NEW DELHI – With the accumulation of the pomp and color of military parades, the Republic Day celebrations are among the most eye-catching.
But on Tuesday, just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government prepared to celebrate the anniversary of the country’s constitution with another parade of armed forces, an unlikely force was preparing to take the stage.
Protesting Indian farmers, who have been camping in front of the gates of New Delhi for two months, urging Mr Modi to repeal laws that would rewrite Indian agriculture, are preparing to enter the capital with thousands of tractors.
Mr Modi passed three agricultural laws in parliament in September, hoping to inject private investment in a sector that has been troubled by inefficiency and lack of money for decades. But farmers were quick to oppose them, saying easing government rules had left them at the mercy of corporate giants to take over their businesses.
As their protests grew and anger grew, with tens of thousands of farmers camping in the cold for two months and dozens of deaths among them, the government has proposed amending some parts of the laws to include their demands. The country’s Supreme Court also intervened, ordering the government to suspend the laws until a solution is reached with farmers.
But farmers say they will not stop the repeal, and they have begun to increase pressure. In addition to their tractor on Tuesday, they announced plans to march to the Indian parliament on February 1st, when the country’s new budget will be unveiled.
Tensions were high until Tuesday, with some officials claiming the protests had been infiltrated by insurgent elements who would resort to violence if farmers were allowed into the city. A few days before the tractor march, farmers’ leaders brought to the media a young man who was said to have been arrested on suspicion of plotting to shoot the leaders on Tuesday to end the rally. Neither claim can be verified independently.
There was some confusion about the range and size of the tractor’s march before it began. Local media reports, citing documents from Delhi police, say the march will not begin until the culmination of a spectacular Republic Day parade in the heart of New Delhi. Reports also say the number of tractors and how long they can stay in the city are limited.
But farm managers told a news conference Monday that there were no restrictions on the time and number of tractors, as long as they adhered to the routes set by Delhi police. Route maps suggest a compromise between farmers and police that could allow protesters to enter the city but not approach sensitive government institutions.
Leaders said about 150,000 tractors had gathered at the capital’s borders for the march, that about 3,000 volunteers would try to help police maintain order, and that 100 ambulances were on standby.
Farm leaders, both in statements given to participants in the march and during the press conference, repeatedly called for peace as they marched in tractors.
“Remember that our goal is not to conquer Delhi, but to win the hearts of the people of this country,” they said in instructions posted online for the marchers, who were told not to carry weapons – “even sticks” – during the march and to avoid provocative slogans and banners.
“The hallmark of this agitation is that it is peaceful,” said Balbir Singh Rajawal, one of the movement’s main leaders. “My request to our farmer brothers, to our youth, is to keep this movement calm. The government is spreading rumors, the agencies have started misleading people. Beware of him.
“If we stay calm, we will win. If we become violent, Modi will win. “
Harry Kumar contributed to the reporting.