NEW DELHI (INDIA) – While India celebrated it’s 72nd Republic Day on Tuesday, it’s capital city was on fire as thousands of Indian farmers protesting against agricultural reforms breached barricades and stormed the historic Red Fort complex in the capital and hoisted flags after clashing with police. The police in return resorted to firing tear gas to scatter them.
The chaos on the outskirts of the capital were a sharp contrast with televised images of the annual Republic Day parade in the city centre. Thousands of farmers, braving the chilling winter, drove a convoy of tractors adorned with Indian flag along the city fringe.
The body of one protester who died after the tractor he rode overturned in one of the clashes was draped in the Indian tricolour. The body lay in a central Delhi street said witness, Vishu Arora.
“He died right there,” Arora added.
Witnesses state they saw at least five police and three protesters injured at the Red Fort. Some of the protesters who scaled its walls carried ceremonial swords.
The farmers took to the streets to protest after a law was passed which they say help large, private buyers at the expense of producers. The angered growers have been camping outside New Delhi for almost two months, posing one of the biggest challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he came to power in 2014.
“Modi will hear us now, he will have to hear us now,” said Sukhdev Singh, 55, a farmer from the northern state of Punjab, who was among hundreds of protesters, some on horseback, who broke away from a key route of a tractor convoy by protesters.
The protester’s from the city’s north headed towards the government buildings in its centre. They took control of cranes and used ropes to take down roadblocks, forcing constables in riot gear to give way.
A second group rode tractors to get to a key central traffic junction, also breaching barricades after similar clashes with police. Domestic television channels showed images of several bloodied protesters.
Protest organiser Samyukt Kisan Morcha, however, said the groups swerving from set routes did not represent the majority of farmers.
“None of the leaders disappeared,” the grouping of farm unions said in a statement. “They are following the set routes.”
Agriculture employs about half of India’s population of 1.3 billion, and unrest among an estimated 150 million land owning farmers has unsettled the government. Despite nine rounds of talks with farmers’ unions, it has failed to end the protests. Farm leaders rejected the government’s offer to delay the laws for 18 months, and made the push for repeal instead.
“The farm organisations have a very strong hold,” said Ambar Kumar Ghosh, an analyst at New Delhi think tank the Observer Research Foundation.
“They have the resources to mobilise support, and to continue the protest for a long time. They have also been very successful in keeping the protest really focused.”