NEW DELHI — Eight people were killed on Sunday in an incident that protesting farmers said was the fault of the son of a prominent Indian leader, as nearly yearlong demonstrations against a government revamp of the country’s agriculture laws threatened to enter a more volatile phase.
The police have said they are investigating the deaths of four farmers and four others in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Protest leaders said a vehicle plowed into demonstrators as part of a convoy traveling past the site.
The police said they were investigating whether Ashish Mishra was in the car that struck the protesters, as the protest leaders have claimed. He is the son of Ajay Kumar Mishra, India’s minister of state for home affairs.
Ashish Mishra told Indian TV news channels on Monday that the allegations against him were “baseless.”
Local news reports identified three of the others killed as members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the fourth as a freelance journalist working for a TV news network that is sympathetic to the ruling party. Police officials did not immediately respond to calls and messages seeking confirmation.
Reaching the authorities became difficult after the state police temporarily shut down internet service in the area, in an apparent effort to calm tensions.
The incident drew further attention after the Uttar Pradesh police detained Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a leader of India’s main opposition Congress party who oversees the party’s activities in Uttar Pradesh. She was detained early Monday after her convoy, taking her to visit the families of the farmers who were killed, was stopped by the Uttar Pradesh police.
Ms. Gandhi’s visit to the area came against the backdrop of an upcoming state election in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most-populous state, which is seen as a bellwether for the political fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Uttar Pradesh was hit hard by the coronavirus, but its leader, Yogi Adityanath, has been a vocal proponent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda, and has worked hard to fire up the party’s Hindu base.
“Either show me a warrant for why you are detaining me, or I will go from this place,” Ms. Gandhi told a police officer in footage shared by her party. “There is law in this country, even if there is none in your state.”
The incidents have injected fresh political vitriol into protests that have plagued New Delhi, India’s capital, and the surrounding regions since late November. Huge numbers of north Indian farmers have occupied protest camps on the outskirts of the capital in demonstrations against a trio of market-friendly farm laws that they say will put many of them out of business.
The deadly incident and the arrest of Ms. Gandhi, the great-granddaughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, are likely to galvanize a new phase of the protests. Worsening tensions could force Mr. Modi’s government and farmer leaders to revive negotiations that stalled this spring amid a catastrophic second wave of Covid-19.
Farmers continued sit-ins and gatherings through the pandemic and harsh monsoon rains.
The tensions have repeatedly flared into violence. The worst incident took place in January, when farmers stormed New Delhi with thousands of tractors and broke through police barricades. In return, the government sent forces to try to arrest farmer leaders and clear the tents where they had been camped out for months.
The protests intensified last month in the state of Haryana, next door to Uttar Pradesh, after a local official was captured on video ordering the police to use violence to break up one gathering. The state authorities deployed additional troops and switched off the internet, but the tensions eased only after the government agreed to investigate the official’s conduct.
The incident on Sunday took place in the Uttar Pradesh district of Lakhimpur Kheri after a series of run-ins in recent weeks between protesters carrying black flags and the elder Mr. Mishra and his supporters.
Mr. Mishra warned the protesters to “behave, or we will teach you how to behave. It will take just two minutes,” according to local newspaper reports.
In an apparent response to the statement, protesters tried on Sunday to block a visit by Mr. Mishra and a state minister from Mr. Modi’s party.
As Mr. Mishra’s convoy was traveling past the site, a vehicle occupied by his son and others deliberately plowed into the farmers, according to farmers’ union leaders.
Footage showed two vehicles ablaze.
As farmer leaders, police officers and top Uttar Pradesh officials converged on the scene, a police barricade was erected more than a mile away to keep out journalists and opposition politicians.
Farmer leaders and state officials agreed on a sum of about $62,500 in government compensation for the families of those killed.
“None of the criminals will be spared,” Prashant Kumar, a top Uttar Pradesh police officer, said at a news conference on Monday. “Arrests will follow soon.”
Mujib Mashal and Hari Kumar contributed reporting.