Opposition leaders on Thursday strongly criticised the use of water cannons and tear gas on farmers marching to Delhi to protest against the Centre’s agriculture laws. Dramatic scenes unfolded at the Delhi-Haryana border as farmers clashed with the police, undeterred by the winter chill and rain.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said that the Haryana government’s use of force on farmers protesting peacefully was a “sad irony” on Constitution Day. He said that the farmers had been peacefully protesting in his state for two months without any trouble.

“Why is Haryana government provoking them by resorting to force?” he tweeted. “Don’t the farmers have the right to pass peacefully through a public highway?”

The Punjab chief minister added: “It’s a sad irony that on Constitution Day 2020, the constitutional right of farmers is being oppressed in this manner.”

Singh urged Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar to let the farmers proceed to Delhi. “Let them pass ML Khattar ji,” he said. “Don’t push them to the brink. Let them take their voice to Delhi peacefully.”

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also backed the farmers’ protest and said that they were being treated in an unjust manner. “The farmers are protesting against the Centre’s three agricultural laws,” he tweeted on Thursday morning. “Instead of rolling back the bills, the farmers are being stopped from protesting peacefully. Water cannons are being used on them. Such atrocity on farmers in wrong.”

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted a video of the police using water cannons on the farmers. “The farmers of India are standing strongly against the cruelty of the Modi [Narendra Modi-led] government,” he wrote.

Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi also spoke out against the use of water cannons to push back the farmers. “Instead of listening to the voice of the farmers who are protesting against laws that snatched the support price from them, the BJP government attacks them with water cannons in the cold,” she tweeted.

Janata Dal (Secular) Presiden HD Deve Gowda said he was distressed by the way the farmers were treated, adding that the Centre should listen to their demands. “I request the Union government to treat farmers with dignity,” he said. “Please engage with them. Listen to them. Police force cannot solve the problem.”

Swaraj India President Yogendra Yadav, who was also a part of the protest, asked whether the coronavirus crisis was the real reason to stop the farmers, NDTV reported. He also questioned why there were no restrictions during the Bihar Assembly elections and at a rally held recently by Haryana Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala.

“Three days ago, Dushyant Chautala rallied thousands of farmers,” he told the news channel. “No mask. No social distancing. Then there is no pandemic. Bihar election, no pandemic. When farmers gather, then there is a pandemic. This [the coronavirus] must be a very strange disease.”

Farmers from Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Kerala, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand had been planning the “Dilli Chalo” [go to Delhi] protest against the farm laws for two months. Protestors from Punjab had camped at Delhi’s border with Haryana for the night. The call for the march was given by the All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh and factions of the Bharatiya Kisan Union.

The farm laws

The three ordinances – Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion & Facilitation) Ordinance 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Assurance and Farm Service Ordinance 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance 2020 – were passed in September. They were signed into laws by President Ram Nath Kovind on September 27.

Weeks later, protests against the laws continue to be staged in many parts of the country. Taken together, the three legislations loosen regulations on the sale, pricing and storage of agricultural produce. They allow farmers to sell outside mandis notified by the Agricultural Produce Market Committee. They enable contract farming through deals with private sector companies. They take food items like cereals and pulses off the list of essential commodities, lifting stock limits on such produce.

The government claims the new laws would give farmers the freedom to sell in the open market. But farmers disagree. They say the laws will weaken the minimum support price mechanism under which the government buys agricultural produce, leave farmers to the mercy of market forces and threaten food security.

Follow live updates on the farmers’ protest.