NEW DELHI – Tens of thousands of protesting farmers drove long lines from tractors into the Indian capital on Tuesday, breaking police barriers, defying tear gas and storming the historic Red Fort as the nation celebrated Republic Day.
They waved union flags and religious flags on which the prime ministers hoist the national flag annually to mark the country’s independence.
The deeply symbolic act of taking over the monument was broadcast live on hundreds of news outlets. People watched in shock as the peasant protests were now the main challenge facing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Thousands of other peasants marched or rode on horseback while shouting slogans against Modi. In some places, they were showered with flower petals by residents who recorded the protests on their cell phones.
Police said a protester died after his tractor overturned, but farmers said he was shot. TV channels showed several bloody protesters.
Farmer leaders said more than 10,000 tractors had joined the protest.
For almost two months, farmers – many of them Sikhs from the states of Punjab and Haryana – have been encamping on the outskirts of the capital, blocking highways connecting them to the north of the country in a riot that has rocked the government.
They are calling for the repeal of new laws that they believe will commercialize agriculture and destroy revenues.
“We want to show Modi our strengths,” said Satpal Singh, a farmer who drove with his family of five to the capital on a tractor. “We will not surrender.”
The riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at numerous points to push back the rows of tractors. Authorities blocked roads to prevent farmers from reaching the center of the capital. However, thousands managed to get to some major attractions.
“We will do what we want. You cannot impose your laws on the poor,” said Manjeet Singh, a protesting farmer.
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The authorities have closed some metro stations and suspended mobile internet services in parts of the capital.
The government insists that the agrarian reform laws passed by parliament in September will benefit farmers and increase production through private investment.
The farmers tried to march into New Delhi in November but were stopped by the police. Since then, unimpressed by the winter cold, they have settled on the outskirts of town and threatened to besiege it if farm laws are not lifted.
The government has offered to change the law and suspend its implementation for 18 months. But farmers insist that they settle for nothing less than a complete repeal.
The protests overshadowed Republic Day celebrations, which mark the anniversary of the adoption of India’s Constitution on January 26, 1950. Modi led a traditional parade showcasing the country’s military might and cultural diversity, albeit scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Since returning to power for a second term, Modi’s government has been rocked by several convulsions, including a flagging economy, growing social divisions and a criticized pandemic.
Agriculture supports more than half of India’s 1.4 billion people. But the economic clout of farmers has waned over the past few decades. Farmers used to produce a third of India’s gross domestic product and now account for just 15 percent of the country’s $ 2.9 trillion economy.