Indian farmers on Wednesday called off a march to parliament on February 1, the day of the government’s budget announcement, following violent clashes with police a day earlier that left one person dead and hundreds injured.
Tens of thousands of farmers have been camped on the outskirts of New Delhi for two months to demand the withdrawal of three farm laws passed last year, which they say benefit big private buyers at the expense of growers.
On Tuesday, a protest parade of tractors around the fringes of the capital to coincide with Republic Day celebrations turned into chaos when some farmers diverged from agreed routes and broke through barricades.
Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the group of farm unions organising the protests, condemned the violence which saw protesters – some carrying ceremonial swords – storm into the historic Red Fort complex as police used tear gas and batons to constrain them.
It said on Wednesday the unions would hold rallies and a hunger strike on Saturday but there would be no planned events on Monday, when Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is due to present the annual budget.
“Our march to parliament has been postponed,” farm leader Balbir Rajewal told a news conference. “[But] our movement will go on.”
At a separate news conference, Delhi’s chief of police SN Srivastava said 394 police officers and constables had been injured in the violence.
“The violence occurred because terms and conditions were not followed,” he said. “Farmer leaders were involved in the violence.”
More than 25 criminal cases had been filed, with 19 arrests and 50 people detained to date, Srivastava added.
It was not clear how many protesters had been injured but one farmer died after his tractor overturned during the clashes.
Leaders of the farmers’ unions bemoaned the violent turn protests took, saying it undermined their cause.
“These incidents have only delayed our fight,” said farmer leader Darshan Pal.
Agriculture employs about half of India’s population of 1.3 billion and unrest among an estimated 150 million land-owning farmers is one of the biggest tests Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced since coming to power in 2014.
While the protests are beginning to undermine support for Modi in the countryside, he retains a solid majority in parliament and his government has shown no sign of bending to farmers’ demands.
The government says the agriculture laws will open up new opportunities for farmers.
‘It all happened suddenly’
During a huge “tractor rally” on Tuesday, several hundred demonstrators breached the outer walls of Delhi’s Red Fort – one of its most recognisable landmarks – before raising flags from the ramparts and clashing with police.
Among those who reached the fort was Vikramjit Singh, who said farmers had not originally planned to storm the historic complex, a favourite tourist attraction where prime ministers deliver the annual Independence Day speech.
“Nobody had given a call to go to Red Fort,” said Singh, a farmer from Punjab’s Tarn Taran district. “It all happened suddenly.”
The events came after protest leaders held lengthy talks with police and promised an enormous but peaceful rally along a pre-determined route.
Balbir Singh Rajewal, a protest leader, said the demonstrations had been hijacked by a tiny minority.
“Ninety-nine percent of the protesters were peaceful,” he told reporters.
Police had removed protesters from the Red Fort complex by Tuesday evening, but a heavy security presence remained on Wednesday.
Roads across the New Delhi remained closed while extra police, including paramilitary units, were at protest sites on the outskirts.
The government blocked the internet in some parts of the capital and mobile speeds were low.
Farm leaders from the eastern state of Odisha to the western state of Gujarat said on Wednesday they would continue to support protesters in Delhi.
“We have already made it clear that we want all three agriculture bills to be repealed,” said Raman Randhawa, a farm leader from Rajasthan state.
“We will not step back before the laws are scrapped totally by the government.”