Police fire tear gas at Indian farmers marching on capital

Published February 21, 2024
Farmers, who are marching towards New Delhi to press for better crop prices promised to them in 2021, run for cover amidst tear gas fired by police to disperse them at Shambhu barrier, a border crossing between Punjab and Haryana states, India, February 21, 2024. — Reuters
Farmers, who are marching towards New Delhi to press for better crop prices promised to them in 2021, run for cover amidst tear gas fired by police to disperse them at Shambhu barrier, a border crossing between Punjab and Haryana states, India, February 21, 2024. — Reuters

Indian police fired tear gas on Wednesday to scatter protesting farmers as they resumed a march to the capital, equipped with cranes and excavators after talks with the government on guaranteed prices for their produce failed to break a deadlock.

To escape the stinging gas and clouds of smoke, thousands of farmers, some wearing medical masks, ran into the fields surrounding their gathering-point on a highway about 200 km north of New Delhi.

The police action came as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a fresh offer to resume talks on the farmers’ demands. Agriculture Minister Arjun Munda urged the farmers to resolve their grievances through the talks.

“After the fourth round, the government is ready to discuss all the issues” such as guaranteed prices, he posted on social network X, as the march resumed.

“I again invite the farmer leaders for discussion. It is important for us to maintain peace.”

On Monday, the farmers’ groups had rejected the government’s previous proposal for five-year contracts and guaranteed support prices for produce such as corn, cotton and pulses.

The farmers, mostly from the northern state of Punjab, have been demanding higher prices backed by law for their crops. They form an influential bloc of voters Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot afford to anger ahead of general elections due by May.

Sticks, stones, gas masks

The farmers began marching at 5:30am from the spot where authorities had stopped them by erecting barricades on the border of Punjab state with Haryana, blocking a key highway.

“It is not right that such massive barricades have been placed to stop us,” said one of the farmers’ leaders, Jagjit Singh Dallewal. “We want to march to Delhi peacefully. If not, they should accede to our demands.”

Police in riot gear lined both sides of the highway as the farmers, gathering earlier amid morning fog, waved colourful flags emblazoned with the symbols of their unions, while loudspeakers urged them to fight for their rights.

Television images showed some wearing gas masks.

Late on Tuesday, Haryana police’s chief ordered the immediate seizure of the heavy equipment brought by the farmers, to prevent its use by protesters in destroying barricades.

Police also asked owners of such equipment not to lend or rent it to protesters, as its use to harm security forces would be a criminal offence.

About 10,000 people had gathered on Wednesday, along with 1,200 tractors and wagons at Shambhu on the state border, police in Haryana posted on X, warning against the risk of stone-throwing as they were armed with sticks and stones.

Sunday’s government proposal of minimum support prices to farmers who diversify their crops to grow cotton, pigeon peas, black matpe, red lentils and corn was rejected by the protesters, who wanted additional foodgrains covered.

Similar protests two years ago, when farmers camped for two months at the border of New Delhi, forced Modi’s government to repeal a set of farm laws.

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