Protests At India’s Historic Red Fort Prompts Response From Modi

A tractor parade that went awry on 26 January – India’s Republic Day, marking the 72nd-anniversary of the country adopting its constitution – has prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first public comments on the long-standing protests led by farmers. Over 100,000 farmers across 20 states and 10,000 tractors had reportedly gathered in central Delhi, where that day’s parade was held, in protest of the latest agriculture laws passed by Parliament in September 2020. Thousands more farmers had joined in, marching on foot or riding on horseback, shouting slogans against Modi (NBC). 

However, tear gas and water cannon blasts, as well as violence erupted as a group of protestors deviated from previously agreed-upon routes and breached security at Red Fort, a 17th-century citadel where India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru first hoisted the national flag a day after the country declare independence. Several protestors also raised religious and other multi-coloured flags alongside the national one – a cause of insult to a number of the country’s politicians. 

Among them was Prime Minister Modi who broke his silence on the protests in a radio address, announcing that “The country was saddened by the insult to the Tricolour [Indian flag[ on the 26th of January in Delhi […] The government is committed to modernizing agriculture and is also taking many steps in that direction.” According to Reuters, the Prime Minister told opposition party leaders on Saturday, 30 January, that the offer to freeze the agricultural laws for 18 months still stands – an offer that was earlier rejected after nine rounds of talks with farmers’ unions and by farm leaders pushing for complete repeal instead.

The reforms which were not only passed without consulting those in the agriculture sector, of whom constitute more than 40% of India population, but are believed to threaten decades-old concessions to farmers and leave them vulnerable to exploitation by private companies. In a sector already plagued by poverty, with more than half of India’s farmers in debt resulting in the country having one of the highest farmer suicide rates globally, many believe that the farmers have the right to protest.

Although protest organizer Samyukt Kisan Morcha, an umbrella organization representing more than 40 farmers’ unions, expressed that they “condemned and regret the undesirable and unacceptable events that have taken place,” others are tired of the government’s refusal to listen to their demands. In the biggest challenge to the Prime Minister’s six-year nationalist government, tens of thousands of farmers primarily from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttrakhand, and Rajasthan have hunkered down in the outskirts of New Delhi after being stopped from marching into the city by the police. 

Speaking to the Guardian, a farmer from Punjab, Nishan Sahib, said “We have been protesting for the last six months but [the] government didn’t bother to listen to us.” Agriculture expert Devinder Sharma has similarly highlighted this sentiment suggesting that, “The anger that you see is compounded anger. Inequality is growing in India and farmers are becoming poorer.” An 18-month freeze, after the government had foregone the winter session of parliament as what many saw as them refraining from addressing farmer’s issues, would only incite greater animosity.

Long-time politician Sharad Pawar told reporters, “No one can support the violence in Delhi but the central government should be held responsible for the same. The farm bill should have been sent to a select committee of parliament.” With the 26 January exchange causing the death of one protestor, arrest of 19 people, detainment of 50 others, with many policemen left injured, and the farmer’s intent to march on Parliament on 1 February during the upcoming presentation of the national budget (BBC), Pawar suggests the government to “shed stubbornness during talks.” The farmers should be allowed a seat at the table and the power to craft a fairer bill together with the government.