Thousands of Indian farmers protesting controversial agricultural reforms stormed New Delhi’s historic Red Fort Tuesday, with others breaching barricades and clashing with police.
Protesters scaled the walls of the iconic monument and a flag was hoisted alongside India’s national flag.
Tear gas and flash bangs could been seen on live streams from the city’s streets as police moved to contain large crowds of protestors in tractors and on foot from breaking through barricades. Both police and protesters were spotted with large sticks in the streets.
One protestor, 30-year-old Navreet Singh, died when a tractor overturned during the protests near Delhi police headquarters, Sanjay Bhatia, deputy commissioner of police said Wednesday.
Police also said that 86 officers were injured and 22 police complaints were registered against protestors for violation of lawful directions, rioting, damage to public property and assault on public servant with deadly weapons, in incidents that took place across the city.
It was supposed to be a massive but peaceful rally, as hundreds of thousands of farmers drove their tractors in convoy into the Indian capital as part of ongoing, nationwide protests against three farm laws that protesters say put their livelihoods at risk.
Many of the farmers, who had adorned their tractors with colorful flags, including the flag of India and various farmers unions, had been camping out in protest on the outskirts of the capital for more than two months. Others, including young farmers from the northern states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan, had gathered on the border over the past few days in time for the planned march on India’s Republic Day.
The national holiday marks the first time India’s constitution went into effect in 1950 following independence from British colonial rule, and the day is annually celebrated with a huge military parade through the capital.
Farmers planned their march to coincide with the government’s parade, which has been scaled back because of the coronavirus pandemic. But as tanks paraded before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tractors driven by protesters ran across the capital – some could be seen almost crushing police personnel standing in their way.
The massive protests have been a significant challenge to Modi as months of demonstrations and sit-ins across the country against his key agricultural policy have grown into a stalemate marked by deadlocked talks between farmers and his administration.
Protests turn violent
Police had given permission for the rally to proceed on certain routes but confrontations broke out when protesters diverged from the agreed plan. Police had had created diversions along several major highways and main roads in city and the metro shut exits at least 15 stations close to protest sites.
Tear gas and batons were used against protesters outside Delhi police headquarters and at two bordering areas of the city as farmers broke through barricades, protesters said Tuesday.
“Outside the Delhi police headquarters tear gas and batons were used, protestors also attacked the police buses stationed there,” said Paramjeet Singh Katyal, a spokesperson for Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella group representing farmers’ unions.
“We have broken the barricades, we have our tractors, people are marching, some leaders are also on horseback… thousands of farmers have already reached the capital,” Katyal said.
Samyukt Kisan Morcha later called off the march in a statement, and denounced the “anti-social elements” which had “infiltrated the otherwise peaceful movement.”
The statement thanked farmers for their “unprecedented participation” in Tuesday’s event, but expressed regret over the “undesirable and unacceptable events that have taken place today” and dissociated the group from “those indulging in such acts.”
Farmer leaders said that the groups who engaged in violence and stormed the historic Red Fort to hoist a Sikh community flag, were not a part of the original movement.
At the Ghazipur border between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, police used tear gas and batons to push back about 2,000 protesters, and tear gas was also used at the Singhu border between Delhi and Haryana on Tuesday morning, according to Ashutosh Mishra, a spokesperson for All India Sangharsh Coordination Committee, one of the unions leading the protests.
Police placed a cap of 5,000 tractors to take part in the rally, according to Mishra. However more than 200,000 tractors were mobilized, with many young people coming from neighboring states, said Darshan Pal, president of Krantikari Kisan Union, one of several leading the protests.
Authorities blamed the farmers for flouting guidelines and resorting to violence. Delhi police spokesman Eish Singhal said that officers had “showed a lot of restraint till the end but agitators defied the conditions and started their march before the scheduled time, and chose the path of violence and sabotage.”
Singhal added that in view of this it was necessary for Delhi Police to “maintain law and order,” adding that the clashes had damaged property and injured a number of police personnel.
Why farmers are protesting
For decades, the Indian government offered guaranteed prices to farmers for certain crops, providing long-term certainty that, in theory, allowed them to make investments for the next crop cycle. The new agricultural laws, first passed in September by Modi’s government, instead allow farmers to sell their goods to anyone for any price – giving them more freedom to do things such as sell directly to buyers and sell to other states.
But farmers argued that the new rules would leave them worse off by making it easier for corporations to exploit agricultural workers, and help big companies drive down prices. While farmers could sell crops at elevated prices if the demand is there, conversely, they could struggle to meet the minimum price in years when there is too much supply in the market.
The laws have been so contentious because agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion population, and farmers have been arguing for years to get the minimum guaranteed prices increased. They are the biggest voter block in the country – making farming a central political issue.
More than 100,000 people have been protesting the laws since late November. There have been sit-ins lasting days along each of New Delhi’s three borders. Farmers have blocked roads and set up makeshift camps, some sleeping on the road or in their tractors. They arrived from numerous different states to participate in the mass protests, at times clashing with police.
The government has held 11 rounds of talks with leaders of more than 30 farmers’ unions that are opposed to the laws – but the talks have gone nowhere.
Earlier this month, India’s Supreme Court issued an order putting the three contentious farm laws on hold and ordered the formation of a four-member mediation committee to help the parties negotiate. But farmers’ leaders have rejected any court-appointed mediation committee.