Published: 12:02, February 14, 2024 | Updated: 16:30, February 14, 2024
Indian farmers face tough police block in 'March to Delhi' protest
By Xinhua

Farmers run for cover after police fired tear gas to disperse protesting farmers who were marching to New Delhi near the Punjab-Haryana border at Shambhu, India, Feb 13, 2024. (PHOTO / AP)

Police in northern India resorted to baton charges and raining tear gas from drones on protesting farmers who clashed with police officers and tried to break barricades blocking their way to New Delhi on Tuesday to seek talks with the federal government demanding a better price for their produce.

The incident took place at the Shambhu border that leads to New Delhi, an exit and entry point between Haryana and Punjab states - two north Indian states - around 200 km from New Delhi.

Political analysts said that ahead of the national election in April and May this year, the protests could pose a significant challenge for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his governing Bharatiya Janata Party which is expected to win for a third consecutive term in office.

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Delhi police sealed multiple entry points around the national capital, New Delhi, by erecting barriers of barbed wire, spikes and cement blocks. The neighboring state of Haryana detained several protesting farmers, suspended internet services in several regions of the state and banned large gatherings to prevent communication among the protesters and to bring the situation under control.

In response to the "March to Delhi" federal minister for agriculture Arjun Munda urged the protesting farmers on Tuesday to stay careful of elements that try to vitiate the atmosphere

Protests have resumed more than two years after the federal government repealed contentious farm legislation. Authorities are determined to control the demonstration to avoid a repeat of a similar protest in 2021 around the national capital which continued for more than a year.

The farmers, who travelled on tractors and trucks from the nearby states of Punjab and Haryana and organized the "March to Delhi Protest", claimed that 60 of them were injured as police used tear gas shells at Punjab-Haryana border points. They blamed the federal government for its failure to meet some of their key demands such as guaranteed Minimum Support Price, or MSP, of their produce, a doubling of farmers' income and loan waivers. The protesting farmers were seen attempting to break the multi-layered barricades using their tractors and hand weapons.

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Tens of thousands of farmers staged demonstrations outside the national capital for more than a year in 2021, braving scorching heat and a devastating COVID-19 surge that forced the federal government to repeal contentious farm legislation. The protest claimed dozens of lives.

In response to the "March to Delhi" federal minister for agriculture Arjun Munda urged the protesting farmers on Tuesday to stay careful of elements that try to vitiate the atmosphere.

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A law guaranteeing MSP on crops cannot be brought quickly without consulting all stakeholders, said Munda to reporters late on , urging the protesting farmer groups to have a structured discussion with the government on the issue. He also cautioned the protesting farmers to be "aware and alert" about some elements which could defame their protest for political benefits.

"We are open to many issues, and we can work on ways to find solutions," the minister said. Munda is among the team of ministers holding talks with the protesting farmer leaders to resolve the issue.

Farmers run for cover after police fired tear gas to disperse protesting farmers who were marching to New Delhi near the Punjab-Haryana border at Shambhu, India, Feb13, 2024. (PHOTO / AP)

On Monday, federal ministers held a six-hour meeting with farm union leaders, according to farmer group leaders.

"We do not want to break any barricades. We want the resolution of our issues through dialogue. But if they [the government] do nothing then what will we do? It is our compulsion," Sarwan Singh Pandher, a leader of one of the farmer groups, told reporters at Shambhu border.

If the government creates a problem for these farmers who are marching toward Delhi, we are not far from them. We are in support of the protesting farmers.

Rakesh Tikait, Farmers' leader

"In the history of India, today is a black day. It is shameful the way the Modi government attacked farmers and farm laborers," Pandher alleged.

Farmers' and trade unions have also called a rural strike on Feb 16 during which no agricultural activities will be allowed to be carried out and farmers will block major roads across the country.

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The minimum support price guarantee law, electricity amendment bill and debt waiver are the issues of the farmers across the country, Rakesh Tikait, a prominent farmers' leader told this correspondent.

"If the government creates a problem for these farmers who are marching toward Delhi, we are not far from them. We are in support of the protesting farmers," Tikait said.

The government's move to stop the ongoing demonstration triggered widespread criticism from the Opposition, alleging the government of "suppressing" the voice of the farmers.

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India's main opposition, Indian National Congress, said it will address the farmers' demand for a law by ensuring a minimum support price if it is voted into power in the forthcoming national election.

"This is the first guarantee of Congress on the path of justice," party leader Rahul Gandhi wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Farmers form the most influential voting bloc in India. Haryana and Punjab, India's two important agrarian states where farmers form a sizable population, and the two states send 23 members of Parliament to India's lower house of Parliament.

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Over 60 percent of India's 1.4 billion people still rely on agriculture as their primary source of income, despite the industry producing just 15 percent of the nation's total GDP. Farmers have been committing suicide at significant rates due to debt and bankruptcy for many years.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.