A farmer committed suicide during a political protest against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s land acquisition bill, galvanizing his opponents in a nation where the bulk of the electorate works in the fields.
As hundreds watched, Gajendra Singh climbed a tree and hung himself with a towel in central New Delhi on Wednesday. Members of the opposition Aam Aadmi Party, which organized the rally, rushed him to the hospital. He was dead on arrival.
The tragedy threatens to stir discontent in rural India, where anger is growing in some areas over inadequate compensation for crops damaged by unseasonal rains. With crucial elections due later this year in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, political parties have sought to win farmers’ support.
Singh had tried to catch the attention of the assembled media and political leaders at the rally for almost three hours before he hung himself, said Kumar Rakesh, 46, a farmer from the eastern state of Jharkhand who saw the suicide. Another witness, Asha Shukla, said Singh loudly criticized all three major parties in Delhi in his final hours.
No one paid much attention until he had scaled some 25 feet up the tree and began to prepare a noose, which is when a few policemen and AAP officials began following him. What happened next is unclear. Some witnesses said he slipped off the branch while others said Singh’s moves were deliberate.
Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the main opposition Congress party, on Wednesday went to the hospital where the farmer was brought. Three days earlier, he addressed a farmers’ rally in New Delhi and accused Modi of giving away farmland to industrialists who supported him during last year’s elections.
“This is a grave indication of what the reality in our country is and where we are heading,” said Sachin Pilot, a leader of the Congress party, which ruled India for a decade through May 2014. “What has driven them to taking their own life? Those who now have occupied positions must introspect and see what they have done or have not done.”
The suicide dominated parliament on Thursday as lawmakers sought a judicial investigation and demanded more aid to farmers. Home Minister Rajnath Singh said police are conducting a quick and thorough investigation.
The plight of farmers “is an old, deep-rooted problem,” Modi said in the lower house of parliament. “We have to find solutions together. The government is ready to accept any meaningful suggestion.”
In the parliamentary session that began this week, the Congress party is seeking to block a Modi-backed bill that would make it easier for companies to acquire land.
A suicide note found at the scene said Singh hadn’t received enough compensation for his damaged crops, according to Somnath Bharti, an AAP leader. Modi’s party accused the AAP of continuing with the protest even after leaders became aware that the farmer had died.
“He needs to answer the question -- which one is bigger -- your political career or one farmer’s life?” said Sambit Patra, a spokesman for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, referring to AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal.
About half of India’s 1.2 billion people are employed in agriculture, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Almost 1,400 farmers committed suicide last year due to agrarian distress including indebtedness, crop failure and drought, Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh told lawmakers in March.
Modi this month eased rules for farmers to claim compensation for crop damage. He also asked banks to restructure farm loans while defending the land bill in parliament, saying it will create jobs for landless rural citizens.
“The farmers had reposed trust in Narendra Modi and voted him to power,” the AAP’s Kejriwal said at the protest on Wednesday. “Now they have lost their trust within a year.”