Security tightened in India's New Delhi after protesters stormed city

Police officers stand guard during a protest against farm laws introduced by the government, in New Delhi, on Jan 26, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - India's government increased security in the capital New Delhi after thousands of protesting farmers broke police barricades and stormed key landmarks in a serious escalation of months-long demonstrations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's new agriculture laws.

By Wednesday (Jan 27) most demonstrators had returned to protest sites on the outskirts of the city following calls from one of the largest farm unions, as protest leaders prepared to meet to decide the next steps in their campaign which they said would continue peacefully.

The farmers, who have camped at various border points around New Delhi for two months, had permission to demonstrate after the completion of an annual military parade to mark Republic Day, a major public holiday in India. But many gathered early in the day and broke through barricades on the outskirts of the city, prompting police to deploy tear gas in some areas.

The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, an umbrella organisation of several dozen farm groups leading the protests, issued a statement late Tuesday calling off the remainder of the tractor parade in Delhi and criticising the "anti-social elements" that "had infiltrated the otherwise peaceful movement."

The police also blamed the protesters for deviating from the agreed routes and attempting to enter the heart of the capital where Parliament and other government buildings are located.

The escalation of the farmers' protest adds to Mr Modi's challenges amid efforts to reverse a contraction in Asia's third-largest economy due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It also comes days before a Parliament session where the government will present its annual budget detailing plans to spur economic activity in the year starting April 1.

Although the demonstrations have hurt the government, the scenes on Tuesday of unruly farmers may undermine their cause, according to Mr Asim Ali, a New Delhi-based researcher at the Centre for Policy Research.

"This was always the danger, and it seems that it has gone out of hand," Mr Ali said. "This is possibly what the ruling party would have liked to see."

Television footage showed thousands of protesters clashing with police in central Delhi before reaching the iconic Red Fort, where Indian prime ministers typically address the nation on the country's independence day in August. Farmer leaders had called on protesters to stay peaceful, warning that any violence could hurt their cause.

"We also condemn and regret the undesirable and unacceptable events that have taken place today and dissociate ourselves from those indulging in such acts," the statement from the Samyukt Kisan Morcha said. "We have always held that peace is our biggest strength, and that any violation would hurt the movement."

India's federal Home Ministry suspended mobile Internet services in some parts of the city where the protests were most tense. Several metro stations were also shut down, although by Wednesday most stations had reopened.

Leaders of the protests had rejected Mr Modi's offers to temporarily shelve the three laws passed in September that overhauled the way farm goods are sold in the country of more than 1.3 billion people, almost half of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihood.

The government has defended the legislation, saying they would eliminate middlemen in state-run wholesale markets, increase earnings for farmers and make India more self-reliant.

The farmers have continued to call on the government to repeal the legislation, which they say will hurt their incomes and leave them vulnerable to big corporations.

While Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party has a lock on Parliament and doesn't need to call a national vote until 2024, the protests risk hurting his appeal in state elections and could halt momentum for other reforms.

The tractor rallies marked the first time the protesting farmers have marched into the capital. They are mostly from the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. But they have also found support in other Indian cities, including financial centres Mumbai and Bengaluru, where protest marches have also taken place.

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