At least one protester was killed and 80 police officers injured after tens of thousands of farmers, including many tractors, took to the streets of New Delhi on Tuesday to demand the repeal of controversial new agricultural laws.
After months of sustained but peaceful demonstrations on the outskirts, farmers disrupted the Republic Day holidays, clashed with police, destroyed barricades and stormed the Red Fort, a 400-year-old landmark.
On Wednesday, the day after the chaos, the peasants had returned to their camps on the outskirts of the city and pledged to continue their protest and to walk back to the Indian parliament in the city on Monday.
Who are the protesters?
Many of the protesting farmers belong to the Sikh religious minority and come from the states of Punjab and Haryana. Farmers in other parts of the country held solidarity rallies.
Since November, thousands of farmers have camped outside the capital New Delhi, kept vigil in sprawling tent cities and threatened to enter the country if the farm laws were not lifted.
The protest has exposed the dire reality of inequality across much of the country.
More than 60 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people are still largely dependent on agriculture, even though the sector accounts for only about 15 percent of the country’s economic output. Their dependency only increased after the coronavirus pandemic hit the urban economy hard and sent millions of workers back to their villages. Debt and bankruptcies have led to high suicide rates for years.
What do you want?
The protesters challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his efforts to transform agriculture in India.
The protesters are calling for Mr. Modi to repeal recent agricultural laws, which would minimize the government’s role in agriculture and create more room for private investors. The government says the new laws will decouple farmers from private investment and bring growth. Farmers are skeptical, however, fearing that the removal of government protection, which they already believe to be insufficient, would turn them over to greedy companies.
Government support to farmers, which included guaranteed minimum prices for certain important crops, helped India overcome the hunger crisis of the 1960s. Since India has liberalized its economy in the past few decades, Modi, who wants the country’s economy to double by 2024, sees such a large role for the government as no longer sustainable.
However, farmers claim that despite the protection in place, they have problems. They say that market-friendly laws will ultimately eliminate regulatory support and leave it deprived as the weakened economy offers little chance of any other livelihood.
How did the violence break out?
Thousands of protesting farmers flocked to New Delhi on Tuesday in what was expected as a peaceful protest during the holiday celebrations and a military parade overseen by the Prime Minister.
Some farmers broke off the main march and used tractors to dismantle police barriers. Many peasants carried long swords, tridents, sharp daggers, and battle axes – working, if largely ceremonial, weapons. Most protesters did not appear to be wearing masks despite the Covid-19 outbreak in India.
Police commanders deploy officers with assault rifles. They stood in the middle of the main streets and tear gas swirled around the crowd with their rifles. In some areas, video footage showed, police beat protesters with their batons to push them back.
Farmers claim the violence was fueled by the government and outside in order to derail their months of peaceful protests.
The peasants waved flags and mocked officers. They also broke through the Red Fort, the iconic palace that once served as the residence of the Mughal rulers of India, and hoisted a flag on the city walls that is often hoisted on Sikh temples.
Local TV channels showed farmers placing a protester’s body in the middle of a street. They claimed the man was shot dead, but police said he died when his tractor overturned.
The Indian government has temporarily suspended internet services in the areas that have been protesting for months, an interior ministry official confirmed.