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Why India’s farmers are protesting

At least one protester was killed and 80 policemen were injured after tens of thousands of farmers, many driving tractors, took to the streets of New Delhi on Tuesday to call for the repeal of controversial new agricultural laws.

After months of sustained but peaceful demonstrations on the outskirts of the city, farmers disrupted the city’s national republic holiday, clashed with police, destroyed barricades and stormed the Red Fort, a 400-year-old landmark.

On Wednesday, the day after the chaos, the farmers had returned to their camps on the outskirts of the city and promised to continue their protest and return to the city for a march on foot to India’s parliament on Monday.

Many of the protesting farmers are members of the Sikh religious minority and come from the states of Punjab and Haryana. Farmers in other parts of the country have held rallies in solidarity.

Since November, thousands of farmers have set up camp outside the capital, New Delhi, and have kept an eye on scattered tent cities and threatened to enter if farm laws were not repealed.

The protest has revealed the grim reality of inequality in large parts of the country.

More than 60 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people are still primarily dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, although the sector only accounts for about 15 percent of the country’s economic output. Their dependence has only increased after the coronavirus pandemic hit the urban economy hard, sending millions of workers back to their villages. For years, debt and bankruptcies have led farmers to high suicide rates.

Protesters challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi over his efforts to reshape agriculture in India.

The protesters are demanding that Mr. Modi repeals the latest agricultural laws that would minimize the role of government in agriculture and open up more space for private investors. The government says the new laws will remove farmers and private investment and bring growth. But farmers are skeptical and fear that removing state protection, which they already consider inadequate, will leave them to greedy businesses.

Government aid to farmers, which included guaranteed minimum prices for certain essential crops, helped India get past the famine crisis of the 1960s. But as India liberalized its economy in recent decades, Mr. Modi – who wants the country’s economy to almost double by 2024 – plays such a big role for the government as is no longer sustainable.

Farmers, however, claim that they are struggling even with the existing protection. They say market-friendly laws will ultimately remove regulatory support and leave them deprived, with the weakened economy giving little chance of another livelihood.

Thousands of protesting farmers flocked to New Delhi on Tuesday in what was expected to be a peaceful protest during holiday parties and a military parade overseen by the Prime Minister.

Some farmers broke with the main march and used tractors to dismantle police barricades. Many farmers wore long swords, trills, sharp daggers and battle axes – functional, if largely ceremonial weapons. Most protesters did not appear to be wearing masks despite the Covid-19 outbreak in India.

Police chiefs deployed officers carrying assault rifles. They stood in the middle of highways, tear gas swirling around them with their rifles aimed at the crowds. In some areas, video footage showed police beating protesters with their batons to push them back.

Farmers claim the violence was stoked by the government and external factors in an attempt to derail their months of peaceful protest.

Farmers waved flags and taunted officers. They also violated the Red Fort, the iconic palace that once served as the residence of India’s Mughal rulers, and hoisted on top of the ramparts a flag often flown in Sikh temples.

Local TV channels showed farmers placing the body of a protester in the middle of a road. They claimed the man had been shot, but police said he was dead when his tractor overturned.

The Indian government has temporarily suspended internet services over the areas that have been hubs of protest for several months, an Interior Ministry official confirmed.

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