The skirmishes started at around 8am when a group of farmers from Singhu at the Delhi-Haryana border deviated from the planned route and tried to march towards the outer ring road. Soon after, another group pulled down the barricades at Ghazipur at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border and moved towards Delhi, prompting the police to charge with their batons and lob tear gas shells.
A tractor overturned at the busy ITO crossing in Delhi, killing Navneet Singh, a young protestor from Uttarakhand. Some protestors stormed the historic Red Fort and hoisted a Sikh religious flag.
Hundreds of thousands of farmers from states such as Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have camped on the outskirts of Delhi and have been protesting peacefully since end-November demanding a repeal of three laws passed in September. So far, more than 150 farmers have died due to the winter chill and road accidents.
The violence on Tuesday could, however, put the movement and its leaders in a spot.
Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), the coalition of farmer unions leading the agitation, distanced itself from the violence. “Despite all our efforts, some organizations and individuals violated the route and indulged in condemnable acts... we have always held that peace is our biggest strength, and any violation would hurt the movement," the unions said in a statement.
It added that a long period of struggle spanning more than six months in Punjab and over two months at Delhi’s borders seem to have led to the situation.
“Today’s events were a result of the rising temper and anxiety among restive youth and the inability of SKM to include their views. But there is little doubt the protests will continue at Delhi’s borders," said Amandeep Sandhu, author of the book ‘Panjab: Journeys through Fault Lines’, who has tracked the agitation closely.
“The breach of peace on Republic Day would certainly hurt the movement... but even if this turn of events gives the government an upper hand, the fact that such a large population in a sensitive state like Punjab is dissatisfied is a cause of great worry," said a former top secretary to the government who did not want to be named.
The violence will likely delay any resolution to the ongoing deadlock. After 11 rounds of talks, the government initially proposed to amend the laws and then offered to suspend them for up to 18 months. The unions rejected both.
On the eve of the tractor parade, the unions also announced their next course of action—a foot march to Parliament on 1 February when the government presents its annual budget. But Tuesday’s violence could put a lid on any future show of strength.
“The movement had stayed peaceful and disciplined so far, but what happened during the tractor march was due to a failure on the part of the government to understand and assuage the anger on ground," said Himanshu, an associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. “The tension around these laws is firmly rooted in the realm of political economy...and the battle will now shift inside the Parliament when the budget session commences this week."
It remains to be seen how the apex court perceives Tuesday’s events and whether it will allow farmers to continue with their protests. The court on 12 January put a stay on the three laws and formed an expert panel, which is expected to submit a report by end-March.
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