Thursday began like any other day for farmers camped at Singhu, a village outside India’s national capital that has emerged as one of the main protest sites over the past few months. It started with prayer, followed by a rush to get ready and have the first cup of tea.
The farmers have camped outside Delhi for over two months, demanding the repeal of three agriculture laws passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Other than a massive police buildup near the protest site, there was no indication that just days ago tens of thousands of farmers had carried out a massive, largely peaceful tractor rally that overshadowed the military parade on India’s Republic Day, a national holiday that honors the anniversary of the country’s constitution coming into effect in 1950.
The farmers’ rally, however, turned into chaos when a section of farmers veered off the designated routes agreed upon by the farmers’ unions and police. Local media showed hundreds of farmers breaking barricades and clashing with police, who used tear gas and batons to try to restrain them.
Some farmers carrying ceremonial swords reached as far as the Red Fort, a historic 17th-century Mughal fort in the heart of the city, where they scaled walls and hoisted flags.
Farmers’ unions have unanimously decried the incidents of violence and alleged that infiltrators were looking to sabotage their cause. Nevertheless, their movement has come under fire following the Republic Day debacle.
“What was projected and witnessed by the public was orchestrated,” said the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of farmers’ unions. The group also condemned the police brutality unleashed on protesters.
What do the farmers want?
In September 2020, Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist government passed three controversial agriculture bills aimed at liberalizing the country’s farming sector.
The laws were hailed as a watershed moment by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which claimed farmers would now be free to sell crops anywhere and to anyone they liked, including big corporations, instead of at government-regulated wholesale markets that pay a minimum support price (MSP) for certain produce.
The protesting farmers argue that they have always had the freedom to sell anywhere in the country.
Instead, they say the government is shying away from its responsibility to ensure an MSP for farm produce and stress that the new laws leave them at the mercy of corporations, which can now enter India’s farming sector with no government safeguards in place.
Clauses in the legislation also prevent farmers from taking contract disputes to courts, leaving them with no independent means of redress apart from government-appointed bureaucrats.
These perceived threats to their income terrify India’s farmers, who are mostly smallholders: A staggering 68% of them own less than 1 hectare of land. In some states, farming families earn an average of just 20,000 rupees ($271 / €223) annually.
Permission to protest
After months of staging protests in their home states, thousands of farmers marched to the borders of Delhi at the end of November, vowing that they would not go home until the laws were repealed.
For over two months, they have braved bitter cold as the government and farmers’ unions hold talks. Eleven rounds of negotiations later, there has been no breakthrough as both sides stand their ground.
The farmers, meanwhile, have turned their tractors and trolleys into temporary homes. They have schools for children, their own newspaper to tackle misinformation, social media handles to amplify their message, hundreds of free kitchens as well as medical facilities.
However, many felt that their voices were still going unheard, prompting their leadership to organize a tractor rally through New Delhi on the same day India celebrates an important national holiday. Routes were marked and permission granted by the local police. And no one had anticipated the violence that hit central Delhi.
Farmers carrying ceremonial swords reached the historic Red Fort in the heart of Delhi, scaling walls and hoisting flags
The end of a peaceful protest?
On Tuesday, local police fired tear gas and used batons to beat protesting farmers at multiple locations across the nation’s capital, while farmers broke through barricades and stormed the historic Red Fort.
They were seen waving three different flags from the fort’s ramparts — the Indian tricolor, flags representative of the unions and the “Nishaan Sahib,” a sacred religious symbol associated with the Sikh community.
Many local media outlets mistakenly identified the last one as a “Khalistani” flag, referring to a secessionist movement from the 1980s. This prompted an uproar against the farmers. Although some networks issued corrections, the damage was done.
“The farmers’ unions are on the back foot now. They are trying to distance themselves from the people who were responsible for the mayhem at the Red Fort,” Arati Jerath, a political analyst, told DW.
“As far as the government is concerned, it has got the farmers where it wants them. It has no intention of repealing these laws,” he added.
Farmers broke through barricades and clashed with police, who used tear gas and batons in an attempt to restrain them
Crisis of leadership
While nearly all farmers’ groups condemned the incidents of violence that marred the tractor rally, cracks could be seen forming in their alliance.
Two groups pulled out of the protests after the Republic Day events. Some observers have questioned the unions’ decision to conduct the rally on this day, especially given the security implications.
“The moment you gather crowds like this and enter a city, you are bound to lose control. You have no idea what kind of mischief-makers join your ranks and then all it takes is a stone, a slogan — or in this case, a flag,” Jerath said.
Attempts at sabotage?
Farm leaders have condemned the role played by India’s mainstream media, alleging that they ignored the massive tractor rallies that stayed on course and were carried out in a peaceful manner.
“We have been on the streets for over two months. Can you state even one violent incident during that period?” a farm leader from the All India Kisan Sabha farmers’ union told DW.
“Why would we sabotage our cause by indulging in anti-national activities?” he added, deeming it a “conspiracy” to defame a peaceful movement.
They also accused the police of barricading agreed-upon routes to confuse the farmers, most of whom were unfamiliar with the roads of the capital.
To avoid adding to tensions, farmers’ unions have canceled their planned February 1 march on the Indian Parliament. Still, the events over the past couple of days have not dampened the spirits of the farmers, who say they will continue their peaceful protests despite alleged attempts by the government to sabotage their movement.
Over 150 farmers have died during the fight against these laws. Their sacrifice shouldn’t be in vain, a farmer told DW.