Farmers return to the protest camp following a deep challenge to PM Modi
Tens of thousands of farmers who stormed the historic Red Fort on India’s Republic Day were again camped outside the capital Wednesday after the most volatile day of their two-month standoff left one protester dead and more than 300 police officers injured.
The protests demanding the repeal of new agricultural laws have grown into a rebellion that is rattling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. On Tuesday, more than 10,000 tractors and thousands more people on foot or horseback tried to advance into the capital, shoving aside barricades and buses blocking their path and at times met by police using tear gas and water cannons.
Their brief capture of the 17th-century fort, which was the palace of Mughal emperors, played out live Indian news channels. The farmers, some bearing ceremonial swords, ropes and sticks, overwhelmed police. In a deeply symbolic challenge to Modi’s Hindu-nationalist regime, the protesters who stormed Red Fort hoisted a Sikh religious flag.
“The situation is normal now. The protesters have left the streets of the capital,″ New Delhi police officer Anto Alphonse said Wednesday morning.
The protesting farmers’ organisations are expected to meet later Wednesday to discuss the potential course of action. Another march is expected for Feb. 1 when the Modi government is scheduled to present the annual budget in Parliament.
Protest organiser Samyukt Kisan Morcha, or United Farmers’ Front, accused two outside groups of sabotage by infiltrating their otherwise peaceful movement.
“Even if it was a sabotage, we can’t escape responsibility,” said Yogendra Yadav, a protest leader.
Yadav said frustration had built up among the protesting farmers and “how do you control it if the government is not serious about what they have been demanding for two months.”
Several roads were closed again on Wednesday near the police headquarters and Connaught Place areas following a protest by some retired Delhi police officers demanding prosecution of the protesting farmers who engaged in violence, the Press Trust of India news agency said.
Political analyst Arti Jerath said Tuesday’s violence will put the farmers’ organisations on their back foot.
The Supreme Court has always said that farmers can continue to protest without disrupting New Delhi’s life. The development of Tuesday gave the government a handle on going to the top court and saying that this is precisely what it was afraid of becoming violent. ”
Republic Day celebrations, including the annual military parade that was already scaled back because of the coronavirus pandemic, overshadowed Tuesday’s escalation. Authorities shut down some metro train stations, and in some parts of the capital the mobile internet service was suspended, a frequent government tactic to thwart protests.
In November, the farmers, many of them Sikhs from the states of Punjab and Haryana, tried to march into New Delhi but were stopped by the police. Since then, untouched by the cold and frequent winter rains, they hunkered down at the edge of the town and threatened to besiege it unless the farm laws were abolished.
A political analyst, Neeraja Choudhury, said the government failed to anticipate what was coming and prepare adequately for it. “If the farmers are agitated in India as a whole, the protests cannot be dismissed, as some opposition incites the farmers.”
Police spokesman Anil Kumar said that in clashes with farmers, more than 300 police personnel were injured. In the fort area, several of them jumped into a deep dry drain to escape the protesters who outnumbered them in a number of places.
Police said that one protester died after the overturn of his tractor, but farmers said he was shot. Several bloodied protesters could be seen in television footage.
Police said the protesting farmers broke away from the approved protest routes and resorted to “violence and vandalism.” Eight buses and 17 private vehicles were damaged, said police, who filed four cases over vandalism against the protesters.
The government insists the agricultural laws passed by Parliament in September will benefit farmers and boost production through private investment. But the farmers fear it will turn agricultural corporate and leave them behind. The government has offered to suspend the laws for 18 months, but the farmers want nothing less than a full repeal.
Modi’s government has been rocked by several convulsions since coming back to power for a second term. The pandemic sent India’s already-teetering economy into its first-ever recession, social strife has widened and his government has been questioned over its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
A diverse coalition of groups rallied in 2019, the year that witnessed the first major protests against his administration, against a contentious new citizenship law that they said discriminated against Muslims.
“The government has failed on the national security front. I believe that this government seems to be quite blinkered about the kind of security challenges it creates for itself by alienating minority communities, Muslims and Sikhs,’ said political analyst Arti Jerath.
India is predominantly Hindu, with Muslims accounting for 14% and Sikhs for almost 2% of its nearly 1.4 billion people.