Wednesday, April 21

Tension in air as farmer march to Capital halted


Delhi Police have upped their guard and bolstered security at the city’s borders with Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in order to stonewall a massive protest by farmers who are marching to the national capital to stage a demonstration against three contentious laws enacted recently by Parliament to liberalise the farm sector, according to officials.

About 200 farmers’ unions have called for a two-day protest in Delhi beginning Thursday, putting the city’s administration on alert over potential law and order issues and a traffic nightmare, and prompting it to announce that any such gathering in the national capital will attract legal action.

On Wednesday, high drama unfolded in neighbouring Haryana, where authorities put up blockades on Punjab’s borders to stop farmers coming from the state. While the move worked to some extent, farmers within Haryana challenged law enforcement officials, used tractors to demolish multi-layer barricades on highways and continued their march towards the Capital.

Eish Singhal, deputy commissioner of police (New Delhi), said that all requests received from farmers’ organisations to hold protests have been rejected and they have been informed about the decision. “Please co-operate with Delhi Police in ensuring no gathering in Delhi amid Coronavirus, failing which legal action will be taken,” Singhal said on Twitter.

He said that additional police and paramilitary forces have been deployed in districts that share borders with Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, and in New Delhi district. Jantar Mantar, which is the city’s protest venue, is in the New Delhi district. Ten of 15 territorial police districts share borders with either Haryana or Uttar Pradesh or both.

“We have also begun a special checking of vehicles and people entering the city,” Singhal said. “We have warned them (protesters) over the phone, we have warned them on social media. If they still enter Delhi, they should be ready to face the law.”

A deputy commissioner of police (DCP), who did not want to be named, said officials were keeping a close watch on large vehicles entering the city. “If people are coming in large numbers in a vehicle, they are being stopped and their identities ascertained,” he said.

District DCPs are camping at the border points, where anti-riot and crowd control vehicles have been deployed.

Metro train services on several corridors will be restricted during the first half of the day on Thursday. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation has decided to stop regular services between several stations on six of its corridors.

As tension hung in the air in Delhi on Wednesday, Haryana’s Ambala turned out to be the epicentre of a confrontation between police and the protesters.

Despite appeals to withdraw their “Delhi Chalo” call, farmers gathered in large numbers near the New Grain Market in Ambala Cantonment on the national highway. The farmers, led by Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Gurnam Singh Charuni, hit the roads with tractors, cars and bikes that carried ration and tents. Officials used water cannons when the farmers managed to break the barricades at Ambala.

Ambala superintendent of police (SP) Rajesh Kalia accused the farmers of creating a law and order challenge. “They resorted to stone-pelting…they tried to hit the police with their speeding vehicles and run over the police…we will lodge an FIR (first information report) against them,” he said, even as the farmers marched towards Kurukshetra.

Attempts by police to stop the farmers failed in Kurukshetra as well, even though officials installed barricades and used water cannons.

“We are farmers and we do not have any plan or strategy, but we will not clash with the police and will continue our march peacefully”, said BKU state president Charuni.

Meanwhile, the district administrations of Kurukshetra and Kaithal districts blocked Haryana’s borders to halt farmers from Punjab. “The police have been deployed at the state border in Cheeka of Kaithal district and the farmers from Punjab will not be allowed to enter Haryana,” said Kaithal SP Shahank Kumar Sawan.

Later at night, the farmers stopped their cavalcade near Samana Bahu village in Karnal district and announced that they will resume their march on Thursday morning. With the police diverting traffic on key roads, there was a long traffic jam on the National Highway 44.

In Punjab, farmers who were stopped in their tracks said they did not want any confrontation but will carry on with their protest. Leaders of farmer organisations announced that they will sit on a dharna at the inter-state border for a week.

“We don’t want a confrontation. Our aim is to oppose the Centre’s farm laws. If we are not allowed to cross Haryana and head for Delhi on Thursday, our protest destination will be the border points for a week. If we get public support, the duration of the dharnas may be increased,” BKU (Ugrahan) president Joginder Singh Ugrahan said.

In a related development, the Punjab and Haryana high court on Wednesday said that in view of losses being suffered by railways and Punjab, it would be forced to pass harsh orders against those blocking rail tracks.

The observations were made as the Centre and Punjab told the court that blockade by farmers of rail tracks was still in place in Amritsar remained, although such obstructions have been removed from other places.

Food bowl Punjab is at the centre stage of a farmers’ agitation against moves to open up agricultural markets in the country and bring sweeping reforms to the farm sector, which supports nearly half the population.

Farmers have demanded a repeal of three laws enacted by Parliament in September which, together, allow agribusinesses to freely trade farm produce without restrictions, permit private traders to stockpile large quantities of essential commodities for future sales and lay down new rules for contract farming.

Farmers say the reforms would make them vulnerable to exploitation by big corporations, erode their bargaining power and weaken the government’s minimum support price (MSP) system, which offers cultivators assured prices from the government, largely for wheat and rice.

Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar and railways, food and consumer affairs minister Piyush Goyal held day-long negotiations on November 13 with leaders of several farmers’ groups in attempt to end over two months of a politically challenging agitation. The discussions were inconclusive, but both sides had agreed to continue negotiations in the future.