New Delhi: The tractor march meant to highlight farmers’ demands dissolved into anarchy on the streets of the national capital on Tuesday as hordes of rampaging protesters broke through barriers, fought with police, overturned vehicles and hoisted a religious flag from the rampart of Red Fort, a privilege reserved for India’s tricolour.
Tens of thousands of protesters clashed with police in multiple places, leading to chaos in well-known landmarks of Delhi and suburbs.
In a Republic Day like no other, farmers atop tractors, on motorcycles and some on horses, broke barricades to enter the city at least two hours before they were supposed to start the tractor march at noon sanctioned by authorities. Steel and concrete barriers were broken and trailer trucks overturned as pitched battles broke out in several parts of the city.
Eclipsing the traditional show of military might at Rajpath, the farmers’ tractor parade that was supposed to be peaceful led to virtual anarchy on the streets and unprecedented scenes, the most perhaps being the sight of protesters clambering up the flagpole at the Red Fort and hoisting the Nishaan Sahib’, the Sikh religious flag.
Farmer leaders, who have been spearheading the protest at the national capital’s border points to demand a repeal of the farm laws, distanced themselves from the protests that had taken such an unseemly turn and threatened to shift public sympathy from their movement.
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of 41 farmer unions, alleged that some “antisocial elements” infiltrated their otherwise peaceful movement.
The union also condemned and regretted the “undesirable” and “unacceptable” events as the parade turned violent after several groups of farmers deviated from the pre-decided route for the march.
“We have always held that peace is our biggest strength, and that any violation would hurt the movement. We dissociate ourselves from all such elements that have violated our discipline. We appeal strongly to everyone to stick to the route and norms of the parade, and not indulge in any violent action or anything that taints national symbols and dignity. We appeal to everyone to desist from any such acts,” it added.
“We are trying to get a full picture of all the events with regard to the several parades that were planned today and will share a full statement soon. Our information is that apart from some regrettable violations, the parades are underway peacefully as per plan,” it said in a statement.
As the sun set, sporadic incidents of violence continued and restless crowds roamed the streets in many places. Some groups of farmers began the journey to their respective sit-in sites at Tikri, Singhu and Ghazipur, but thousands stayed on.
At the Red Fort, the Mughal era monument from the ramparts of which the prime minister addresses the nation on Independence Day, thousands of farmer stormed the ramparts and returned towards the evening, according to some reports. The protesters, many of them young, vocal and aggressive, were removed from the premises.
If police used teargas shells to disperse the restive crowds in some places, hundreds of farmers in ITO were seen chasing them with sticks and ramming their tractors into parked buses. A protester died after his tractor overturned.
ITO resembled a war zone with a car being vandalised by angry protesters and shells, bricks and stones littering the wide streets, testimony to the fact that the farmer movement that had been peaceful for two months was no longer so.
As the day progressed and thousands of farmers roamed restlessly, thousands more congregated at the Red Fort on foot, tractor and some even on horses — about four kilometres from ITO.
Pushed back by the police from ITO, some protesting farmers drove their tractors to Red Fort complex. Uniformed security personnel could be seen looking on as people gathered in larger numbers.
Though there were no immediate reports of injuries, ambulances could be seen entering the Red Fort complex. There was a mild lathi-charge with police removing protesting farmers from the Red Fort.
The tension was mirrored elsewhere in the city too.
Police baton charged farmers at Chintamani Chowk in Shahdara when they broke barricades and smashed window panes of cars. A group of ‘Nihangs’ (traditional Sikh warriors) clashed with security personnel near Akshardham Temple. And at Nangloi Chowk in west Delhi and at Mukarba Chowk farmers broke cemented barricades and police used tear gas to disperse them.
The day began on a celebratory note with farmers chanting ‘rang de basanti’ and ‘jai jawan jai kisan’ crossing the national border on tractors, motorbikes, horses and even cranes for their proposed parade.
Locals stood on both sides of the roads at various locations showering flower petals on the farmers amid drum beats.
Standing atop vehicles decked up with flags, protesters could be seen dancing to the tune of patriotic songs such as Aisa desh hai mera and Sare jahan se achcha .
But the mood changed soon after.
Delhi Police appealed to protesting farmers to not take law into their hands and maintain peace as the violence broke out.
The police also asked the farmers to head back to their pre-decided routes for the tractor parade.
Union Minister of Tourism and Culture Prahlad Patel condemned the actions of a section of farmers who entered the Red Fort as part of their tractor rally and said it violated the symbol of dignity of India’s democracy.
“The Red Fort is a symbol of the dignity of our democracy. The farmers should have stayed away from it. I condemn the violation of this dignity. It is sad and unfortunate,” Patel said in a tweet.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said violence is not the solution to any problem.
“If anyone gets hurt, the damage will be done to our country. Take back the anti-agricultural laws in national interest,” he said in a tweet in Hindi.
Taking up cudgels on behalf of the farmers, the CPI(M) lashed out at the Centre over the treatment meted out to protesting farmers during their tractor rally, and said tear gassing and lathicharging them is “unacceptable”.
The entry and exit gates of more than 10 metro stations in central and north Delhi were temporarily closed following the trouble.
Farmers, mostly from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, have been camping at several Delhi border points, including Tikri, Singhu and Ghazipur, since November 28, demanding a complete repeal of three farm laws and a legal guarantee on minimum support price for their crops.