On Tuesday, as India remembered Mahatma Gandhi, a leader who stood for and preached non-violence, on his birth anniversary, Abrar Babu stood rubbing ointment on his injuries. The 45-year-old sugarcane farmer from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh had a deep gash on his chest. He was one of several thousand farmers who had been stopped at the Delhi border by the water cannons and teargas shells of the Capital’s police. The farmers were part of the Kisan Kranti Yatra, which had taken off from Haridwar in Uttarakhand on September 23, and wanted to enter Delhi, where the protest march was to culminate.
“I could not see anything for an hour,” said Babu. “In five minutes, they fired more than 30 to 40 teargas shells. Why didn’t they stop us in Haridwar itself?” He then answered the question himself, saying, “If we enter Delhi, then the whole nation will know that farmers are angry.”
The farmers – who came from Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana and the sugarcane belt in western Uttar Pradesh – had a set of 11 demands, including lower diesel prices and electricity tariffs, farm loan waivers, timely payment for their harvested sugarcane, and implementation of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission. The march was organised by the Bharatiya Kisan Union and led by its president, Naresh Tikait. He said the government had accepted just seven demands, and the protests would continue.
Many Opposition parties supported the farmers and denounced the police action against them. Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted in Hindi, “On International Day of Non-Violence, the BJP’s two-year Gandhi Jayanti celebrations began with the brutal beating of farmers peacefully coming to Delhi. Now, the farmers cannot even air the grievances coming to the Capital!”
‘We will wait till we can go to Delhi’
“They should have welcomed us with open arms,” said Dinesh Saini, 55, from Jasoi village in Muzaffarnagar. “We have every right to come to Delhi. It belongs to us too.”
Instead, the Delhi Police had put in place arrangements to stop them the previous day itself. The East Delhi deputy commissioner of police had issued orders to impose Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which does not allow the assembly of more than four persons. The police cited a threat to law and order and stated that the prohibitory orders would be in place till October 8.
On Tuesday morning, as the farmers arrived in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district, which is part of the National Capital Region, they were greeted by yellow barricades and a contingent of police and paramilitary personnel. The Delhi Police said in a statement that they had fired teargas and turned on their water cannons only after some farmers tried to break through the barricades, pelted stones at the police and charged at them with sticks.
“This was the tractor that drove into the barricades,” declared 50-year-old farmer Mohammad Zakir, pointing to a blue tractor lying over a crushed barricade even as he stood, unperturbed, atop another tractor.
But he also accused the police of hitting them with “teargas [shells] and spray[ing] hot water” on them without any warning. He then declared, “Even if we have to bear bullets, we will wait till we can go to Delhi.”
Several other farmers Scroll.in spoke with said their march was peaceful, that they had not been stopped all along their route from Haridwar, and that the Delhi Police had given them no warning before going into action.
“We farmers are armed with nothing,” said Amit Kumar, a 35-year-old sugarcane grower from Muzaffarnagar. “There are no stones to throw. This was a peaceful rally and we did not expect that some of us would get hurt.” He added, “I did not run from there.”
‘We want to speak directly to Modi’
In the aftermath of the clash – in which seven policemen were also injured – large tempos and tractors lined the road on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. They blocked the national highways leading to the Capital. Some farmers slept under the tempos, a few bathed under a water tanker while some looked around for food and drinking water, which were scarce.
Police and paramilitary personnel kept an eye on them from the side of the road. They refused to answer any questions posed to them.
Many of the waiting farmers expressed their unhappiness with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.
Rekha Devi said she had left her children at home in Shravasti district in Uttar Pradesh to join the march and would wait till all their demands had been met. “They [the government] are scared of us, that is why they are not letting us in Delhi,” the 35-year-old said. “We want to speak directly to [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi. How will we work if the rates of petrol and diesel are so high? We will not vote till our demands are met.”
This could spell trouble for the BJP in the lead-up to crucial elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan at the year-end and the general elections next year.
Sher Pal, 40, lamented that he had not been paid for his sugarcane for 10 months, while the Uttar Pradesh government’s ban on tractors over 10 years old had made matters worse. “We cannot even afford sugar,” he said. “The government did not suggest an alternative when they banned old tractors. They have sucked our blood.”
Some time later, the farmers burnt an effigy of the prime minister as they shouted “Modi sarkar, jhooti sarkar” (Modi government, lying government).
Sukhjinder Singh from Punjab’s Sangrur district, who had marched all the way from Haridwar, said farmers were still waiting for the government to fulfil its promise to implement the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations made during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “We are upset,” he said. “Electricity bills are running at Rs 8 per unit, which is too much for us.”
Added Saini, the farmer from Muzaffarnagar, “Till when does this government want time to meet our demands? We know how to make governments but we know how to break them too.”
All photos by Aabid Shafi.