‘Dilli Chalo, Indian police fire tear gas as protesting farmers march

Indian security forces have fired tear gas in a bid to stop thousands of farmers marching on New Delhi after talks with the government failed.
Local broadcasters showed thick clouds of tear gas on Tuesday, as police sought to disperse protesters near Ambala, some 200km (125 miles) north of the capital. The farmers are demanding that the government offer greater support and guarantees.
Police sealed multiple entry points into New Delhi by erecting barriers of barbed wire, spikes and cement blocks. Large gatherings in the capital have been banned and internet services suspended in some districts of the neighbouring Haryana state.
“We do not want to break any barricades. We want resolution of our issues through dialogue. But if they [the government] do nothing then what will we do? It is our compulsion,” Sarwan Singh Pandher, a leader of one of the farmer groups, told reporters following the breakdown of talks.
Negotiations between union leaders and government ministers on Monday failed to produce consensus on the farmers’ key demands, which include higher support, guaranteed prices for their produce, and forgiveness for loans, as well as a clutch of other concessions.
Pandher claimed that the government, which three years ago had promised to double farmers’ income, had refused to make a decision on the demands.
Indian broadcasters showed columns of hundreds of tractors moving towards the capital from the surrounding states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
Farmers in India have political heft due to their sheer numbers. The threat of renewed protests comes ahead of national elections that are likely to start in April.
Two-thirds of India’s 1.4 billion people draw their livelihood from agriculture, accounting for nearly a fifth of the country’s GDP, according to government figures.
The “Chalo Delhi” march echoes protests in 2021 when farmers breached barricades and marched into the city on Republic Day.
That demonstration was part of a yearlong protest against an agricultural reform bill; the biggest challenge so far to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government that took power in 2014.
Tens of thousands of farmers then set up makeshift camps. At least 700 people were killed during the protest.The pressure was such that Modi pushed through the repeal of three contentious laws that farmers claimed would let private companies control the country’s agriculture sector.
The government at that time said it would set up a panel of farmers and government officials to find ways to ensure support prices for all farm produce. Multiple meetings since then have made no progress.
Thousands of Indian farmers die by suicide every year because of poverty, debt and crops affected by ever more erratic weather patterns caused by climate change.
Till about last week, the ruling BJP appeared to have a perfect strategy for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, or so was the general perception. Even though the announcement of ‘Dilli Chalo’ protest by farmers was made a few weeks back, the party believed that divisions in farmers’ groups, (thereby a lackluster response to the call) and Bharat Ratna for icons like farmer’ icons like Chaudhary Charan Singh and MS Swaminathan had it in control of the situation.

But the dramatic scenes at Shambhu border today have the capacity to spoil favourable perceptions, thereby giving leverage to the Akali Dal in alliance negotiations with the BJP in Punjab, claim observers.

The basic fact is that the current situation is not quite the same as it was around 2020-21 when it all started.

Though Samyukta Kisan Morcha (Non-Political) leaders claimed support from 200 farmers' unions from across the country, several prominent faces from 2020-21 are missing from the action.

The SKM (Non-Political) is a breakaway faction of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the body that led the earlier protests. Jat khaps were also said to be “not keen” in supporting the protests this time.

After the farmer agitation ended in December 2021, differences emerged within the SKM, leading to the creation of the SKM (Non-Political), and subsequently the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha (KMM).

The speculation regarding Rashtriya Lok Dal's alliance with the BJP was seen as another setback for the protests.

The government responded to the situation the way it had in 2020-21, assigning Union ministers Piyush Goyal, Nityanand Rai, and Arjun Munda to the job of persuading farmers unions.

Tuesday morning, however, saw the negotiations between farmer leaders and the Centre fail. Munda and Goyal did not agree to the main demands of farmers, including the legal guarantee for MSP on all crops and pension and debt waiver for farmers and farm labourers.

Though as per sources, Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann also mediated between the Centre government and farmer leaders, AAP is supporting the farmers.

Not taking any chances, the government had imposed tight security on Delhi borders as well as Punjab-Haryana border, leading to dramatic developments today at Shambhu

The belief was that the split in farmer organisations about the Delhi march, lukewarm response from ‘khap’ panchayats and early outreach by the Centre government would result in the protests fizzling out

But, the General Election are around the corner, a situation no opposition party will allow to pass.

According to sources the party and the government is trying to control the situation at multiple levels

According to a leader, the BJP's only worries are the two opposition-ruled states Punjab and Karnataka.

“The protest against farm laws was mostly led by farmers from Punjab and Haryana. The BJP does not mind giving in to MSP demand but that cannot happen the way farmers are demanding. Besides, if they agree to MSP, farmers would start protesting for pension for farmers and farm labourers. It is an election year and opposition parties will also fan the flames. The party leadership is well aware and trying to control the situation through social leaders,” say sources

In the meantime, the agitation appears to have increased the political heft of the Akali Dal in Punjab.

Being an election year, key players like AAP, Akali Dal and Congress are making the most of the situation, supporting the protests.

Apparently, the protests have led to the Akali Dal increasing its demand, seeking seven Lok Sabha seats in Punjab and two Cabinet posts if Prime Minister Narendra Modi is voted back to power. Piyush Goyal was deployed for talks with farmers because he was also a part of the alliance talks with the Akali Dal

Though the sources say the leadership is "confident" of sailing past the situation, a fact also is that such situations can spoil 'mahaul' environment if any untoward incident takes place.

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