Bhopal: The death of five farmers during a protest on Tuesday in Madhya Pradesh's Mandsaur was caused by police firing, state Home Minister Bhupendra Singh confirmed today, after strongly denying it earlier. Those responsible would be punished, he asserted. The government and the police had rubbished allegations that the police fired at a crowd during a protest by farmers demanding better prices for their crops and loan waiver. In a sign that the government is on the backfoot, two top district officials have been suspended. Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi was arrested shortly after being detained today while he was on his way to violence-hit Mandsaur to meet the families of five farmers who died in firing.
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Bhupendra Singh, explaining his volte face on police firing, said: "It was investigated and proved that the death of farmers happened because of police firing. Initially, the details provided to me were that police firing did not cause it. I later amended my statement after receiving the correct information."
Hitting out at the government for stopping him from going to Mandsaur, Mr Gandhi said in a tweet, "What law of the land says that it is illegal to stand in solidarity with farmers who were killed simply for demanding what is their right?". Other opposition leaders are also travelling to Mandsaur to meet the farmers' families.
A total of 62 people have been detained in connection with protest in Mandsaur, police said. A complaint has been registered against some people fo allegedly manhandling the Mandasaur collector.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has appealed to farmers to end the violence that has marked the strike they began on June 1. He is believed to be considering waiving interest on farm loans, which could benefit over six lakh farmers at a cost of around 2,000 crore to the taxpayer. He made an emotional appeal to farmers, saying he has been a farmer and understands their problems.
Mandsaur is tense and a round-the-clock curfew is in force. Mobile internet services have been cut off and a large number of policemen in riot gear are posted after clashes on Tuesday in which five farmers were shot dead.
Thousands of farmers in drought-hit western Madhya Pradesh have been protesting for over a week demanding that authorities increase the minimum price for their crops and waive their bank loans. Madhya Pradesh is one of several states that have suffered disappointing rains and crop failures in recent years.
More than 1,600 farmers killed themselves in the state in 2016, according to official figures. Between 2011 and 2015, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 6076 farmers had committed suicide in the state.
Farmers in neighbouring Maharashtra state have held similar protests and have stopped supplies to urban areas, leading to a spike in the prices of vegetables and dairy products including in major cities like Delhi and Mumbai. The protests pose a challenge to the Modi government, which has promised to double farm income in the next two years.