On Wednesday morning, the mood at the farmers’ protest site at Ghazipur on the border between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh was sombre. Some farmers prepared food in the community kitchen while others huddled together in small groups to discuss in hushed voices the events that had taken place the previous day – and what could happen next.
“This is just a lull before the next storm,” said Jitendra Yadav, a farmer from Bihar’s Motihari district, who runs a community kitchen at the protest site.
On Tuesday, after camping outside Delhi for two months in the bitter cold, farmers protesting against the Modi government’s three farm laws had entered the national capital from three directions – Singhu in the north, Tikri in the west and Ghazipur in the southeast.
Over a lakh protestors joyously rode tractors and peacefully marched down the three officially sanctioned routes. But a few thousand from Ghazipur broke through the barricades and reached central Delhi while the Republic Day Parade was nearing an end.
At the Income Tax Office area, these protestors clashed with the police who fired tear gas and charged with batons to prevent them from moving further. A 27-year old farmer Navreet Singh died when his tractor overturned. Farmers allege the police had fired on him, an allegation strongly denied by the police.
A short distance ahead, some farmers climbed on top of the Red Fort to unfurl Sikh flags, resulting in more clashes with the police. Delhi Police said 394 policemen were injured, some seriously. There was no count among the farmers but videos showed doctors stitching up their wounds.
A day later, the protestors at Ghazipur maintained a few moments of silence for the farmer who died at ITO. When they spoke, they expressed regret for the events at Red Fort but also anger at how a largely peaceful parade had been misrepresented in the news media as a violent one.
“We were showered with flowers,” said Sarv Dutt Singh, a farmer from Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh. “Women, children and the elderly were all out to welcome us. None of this was shown.”
Many reaffirmed their resolve to continue the protests until the laws were repealed. Some roamed around on their tractors and raised the slogan: ‘Modi teri tanashahi nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi!’ Modi, your dictatorship won’t last.
In the days preceding the parade, the protest site at Ghazipur had been packed with protestors. On Wednesday, it looked scant since several protestors had returned to their villages, said volunteers associated with the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella group of farmer unions which has been coordinating the protests around Delhi.
Ram Saran, a farmer from Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh, said several farmers had come to Delhi for the first time to especially participate in the tractor rally. Ranjit Singh, a 25-year-old Sikh farmer from Lakhimpur Kheri, agreed. “At least 80 per cent of the farmers came to Delhi for the first time and did not know the route,” Singh said.
Saran added: “People from Tamil Nadu have also come. We do not understand their language. How will we explain the route to them?”
He blamed the police for failing to guide the tractors to the designated routes: “Why did the police let them go to ITO or Red Fort? During the lockdown, they did not allow us to leave our homes, here could they not have stopped them?”
First-hand accounts by reporters covering the Ghazipur leg of the protests suggest there was indeed some confusion on the ground among farmers about the route, but also defiance by others who felt that sticking to the periphery of the city was not enough. They had waited for 60 days – they wanted to reach central Delhi to register their protest.
A day after, few at Ghazipur were willing to acknowledge this.
Taking the stage, some volunteers urged farmers to remain alert and vigilant for “anti-social elements” among them, echoing the claim of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha that the violence on Tuesday had been the work of such groups. Many protestors in Ghazipur alleged the violence was part of a conspiracy by the Bharatiya Janata Party government to derail the movement.
“There were people who came on tractors at the behest of the BJP,” claimed Jitender Yadav. “The person who was at Red Fort also has a photo with the PM, Amit Shah and Sunny Deol,” he said referring to Deep Sidhu, an actor who recorded a live video from Red Fort where he was seen standing next to protestors who had climbed atop the fort and planted Nishan Sahib flags, sacred to Sikhism.
Sidhu had been part of the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign of BJP candidate Sunny Deol. Since then he has refashioned himself into a leader of young Punjabis angry with the central government. He was among the 40-odd protestors summoned by the National Investigation Agency in January for questioning over the alleged involvement of Sikh secessionist groups in the farmers’ protest movement.
Despite the NIA summons, many farmer leaders view Sidhu with suspicion, which some believe stems from a generational divide: older leaders are unable to work with popular singers and actors in Punjab who have a following among the youth. Others point out that the farmer leaders are wary of those who foreground the Sikh identity, instead of focusing on the shared concerns of farmers across India.
On Tuesday, many farmer leaders squarely blamed Sidhu for the spiral of events at Red Fort. Sidhu denied the allegations.
The allegations, however, have stuck among protestors who maintained discipline during the tractor rally. Yadav, for instance, called Sidhu “government’s agent” and said he had purposely hatched a conspiracy to ruin the peaceful protest. “The naive farmers followed him.”
Not just Jat protestors, even Sikh farmers distanced themselves from the unfurling of flags at Red Fort. “There were tricolours on all the tractors yesterday,” said Ranjit Singh from Lakhimpur Kheri.
Anger at media
Many farmers expressed concern that the violence on Tuesday could impact public support for the protests. “This weakens our movement,” said Brahmchar Singh, a farmer from Sambhal, Uttar Pradesh, who has been camping at Ghazipur for two months.
But other farmers said they were furious that the only images that flashed continuously across television news on Tuesday were of the farmers clashing with the police and climbing on top of Red Fort. The media failed to show the much larger contingent of farmers marching peacefully on the designated routes, they said.
“There was one mistake and the media started shouting about that,” said Sarv Dutt Singh, the farmer from Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh.
Another group of farmers who participated in the parade under the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sanghathan banner said they travelled on the designated route at 11.30 am and returned to the protest site at 4 pm without facing any troubles. But they found no reporters to cover their peaceful parade.
“The media has tried to defame us and this is unfair,” said Anjini Kumar Dixit, a farmer from Lakhimpur Kheri district in Uttar Pradesh.
But other farmers were not surprised at the mainstream media’s depiction of the parade. Since the protests began, most television news anchors had painted the protesting farmers as “terrorists” and “Khalistanis”, a term used for those demanding a separate Sikh homeland.
The clashes during the parade and the media’s negative portrayal of them, however, would not derail the movement, many farmers emphasised.
“Chingari bhadak gayi hai,” said Surender Pal Singh, a farmer from Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh. A spark has been lit. “We are going to continue the protest till the laws are taken back.”