The agriculture minister of a state in northern India was criticized Wednesday for saying farmers who committed suicide were “cowards and criminals.” Om Prakash Dhankar of the state of Haryana was addressing the issue of a spate of farmer suicides across the country, and his comments come days after an Indian farmer hanged himself at a political rally in New Delhi.
Dhankar, who earlier headed the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) department for farmers, had condemned the previous Congress party-led government for not doing enough for farmers and contributing to an increase in suicides. Since 1995, over 300,000 Indian farmers -- burdened by debt and poor harvests -- have reportedly killed themselves. In recent weeks, hundreds of farmers have reportedly killed themselves across the country after losing their crops to unseasonal rains and storms.
"According to Indian law, suicide is a crime. A person who commits suicide runs away from his responsibilities. Such people are cowards and the government cannot stand by such cowards, such criminals," Dhankar told reporters on Tuesday, according to NDTV, a local news network.
His comments were met with severe criticism from leaders of opposition parties and other political leaders.
"The Haryana minister has crossed all limits of insensitivity, at a time when farmers are suffering so much. There can't be anything worse. The BJP has been exposed," Jyotiraditya Scindia of the Congress party reportedly said.
BJ Panda, a leader from the eastern state of Odisha, reportedly said: "We must recognize that suicide comes out of desperation. This is rubbing salt on aggrieved families' wounds. We must be more sensitive to farmers' plight."
Dhankar later held a press conference on Wednesday to address his remarks. “We strongly stand with the farmers,” he said, according to the Hindustan Times, a local newspaper, but added that Haryana was a “land of the brave” and it did not honor those who committed suicides.
Last week, Gajendra Singh, from the western state of Rajasthan, hanged himself at a rally organized by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) -- currently the ruling party of the state of Delhi -- to protest a controversial land acquisition bill championed by Prime Minister Modi.
The federal government’s proposed land reforms are aimed at simplifying the process of acquiring land for certain industrial projects for the government as well as for private companies. Those opposed to the bill, which was passed in the lower house of the parliament last month, argue that it would hurt the interests of farmers, but the government -- which came to power in May 2014 -- has stated that it will boost the country's economy.
Dhankar and the BJP were targeted by Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Indian National Congress party, in parliament on Wednesday, accusing both of ignoring farmers' plight. Gandhi is expected to conduct a nationwide march against the land acquisition bill, which has not been approved by the upper house, where the BJP is in the minority.