Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made an unscheduled visit to a Sikh temple in New Delhi, kneeling in respect and taking pictures with visitors at a time when the community is leading massive protests against his farm reforms.
At least 25 people have died during the protests against the three laws – approved by Parliament in September – so far, police said; several deaths were due to the biting cold weather.
Modi, whose security detail often keeps him far from the general public, prayed at the Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib on Sunday, interacted with Sikh religious leaders there and obliged visitors seeking to take pictures with him.
The temple, near Parliament House, was where Sikh saint Guru Teg Bahadur was cremated.
“I felt extremely blessed,” Modi said on Twitter.
But while some social media users and his party colleagues welcomed Modi’s visit to the shrine like a “common man, without any restrictions”, others urged him to try and end the protests.
“A request to @narendramodi please visit #FarmersProtests site as well where #Farmers are peacefully protesting,” a Twitter user posted.
Thousands of protesting farmers, mainly from Sikh-dominated Punjab and neighbouring Haryana, have been blocking highways into New Delhi for the past three weeks demanding a repeal of the new fam laws, which the government says will expand the agriculture market and are crucial to boosting storage and other infrastructure.
Many farmers in their sixties or older are sleeping in the open, braving the harsh winter weather camped in their tractors and trailers parked bumper to bumper along the highways.
Farmers in India and the diaspora have rallied against the recent deregulation of agriculture markets.
They fear the move will erode farm incomes by giving a greater say to profit-chasing private companies, and eventually do away with the minimum support price that the government sets for sale of crops in government-regulated wholesale markets.
The protesters have repeatedly rebuffed Modi and his ministers’ attempts to reach a compromise, in what has become the biggest challenge from the country’s farmers in his six-year rule.
On Wednesday, a 65-year-old Sikh priest took his own life at one of the protest sites, leaving behind a note in which he spoke of feeling the pain of the struggling farmers and his decision to “sacrifice himself” for their fight.
This morning, I prayed at the historic Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib, where the pious body of Sri Guru Teg Bahadur Ji was cremated. I felt extremely blessed. I, like millions around the world, am deeply inspired by the kindnesses of Sri Guru Teg Bahadur Ji. pic.twitter.com/ECveWV9JjR
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 20, 2020
Union leaders will continue protest to next year
On Friday, as he addressed a farmers’ rally in Madhya Pradesh via video call, Modi said his government was willing to address the farmers’ concerns, but rejected their demand to repeal the new laws.
The prime minister accused opposition parties of spreading fear that the new laws would drive down crop prices and lead to corporations exploiting farmers.
“If anyone has any concerns, then with our heads bowed, our hands folded, with humility, we are willing to allay their fears by discussing contentious issues,” Modi told the farmers.
The government’s rivals were “spreading lies for their own political gain. They are using the farmers’ shoulders to fire their guns”, he added.
Union leaders say they will take the action into the new year, and have threatened to cripple the capital with a huge rally involving tractors on January 26, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to be a special guest at the annual Republic Day celebrations.
“If anyone has any concerns, then with our heads bowed, our hands folded, with humility, we are willing to allay their fears by discussing contentious issues,” Modi told farmers supporting the legislation.
According to the UN, agriculture is the largest source of livelihoods in India.
But in recent decades farm incomes have stagnated and the farmers face a growing debt crisis, while experts say the sector badly needs investment and modernisation.