LAKHIMPUR KHERI, India — The jeep plowed into the protesters, sending bodies tumbling, the windshield cracking against bone. The son of a prominent politician was then accused of murder. Rifle-toting security personnel flooded the area. Tempers flared so hotly that local officials shut down the internet.
With that series of events, a yearlong protest by farmers against the Indian government escalated into a dangerous new phase.
Frustrated at what they see as intransigence by Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, over a series of new agricultural laws, the farmers have taken a more confrontational approach with the country’s top leaders. They are now shadowing top officials of Mr. Modi’s government as they travel and campaign, ensuring their grievances will be difficult to ignore.
The farmers blame government supporters for the jeep incident in early October, which left four of their number dead and killed four others, including a local journalist. But the incident shows that farmers who have camped outside the Indian capital of New Delhi for months are increasingly prepared to take their protest directly to government officials’ doorsteps.
“This is now a fight for those who died,” Jagdeep Singh, whose 62-year-old father was among those run over by the jeep, said from the family farm. “And those who are living, this is now a fight for all of us until we die.”
Elsewhere, under the harsh light of an LED lamp in an unfinished brick farmhouse, Ramandeep Kaur wept over the loss of her cousin, Lovepreet Singh, a 19-year-old who was studying English in hopes of getting an education and living in Australia.
“Until they take back those laws,” she said, “the farmers’ agitation will continue.”
The deadly incident took place in a remote corner of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and a prize in elections to be held early next year. The protesters were shadowing top members of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., as they began to campaign.
The farmers’ goal is not necessarily to defeat the B.J.P., whom polls suggest will cruise to an easy victory. The party’s top elected leader, Yogi Adityanath, is a Hindu monk and protégé of Mr. Modi who is popular with the party’s Hindu base, and the opposition is fragmented. Instead, the farmers aim to draw more national and international attention to their plight.
The protesting farmers think that Mr. Modi’s market-friendly overhaul last year of the nation’s agricultural laws will put them out of business. India’s Supreme Court has suspended implementation, and the government has proposed a series of amendments. The farmers balked, saying they would settle for nothing less than their full repeal.
Further action could take years, given the court’s full docket, but the farmers fear the suspension will be lifted if they let up.
No one disputes that the current system, which incentivizes farmers to grow a huge surplus of grains, needs to be fixed. The protesters fear the speed — the laws were passed in mere weeks — and the breadth of the changes will send the price of crops plunging. Mr. Modi’s government argues that introducing market forces will help fix the system.
“The composition of farming has to somewhat change,” said Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a B.J.P. spokesman on economic issues. “The farm sector needs heavy investment, and that can come from the private sector.”
Mr. Modi has responded to the protesters by waiting them out, a strategy apparently driven by the calculation that their movement does not represent a coherent political threat. Many of the protesters come from India’s minority Sikh community, while the B.J.P. draws its political power from rallying the country’s Hindu majority.
“‘Farmers’ is not a category that the B.J.P. uses,” said Gilles Verniers, a political science professor at Ashoka University. “They talk about the poor and they speak the language of caste and obviously the language of religion.”
Farmers have sought to get not only the B.J.P.’s attention, but the attention of the nation. A series of confrontations with B.J.P. leaders since September may not sway the election in Uttar Pradesh, but it could revive support across India and even globally for a protest movement that appeared to have been running out of steam, Mr. Verniers said.
Though the protests have been largely peaceful, they have spurred occasional bouts of violence. In January protesters and the police clashed after some farmers drove their tractors into New Delhi. Protest leaders have distanced themselves from a shocking incident earlier this month at the farmer protest camp outside New Delhi, in which a group from a Sikh warrior sect killed and cut off the hand of a lower-caste Sikh, a Dalit, who they accused of desecrating a holy book.
The B.J.P. needs the campaign in Uttar Pradesh to go without a hitch, despite the party’s lead in the polls. The party is trying to bounce back from the coronavirus’s second wave, which hit after Mr. Modi declared victory over the pandemic and showed the country’s lack of preparedness. Uttar Pradesh was hit particularly hard, with bodies of suspected victims washing up on the banks of India’s sacred Ganges River.
While Mr. Modi, normally voluble, has said little about the farmers, other leaders in his party have embraced a language of force to rally supporters against them.
In Haryana, a state neighboring Uttar Pradesh that is also governed by the B.J.P., a local official was captured on video ordering the police to use violence to break up one gathering. Farmers responded by breaking through police barricades outside a government office. The tensions eased only after the government agreed to investigate the official’s conduct.
A week later, in Uttar Pradesh, Rakesh Tikait, a 59-year-old farm union leader, rallied tens of thousands of farmers, declaring an all-out campaign against the B.J.P.
Earlier this month, farmers gathered again in Haryana and surrounded the site of a planned visit by the state’s top elected official, forcing him to cancel.
Days before the incident in Uttar Pradesh, Ajay Mishra, Mr. Modi’s junior minister of home affairs, warned farmers in a speech to “behave, or we will teach you how to behave. It will take just two minutes.”
Outraged, a group of farmers stood on a one-lane road in the village of Tikunia, carrying black flags they planned to wave at Mr. Mishra, who was visiting his constituency with his son, Ashish Mishra, and other party members.
The farmers received word that Mr. Mishra’s plans had changed and started to disperse when Ashish Mishra’s convoy came hurtling at them from behind, according to video footage and police officials. After the jeep rammed into the crowd, the farmers attacked the convoy with bamboo sticks and set two of the vehicles ablaze. By the end of the day, eight people were dead, including three people in the convoy.
The farmers claim that they saw Ashish Mishra, known to villagers as Monu, in the convoy and blamed him for the incident. The minister has denied his family’s involvement. The police arrested Ashish Mishra, saying he failed to cooperate with the investigation, along with nine others in the murder case.
The victims’ families said they have little hope of justice. “Long live Monu,” village walls proclaimed in graffiti next to a brightly painted lotus flower, the B.J.P. symbol. The Mishra family home, a sprawling compound hidden behind high walls and flowering bougainvillea, hovers over shanties.
Opposition leaders have tried to capitalize on the moment, but many were prevented or delayed from reaching the victims’ families. Some, including Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a leader of the Congress party, were detained.
“All I can say is if, as a nation, we have a conscience,” she said, “then we cannot forget this.”