Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa on Tuesday called the killing of a labourer at the Singhu border a possible conspiracy to defame the farmers' agitation, citing a purported photograph of Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar with a Nihang "leader".
Former state Congress chief Sunil Jakhar also joined the controversy triggered by the appearance of the photograph on social media, alleging that Central agencies could be involved in last week's murder at a farmers' protest site near the Delhi-Haryana border.
The group photo includes Mr Tomar and a man in blue robes of the Sikh order of the Nihangs. The Union minister has in the past met farmer protest leaders to negotiate a solution to the deadlock over agri-marketing laws.
Without mentioning any name, Mr Randhawa claimed that the same Nihang leader was "defending" the main accused in the killing. The Nihang group had accused the victim of desecrating a Sikh holy book.
"In view of the recent disclosures about one of the Nihang leaders having already been in touch with the Government of India, Minister for Agriculture N S Tomar in particular, the lynching incident has now taken an entirely different turn," Mr Randhawa alleged in a statement.
"There appeared to be a deep-rooted conspiracy to defame the farmers' stir," the minister claimed.
He said Lakhbir Singh, the Dalit victim who belonged to Cheema Kalan village in Tarn Taran district, was very poor. "We need to find out who lured him to the Singhu border and who paid for his travel as he could not even afford his meals," the Punjab minister said.
The deputy Chief Minister said he has instructed the local administration to find out under what circumstances the man was taken from his home to the Singhu border.
"In view of the recent photographic evidence available, the Nihang leader will also need to explain in what capacity he had met Union Agriculture Minister NS Tomar and whether he was mandated to do so by the farmers'' organisations spearheading the campaign against the three black farm laws."
Given the importance of the place where the "Nihang leader" was camping, "it was mandatory on his part to keep the farmers'' unions informed and updated about his meetings with the Union minister", Randhawa said.
"This has raised genuine doubts and suspicion among the minds of people and these need to be cleared," he added.
The minister said the Punjab government will do everything to get to the root of the "conspiracy" and expose and punish the culprits.
Former state Congress chief Sunil Jakhar alleged that there could be a role of the "agencies" in the murder at the Singhu border. But he did not elaborate on this.
"There is certainly something more than what meets the eye," he said in a statement.
"The BJP has long been trying to tarnish the secular farmers'' struggle as a Sikh movement to term protesting Sikhs as militants," Jakhar alleged, adding that the Punjabis are the country''s sword arm.
He demanded a thorough investigation into events leading to the death.
Lakhbir Singh was brutally killed last week and his body strung to a barricade at the farmers'' protest site with a hand chopped off and multiple wounds caused by sharp-edged weapons.
Sarabjit Singh, who was among the Nihangs arrested for the murder, claimed that he had "punished" the man for "desecrating" a Sikh holy book.
A large numbers of farmers mostly from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have been camping at Delhi''s border for nearly a year, demanding the repeal of the three farm laws enacted at the Centre