Thousands of Indian farmers on Tuesday escalated protests to revoke controversial new agricultural laws, clashing with police and storming key landmarks in New Delhi to pressure Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The farmers, who have camped at various border points around the capital for two months, had permission to demonstrate after the completion of an annual military parade to mark Republic Day, a major public holiday in India. But many gathered early in the day and broke through barricades on the outskirts of the city, prompting police to deploy tear gas in some areas.

The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, an umbrella organization of several dozen farm groups leading the protests, issued a statement late Tuesday calling off the remainder of the tractor parade in Delhi and criticizing the “anti-social elements” that “had infiltrated the otherwise peaceful movement.” The police also blamed the protesters for deviating from the agreed routes and attempting to enter the heart of the capital where Parliament and other government buildings are located.

The escalation of the farmers’ protest adds to Modi’s challenges amid efforts to reverse a contraction in Asia’s third-largest economy due to the coronavirus pandemic. It also comes days before a Parliament session where the government will present its annual budget detailing plans to spur economic activity in the year starting April 1.

Television footage showed thousands of protesters clashing with police in central Delhi before reaching the iconic Red Fort, where Indian prime ministers typically address the nation on the country’s independence day in August. Farmer leaders had called on protesters to stay peaceful, warning that any violence could hurt their cause.

“We also condemn and regret the undesirable and unacceptable events that have taken place today and dissociate ourselves from those indulging in such acts,” the statement from the Samyukt Kisan Morcha said. “We have always held that peace is our biggest strength, and that any violation would hurt the movement.”

A police officer uses a baton during a protest against farm laws introduced by the government, in New Delhi on Tuesday. | REUTERS
A police officer uses a baton during a protest against farm laws introduced by the government, in New Delhi on Tuesday. | REUTERS

India’s federal Home Ministry suspended mobile internet services in some parts of the city where the protests were most tense. Several metro stations were also shut down. One protesting farmer died after his tractor overturned, the Hindustan Times reported, citing police.

“We have faith in farmers,” said Dependra Pathak, special commissioner of police. “This is an unprecedented situation.”

Leaders of the protests had rejected Modi’s offers to temporarily shelve the three laws passed in September, which overhauled the way farm goods are sold in the country of more than 1.3 billion people, almost half of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihood. The government has defended the legislation, saying they would eliminate middlemen in state-run wholesale markets, increase earnings for farmers and make India more self-reliant.

The farmers have continued to call on the government to repeal the legislation, which they say will hurt their incomes and leave them vulnerable to big corporations. While Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has a lock on Parliament and does not need to call a national vote until 2024, the protests risk hurting his appeal in state elections and could halt momentum for other reforms.

Although the demonstrations have hurt the government, the scenes on Tuesday of unruly farmers may undermine their cause, according to Asim Ali, a New Delhi-based researcher at the Centre for Policy Research.

“This was always the danger, and it seems that it has gone out of hand,” Ali said. “This is possibly what the ruling party would have liked to see.”

The tractor rallies marked the first time the protesting farmers have marched into the capital. They are mostly from the neighboring states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. But they have also found support in other Indian cities, including financial centers Mumbai and Bengaluru, where protest marches have also taken place.

“More than a 100,000 people with tractors have gathered here and we expect more to join us,” said Manjit Rai, 57, a farm leader coordinating entry at one of the half-dozen entry points into the capital. “People are enthusiastic about the celebrations and we are determined that we will peacefully continue to make our case.”

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