New Delhi, India – Tens of thousands of Indian farmers have stormed the Mughal-era Red Fort complex in the national capital to demand the repeal of new farm laws, with the protest turning violent and resulting in at least one death.
A “tractor rally” called by the protesting farmers in New Delhi on Tuesday saw them clashing with police who fired tear gas and launched a baton-charge as the protesters broke barricades to march to the heart of the city amid Republic Day celebrations.
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For two months now, the farmers had been camping on the outskirts of New Delhi, asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to withdraw the contentious laws passed in September last year.
Defying elaborate security arrangements in place for the Republic Day military parade, the protesters entered the Red Fort, where the predominantly Sikh farmers also installed a religious flag.
Protesters install Nishan Sahib, flag of Sikhism, on Red Fort pic.twitter.com/t5EcG296xE
— Aakash Hassan (@AakashHassan) January 26, 2021
It is at the Red Fort that the Indian tricolour is hoisted on August 15 every year by India’s prime minister to mark the country’s independence from the British rule in 1947.
At least one farmer, who remains unidentified, has died during the protest and farmers have refused to hand over the body to the police. The cause of death is not clear yet.
The massive protests have also forced the shutting down of several metro stations, while internet services were suspended in many areas of the capital and its adjoining areas.
‘We will win or die’
Earlier on Tuesday morning, waving multicoloured flags and holding placards, the protesting farmers marched on tractors, cars, motorbikes, horses and on foot from the outskirts of the city, where they had been camping for two months.
“We will not surrender. We will win or die” read a placard, reflecting a sentiment that has galvanised the farmers against the new laws, which they say will destroy their livelihoods by allowing private companies to control the country’s vast agricultural sector.
As the farmers marched, men, women and children served them packaged water, fruits, juice and biscuits to them. People were seen recording the protest on their mobile phones.
Many student groups also came out in support of the farmers.
At Singhu border outside New Delhi, the epicentre of the weeks-long protest, hundreds of police and paramilitary forces were seen, some carrying sticks, assault rifles and tear gas, as a water cannon stood by.
Police blocked several routes to the capital with metal and concrete barricades, and trucks so that the marching farmers could only take the routes permitted by the authorities.
But the farmers decided to enter the capital ahead of the permitted time, resulting in police launching tear gas and baton attacks on them.
Virender Bhir Singh, a 52-year-old farmer, told Al Jazeera they had demanded a different route for their rally, but the permission was not granted.
“Police tried their best to stop us but couldn’t,” he said.
Tear gassing & lathicharging Kisans is unacceptable.
Why, after the Delhi Police & Samyukt Kisan Morcha agreement?
Why is the government provoking a confrontation.
They must allow the peaceful, agreed tractor parade to continue.https://t.co/oVwpEdWF6S
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) January 26, 2021
Gurbachan Singh, 73, from Amritsar in Punjab state who owns 12 acres (4.8 hectares) of land, slept on a tractor for the entire night, braving the freezing cold, so that he can take a lead in the tractor rally.
“They made these legislations and we will get them repealed,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the tractor rally was a “show of our togetherness and a show of strength”.
“I am not worried about my age and scared that I might get injured or hurt in the rally.”
Gurjant Singh from Goindwal in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district has been at the Singhu border protest site for the last 10 days.
“We will go back to our homes only when these legislations are taken back,” he said.
Multiple rounds of negotiations between the government and the farmers’ unions have failed. Farmers have also rejected the government’s offer to suspend the laws for 18 months.
Singh fears the laws will take away his land and livelihood. He defended the traditional system of government-controlled markets for their produce, sold through a commission agent.
“In the time of financial crisis, we seek help from commission agents. Even if we go to the agent in the middle of the night, they will help us. Will the big corporates do that?” he asked.
“If we do not want these laws, why is this government enforcing them on us? These legislations should have been made with the consent of farmers but they are imposing the laws on us.”