Sunday, February 28, 2021

Tension at farm protest sites as forces build up

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Security forces dug trenches, put up barricades, and bolstered numbers at farmer protest sites on Delhi’s borders on Thursday, as tensions simmering since a violent Republic Day tractor rally threatened to boil over at Ghazipur on the eastern fringe of the Capital, where authorities issued an ultimatum to defiant cultivators, who refused to budge.

Cracks have started to appear in the 64-day-old protest, which has lost momentum after the deadly turn of events on January 26 when farmer groups broke through barricades, clashed violently with police, ran riot on the Capital’s streets, and stormed the Red Fort, hoisting the Nishan Sahib, the flag of the Sikhs, on its ramparts.

Thursday’s standoff began in the afternoon when Ghaziabad additional district magistrate (city) Shailendra Kumar Singh asked protesters at UP Gate to end their two-month-long stir and vacate the spot at the earliest, or face penal action.

The order came hours after protesters said power and water supply to the site were cut off, and hundreds of policemen streamedinto the site. Police also diverted traffic on arterial roads connecting Delhi to UP and Haryana, and closed several checkpoints, such as Auchandi and Piau.

“We served him (Rakesh Tikait) the notice under section 133 of CrPC (conditional order for removal of nuisance) for eviction from the site and he was also to be arrested later on. But he seems to have played a ploy and unexpected events unfolded in which he refused to leave the site,” said Singh.

But the farmers refused to move, with Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) spokesperson Rakesh Tikait saying he may approach the Supreme Court.

“There is no question of vacating Ghazipur. Police can do whatever they want,” he said, as small groups of people shouted anti-farmer slogans. “The government wants to destroy farmers. If the farm laws are not repealed, Rakesh Tikait will commit suicide,” he told the agitators late evening, breaking down towards the end of the address.

As night fell, a large police contingent and protesting farmers were positioned on either side of the Delhi-Meerut Expressway, and Tikait announced a hunger strike. With visuals of Tikait breaking down beamed on television, around 5,000 farmers gathered at his ancestral village of Sisauli, roughly 100km away, and threatened to march to UP Gate.

At the time of going to print, the standoff continued.

Farmers, primarily from western UP, have been sitting in Ghazipur for about two months. Tikait’s brother, Naresh Tikait, announced in Muzaffarnagar that the agitation will be withdrawn. On Wednesday, at least two other unions had pulled out of the protests and the farm unions called off a march to Parliament on February 1, the day the Union budget will be presented. The unions lost more momentum on Thursday when another union, BKU (Lokshakti), which was camped at Noida, pulled out.

Tension has been building at Delhi’s borders since the January 26 violence. Police and the government have accused farm leaders of betraying their trust, vandalising property worth crores, and threatening lives. Farm unions have taken responsibility for the violence, but blamed fringe elements led by Punjabi actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu.

At Singhu, on the Capital’s northwestern border, the biggest of the four sites for farmer mobilisation, police increased security, blocked major entry points to the site, installed more concrete barriers using cranes and dug trenches using a JCB machine.

At around 12pm, nearly 50 people gathered and demanded that the protest be cleared. “We had been sympathetic to their cause so far because we too are farmers. But when we saw their actions during Republic Day, when they insulted the Tricolour at Red Fort, we knew that they were not farmers,” said Mohan Bhardwaj, 42, a resident of Bawana.

The farm unions dismissed this demand and said they will continue their movement against three recently passed laws that they claim will erode their bargaining power and leave them vulnerable to exploitation by corporate giants.

“The protests are not about sites but issues of farmers’ livelihoods. We will atone for the violence with a fast and whoever doesn’t agree with our peaceful goals are free to leave but the protests will continue as they are. They will only expand,” said Avik Saha, the national secretary of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), a farmers’ organisation that plays a key role in the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella body leading the protests.

Farm unions have called for a day-long fast on January 30, Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary, as a step towards “atonement” and taking moral responsibility for Tuesday’s violence.

Delhi Police have already named senior leaders in their first information reports, including Yogendra Yadav, Balbeer Singh Rajewal, Buta Singh, SS Pannu, and Darshan Pal. Farm unions said they were prepared to face jail but won’t retreat. “When we began the agitation, we expected repression from the government. We didn’t expect cakes,” Saha said.

The protesters also received political support from Opposition leaders. “Time to pick a side. My decision is clear. I am with democracy, farmers and their peaceful movement,” tweeted former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) chief Ajit Singh spoke to the Tikait brothers over phone, announced Singh’s son Jayant Chaudhary. “Don’t worry. This is a do or die situation for the farmers. We need to remain together and united,” Singh told the farm leaders, according to a tweet by Chaudhary.

Late in the evening, Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar announced that members of BKU (Lok Shakti), which wasn’t a part of SKM, met him and announced their withdrawal from the stir. “BKU (Lok Shakti) condemns the way some elements spread havoc in Delhi,” read a letter to Tomar.

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