The Daily Courier

Angry farmers storm India’s Red Fort in challenge to Modi


NEW DELHI — Tens of thousands of protesting farmers marched, rode horses and drove long lines of tractors into India’s capital on Tuesday, breaking through police barricades to storm the historic Red Fort — a deeply symbolic act that revealed the scale of their challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

As the country celebrated Republic Day, they waved farm union and religious flags from the ramparts of the fort, where prime ministers annually hoist the national flag on the country’s August independen­ce day holiday. Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons and set up barricades in attempt to prevent the protesters from reaching the centre of New Delhi, but the demonstrat­ors broke through in many places.

People watched in shock as the takeover of the fort, which was built in the 17th century and served as the palace of Mughal emperors, was shown live on hundreds of news channels. Protesters, some carrying ceremonial swords, ropes and sticks, overwhelme­d the police trying to stop them.

The farmers have been protesting for nearly two months, demanding the withdrawal of new laws that they say will favour large corporate farms and devastate the earnings of smaller scale farmers.

The contentiou­s legislatio­n has exacerbate­d existing resentment from farmers, who have long been seen as the heart and soul of India but often complain of being ignored by the government.

“We want to show Modi our strength,” said Satpal Singh, a farmer who drove into the capital on a tractor along with his family of five. “We will not surrender.”

Thousands more farmers marched on foot or rode on horseback while shouting slogans against Modi. At some places, they were showered with flower petals by residents who recorded the unpreceden­ted protest on their phones.

Leaders of the farmers said more than 10,000 tractors joined the protest, and authoritie­s tried to hold back the rows upon rows of tractors, which shoved aside concrete and steel barricades. Authoritie­s also used large trucks and buses to block roads, but thousands of protesters managed to reach some important landmarks.

Police said one protester died after his tractor overturned, but farmers said he was shot. Television channels showed several bloodied protesters.

Farmers — many of them Sikhs from Punjab and Haryana states — tried to march into New Delhi in November but were stopped by police. Since then, unfazed by the winter cold, they have hunkered down at the edge of the city and threatened to besiege it if the farm laws are not repealed.

“We will do as we want to. You cannot force your laws on the poor,” said Manjeet Singh, a protesting farmer.

The government insists that the agricultur­e reform laws passed by Parliament in September will benefit farmers and boost production through private investment.

Still, the government has offered to amend the laws and suspend their implementa­tion for 18 months. But farmers insist they will settle for nothing less than a complete repeal. They plan to march on foot to Parliament on Feb. 1, when the country’s new budget will be presented.

Farmers are the latest group to upset Modi’s image of imperturba­ble dominance in Indian politics.

Since returning to power for a second term, Modi’s government has been rocked by several convulsion­s. The economy has tanked, social strife has widened, protests have erupted against discrimina­tory laws and his government has been questioned over its response to the pandemic.

Agricultur­e supports more than half of the country’s 1.4 billion people. But the economic clout of farmers has diminished over the last three decades. Once producing a third of India’s gross domestic product, farmers now account for only 15% of the country’s $2.9 trillion economy.

More than half of farmers are in debt, with 20,638 killing themselves in 2018 and 2019, according to official records.

Devinder Sharma, an agricultur­e expert who has spent the last two decades campaignin­g for income equality for Indian farmers, said they are not only protesting the reforms but also “challengin­g the entire economic design of the country.”

“The anger that you see is compounded anger,” Sharma said. “Inequality is growing in India and farmers are becoming poorer. Policy planners have failed to realize this and have sucked the income from the bottom to the top. The farmers are only demanding what is their right.”

Modi has tried to allay farmers’ fears by mostly dismissing their concerns and has repeatedly accused opposition parties of agitating them by spreading rumours. Some leaders of his party have called the farmers “anti-national,” a label often given to those who criticize Modi or his policies.

The protests overshadow­ed Republic Day celebratio­ns, in which Modi oversaw a traditiona­l lavish parade along ceremonial Rajpath boulevard displaying the country’s military power and cultural diversity. Authoritie­s shut some metro train stations, and mobile internet service was suspended in some parts of the capital, a frequent government tactic.

 ?? The Associated Press ?? Protesting farmers drive their tractors over road dividers as they march to the capital breaking police barricades during India’s Republic Day celebratio­ns in New Delhi, India, Tuesday.
The Associated Press Protesting farmers drive their tractors over road dividers as they march to the capital breaking police barricades during India’s Republic Day celebratio­ns in New Delhi, India, Tuesday.

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