“I JOINED the rally in the hope that our problems, like lack of electricity and water for irrigation, would be solved. After the failure of my crops, I thought I would get some relief. But instead, I was beaten by policemen. Then, at the station, I told them, ‘Please don’t make me strip, my underwear has a hole’. They said, ‘Go naked’.’’
The embarrassment is visible on the face of Balwan Singh Ghosh, a 45-year-old farmer from Varma Manz village, around 20 km from Tikamgarh in Madhya Pradesh. He was one of around 50 farmers who were detained at the Tikamgarh rural station on Tuesday and allegedly forced to strip by police who accused them of being part of a protest for the district be declared drought-hit.
The protest was organised by the Congress and the police action has left the BJP state government red-faced with Home Minister Bhupendra Singh ordering an inquiry into the alleged stripping, which has sparked widespread outrage. The protest comes four months after a farmers’ agitation in the state led to five deaths in police firing at Mandsaur.
Tikamgarh Police have denied that the farmers were beaten inside the station and said that a probe into the stripping has begun.
The Indian Express spoke to five of the farmers from Varma Manz who were allegedly stripped inside the station — all of them said they had no links to any political party and that were beaten and ordered to remove their clothes. One of them said the “ordeal” lasted for half-an-hour and alleged that one of the policemen called them “atankwadi (terrorists)”.
“I had never been to a police station before but I will never forget what I went through. They abused and beat us. I joined the rally because my six-acre farm produced only six quintals of urad and soybean this time… the produce was nearly 17 quintal last year,” said Balwan Singh.
“I was driving one of the two tractor-trolleys carrying farmers back to my village. There were dozens of policemen, and some of them got on to the vehicle to ensure that no one escaped,” he said.
Balwan was among those returning to Varma Manz, Varma Dang and Varma Tal, all villages near Tikamgarh, after attending the rally. The Congress had also issued a call to gherao the Tikamgargh collectorate, which led to the protesters indulging in stone-pelting and police launching a lathicharge and lobbing tear gas shells.
“I am not even thinking of the rabi crop now. I am worried that there will be a drinking-water shortage,’’ said Balwan.
According to the farmers, police caught a group of protesters from the neighbouring villages almost two hours after the rally ended and the crowd had dispersed.
Balwan’s neighbour Pushpendra Singh, 40, said he was beaten and told to strip despite telling the police that he was not involved in the violence. “We are not with the BJP or the Congress. We would have gone for the rally even if the BJP had organised it. We went because we wanted relief. My 10-acre field produced only 5.6 quintals of urad and moong this time. It has never been so less. Last year, the yield was nearly 20 quintal,” he said.
BJP leaders have alleged that the farmers’ injuries were faked and that the “stripping drama” was a “conspiracy hatched by the Congress to defame the government”.
“What proof do they need? Don’t our injuries speak of our suffering? Do we look like farmers or Congress activists?’’ said Amol Singh Ghosh, 33, adding that he is a marginal farmer who has to “feed 11 members” of his joint family.
The farmers alleged that police also got them to cut the “sacred threads” tied to their wrists and made them remove their lockets.
“Who would not take off his clothes when surrounded by policemen?’’ said Sunil Singh Ghosh, 28. “They wanted to know why we attended the rally. We were rescued only when those outside called (ex-Congress minister and former Tikamgarh MLA) Yadavendra Singh,” he said.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Roshan Singh Bundela, principal of the B.Ed College in Tikamgarh, said, “The farmers were made to sit in two stuffy rooms inside the rural station. Each one of them was beaten. Police accused this group of indulging in violence while hundreds of others who were present outside the collectorate returned home using different routes.”
On Wednesday, police registered a complaint against 1,000 unknown persons. No one brought to the rural police station was booked.
Tikamgarh SP Kumar Pratik said, “The police version will be made public only after the inquiry ordered by the Home Minister is over. The Minister has asked for a report within three days. No one was beaten and the inquiry is only to find out the sequence of events that led to the stripping. Those who have alleged assault will be called to depose at the inquiry.”
The Congress, meanwhile, targeted the BJP government by putting up posters of the farmers, who were allegedly beaten and stripped, at 20 prominent sites in Tikamgarh.