Thousands of farmers from Punjab and Haryana, seeking repeal of newly enacted farm laws and assurances from the Centre on the MSP regime and the mandi system, reached the gates of Delhi Friday where police used tear gas, water cannons and lathis to block their march.
The showdown between police and the protesting farmers, who showed up in hundreds of vehicles, tractors and trolleys, took place at the Singhu border on GT Karnal Road. By afternoon, police stepped back, allowing farmers to head to the Nirankari Ground in Burari, less than a kilometre away. Many farmers, though, appeared reluctant to move, and were still at the border late evening.
With the Centre making no new effort to reach out to the farmers — Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, reiterating that farmer organisations had been called for another round of talks on December 3, urged protesters to return in view of Covid-19 and winter — Delhi Police sought permission from the Delhi government to use nine stadiums as makeshift detention centres.
The Delhi government, however, turned down the police request. A note signed by Home Minister Satyendar Jain stated:
“Non-violent protest is every India’s Constitutional right. They can’t be jailed because of it.”
Police deployment at Singhu border had been heavy since early morning, and barbed wires and huge slabs of concrete were placed in the middle of GT Karnal Road. More than 30 concrete barriers were placed on both sides of the highway, alongside steel barricades laced with barbed wires. Behind the barricades, hundreds of personnel of Delhi Police and Rapid Action Force waited anxiously.
Two water cannon trucks, a fire tender and a tear gas ammunition vehicle too were stationed there. From a makeshift tower next to the Alipur police post, policemen turned to aerial surveillance, and at least two drones monitored the protests from above.
Before the showdown with police, Akhil Singh, a farmer from Ambala, said: “The farm laws have threatened our very existence. The kind of future we are looking at, we do not mind protesting however long it takes. We are facing police action, yes, but we will brave it out till a solution is reached. We have enough supplies, and are self-sufficient.”
As the farmers began moving towards the barricades around 9 am, police used more than 20 tear gas shells to force them back. Officers said this was done to maintain 100 metres between the protest site and the barricades. Water cannons were also deployed to push back the protesters.
As tear gas shells began raining, people took shelter in narrow lanes alongside the highway. Some protesters rushed to pour water on the shells while others tried to make another dash towards the barricades. Eateries and shops along the road remained closed.
Post 12.30 pm, more than 40 tear gas shells were lobbed, and the water cannons returned. As smoke filled the air, the crowds dispersed momentarily. Around 3 pm, there was lathi charge at the barricades.
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It was around 3.30 pm that Delhi Police agreed to let protesters into the Nirankari Ground. But until 5.30 pm, the crowd was reluctant to head there. Police wanted them to move ahead in batches.
At Nirankari Ground, police waited for farmers to arrive from Singhu and Tikri borders. But by evening, only a few members of the Shiromani Akali Dal and AIKSCC had gathered at the site. Jugraj Singh, a farmer from Ropar, who had reached the ground after a long journey, said: “We left two days ago and reached Delhi on Thursday morning when the border was not sealed. The journey was tough because police personnel beat us up near the Haryana border. They dug pits on the road where my car got stuck for a while. We somehow managed to reach Delhi and were staying at Bangla Sahib but police picked us up around 3 am. We were taken to Hari Nagar police station and released at 4 pm today.”
At Singhu border, Jasmeet Singh, a farmer from Ambala, refused to move: “It’s simple — either we go together or we don’t. All of us have come from so far and people cannot be left behind. We are here to stay and we don’t mind if they fortify the entire area.”
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As darkness descended, hundreds of tractors remained parked on the highway at Singhu, bags with clothes, mattresses, blankets, shawls and water kegs kept inside. Some from the crowd started preparing food and small langars were set up to serve rice, chapatis, dal and potatoes.
In Delhi, the police attempt to turn stadiums into makeshift detention centres drew a sharp reaction from AAP MLAs.
“The Delhi Police has rejected permission of all farmer organizations for the protest and informed them that due to Covid-19, on the instructions of DDMA (Delhi Disaster Management Authority), any kind of rally and dharna is not allowed in this area. Legal action would be taken against violators,” Delhi Police spokesperson Dr Eish Singhal said.
AAP MLA Saurabh Bhardwaj, in a Twitter post, said: “I think it’s a most inhuman thing we can do to our farmers. Delhi Police should stop calling themselves- ‘Dil ki police’.”