India's PM Modi breaks silence on months-long farm protests

Indian farmers gathering in the Red Fort amid the ongoing protests against new agriculture laws, in New Delhi on Jan 26, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Sunday (Jan 31) that protesters who stormed New Delhi's Red Fort had caused "insult" to the country, his first public comments on a months-long farmers' agitation that turned violent last week.

Tens of thousands of farmers have camped on the outskirts of the capital for more than two months, protesting against new agricultural laws they say benefit private buyers at the expense of growers.

A tractor parade on last Tuesday's Republic Day turned violent when some protesters deviated from pre-agreed routes, clashing with police and breaking into the historic Red Fort complex in the capital. One died and hundreds were injured.

"The country was saddened by the insult to the Tricolour (Indian flag) on the 26th of January in Delhi," Mr Modi said in a radio address on Sunday.

"The government is committed to modernising agriculture and is also taking many steps in that direction."

Farm leaders say they were not responsible for violence, which was caused by a minority of those on the parade, and the government has left open the possibility that talks between the two sides will resume.

Mr Modi told opposition party leaders on Saturday that an offer to freeze the laws for 18 months still stands, according to a government summary of the meeting.

Agriculture employs about half of India's labour force, and unrest among an estimated 150 million landowning farmers is one of the biggest challenges to Mr Modi's rule since he first came to power in 2014.

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