At least one protester was killed and 300 police officers were injured after tens of thousands of farmers, many tractor drivers, took to the streets of New Delhi on Tuesday to call for the repeal of controversial new agricultural laws.
After months of prolonged but peaceful demonstrations on the outskirts of the city, farmers erected a national Republic Day celebration in the city, clashed with police, demolished barricades and stormed the Red Fort, a 400-year-old landmark. In addition to police officers, many protesters were injured.
On Wednesday, the day after the chaos, farmers had returned to their camps on the outskirts of the city, promising to continue their protest and return to the city for a walk to the Indian parliament on Monday.
Who are the protesters?
Many of the protesting farmers are members of the Sikh religious minority and come from the states of Punjab and Haryana. Farmers in other parts of the country have held rallies in solidarity.
Since November, thousands of farmers have set up camp outside the capital, New Delhi, vigilant in scattered tent cities and threatening to enter if agricultural laws are not repealed.
The protest revealed the terrible reality of inequality in much of the country.
More than 60 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people still depend primarily on subsistence agriculture, although the sector accounts for only about 15 percent of the country’s economic output. Their reliance has increased only after the coronavirus pandemic hit the urban economy hard and sent millions of workers back to their villages. For years, debts and bankruptcies have led farmers to high suicide rates.
What do they want?
Protesters are challenging Prime Minister Narendra Modi over his efforts to restructure India’s agriculture.
Demonstrators are urging Mr Modi to repeal the latest agricultural laws, which would minimize the government’s role in agriculture and open up more space for private investors. The government says the new laws will disengage farmers and private investment and lead to growth. But farmers are skeptical, fearing that lifting state protection, which they already consider insufficient, will leave them at the mercy of greedy corporations.
Government support for farmers, which included guaranteed minimum prices for some major crops, helped India overcome the famine crisis of the 1960s. But with the liberalization of India’s economy in recent decades, Mr Modi, who wants the country’s economy to double by almost 2024, sees the government’s role as so unsustainable.
However, farmers say they are even struggling with existing protection. They say market-friendly laws will eventually remove regulatory support and mislead them, with a weakened economy offering little chance of a different livelihood.
How did the violence break out?
Thousands of protesting farmers poured into New Delhi on Tuesday, which was expected to be a peaceful protest during holiday celebrations and a military parade watched by the prime minister.
Some farmers broke with the main campaign and used tractors to dismantle police barricades. Many farmers carried long swords, tridents, sharp daggers, and battle axes — functional, though largely ceremonial, weapons. Most protesters did not appear to be wearing masks despite the outbreak of Covid-19 in India.
Police commanders deployed officers carrying assault rifles. They stood in the middle of the main roads, tear gas swirling around them with rifles aimed at the crowds. In some areas shown by videos, police beat protesters with batons to repel them.
Farmers say the violence was sparked by the government and outside elements in an attempt to thwart their months of peaceful protest.
Farmers waved flags and mocked officers. They also broke through the Red Fortress, the iconic palace that once served as the residence of Mughal rulers in India, and raised a flag on top of the fortifications, which often flies over Sikh temples.
Local TV channels showed farmers placing the body of a protester in the middle of the road. They claimed the man had been shot, but police said he died when his tractor overturned.
The Indian government has temporarily suspended Internet services in areas that have been protest centers for months, an Interior Ministry official confirmed.