Protests in India Turn Violent as Angry Farmers Clash With Police

Protests in India Turn Violent as Angry Farmers Clash With Police

Protests in India Turn Violent as Angry Farmers Clash With Police

Protests in India Turn Violent as Angry Farmers Clash With Police

NEW DELHI — Thousands of protesting farmers poured into New Delhi on Tuesday, using their tractors to pull apart barricades and challenging government forces who fired tear gas, blocked internet access and charged demonstrators with bamboo sticks to bring some order to a capital that felt under siege.

It was the most violent escalation in two months of generally peaceful protests that have tested the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in unprecedented ways, forcing it to offer concessions to aggrieved farmers on new market-friendly laws that were intended overhaul the country’s agriculture sector. But the farmers have insisted on nothing short of repealing the laws that were pushed through Parliament in September, leaving them, they say, vulnerable to corporate greed.

The deadlock boiled over in what — for Mr. Modi at least — was an embarrassing showdown that came on a national holiday and in the midst of a pandemic and economic slowdown that have also challenged his leadership.

As Mr. Modi, in a red turban, saluted his officers and watched his country’s latest warplanes fly over a grand parade marking 72 years since India’s inception as a republic, protesters riding atop tens of thousands of tractors were dismantling barricades and rumbling toward the city center.

By late evening, at least one person had died and many parts of the city seemed unnerved. Farm leaders, who had promised their march would be peaceful but had clearly lost control, distanced themselves from the violence and appealed to the protesters to return to the campsites they have occupied for the past two months at the capital’s borders.

The Delhi police said 86 members of its force were wounded.

“Farmer agitators broke the agreed terms and started their march much before the agreed time,” the Delhi police said in a statement. “The agitators chose the path of violence and destruction.”

Several rounds of talks between the farmers and the government over the new laws failed to bring a resolution. By choosing to carry out the tractor march on a day that eyes would be fixed on New Delhi for the parade (guests in previous years included the presidents of the United States, Russia, and France), the farmers were aiming for a show of force.

But by the end of Tuesday, attention was focused on the chaos and clashes, and it was unclear whether the farmers had flexed their muscles or weakened their position. Until now, their cause had drawn wide popular support for how disciplined the tens of thousands farmers had remained during two months camping out in the cold and rain.

As the farm protests have grown in size in recent weeks, Mr. Modi’s government offered to amend some parts of the new laws, which it said were intended to inject private investment into the troubled sector. The country’s highest court also intervened, ordering the government to suspend the laws until it found a resolution with the protesters.

But the farmers said they would not take anything less than a complete repeal, and pressed on with their tractor march into the city. The government even made a failed, last-ditch effort to get the high court to restrain the farmers on security grounds.

Tensions were high leading up to Tuesday, with some officials claiming that the protests had been infiltrated by insurgent elements who would resort to violence. Just days earlier, the farmers’ leaders brought in front of the media a young man they claimed to have detained on suspicion of plotting to shoot the leaders and disrupt the rally. Neither set of claims could be independently verified.

On the eve of the event, leaders of the farming unions insisted that they would carry out a peaceful march with about 150,000 tractors, and that more than 3,000 volunteers would ensure the routes negotiated with the Delhi police would be followed. Maps of the routes suggested a compromise that could allow the protesters to enter the city but not get close to sensitive institutions.

The farmers even announced their next event: a march on foot to the Indian Parliament on Feb. 1, when the country’s new budget will be presented. Whether that protest will proceed after Tuesday’s violence was unclear.

“Remember, our aim is not to conquer Delhi, but to win over the hearts of the people of this country,” the farmers said in instructions posted online for marchers, who were told not to carry weapons — “not even sticks” — and to avoid provocative slogans and banners.

“The trademark of this agitation has been that it’s peaceful,” Balbir Singh Rajewal, one of the movement’s main leaders, said late Monday. “My request to our farmer brothers, to our youth, is that they keep this movement peaceful. The government is spreading rumors, the agencies have started misguiding people. Beware of it.”

“If we remain peaceful, we’ve won,” he added. “If we turn violent, Modi will win.”

But soon into the march, it became clear the leaders had lost control.

At the city’s border with the village of Ghazipur, one of the spots where farmers have camped, tractors pushed aside a shipping container blocking their route as the police stood by. Elsewhere, thick clouds of tear gas rose over approved march routes as farmers on tractors, horseback and foot forcefully began their rally hours ahead of schedule, or tried to go off the ring road and push their way toward the city center.

“What will the government do now?” said Anil Kumar, 52, an electrician who watched the chaos from the roadside with his 6-year-old son. “Even if you are in a family and three people agree with something and one person doesn’t, you have to find a way. The laws might be good. But if you are the prime minister, in a big position, you have to convince these people.”

Large groups of tractors and protesters broke away from the approved protest routes — tipping over buses and clashing with overwhelmed police officers armed with bamboo batons — as they marched toward central Delhi.

The Delhi police commanders deployed officers with assault rifles deeper into the routes as they tried to guard key roads. But they appeared to be outnumbered and largely helpless. In some areas, police officers beat protesters with their sticks to push them back.

The farmers managed to breach the Red Fort, the iconic palace that once served as the residence of India’s Mughal rulers, and hoisted a flag atop the fort that is often flown on Sikh temples. A large number of the protesting farmers are from Punjab, a predominantly Sikh part of the country. Many carried long swords, tridents, sharp daggers and battle axes — functional if largely ceremonial weapons customary to some Sikh sects.

Many of the protesters were maskless, shunning a basic protection against Covid-19 infection that risked turning the march into a super-spreader event.

By noon, some wondered if the tractor march was actually a ploy by the farmers to finally enter the capital and stay until their demands were met. In a movement that felt leaderless, some of the protesters suggested that was exactly their wish.

“Once we make it inside Delhi, we’re not going anywhere until Modi repeals the law,” said Happy Sharma, a farmer from the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh who was among 27 people riding in a trailer behind a tractor. “Modi is a thief!”

“No, Modi is not a thief,” another farmer next to him interrupted. “He is surrounded by thieves who have him by the neck.”

Some of the most violent clashes occurred at a junction near India’s income-tax office and an old headquarters of the police force as protesters tried to force their way toward the city center. Angry farmers retreated and drove their tractors on a side road that led away from the city, only after the police fired several volleys of tear gas.

Local television channels showed farmers placing the body of a protester in the middle of a road nearby. They said the man had been shot, but that could not be independently verified. New York Times reporters in the area saw wounded people carried away who said they had been hurt when a tractor tipped over. CCTV footage that aired on local television showed one tractor flipping after crashing into a police barricade at high speed.

Jeffrey Gettleman contributed reporting.

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