But the demonstration turned violent as some farmers deviated from the protest routes approved by police. Instead, they forced their way toward the center of the city, taking over a major intersection and climbing the ramparts of Delhi's famed Red Fort, built in the 17th century.
One farmer died in what police said was an accident, New Delhi Television reported. More than 80 police officers in total were injured, said Eish Singhal, a spokesman for the Delhi police. It is unclear how many protesters suffered injuries, but 10 were admitted at Lok Nayak hospital, said Suresh Kumar, the hospital’s medical director.
The tenacity of the farmer protests and the chaotic scenes in Delhi represent a growing political problem for the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which won a landslide reelection victory in 2019.
The farmers want the government to rescind the three laws, which deregulate the buying and selling of agricultural goods. Last week, the government reportedly offered to suspend implementation of the laws for 18 months, but farmer unions have stuck to their demand for a full repeal.
Farmers fear that the new laws will undermine the system of guaranteed prices for certain crops and allow large corporations to exploit cultivators. The government says the reforms are necessary to shift away from outdated practices and liberalize the sector.
For Modi — the most powerful Indian prime minister in five decades — the farm reforms represent a rare miscalculation. In late 2019, widespread protests broke out in cities across the country against a new citizenship law, but the pandemic ultimately derailed them. The protests by farmers, many of whom belong to India’s Sikh minority, have proved organized and durable.
Opposition parties have expressed solidarity with the protests, but farmer groups have kept their distance to avoid politicizing their movement.
The anger among farmers reflects a “larger crisis” of stagnating incomes in states such as Punjab and Haryana, which “generally saw rising prosperity in the last 50 years,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a historian at Ashoka University. “The law is only the flash point.”
On Tuesday, farmer leaders pleaded for the protesters to maintain peace and return to the designated routes. An umbrella group of farmer unions released a statement disassociating itself from “elements that have violated our discipline.” Politicians also called for calm. The Home Ministry ordered telecom companies to suspend mobile Internet service in parts of the city in an attempt to quell the protests.
Hundreds of farmers entered the Red Fort, formerly home to rulers of the Mughal dynasty and a symbol of state power in India. They scaled the monument’s walls and hoisted a flag associated with Sikhism as armed police in riot gear looked on.
Kaka Singh, 21, was overwhelmed by the sight of the flag flying atop the ramparts. For the last two months, Singh was among tens of thousands of farmers camped out at the border between Delhi and Haryana.
“We are challenging Modi to listen to our voices,” he said. “We have shown this government our strength.” Many of the protesters later left the monument.
The clashes unfolded on Republic Day, a national holiday marking the birth of India’s constitution that is celebrated with a military parade down Delhi’s main ceremonial avenue.
Farmers had planned a different kind of commemoration. At an entry point into Delhi from the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh on Tuesday, there was a sense of exuberance. A field of tractors filled the highway in neat lines as far as the eye could see. Farmers waved Indian flags and said they were thrilled to enter the national capital after a sit-in that has lasted more than 60 days.
Somnam Ramprasad, 75, a farmer from Moradabad, said he woke up at 4 a.m. to make sure he would be part of what he called a “historic day.”
As the farmers prepared to enter the city, some blared horns and threw flower petals in celebration. This is “our capital, our roads,” said Kale Singh, a 55-year-old farmer from a district about 100 miles away. “No one can stop us.”
Niha Masih contributed to this report.