15 yrs before life term, violence by farmers and firing by police

On January 12, 1998, police fired on violently protesting farmers in the Madhya Pradesh town of Multai. The protests and the firing led to the death of at least 19 persons and injuries to nearly 150 others.

Nearly 15 years later, the sessions court in Multai has sentenced former Samajwadi Party MLA Dr Sunilam, 51, and two others to life imprisonment for their involvement in the protests. Activists found the judgment harsh while police point out that the protests had been very violent, with a fireman being lynched, one of the cases in which Sunilam has been convicted.

Seeking compensation for crops damaged by adverse weather conditions, thousands of farmers, mobilised by the newly-formed Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, had announced a programme to lock and gherao the Multai tehsil office. Pelting stones, trying to attack officials and setting government vehicles on fire, the protesters provoked the police firing. Activists put the toll at 24. The BJP, then in Opposition, had equated the incident with the Jalianwala Bagh massacre.

Activists say former legislator Sunilam paid the price for mobilising farmers while those responsible for killing farmers escaped with minor punishments such as suspension, before that too was revoked. A judicial commission had questioned the haste with which officials had been suspended, blaming the deaths only on the violent agitation led by Sunilam.

"Property worth crores was damaged and a fire brigade employee was killed only because he was trying to put out a fire and wearing a uniform similar to a policeman's," says then SP (Betul) G P Singh, who is now IG (Lokayukta). He says violent farmers had snatched a few policemen's rifles.

Sunilam was arrested the day of the firing and released on bail at the end of March. He won the next Assembly election as an Independent and the following one, in 2003, on a Samajwadi Party ticket. He lost in 2008 by a huge margin and went on to join the undivided Team Anna's anti-corruption movement.

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