Farmers flood into New Delhi to vent anger over agriculture reforms

Thousands of farmers driving tractors have descended on New Delhi, overwhelming police attempts to beat them back in a sharp escalation of demonstrations against Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s agricultural reforms.

Demonstrators over-ran the city’s Red Fort, prompting clashes with police and the death of one protester. Local media reported that authorities suspended mobile telephone service in parts of the city.

Farmers have massed on the outskirts of the capital since late November in protest against three laws passed last year by Mr Modi’s government, which aim to overhaul India’s agricultural economy by allowing greater private sector competition.

The confrontations mark the biggest challenge to Mr Modi and his government in the months-long backlash, overshadowing the country’s annual Republic Day parade.

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While military contingents, elaborate floats and ceremonial dancers marched down New Delhi’s grand Rajpath boulevard on Tuesday morning — with the prime minister and other senior dignitaries in attendance — farmers and tractors poured in after overturning police barricades at the city’s boundaries.

Police responded with tear gas and charged the crowds with batons as protesters entered the centre of the city. Demonstrations elsewhere were peaceful.

Organisers estimated that more than 100,000 tractors and other vehicles had travelled to the capital, though police put the figure at 30,000, according to the Hindustan Times newspaper.

A farmer covers his face to protect himself from tear gas during protests in New Delhi on Tuesday © Reuters

The latest uptick in tensions risks further alienating the prime minister from India’s influential farm organisations. The majority of the country’s workforce depends on agriculture.

“While the state parade showcases the strength of the state, our parade showcases the strength of the people,” said Kiran Vissa, one of the organisers of the AIKSCC farmers’ group, which is organising parallel protests across the country.

“What we are saying is that farmers, and people supporting the whole farmers’ movement, are also patriotic. Our actions are actions of upholding democracy, the constitution and the national spirit,” he added.

The government has sought to negotiate with farmers, offering concessions such as suspending implementation of the reforms for 18 months. But attempts at compromise have failed as farmers demanded the laws be repealed.

The reforms aim to expand the role of agribusiness by allowing private trade outside of state-regulated markets. But protesting farmers argue the measures are a thinly veiled attempt to kill off the state-backed agricultural model on which they depend, and which includes government-mandated prices for some crops.

President Ram Nath Kovind, India’s ceremonial head of state, defended the legislation this week. “The path to reform at the initial stages may cause misapprehensions,” he said. “It is beyond doubt that the government remains singularly devoted to farmers’ welfare.”

Analysts said the way in which the laws were passed in September — rushed through parliament with minimal debate as India’s coronavirus outbreak peaked — inflamed the resistance, alienating those who might otherwise have been supportive.

“This is a direct challenge to the Modi government from arguably the most politically influential group in India,” said Amitabh Dubey, a political analyst at research firm TS Lombard.

Analysts said the protests highlighted the potential pitfalls inherent in Mr Modi’s leadership style. The premier has used his considerable popularity and personal charisma to champion controversial social and economic reforms with limited efforts at building consensus.

A citizenship law passed in 2019 also sparked months of nationwide protest from critics who said it discriminated against Muslims.

Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party viewed its 2019 re-election “as a mandate to implement whatever policies they wanted to implement”, Mr Dubey said. “Once [the protest] begins to spread, it’s a serious problem for the BJP.”

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