Mumbai: The death of three farmers in police firing in Pune is now snowballing into a major controversy for the Maharashtra government. After shocking video footage of alleged police excesses during the farmers' agitation on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway came to the fore yesterday, two cops who were seen firing at fleeing farmers have been suspended.
Police Inspector Ashok Patil and Sub-Inspector Ganesh Mane were suspended. Six policemen had been suspended yesterday for damaging cars.
The video footage accessed by NDTV showed how policemen opened fire at unarmed farmers agitating in the Maval taluka on Tuesday. Cops were seen taking aim at people running helter-skelter and then firing at them. (Watch)
Thousands of farmers had blocked the Mumbai-Pune expressway to protest against an underground water pipeline project that will divert water from the Pawna dam to the Pimpri-Chinchwad Township. Three protesting farmers were killed in firing. (Read: A farmer killed fighting for his land)
The police firing has sparked a major furore in the Maharashtra assembly, with the Opposition stalling proceedings since the last three days.
Leader of Opposition in Assembly Eknath Khadse, Opposition leader in Council Pandurang Phundkar and group leaders of opposition parties in Legislature met Governor K Sankaranarayanan at the Raj Bhawan today and demanded the dismissal of the state government.
"This is not the first instance of firing during this government's tenure," Mr Khadse said. "This is the second such instance in last 15 days," he said.
MLAs from the Shiv Sena and the Maharahstra Navnirman Sena too raised slogans in front of the Assembly in protest against the police firing.
With pressure mounting against the state government, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan met the Governor to brief him about the firing incident.
Earlier in the day, the Opposition alleged that one of the victims, Moreshwar Sathe, was killed in an encounter.
Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray had, in a press conference yesterday, showed a newspaper clipping of Sathe being pulled by the police and alleged that he was later shot by them.
The cops though have vehemently denied the allegations. "The charges of an encounter are false", Sandeep Karnik, Superintendent of Police, Pune (Rural) said.
Mr Karnik even showed visuals of a person who was initially caught by the police and thereafter was seen burning a police van.
"As you saw in the clip, our people were still sitting inside...they toppled our vehicles and set them on fire. If you say, we took them out of the cars and shot them, it is wrong". Mr Karnik said.
However, he refused to confirm whether the man in the visuals was the same person who was later killed and who Mr Thackeray was claiming to be the victim - in this case, Moreshwar Sathe.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has also alleged that a minister in the state government ordered the police to open fire at the farmers.
State BJP president Sudhir Mungantiwar alleged that the Superintendent of Police, Pune (Rural) Sandeep Karnik was speaking to some politician at the spot of the farmers' protest and then he subsequently opened fire.
"SP Mr Karnik was standing behind some car, speaking to some politician and then he fired shots. Who is that politician who is interested in this pipeline and in this contract? We should look for that minister", said Mr Mungantiwar.
The police, though, claimed that they resorted to firing after the protesters turned violent and hit a police inspector with a stone. They also claimed that tear gas shells and rubber bullets were used, but that these failed to quell the violence and only then did some policemen fire from their service revolvers. Mr Karnik denied all charges of police excesses. He claimed that more than 30 policemen were injured by violent protestors.
"Charges that police killed innocent people is wrong...Protestors wanted to burn a police van in which there were six policemen. Charges of encounter of protestors are totally baseless. The situation was just going beyond control," Mr Karnik said, promising that "all facts will come out in the judicial inquiry."
The police claim they have video footage that "confirms our position."
The BJP, though, isn't buying the police's theory and has called for the removal of Mr Karnik.
"We should look into Karnik's mobile records and he should be sacked. Alongwith him, whichever policeman were part of this cruelty, should be charged with section 302", said Mr Mungantiwar.
The police have arrested five farmers from the Kale village in the Maval area and charged them with criminal conspiracy for attacking the police.