India farm protests deepen as nation marks Republic Day

Farmers protesting at the historic Red Fort in Delhi on Jan 26, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - A two-month-long farmers' protest over new farm laws exploded on Tuesday (Jan 26), with protesters clashing with police as India put its military prowess and cultural diversity on display at the annual Republic Day parade.

Tens of thousands of farmers on tractors drove through routes designated for what was to be a peaceful rally on the border of Delhi, but some groups deviated from the routes and entered central Delhi.

Tear gas was used in at least two spots including in central Delhi, where farmers dramatically clashed with police as farmer leaders called for peace. One person was killed, Indian media reported, and several police personnel injured.

The farmers also breached barricades to enter the historic Red Fort, a Mughal-era structure, where some attempted to climb flagpoles. Farmers told local television that their aim was to send a message to the government to repeal the farm laws, which they said help companies at the expense of farmers.

The clashes on the streets were a stark contrast to the Republic Day parade, a colourful showcase of India's latest weaponry, which includes a fly-past of fighter jets and attack helicopters, marching contingents, dancers and floats from different states of the country.

This year's parade was pared down in terms of numbers of attendees, and had no chief guest after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was unable to attend due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

For the past two months, the farmers have been sitting in protest at multiple spots on the Delhi border against the farm legislation, in the biggest challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced since coming to power in 2014.

In September last year, the government rushed through legislation aimed at encouraging farmers to sell their produce directly to private companies instead of through regulated wholesale markets where cartels and middlemen are known to have taken root.

It allows farmers to sell outside their state without paying a market fee or cess, and creates a framework for contract farming.

But the government miscalculated the opposition to the laws, with farmers not convinced that the legislation is for their good.

The government has even offered to keep the laws in abeyance but farmers have so far refused to budge from demanding a complete withdrawal of the laws.

Analysts said that the farmers' protest was unlikely to weaken.

Farmers, unlike any other protesters, have had goodwill mainly because at least 60 per cent of the population is tied to agriculture in some way or the other.

A farmer throws back a tear gas shell fired by police during a protest in New Delhi on Jan 26, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

"It is not going to go away. The farmers' protest is not something which was like earlier protests, like against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act). This is a much bigger protest. It has sharply articulated the resentment that is there against the regime. It's only going to become sharper," said political analyst and writer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

But he noted the movement would "definitely take a beating (from the violence)".

The violence on Tuesday was condemned by opposition leaders, who have been supporting the protests.

Punjab chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh asked "genuine" farmers, who are mostly from Punjab, to vacate Delhi and warned that "it'll negate goodwill generated by peacefully protesting farmers".

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted: "Violence is not the solution to any problem. Irrespective of who gets hurt, it's the country that will suffer." He also asked the government to take back the farm laws.

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