An Indian state minister from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party has been criticised for saying that farmers who commit suicide are "cowards".
Om Prakash Dhankar, the agriculture minister of Haryana state, said on Tuesday that: "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 said, according to NDTV.
The comments came in the wake of large numbers of suicides committed by farmers in recent months.
It also follows the high-profile death of Gajendra Singh, from the western state of Rajasthan, who purportedly left a suicide note saying he had recently suffered crop losses, before hanging himself from a tree at a popular protest spot near India's parliament last week.
In parliament on Wednesday, the opposition Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi crticised the government over Dhankar's remarks, urging Modi to visit farms and acquaint himself with conditions there.
"The farmers are crying, they are in distress, but Dhankar says those who commit suicide are cowards," Gandhi said.
"It would be good if the prime minister goes to Punjab, meets farmers and goes to the wholesale markets.
"He will get to know for himself what's happening."
After Gandhi's speech, Dhankar told reporters he stood by his comment that committing suicide is a crime under Indian law, and added that his government had given farmers every assistance, the Reuters news agency reported.
Ajay Vir Jakhar, the chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj, a non-political association of agriculture producers, told Al Jazeera that he "felt awful" when he first heard news of Dhankar's remarks.
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"Sometimes it is so frustrating that these types of people keep being given command," Jakhar said.
Jakhar said that while there had been increased media and political exposure for farming issues in the wake of the recent suicides, he was concerned that no real policy solutions would be identified to improve farmers' lives.
"It is frustrating, because I realise they will forget about these issues when they have another issue to focus on - and that could be tomorrow, or the day after that," he said, adding that the government should include farming representatives in policy discussions.
"I have to believe that the government has good intentions, but they do not understand the on-the-ground reality."
Citing the state government's figures, the Times of India reported that at least 600 farmers killed themselves in Maharashtra state in the past three months.
In 2014, the same state reported almost 2,000 farmer suicides, the newspaper said.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies