On 22 April Gajendra Singh, a farmer from Rajasthan State, hanged himself during a major rally at Jantar Mantar in central Delhi that was staged in protest at the Government’s highly controversial Land Acquisition Bill. Since President Mukherjee issued a decree in December putting the law into force – although it will require the consent of Parliament before it becomes permanent – there have been a series of protests in the capital. This latest demonstration was led by the anti-graft Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and attracted thousands of activists while the opposition Congress Party led a demonstration of up to 70,000 just three days earlier. The Home Minister directed Delhi Police to investigate the incident.
The proposed legislation is a landmark reform that seeks to make the development of infrastructure easier by easing restrictions on the purchase of farmland.
The issue has been seized upon by Congress, which is seeking to regain relevance after last year’s election defeat by capitalising on public anger at the legislation. In particular, the party hopes to use the issue to re-establish its centre-left credentials and boost its appeal to rural voters, who make up 70% of the electorate. The party’s opposition to the Bill has been led by Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi in a bid to enhance his image as a credible leader and deflect attention from a recent unexplained 56-day disappearance. He has since given a rare speech in Parliament, his first since the 2014 polls, and led a march on 30 April in Maharashtra State to meet the families of suicide victims.
However, opponents of the Bill are bitterly divided. Around 100 Congress activists staged a protest outside the residence of AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal after Singh’s death, accusing the party of a “stunt”. Opposition parties’ exploitation of the Bill for partisan gain and their inability to collaborate will limit the scale of future protests.
That said, more street rallies by opposition parties and farmers groups are likely given the publicity generated by Singh’s suicide and the desire of various actors to capitalise on the damage to the Government’s image. Farmers’ groups are expected to lead a march on 5 May, whilst the Communist Party of India will hold a nationwide protest nine days later. These demonstrations will likely be met with a heavier police presence since the authorities have been criticised for failing to prevent Singh’s death, which may in turn lead to further clashes. Nonetheless, the incident has significantly aggravated tensions in the capital, increasing the risk of unrest.