The two-month-old protest by farmer unions, camping at the gates of Delhi to seek the repeal of new agriculture laws, descended into chaos on Republic Day when hundreds of protesters, breaking away from a planned tractor rally on the city’s outskirts, felled barriers at the borders, clashed with police to enter the Capital, and stormed the Red Fort to unfurl the Nishan Sahib, the religious flag of the Sikhs.
One protester died when his tractor overturned while ramming a road barrier at ITO, and scores were injured, among them at least 150 police personnel, as mobs resorted to violence and vandalism while forcing their way in, around the time the Republic Day parade was underway on Rajpath. The parade remained unaffected by the turn of events elsewhere.
As night fell, the Red Fort was secured, the flags removed and protesters made to vacate the premises. As authorities planned a crackdown, there was some dialling down of temperature. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the umbrella organisation of farmer unions – the majority from Punjab — spearheading the protests, distanced itself from the groups that had forced their way into the Capital. Most tractors began heading out of the city, but a small crowd remained outside the Red Fort, chanting slogans.
Officials said a “serious assessment” of the day’s events was underway even as authorities brought in reinforcements. Additional forces from paramilitary units were being deployed and Internet services were suspended in the areas of Singhu, Ghazipur, Tikri, Mukarba Chowk, Nangloi and adjoining areas for 12 hours to “restore order”.
Sources said five additional companies (around 500 personnel) of the CRPF would be assisting the Delhi Police. These would be in addition to 115 companies of the paramilitary force already at the disposal of Delhi Police for law and order duties. Fifteen of these companies had been pressed into duty Monday.
Late Tuesday, a police officer said 13 FIRs — three each in East, West and Dwarka districts, two in Outer-North, one each in Shahdara and North district – had been registered under sections relating to rioting and damage of public property.
Wielding sticks and swords, many among the protesters attacked policemen who tried to stop them. At most places, the policemen appeared outnumbered and had to retreat as the protesters advanced.
Shaken by the unruly scenes, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, in a statement, said: “We thank farmers for the unprecedented participation in today’s Farmers Republic Day Parade. We also condemn and regret the undesirable and unacceptable events that have taken place today and dissociate ourselves from those indulging in such acts.”
“Despite all our efforts, some organisations and individuals have violated the route and indulged in condemnable acts. Anti-social elements had infiltrated the otherwise peaceful movement. We have always held that peace is our biggest strength, and that any violation would hurt the movement,” it said.
As the Union Home Ministry called a meeting to take stock, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, in a Twitter post, said: “Shocking scenes in Delhi. The violence by some elements is unacceptable. It’ll negate goodwill generated by peacefully protesting farmers. Kisan leaders have disassociated themselves & suspended #TractorRally. I urge all genuine farmers to vacate Delhi & return to borders.”
Until Monday night, police and farm leaders had come to an agreement to march from Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur along three designated routes before returning to the protest sites. The agreement, though, was breached by 8 am Tuesday as farmers at the three sites used tractors to knock down police barricades and began moving towards central Delhi.
Despite farmers breaching the barricades at Singhu, the largest protest site, the march was initially peaceful, with policemen watching from the sidelines and the youth forming a chain to prevent participants from moving ahead on their own or picking up sticks from the roadside. But some in the crowd decided to take a different direction.
“We have to go beyond the barricades. The decision of our leaders will be final, but the police cannot stop us if we want to move ahead. The farmers are the backbone of this nation. If the government will not listen to them, how will it understand the concerns of youth,” 23-year-old Parminder Singh, a resident of Gurdaspur, said, minutes after the march began.
When they reached the Karnal bypass, several protesters refused to proceed on the designated route. Police personnel at the spot repeatedly asked them to follow the route, but the protesters were adamant.
“This is the biggest highway of the country which has got blocked now. Please follow the given route. Nobody is stopping you,” Additional Commissioner of Police Ajit Kumar Singla appealed to Satnam Singh Pannu, president of Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, during the talks.
Pannu, however, sought permission to move towards the Ring Road. “We will go on the road and come back. We want the government to listen to us,” he told Singla, and gave him half an hour to decide on the demand.
Ten minutes after a second meeting between the two sides, there was a commotion with many protesters climbing atop barricades to cross over. Protesters were also seen using lathis and stones to chase policemen. A youth twice used his kirpan to place it before a teargas gun to prevent a policeman from targeting the protesters.
Farmers then removed containers and trucks placed on the road by police and the tractor march continued towards Ring Road. It halted again just outside the GTK Road Depot, and the crowd took a U-turn. Minutes later, it was on the Outer Ring Road.
A sea of tractors lined the road and protesters walked on foot too — towards a destination which many had not decided on. Once they reached near Kashmere Gate, they halted to decide where to go. By then, word of some farmers from Ghazipur having entered the Red Fort had spread, and so the crowd of thousands also decided to move towards the historic monument. By 2 pm, hundreds of men were scattered across the gardens outside the fort, and some atop it with flags.
“This is to show the government that we can do anything — what more can we do to make them hear us now? We can go to any extent to make the government listen to us, but we will also see what our leaders decide,” said Sanampreet, a 20-year-old, among the first to enter the fort.
With police personnel outnumbered, many could be seen scrambling for cover as the protesters had a free run of the monument. There was vandalism near the ticket counters as protesters ran amok, smashing the panes. Two policemen were rushed out, bleeding from the head. A police vehicle was attacked and damaged.
Similar scenes were witnessed at the two other protest sites. At Tikri, farmers broke through barricades around 9 am. As protesters reached Nangloi, the situation spiralled into violence, with a part of the crowd breaking through barricades twice, after intermittent clashes with police for two hours which saw teargas shells being fired repeatedly.
Police vans were vandalised by protesters who had armed themselves with sticks and shields of police personnel.
At Ghazipur, volunteers and coordinators were stationed on one side, beneath the flyover, which was to be the designated point from where tractors were to begin their forward movement before turning right towards Anand Vihar. But a set of tractors left the site before the designated time, using alternate paths and heading towards central Delhi by going past Akshardham.
According to coordinators at the site, this break in the gathering at Ghazipur likely occurred because, despite guidelines by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the number of protesters far exceeded their expectations.
By noon, hundreds of protesters had poured into ITO, not far from the old police headquarters.
Farmers claimed they tried to convince police to let them march until Red Fort, but were met with lathi charge and teargas. Police, on the other hand, said farmers had outnumbered their personnel and were hell-bent on violence, chasing policemen with weapons and driving tractors rashly.
In a statement, Delhi Police Additional PRO Anil Mittal said “farmers led by Nihangs on their horses, fully equipped with deadly weapons like swords and kirpans, charged the police and broke several layers of barricades, which were erected between Mukarba Chowk and Transport Nagar. Similar incidents were reported from Ghazipur and Tikri Borders. The farmers at Ghazipur border broke the barricades at several points and headed towards ITO, where they were joined by farmers who had come from Singhu border.”
Mittal said the arrival of reinforcements after the conclusion of the Republic Day parade helped bring the situation under control and police succeeded in stopping protesters from entering New Delhi district.
– With Deeptiman Tiwary, Ashna Butani and Abhinav Rajput
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