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Farmers attend a mass gathering in Tikunia Village on Oct. 12, to pay their respects to the people who lost their lives when a car ran over protesting farmers on Oct. 3.-/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of Indians held candlelight vigils in the country’s major cities last week to protest against the deaths of four farmers and a journalist killed during an Oct. 3 demonstration in the state of Uttar Pradesh, part of a long-running battle over agricultural reforms.

Ashish Mishra, the son of junior home minister Ajay Kumar Mishra, was accused of running over the victims in an SUV and arrested last week after much pressure from the Supreme Court and opposition parties. He has denied any involvement in the incident, claiming he wasn’t even present at the site. Farmers’ unions are demanding that his father be removed from office to allow for an impartial probe.

At least two political workers, reportedly from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and their driver were also killed – in the mob lynching that followed the incident.

Last week, thousands gathered at the site of the violence, in the state’s Lakhimpur Kheri district, for the victims’ final rites. At the candlelight marches, farmers and their supporters held up flags and placards with slogans such as “Stop atrocities against protesting farmers” and “Justice for martyrs.”

Farmers have been demanding a complete rollback of agricultural reforms, passed by the government last year, meant to liberalize the sector and deregulate the market. They have been protesting on the outskirts of Delhi since last November, arguing the changes will leave them at the mercy of big corporations and will destroy their livelihoods.

Some BJP politicians have tried to discredit the protests by claiming they have been infiltrated by Khalistani terrorists – Sikh separatists. Others claim Sikh farmers from Punjab are “influencing” farmers in Uttar Pradesh, a predominantly Hindu state.

But the farmers’ movement has all the major opposition parties coming together to back the protesters. Political experts believe this could dent the BJP’s chances in Uttar Pradesh elections early next year. A setback in that state, which has the highest number of parliamentary seats, could weaken Mr. Modi in the 2024 general election.

The violence in Uttar Pradesh is certainly a challenge for Mr. Modi’s government. Farmers’ unions are asking why the government and the police did not take action against politicians who made inflammatory speeches ahead of the protest, including Mr. Mishra, who can be heard saying he would “take just two minutes” to “discipline” farmers in a video that has gone viral on social media. Mr. Mishra told local media that his speech was misrepresented.

“It is a reflection of our violent state. The minister had threatened violence just days before, so it was clearly a premeditated attack and a conspiracy,” said Harinder Singh of Kisan Ekta Morcha, a coalition of 40 farmers’ unions. “These are tactics to distract from the movement against the black laws [the agricultural reforms] and create a riots situation.”

Farmers’ representatives believe the fallout from the killings marks a major turning point in the movement.

“Farmers are even more united now, and the movement is stronger than ever before. But it doesn’t look like justice can be secured the way the governments, both state and central, are responding so far. If the Supreme Court had not made the remarkable intervention on the delay in arresting the accused, we would not have made even the little progress we have. Ashish Mishra is being treated like no other murder accused, and the fact that his father continues in the union government council of ministers is all very concerning,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, founder of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture and a member of Samyukta Kisan Morcha, another coalition of farmers’ unions.

The incident has further polarized public and political sentiment regarding the protests.

“An attempt to turn #LakhimpurKheri into a Hindu vs Sikh battle is being made. Not only is this an immoral & false narrative, it is dangerous to create these fault-lines & reopen wounds that have taken a generation to heal. We must not put petty political gains above national unity,” tweeted Varun Gandhi, a BJP MP.

Mr. Gandhi was subsequently dropped from the national executive, the central decision-making assembly of the party, a move political experts said was linked to his public support of the protesting farmers.

Mr. Modi’s government, for its part, has maintained that those opposed to the new agricultural laws are motivated by a political agenda, not farmers’ interests. The new laws are currently suspended by the Supreme Court.

“We are willing to talk about it, tell us that one particular aspect in any one of the three laws. Till date, we have not had even one particular aspect which is being questioned. And therefore, the protesters are not sure on what score they are protesting, what is it that they are objecting,” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, while on an official visit to the United States last week, said in response to a question about the government’s silence on the issue.

She said the incident in Lakhimpur Kheri was “absolutely condemnable,” but that “issues of such nature” happen all over the country and should be addressed every time they happen, not just “when it suits us because it’s a state where BJP is in power.”

But the farmers say their movement has no political ambitions. “There are those who have tried to make the movement political, but we don’t let them take the stage, even if they come to the protests. Despite the brutality and the arrogance of the state, public support for the movement has grown. It has brought together all religions, ages, classes, castes. We will not leave our path of civil and peaceful resistance,” said Onkar Singh, general-secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, who travels back and forth between his village in Patiala, a district in the state of Punjab, and the protest camps outside Delhi.

The farmers’ unions say they will intensify their actions in the coming days, with railway blockades and larger protests in more cities.

“The smaller battle is to ensure the Lakhimpur investigation happens independently and impartially. There is video evidence, so it’s a matter of putting it together in a way that the court will uphold. Then there is the larger movement of justice against the farm laws,” Ms. Kuruganti said.

“Farmers are more outraged than ever, and their voice is getting stronger. Editorials in mainstream media, too, have begun to ask for a repeal of the laws. There is a kind of activation of the opposition, and everyone knows they cannot afford to be left out of this movement. With a combination of these factors, we are certain the laws will be repealed.”

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