Farmers protesting against new pro-market agricultural laws on Tuesday stormed India’s historic red fort, posing a major challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and potentially threatening unity in one of India’s longest-running protest movements.
The main act in India on Tuesday would be the Republic Day parade marking the anniversary of the adoption of the country’s constitution on January 26, 1950.
The pandemic had forced a shortening of the traditional program this year, but even the truncated ceremonies had enough brilliance to dominate the news.
The 72nd Republic Day Parade featured the usual colorful exhibits of India’s diversity, limited by a military parade that included for the first time an exhibit of India’s Rafale jets, recently purchased from France, and made a daring debut of “Vertical Charlie” formations over majestic Rajpath Ceremonial Boulevard in New Delhi.
But a build-up of slow-tech agricultural tractors rained down on the military parade on Tuesday, stealing thunder from sophisticated fighter jets and dominating news coverage.
Tens of thousands of farmers protesting against new market-friendly agricultural laws broke through police barricades to reach the historic Mughal-era Red Fort in the heart of the Indian capital in the afternoon, after the official parade ended.
On the ramparts of the 17th-century red sandstone fort, where Mughals, colonial British and independent Indian administrations raised their flags, some of the protesters lifted a myriad of banners from farms and religious communities.
After more than two months of demonstrations on Tuesday, farmers responded to the call for a protest against Republic Day and gathered around 8 a.m. local time at border points on National Highway No. 1, which connects the Indian capital to neighboring Haryana. Singing slogans, dancing to protest songs and showering with traditional flower petals, the scenes at the capital’s border points looked more like harvest festivals than angry protests.
Protests Indian farmers at a tractor rally in New Delhi on January 26, 2021. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP) AFP – MONEY SHARMA
By noon, the headlines for live coverage had shifted to police firing tear gas as farmers broke through barricades and prevented them from entering New Delhi. As the hashtags #KisanTractorRally (Farmers’ Tractor Rally) and #KisanTractorRallyLive were trending on Twitter, the news footage showed farmers swerving past overwhelmed police lines and tearing down roadblocks in some places as police fired tear gas and carried out relay tolls in some places.
Police said one protester died after his tractor veltade but farmers said he was shot. Protesters laid the victim’s body, draped in the Indian tricolor flag, on the road for a while and sat around the body. TV channels showed several bloody protesters and at least 86 policemen were injured, according to an official statement.
One of India’s long-running peasant protest movements reached an alarming peak on Republic Day, revealing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to understand the level of opposition to the controversial new agricultural laws and to address the issues that have united powerful and often rival blocs against his reigning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Modi has reaped decades of farmers’ anger at agricultural laws. Today’s events show that the state underestimated the strength of the people. The state should have known better, says Amandeep Sandhu, an author who documented agricultural practices in India’s Punjab farmland in his book, “Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines.”
Songs, sellers add a fun fair
The agricultural crisis was triggered in September 2020, when the government collected complex legislative changes in three new laws and pushed them through parliament during an opposition session. They were sent as Covid-19 crashed through India, with the country reporting the world’s second highest number of cases.
The new laws allow farmers to sell their products on the open market – including agricultural holdings and supermarket chains – instead of through state institutions that guarantee a minimum price.
Modi argues that “reforms are needed for development” and has warned that “we cannot build the next century with the laws of the previous century.”
>> For more: Why Indian farmers are not convinced of Modi’s promised market miracle
Since he came to power in 2014, Modi has chosen shock policy announcements with little preparedness that have made the population climb to cope with the fallout – humanitarian and economic – of his populist traits.
Earlier last year, the prime minister unleashed a mass exodus of migrant workers from towns to villages across the country when he suddenly announced a deadlock without coordinating the rescue service, giving people just four hours to prepare for one of the world’s most stringent nationwide incentives.
In late November, with the suspension lifted, a reverse human flow saw farmers from the North Indian agricultural landscape flock to New Delhi and respond to a call to protest the discredited agricultural reform laws.
For the past two months, farmers have held a sit-in on the outskirts of New Delhi and set up outdoor kitchens to feed tens of thousands of protesters, one of India’s biggest persistent protests.
The protest camp – complete with suppliers investing in snacks, thermal underwear, soap, hair oil bottles and other essentials – has had a fun-filled atmosphere and sparked a rich counterculture of literature and protest songs released by leading Punjabi singers.
But the protest has also had a human cost. Camping outdoors during the North Indian winter due to cold rain has claimed more than 160 lives, according to an independent researcher. Indian media have attributed the death to weather, illness or suicide.
Unsurprisingly, these challenges have put the Punjab and neighboring states to their demands, protesting, garnering support from farmers across the country and capturing Indians’ imagination against Modi’s Hindu supremacist policies but lacking mobilization to confront their government.
For several months, the protest movement managed to unite peasants and landless agricultural workers, regardless of their caste, class, gender, and bridging ideological differences between left-wing unions and traditional community organizations.
Go to the Supreme Court
Captured unprepared by the large scale and determination of the protesters, the government has held ten rounds of talks with representatives of the agricultural unions, where the issue is moved up to the country’s highest court.
The peasants demand a complete repeal of the new laws, which they fear will remove the scarce protection they have had, and leave them to the mercy of the corporate giants without the possibility of ensuring that they receive fair treatment.
Earlier this year, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the law should be suspended until a committee of experts, appointed by the court, could consult with government officials and protesting farmers to try to find a solution to the dispute.
It failed to break death. Representatives of the Agricultural Union questioned the composition of the Committee of Experts, noting that all four members were in favor of the agricultural laws and triggered a statement from the Supreme Court expressing disappointment at the “unnecessary ambitions” made by the panel of judges.
The government’s offer to temporarily halt the laws for 18 months was seen by farmers as an attempt to “buy time”, according to Sandhu. “By pushing the issue by 18 months, the government tried to buy time to break the protests, and probably buy the protest leaders. It also meant pushing the issue to 2022, closer to the 2024 parliamentary election, which suits the BJP because they can then do the election, as they did in 2014, and win the election, “he explained.
A story about competing protest tracks
The beginning of Tuesday’s scheduled meeting last week, the Supreme Court asked the government to withdraw its plea against the tractor motif on Republic Day and reiterated that it will not issue orders against the protest march.
In the absence of a court order, the government tried to block the January 26 meeting in the heart of the Indian capital and instead opt for a march to a place in Haryana, far outside the city.
When protest leaders and authorities talked about marching routes, an umbrella group of 32 farmers’ unions – Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) – agreed on the government’s plan on Monday.
However, another umbrella group – the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee (KMSC) – stuck with the original plan to march peacefully into the heart of the Indian capital.
In a statement issued late on Tuesday, SKM condemned the violence on Republic Day and blamed “antisocial elements” as well as KMSC for violating “rules and ways”.
There were no statements about a planned peasant march on foot to Parliament on February 1, when the country’s new budget will be presented.
‘The force is creeping up’ protests rank
After the events of Republic Day, Sandhu worried that “the peasants’ factions would fall into a trap” to break the extraordinary unity between different groups within the protest movement.
“No one understood why the decision was made to lead the protest by keeping the peasants on the outskirts of Delhi. SKM did not spend enough effort to make the people understand. I think that SKM also underestimated the farmers by deciding that everyone should follow the path. That is how power creeps up, he stated.
By the end of the day, Twitter posts about farmers’ protests had lost some of the morning spark. Violence in a protest by either protesters against the state or the state against protesters must be condemned. This is not a neutral position, this is an aspect of democracy. Arson is illegal, it is not a right. Respecting national symbols is not symbolic, it is illegal, tweeted lawyer Sherbir Panag.
Violence in a protest by either protesters against the state or the state against protesters must be condemned. This is not a neutral position, this is an aspect of democracy. Arson is illegal, it is not a right. Respecting national symbols is not symbolic, it is illegal.
– Sherbir Panag 🇮🇳 (@Sherbir) January 26, 2021
The #KisanTractorRally hashtag also drew posts from Modi’s supporters urging the government to respond to “terrorists” and “anti-nationalists” who used “tractors as weapons”.
Sandhu refused to predict how Tuesday’s events could affect the farmer’s movement in the immediate future. “It is clearly too early to say,” he insisted. But he was convinced that talk on Twitter, including calls for government action, would not end the crisis. “Twitter conversations do not change the reality on the land for the farmers. They will continue to push for their demands. The support that SKM set up could be questioned, I think. But the peasants are going nowhere, the government can not just wish them away. ”