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 takeover of the 17th-century fort, which was the palace of Mughal emperors, played out live Indian news channels. The farmers, some carrying ceremonial swords, ropes and sticks, overwhelmed police. In a profoundly symbolic challenge to Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government, 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’ groups are scheduled to meet later Wednesday to discuss the future course of action. Another march is planned for Feb. 1 when the Modi government is scheduled to present the annual budget in 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 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’ organizations on their back foot.
“The Supreme Court has all along said the farmers can continue with the protest without disrupting the life in New Delhi. Tuesday’s development has given the government a handle to go to the top court and say see this is precisely what it was fearing that it would turn violent.”
Tuesday’s escalation overshadowed Republic Day celebrations, including the annual military parade that was already scaled back because of the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities shut some metro train stations, and mobile internet service was suspended in some parts of the capital, a frequent tactic of the government to thwart protests.
The farmers — many of them Sikhs from Punjab and Haryana states — tried to march into New Delhi in November but were stopped by police. Since then, unfazed by the winter cold and frequent rains, they have hunkered down at the edge of the city and threatened to besiege it if the farm laws are not repealed.
Neeraja Choudhury, a political analyst, said the government failed to anticipate what was coming and prepare for it adequately. “If the farmers are agitated overall India, you can’t dismiss the protests as some opposition inciting the farmers.”
Anil Kumar, a police spokesman, said more than 300 police personnel were injured in clashes with farmers. Several of them jumped into a deep dry drain in the fort area to escape the protesters who outnumbered them at several places.
Police said one protester died after his tractor overturned, 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.
Since returning to power for a second term, Modi’s government has been rocked by several convulsions. 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.