NEW DELHI (AP) – Tens of thousands of farmers who stormed the historic Red Fort on Republic Day of India again camped outside the capital on Wednesday after the most volatile day in their two-month standoff left one protester dead and over 300 police injured.
Protests calling for the repeal of new agricultural laws have turned into a rebellion shaking the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On Tuesday, more than 10,000 tractors and thousands of others on foot or on horseback attempted to enter the capital, pushing back barricades and buses blocking their way and at times encountered by police using tear gas and of water cannons.
Their brief takeover of the 17th-century fort, which was the palace of the Mughal emperors, played live on Indian news channels. Farmers, some carrying swords, ropes and ceremonial sticks, overwhelmed the police. In a deeply symbolic challenge to the Hindu-nationalist government in Modi, protesters who stormed the Red Fort hoisted a religious Sikh flag.
“The situation is normal now. The demonstrators left the streets of the capital, ”New Delhi policeman Anto Alphonse said on Wednesday morning.
The protesting farm groups are due to meet later Wednesday to discuss the future course of action. Another march is scheduled for February 1 when the Modi government is due to present the annual budget to parliament.
Protest organizer Samyukt Kisan Morcha, or United Farmers’ Front, accused two outside groups of sabotage by infiltrating their otherwise peaceful movement.
“Even if it was sabotage, we cannot escape our responsibilities,” said Yogendra Yadav, a leader of the protest.
Yadav said frustration had built up among the protesting farmers and “how can it be controlled if the government does not take seriously what it has been asking for two months”.
Several roads were closed again on Wednesday near Police Headquarters and Connaught Place neighborhoods following a protest by some retired Delhi police officers calling for prosecution against protesting farmers who were engaging in the violence, the Press Trust of India news agency said.
Political analyst Arti Jerath said Tuesday’s violence will put peasant organizations on their feet.
“The Supreme Court has always said that farmers can continue the protest without disrupting life in New Delhi. Tuesday’s developments gave the government a grip to go to the Supreme Court and say see this is precisely what it feared would turn violent. “
Tuesday’s escalation eclipsed Republic Day celebrations, including the annual military parade which had already been scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities have closed some metro stations and mobile internet service has been suspended in parts of the capital, a frequent government tactic to thwart protests.
Farmers – many of whom were Sikhs from the states of Punjab and Haryana – attempted to enter New Delhi in November, but were arrested by police. Since then, unfazed by the winter cold and frequent rains, they have crouched on the outskirts of the city and threatened to besiege it if agricultural laws are not repealed.
Political analyst Neeraja Choudhury said the government did not anticipate what was to come or adequately prepare for it. “If farmers are agitated across India, you cannot dismiss the protests as opposition inciting farmers.”
Anil Kumar, a police spokesman, said more than 300 police officers were injured in clashes with farmers. Several of them jumped into a deep, dry drain in the area of the fort to escape the demonstrators who outnumbered them in several places.
Police said a protester died after his tractor overturned, but farmers said he was shot. Several bloody protesters could be seen in television footage.
Police said the protesting farmers strayed from approved protest routes and resorted to “violence and vandalism”. Eight buses and 17 private vehicles were damaged, said police, who lodged a vandalism complaint against the protesters.
The government insists that agricultural laws passed by parliament in September will benefit farmers and boost production through private investment. But farmers fear it will turn into a farming business and leave them behind. The government has offered to suspend the laws for 18 months, but farmers want nothing less than a complete repeal.
Since returning to power for a second term, Modi’s government has been rocked by several convulsions. The pandemic sent India’s already faltering economy into its first-ever recession, social strife widened and its government has been questioned about its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2019, the year that saw the first major protests against his administration, a diverse coalition of groups rallied against a controversial new citizenship law that they said discriminated against Muslims.
“The government on the national security front has failed. I think this government seems pretty blind to the kind of security problems it creates for itself by alienating minority communities, Muslims and Sikhs, ”said Arti Jerath, political analyst.
India is predominantly Hindu while Muslims make up 14% and Sikhs nearly 2% of its nearly 1.4 billion people.