The peaceful protest that was…

How peace gave way to violence during Republic Day tractor rally


January 28, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

The peaceful protest that was…

A large number of tractors that would have gone on the agreed route were diverted (MIG photos)

The speed at which events unfolded on Republic Day and the sheer number of farmers on the roads were perhaps big factors in the manner that over two months of entirely peaceful protest that was making news globally descended into one of the most well-covered incidents of violence.

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Till eve of the Republic Day, everything seemed to be going as per plan and meticulous planning has been the one of the most outstanding qualities of the farmers’ protest at Delhi borders. After all, it has taken a whole lot of detailed planning to set up and run with clockwork efficiency multiple temporary cities on the borders of the national capital, with all possible facilities for over 200,000 people, for nearly 65 days and without any major sign of problems that city dwellers often come face to face with.

Thus, the focus of the leaders of the farmers’ protest in the days leading up to the Republic Day was also entirely in planning the tractor rally so that while it comes as a show of strength of the protest, but it also remains as peaceful and as well-organised as the protest on borders of Delhi.

Once the farm leaders had reached an agreement with Delhi Police over the route map and the timings of the tractor rally, after several rounds of discussions, the core group sat huddled in a meeting at Singhu border to finalise the details of the march of the farmers gathered over there. They had charted out a comprehensive plan of action, with a map indicating the roles and responsibilities of various volunteers and even set up traffic coordination points, organised ambulances as well as security teams to ensure nothing went wrong.

Things began to unravel just at the time when the final tweaks for the rally were being worked out by the core team of organisers. As reports suggest, a few persons including Satnam Singh Pannu, leader of Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee as well as Punjabi actor Deep Sidhu took over the stage and began challenging the decision of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the umbrella organisation of the protest, to not enter the main city but stay on the four routes that had been agreed upon with the police.

Reports have emerged of both Pannu and Sidhu inciting the farmers to disobey the leadership and move towards the Red Fort “to show our strength and get the government to agree to our demands”. Targetting the youth, especially the new arrivals at the site, since thousands of tractors reached Delhi on the weekend before the Republic Day to participate in the tractor rally, Sidhu reportedly urged them to push away all obstacles and attain the objective of occupying the Red Fort to show their true strength.

Leaders as well as volunteers of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha say that the two continued to defy the agreement and the official plan of the rally even on the morning of January 26. “We had prepared a complete route map that we had shared with our volunteers. Meanwhile some others created a completely new route map as they wanted to give a bad name to our peaceful protest,” says Jitendar Pal Singh, a volunteer at Singhu border.

He goes on to say that the official timing of the start of the rally from the border was 10 am, but Pannu and Sidhu began telling a group of farmers to not wait until the official Republic Day parade was over, but start much earlier.

In a statement yesterday, Delhi Police chief, S N Shrivastava confirmed this, adding that Pannu and Sidhu had led a group of protestors to begin the rally as early as 6 am, leading to commotion and chaos on the spot as the marchers who had moved before the agreed time were stopped by Delhi police and led to scuffles and a light baton charge as well as use of teargas shells by the police to control the farmers.

Nihang in farmers protest

Protestors march on foot from Singhu border (MIG photos)

However, the group managed to advance after two hours having removed the barricades and obstacles such as sand-filled trucks and containers placed on the road by the police. The next point of clash was near Bhalswa Landfill where the protestors ran into yet another series of barricades placed by the police. Once again, the scenes of clash were repeated between the farmers and the police. As soon as the police retreated the farmers started to remove the containers and the barricades with the help of earth movers placed over there, while the trucks blocking the road were simply moved to a side.

The road not taken

It was at this juncture, after they successfully removed the barricades and could advance, that the tractor rally from Singhu border got divided. After the barricades were removed, a number of tractors turned off the national highway and took the road on the right, as per the route map agreed with Delhi Police. But a number of youngsters who had been instrumental in clearing the road insisted on continuing on the highway directly towards central Delhi and were seen telling all others to follow them.

For a long while, a large number of tractors that would have gone on the agreed route were diverted. And from here began a long journey on the road that should not have been taken and which by the end of the day had converted the tractor rally from an astounding success to a dramatic, nearly fatal flaw.

“Only KMSC was responsible for diverging from the route. It was this organisation’s announcement to go inside the national capital. This organisation is not a part of 32 unions belonging to Punjab. They came to protest at the Delhi border several days after our agitation started,” Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) President Balbir Singh Rajewal told a press meet after the clashes at Red Fort.

“The plan of going to Red Fort was not at all a part of the route map. We tried a lot to convince the few people who were deviating to follow the designated route. Either these people were given a message beforehand to go to Red Fort or they were told later to join the Red Fort is not clear yet. Half of the people who reached Red Fort were not even aware that they were going to Red Fort. They were just following the procession. The people who were leading, they were the ones who misguided the people,” says Jitendar Pal Singh.

The farmers say that the lawlessness that prevailed inside the Red Fort was not committed by the farmers from Singhu border but by miscreants following orders of Pannu and Sidhu. To some extent this assertion was borne out by Sidhu’s own statements as well as the fact that he gave a speech during a Facebook Live broadcast that he had organised from inside the Red Fort, proclaiming victory for the protesting farmers.

The organisers also point out that as soon as they came to know of the violence at ITO and Red Fort, they cancelled the tractor rally and told the farmers to return to the borders of Delhi. “In fact, most of our tractors turned back to Singhu border from midway after the call from our leaders. Our intentions have always been to carry out a peaceful protest and we will continue to do so,” confirms Jitendar Pal Singh.

However, the damage to the protest has already been done as the violence has given a handle to the government that had already been extremely intransigent even during the negotiations with the farmers.



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