NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Caravans of tractors clogged a key highway in northern India on Monday as tens of thousands of farmers protesting against agriculture reforms streamed into the capital ahead of Republic Day, and police said they were prepared to deal with the crowds.
India marks its founding as a republic on Tuesday with a military parade in the historic city centre, but the farmers, who are demanding a rollback of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s deregulation effort, plan their own peaceful show of strength.
Delhi’s police said protesters have been told to use three main routes for the tractor procession, which had been agreed upon after six days of discussion with farmer leaders.
But there are lingering concerns that “anti-national people” may seek to foment trouble during the demonstration, Delhi Police Commissioner S.N. Shrivastava told reporters.
“We are aware of all this and we are taking whatever action is required,” Shrivastava said, “I have trust that everything will go on peacefully.”
On National Highway 44, loudspeakers blared anti-government songs as the lengthy procession of vehicles rolled down, fuelled by dozens of community kitchens that handed out hot meals and beverages in the winter cold.
“We will teach Modi a lesson that he will never forget,” said one of the protesters, from the district of Ludhiana in Punjab, who drove his own tractor. The 35-year-old, who cultivates 10 acres (4 hectares), asked not to be identified.
Farmers mainly drawn from the breadbasket states of Punjab and adjoining Haryana have blockaded approaches into New Delhi for about two months to protest against three new farm laws they say will hurt their livelihoods and help big companies.
Their unions are pushing for repeal of the laws, after rejecting a government proposal to suspend the measures it says will usher in much-needed steps to boost farmer incomes.
Several rounds of talks with Modi’s government have made little headway, and protesters now aim to up the ante with the procession set to follow Tuesday’s military parade.
Top leaders and military officials attend the annual high-security parade to mark the day India’s constitution took effect in 1950.
A farmers’ group exhorted its members to refrain from violence in detailed instructions issued for Tuesday’s event.
“Remember, our aim is not to conquer Delhi, but to win over the hearts of the people of this county,” it said.
In the western state of Maharashtra, thousands of farmers were also on the move, flocking to a flag-hoisting ceremony on Tuesday in the heart of Mumbai, India’s financial capital.
“We are here to support farmers in Delhi, to highlight that farmers across the country are against the farm laws,” said Ashok Dhawale, a state protest leader.
(Reporting by Manoj Kumar; Additional reporting by Rajendra Jadav in Mumbai and Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow; Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Clarence Fernandez and Bernadette Baum)