Indian farmers protesting against agricultural reforms breached barricades and clashed with police in the capital, who fired tear gas to restrain them, shortly after a convoy of tractors trundled through the city’s outskirts.
Growers, angered by laws they say help large, private buyers at the expense of producers, have camped outside New Delhi for almost two months, posing one of the biggest challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he came to pow er in 2014.
“Modi will hear us now, he will have to hear us now,” said Sukhdev Singh, 55, a farmer from the northern breadbasket state of Punjab, as he marched past the barricades.
He was one of hundreds of protesters, some on horseback, who broke away from the main route of the tractor protest to head for central New Delhi, which hosts an annual Republic Day military parade.
They commandeered cranes and used ropes to tear down road blocks miles from routes approved by the police, forcing constables in riot gear to fall back and let them pass, Reuters witnesses said.
Police had earlier sealed most entrances to the city with containers and trucks, but had to use tear gas and batons as the farmers broke through.
Some protesters reached a major intersection 3km from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other government leaders watched tanks and troops parade past and fighter jets fly over head.
Modi waved to crowds and was driven back to his residence before any personal confrontation with the farmers, the biggest challenge his Hindu nationalist government has faced in its six years in power.
Union leaders say the controversial laws will allow private Indian conglomerates to take over the agriculture industry — the rockbed of the economy — and replace a system of purchases by the government at guaranteed prices.
Modi sent out Twitter greetings for the national holiday without mentioning the farmers.
Authorities had agreed to let the farmers stage a tractor rally as long as they waited for the official Republic Day parade to finish.
The capital’s roads is swarming with rows upon rows of tractors bearing flags of India and farm unions on Tuesday.
Farmers, wearing distinctive colourful turbans, shouted slogans against Prime Minister Modi and what they call his “black laws.”
Thousands more marched on foot while dancing and singing, and at one place they were showered with flower petals by residents, some of whom recorded the unprecedented rally on their phones.
But flag-waving protesters on at least four major arteries climbed over or just pushed aside the barricades and concrete blocks and pressed on into the city.
“We are going to show the government that we mean business,” said protester Nareesh Singh as he revved up his tractor and drove into a cloud of tear gas.
Satnam Singh Pannu, head of one of the main farmer committees, said the protesters have enough supplies to keep their Delhi camps going for a year if necessary, and that there was “massive popular support” for the campaign.
On one road, people on rooftops and threw petals on the tractor convoys.
“We want to show Modi our strength,” said Satpal Singh, a farmer who marched into the capital on a tractor along with his family of five. “We will not surrender.”
Police in riot gear used tear gas and water cannon at two places to push back the protesters who tried to knock down barricades. Authorities also parked large trucks to barricade multiple routes so that farmers don’t march to the interiors of the capital.
The farmer leaders said more than 10,000 tractors were to march through the capital for the rally and thousands of volunteers would try to help the police in keeping order.
Elsewhere people cheered and applauded as the farmers went past waving Indian flags and blowing horns.
New agricultural laws
The protests were set off by new agricultural laws Parliament passed in September. Modi’s government insists the laws will benefit farmers and boost production through private investment, but farmers fear cartelization and commercialisation of agriculture will devastate their earnings.
Farmers first tried to march to New Delhi in November but were stopped by police. Since then, unfazed by overnight chilly winter temperatures they have hunkered down with food and fuel supplies and threatened to besiege the capital until the farm laws are repealed.
The government has offered to amend the laws and suspend their implementation for 18 months. But farmers insist they will settle for nothing less than a complete repeal. They plan a march by foot to the Indian Parliament on February 1, when the country’s new budget will be presented.
Thin crowd to watch display of military power
The Republic Day ceremonies went ahead despite security concerns.
Police manned barricades at intersections around the centre of the city while soldiers with machine guns patrolled on many metro trains.
The tractor rally overshadowed the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi even as the annual military parade was scaled down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A thin crowd assembled beside the ceremonial Rajpath boulevard in New Delhi to watch a display of the country’s military power and cultural diversity.
People wore masks and adhered to social distancing as police and military battalions marched along the parade route. Several states displayed their floats to present their culture and the army showcased its latest equipment during the parade.
Republic Day marks the anniversary of the adoption of the country’s constitution on January 26, 1950.
Around half of India’s population works in agriculture, and unrest among the estimated 150 million land-owning farmers represents one of the biggest challenges to the authority of Modi since he came to power in 2014.
Nine rounds of talks between the two sides have failed to end the protests.
The government’s offer to delay the farm laws for 18 months has been rejected by farm leaders, who want a total repeal of the laws.
“The farm organisations have a very strong hold,” said Ambar Kumar Ghosh, an analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think-tank.
“They have the resources to mobilise support, and to continue the protest for a long time. They have also been very successful in keeping the protest really focused.”