On Republic Day

Skye Arundhati Thomas

Mukarba Chowk, Delhi, 26 January 2021. Photograph © Ishan Tankha

Two parades took over the streets of New Delhi on Tuesday, 26 January. On the Rajpath, to celebrate Republic Day, the prime minister unfurled the national flag to the sound of a 21-gun salute, as fighter jets flew in patterns across the sky. At the city’s peripheries, thousands of protesting farmers pressed in with their tractors, decorated with marigolds. Many others had made the journey on foot; young and old, dressed in high-vis vests and bright turbans, they held up the Indian flag. After more than two months of peacefully occupying sites around the outside of the city, they had finally entered its limits. New Delhi residents showered them with flowers, and handed out food and water. Similar demonstrations took place across the country, and even abroad. For a brief moment, hope and revolutionary impetus were in the air.

Just after noon, the police claim, protesters tried to break away from their assigned routes in central Delhi. The farmers say that the agreed routes were blocked by police vans and state buses, causing confusion, and that police had charged at protesters with wooden batons earlier in the day. The farmers maintain that their tyres were slashed; the police that their barricades were knocked down. The police fired stun grenades, tear gas and live rounds; some farmers drew swords. In North Delhi, close to the official parade on the Rajpath, Navdeep Singh Hundal, a 26-year-old farmer, was killed. Other protesters said that he was shot and his tractor then overturned. The police tried to take custody of the body, and a group dressed in riot gear later stormed in to seize CCTV footage from a nearby camera. The crime scene was left unsecured, but according to official reports, the cause of death was the tractor, not a bullet.

Last September, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed, unopposed, three laws that make it easier for large corporations to undercut prices and take over the agricultural sector at the expense of small farmers. At least, that’s the worry: the farm bills were passed with little scrutiny, and their language is ambiguous at best. In November, farmers unions in Punjab, in peaceful protest, took to the national highways to march to Delhi. To prepare for their arrival, security forces dug trenches on the borders of the city, and set up barricades with concertina wire. The farmers, many of whom were on foot, were met with water cannon and tear gas. They were cordoned off and sequestered, where they remained throughout December, and a biting Delhi winter.

Despite eleven rounds of talks between the farmer unions and the Agriculture Ministry, all the government came up with was a stay order, suspending the laws for eighteen months. This was suggested after the Supreme Court, on hearing a petition on the proposed removal of the farmers, held that their right to non-violent protest was protected. But the farmers, understandably, want more than a delay: they demanded a complete repeal of all three laws. Their determination was unwavering, despite the daily risk of violence from state police, and the deaths of more than seventy farmers since the sit-in began: from starvation, from the cold, and from suicide.

During Tuesday’s rallies, a group of farmers entered the Red Fort. Commentators on national TV compared it to the storming of the United States Capitol on 6 January; the farmers were described as terrorists. Republic Day marks the coming into effect of the Indian Constitution on 26 January 1950. Yet the farm bills themselves are yet another testament to how little respect Narendra Modi’s government has for the constitution: their being passed in an empty parliament was unconstitutional.

More than 40 per cent of the Indian workforce are employed in agriculture, but the sector is feudal and casteist, and marked by violence and destitution. Opposition to the farm bills provides an opportunity to revise existing welfare, labour and land rights laws in favour of the disenfranchised. Instead, the state crushes dissent, and refuses to negotiate on equitable terms. The central government has called the tractor rally an ‘embarrassment to the nation’ but in fact it is the very opposite, a sign of the spirit that will not stand down in its effort to protect what really constitutes the Republic of India: its people.