When the first wave of tractors triumphantly drove down the national highway north of Delhi around 9 am on January 26, the most conspicuous symbol was the Indian tricolour. It dominated all other flags – the saffron-coloured Nishan Sahib, the flag of the Sikh Khalsa Panth, as well as the multihued flags of various farmer unions.

By afternoon, however, only one scene was being played on a loop on television news: the unfurling of the Nishan Sahib atop the Red Fort. Some commentators were quick to connect the flag – wrongly – to Khalistani groups that demand a separate Sikh homeland, echoing government claims of a conspiracy lurking behind the farmer protests.

But if there is a conspiracy, then lakhs of Indians are part of it – and quite openly, for that matter.

Most tractors carried the Indian tricolour. Photo: Supriya Sharma

On the morning of India’s Republic Day, as the President and Prime Minister watched colourful tableaux float down the Rajpath, hundreds and thousands of farmers marched towards the city from three directions: Singhu in the north, a hub for Sikh protestors from Punjab; Tikri in the west, dominated by Jats from Haryana; and Ghazipur in the southeast, with a mix of farmers from western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

In all three locations, there were smaller contingents of farmers from states further afield – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka. Many protests were staged in other cities too.

The road to Delhi was awash in festive colours. Farmers rode on top of tractors and trucks, others walked.

The air was filled with slogans: “Kisan ekta, zindabad!” Long live farmer unity.

“Modi sarkar, hai hai!” Down with the Modi government.

There was music and dance. A sense of exhilaration – after 60 days of camping at the doorstep of Delhi, the farmers were finally entering the capital.

“Delhi isn’t just for ministers, it is our capital too,” said Dharminder Singh, from Patiala in Punjab. “They kept us at the border for two months. That’s not fair. We are a democracy. It is our right to protest in the capital.”

Raman Kaur, a young woman from Patiala, who stood listening to the conversation, added: “It is our right to take part in Republic Day.”

Among the marching farmers were women. Photo: Supriya Sharma

Narinder Singh, a member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, was among the first group of farmers who had travelled to Delhi on November 26, but were not allowed to enter the city. Explaining why it was important for the farmers to enter the Capital, the 74-year-old said: “The laws were passed in Delhi. Modi is hiding in Delhi. We have to enter his home.”

The protesting farmers want the Modi government to roll back the three farm laws passed by Parliament in September, which they fear will leave them at the mercy of corporations. The government, after weeks of stalemate, began talks with the farmers in mid-December, keen to end the protests before Republic Day, when the farmers threatened to drive down Delhi with their tractors.

But, days before Republic Day, the talks reached a stalemate: the government offered to suspend the laws for a year and half. The farmers rejected the offer, insisting that the laws be dismantled.

As a result, on Tuesday morning, the tractors rolled ahead, greeted along the way by Delhi residents.

Not everyone cheered on the farmers. Workers employed in a rice godown in North Delhi stood watching the tractor rally from Singhu pass by. “These are not farmers,” said a middle-aged man dismissively. He identified himself with the single name Pappu and said he belonged to a farming family from Sikar in Rajasthan. The protests were motivated by “Khalistanis” in Punjab, he claimed, and the political Opposition in other states. “Modi cannot harm anyone,” he said.

The Delhi Police had prescribed three routes for the tractor rallies, which the umbrella group of farmer unions, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, had accepted. The Morcha also agreed to start the rallies after the official Republic Day parade ended. But one of the unions, the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, found the curtailed route and timings unacceptable. They decided to start early – and break through the police barricades to reach Delhi’s Ring Road.

At Tikri, the parade started off in a similar festive manner at 9.40 am. As the tractors reached Mundka, a rural pocket in West Delhi, several residents including elderly women and children stepped out of their homes to wave at the farmers, or to distribute water, biscuits and other refreshments. Some children raised slogans like “Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan!” and “Kisan Ekta, Zindabad!”

“This is happening for the first time, I have never seen anything like it,” said 34-year-old Ram Kumar, a migrant from Bihar’s Darbhanga district, who works as a driver in Delhi. He said the protest had continued long enough and it was time for the government to attend to the farmers’ demands. “The government is not listening to them and they are sitting in the cold. Would you sit in the cold?” he asked.

Rajendra Rana, a 50-year-old who farms wheat and jowar on five acres in Mundka, said it was important for the protesting farmers to take their voice to Delhi. “If the child does not cry then how will the mother know it needs something?” he said.

As the tractors proceeded ahead, around 12.10 pm, they ran into police barricades in Nangloi on the turn to Najafgarh. A police official told reporters that some farmers were attempting to stray from the route earmarked for them. Soon, there was chaos: tyres were deflated, allegedly by the police, which also hurled tear gas shells and sound grenades at the farmers near Maharaja Surajmal metro station.

As smoke engulfed the area, some farmers washed their faces with water and wiped their eyes to mitigate the effects of the gas. Daljeet Singh, a farmer from Punjab, claimed the police had fired between ten and 20 tear gas shells.

Meanwhile, around noon protesters from the Ghazipur border with Uttar Pradesh made their way into central Delhi, headed straight for the ‘ITO’ area, around the Income Tax Office – only a few kilometres away from the Republic Day parade taking place at Rajpath.

The Ghazipur protest site has, from the beginning, been somewhat different to the protests at Singhu border and Tikri border. While the latter two are led by unions from Punjab and Haryana, the Ghazipur site was manned primarily by “farmers from Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi rural, and Madhya Pradesh.”

The Tribune reported that protesting farmers broke two police barricades before noon, after which “thousands of tractors and trailers” moved beyond both the Ghazipur check point and another near the Noida link road, close to Akshardam temple.

The original protest plan agreed to with the police was for the protesters to turn back from the first checkpoint. But, after reports of police putting barricades in the way of agreed routes and lathicharges on farmers earlier in the day, this plan was quickly discarded and the protesters made their way towards ITO.

Videos and reports from ITO showed police attempting to stop the farmers at a major junction. One video, for example, showed police having placed a Delhi Transport Corporation bus in the way in the hopes that it might act as a barricade, only to have the farmer’s tractors move it aside.

At the ITO crossing, tear gas and lathis were out, with police desperately attempting to prevent the protesters from moving further in Delhi and requesting them to turn back.

The farmers at the spot claimed that one of the protesters, a 34-year-old from Uttarakhand, was shot and killed by authorities at ITO. Police, however, claimed that the farmer died after his tractor overturned.

A half hour after clashing with the police at ITO, Newslaundry reported that the farmers had an opening and started moving on tractors towards the Red Fort.

Protesters quickly filled up the large ground in front of the Red Fort, a symbol of independent India where the national flag is hoisted every Independence Day. One group of farmers then forced their way into the fort, with a few climbing up a flagstaff and hoisting the Nishan Sahib, a Sikh flag that flies at gurudwaras.

The protesters did not remove or defile the Indian flag, as some social media accounts and TV channels reported, though at least two did hoist their own flags.

Reports said thousands of protesters were still inside the Red Fort after the flag hoisting, with no clear idea of what they planned to do next. The police then moved in, attempting to retake the area. This resulted in clashes between the protestors and the police, even as farm union leaders appealed to the youth to vacate the fort.

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the umbrella group of farmer unions, put out a statement saying, “We dissociate ourselves from all such elements that have violated our discipline,” and added that, “SKM has been trying to get a full picture of all the events with regard to the several Kisan Parades that were planned today and will share a fuller statement soon.”

No names were taken by the group, though some leaders have begun to blame Deep Sidhu – an actor who has courted controversy and taken a different line from that of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha over the last few months – among others for leading the protesters into the Red Fort.

Far away from the heated debates over what had happened at Red Fort, many farmers continued to march peacefully. Most, in fact, did not know about the clashes because the internet had been shut down near the border protest sites.

Around 1 pm, Narinder Kaur, a 65-year-old woman from a village in Ludhiana district, travelling in a car with her family from Singhu, was still a few kms short of reaching the city. “Has there been some trouble?” she asked a reporter. Narinder Kaur had been taking turn with other women in her family to protest at Singhu. She said the protests would continue until the government rolled back the farm laws.