Indian farmers on Wednesday called off a march to parliament on February 1, the day the government’s budget was announced, following heavy clashes with police a day earlier that left one person dead and hundreds injured.
Tens of thousands of farmers camped on the outskirts of New Delhi for two months to demand the withdrawal of three farm laws passed last year, which they say benefit big private buyers at the expense of producers.
On Tuesday, a tractor protest parade on the outskirts of the capital to coincide with the Republic Day celebrations turned into chaos as some farmers diverged from agreed routes and crossed barricades.
Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the agricultural union group organizing the protests, condemned the violence that saw protesters – some wearing ceremonial swords – breaking into the historic Red Fort complex as police used tear gas and batons to constrain them.
He said on Wednesday that the unions would hold rallies and a hunger strike on Saturday, but that there would be no events scheduled for Monday, when Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is due to present the annual budget.
“Our march to parliament has been postponed,” farm chief Balbir Rajewal told a press conference. “[But] our movement will continue.
In a separate press conference, Delhi Police Chief SN Srivastava said 394 policemen and gendarmes were injured in the violence.
“The violence happened because the terms and conditions were not respected,” he said. “Farmer heads have been implicated in the violence.”
More than 25 criminal cases have been filed, with 19 arrests and 50 people detained to date, Srivastava added.
It is not known how many protesters were injured, but a farmer died after his tractor overturned during the clashes.
Leaders of the farmers’ unions lamented the violent turn of the protests, saying it undermined their cause.
“These incidents have only delayed our fight,” said farmer chief Darshan Pal.
Agriculture employs around half of India’s population of 1.3 billion and the unrest among some 150 million landowning farmers is one of the biggest tests Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced since. coming to power in 2014.
As protests begin to undermine support for Modi in the countryside, he retains a solid majority in parliament and his government has shown no sign of complying with farmers’ demands.
The government says agriculture laws will open up new opportunities for farmers.
‘It all happened suddenly’
In a huge “tractor rally” on Tuesday, several hundred protesters passed through the outer walls of Delhi’s Red Fort – one of its most recognizable landmarks – before hoisting flags from the ramparts and colliding with the police.
Among those who reached the fort was Vikramjit Singh, who said farmers did not initially plan to storm the historic complex, a favorite tourist attraction where prime ministers deliver the annual speech on the day of the independence.
“No one had called to go to the Red Fort,” said Singh, a farmer in the Tarn Taran district of Punjab. “It all happened suddenly.
The events came after the leaders of the protest had lengthy discussions with police and promised a huge but peaceful rally along a predetermined route.
Balbir Singh Rajewal, a leader of the protest, said the protests were hijacked by a tiny minority.
“Ninety-nine percent of the protesters were peaceful,” he told reporters.
Police evacuated protesters from the Fort Rouge compound on Tuesday evening, but a strong security presence remained on Wednesday.
Roads through New Delhi remained closed while additional police, including paramilitary units, were at the protest sites on the outskirts.
The government blocked the internet in parts of the capital and mobile speeds were low.
Farm leaders in Odisha state in eastern Gujarat state said on Wednesday they would continue to support protesters in Delhi.
“We have already made it clear that we want all three agricultural bills to be repealed,” said Raman Randhawa, an agricultural leader in the state of Rajasthan.
“We will not back down until the laws are completely repealed by the government.”