That is a grief I relate to.
As the ceremony wound up, women of families of martyred farmers quietly left the stage, my namaste met with blank stares or quietly folded hands. What do you say to or expect from a mother whose 19-year-old son has been mowed down? It is one thing to read about such a horrifying incident or watch it on a video and quite another to confront it in real life. The women looked as if they had shrunk in the last week. The family of journalist Raman Kashyap, a little lost in the alien setting of Sikh religious rites, betrayed signs of fright as well. For the Nth time, I played that horrific video in my mind and raged at the obscenity of power that could make a human being do this to another. It strengthened my conviction in our collective demand for the removal and arrest of the Union minister, Ajay Mishra.
Grief on the ‘other’ side
As we left Tikunia, something told me that my visit was incomplete. For one week, I had been asked about the loss of three other lives, one driver and two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers. I had maintained that although both kinds of killings could not be equated, every death is a matter of grief. If I was true to what I said, it was only appropriate that I should meet families on the other side as well. My colleagues were initially apprehensive: the reaction could be hostile, even violent. But eventually they backed me and we decided to just land at the house of Shubham Mishra, the first BJP worker to be killed that day, bang in the middle of Lakhimpur town.
शहीद किसान श्रद्धांजलि सभा से वापिसी में बीजेपी कार्यकर्ता शुभम मिश्रा के घर गए। परिवार ने हम पर गुस्सा नही किया। बस दुखी मन से सवाल पूछे: क्या हम किसान नहीं? हमारे बेटे का क्या कसूर था? आपके साथी ने एक्शन रिएक्शन वाली बात क्यों कही?
उनके सवाल कान में गूंज रहे हैं! pic.twitter.com/q0sYAT8gV6
— Yogendra Yadav (@_YogendraYadav) October 12, 2021
“Are you from the family?” I asked the man who greeted and recognised me instantly, sitting on chairs outside the house with a few people. “Yes, I am Shubham’s father,” replied this man, clearly younger than me. There was an awkward moment. I just folded my hands: “bahut dukh hua” and explained that I was coming from the antim ardas of the kisan martyrs. He was not angry or hostile, just anguished, “You are the first one (from the farmers’ side I presumed) to meet us. All these big leaders have come to Lakhimpur and gone away. None came to meet us. Are we not farmers? You want to check my land documents? The sarpanch of my village is a sardar. Are we their enemies? What was my son’s crime? Ask anyone in the town and tell me if you hear one word against my son?” Then he turned to me: “I expected better from you. The other day Rakesh Tikait said this was action-reaction. You were sitting next to him. You could have corrected him.” I said I did, but the media had not carried my version.
For nearly an hour he oscillated between pleading his son’s innocence and blaming the protesting farmers from outside for the entire incident. That was expected. He took out from his pocket his complaint to the police, which blames my friend Tajinder Singh Virk (who was himself grievously injured by the time Shubham was attacked) for the lynching. Obviously, I did not agree with much of his version. But it would be heartless, and pointless, to argue with a grieving father. I said it didn’t matter if he was a kisan or not. For me what matters is that he was an insaan. The point is that his son did not deserve this kind of death.
We do not know if Shubham and everyone else in those vehicles were co-conspirators. From all that we know so far, Shubham was neither involved in driving the vehicle over the protesting farmers, nor in any gunfire. It seems that while the real culprits got away, he was left behind to face mob fury. ‘Collateral damage’, as euphemisms go. Inside his house, I saw the human cost of this ‘collateral damage’. I met four generations of women trying to cope with this shock of their lives: Shubham’s stoic dadi, his desolate mother, his numb wife and their one-year-old daughter.
Partisanship above shared grief
Did this visit change my views about the culpability of minister Ajay Mishra and his son Aashish in this massacre? Not one bit. Did it mollify my rage at how the Uttar Pradesh and central governments have tried to cover things up? No. Did it leave me with some questions and concerns about who all we should grieve for and how we should react in such a situation? Perhaps yes. I hinted at that in a tweet. That was met with a mix of bouquets and brickbats: appreciation, accusations, disbelief, and suspicion.
“Whose side are you on?” asked some of my friends in the farmers’ movement. This was not the first time that I had encountered the partisan nature of our activism. I remember visiting Jhajjar in Haryana in the aftermath of widespread arson and rioting during the Jat reservation agitation of 2016. Ours was the only team to visit both sites of violence: the Saini mohalla that witnessed violence led by agitationists and Sir Chhoturam Dharamshala where his statue was desecrated by anti-agitationists. That very day, two sets of Haryana ministers had come and, depending on their own caste, chosen to visit one set of victims.
This partisanship is rooted in our ideologies. Citizenship tangle in Assam is a classic example. Our liberal-secular intelligentsia identifies the migrant Bengali, mostly Muslims, as a victim. They are right to do so. But this blinds them to the deep-seated cultural and material anxieties of the Ahomias, mostly Hindus, who feel marginalised in their own land. Similarly, the Left had identified landless agricultural labourers as the most oppressed class in rural India. This was correct. But this prevented them from recognising the structural exploitation of the agrarian sector, including the landowning farmers. The Left went as far as calling landowning farmers the kulaks, and identifying them as class enemies. One victim was pitted against another.
Our victims, their victims. Real victims, fake victims. So much of our public life is about choosing our preferred victims or grading them. This is one of the deepest malaises of our public life.
Choosing ‘our’ victim has its advantages. It makes our lives easy. Partisanship is the easiest cognitive strategy. We don’t need to use our brains. We have a readymade truth, as seen from one side. There is no scope for moral confusion. Right and wrong is given in black and white. Besides, unambiguous identification of an enemy makes for clear politics. You send a clear message, gather energies and mobilise people. Once the leaders take a position, the followers don’t need to exercise their minds and hearts.
The trouble is that this partial and partisan approach leads to myopic politics. It works very well for some time, but ultimately only lands us in deep trouble. Once you practise the art of brushing inconvenient truth under the carpet, someone else takes it one step further and conceals the entire truth. Once you create black and white moral frames, they can be inverted any time. Once you base your politics on identifying enemies, someone can use it to identify new enemies. How do we design collective action that allows for inconvenient truth and moral complexity? I came back from Lakhimpur with this question.
The author is a member of Swaraj India and co-founder of Jai Kisan Andolan. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)