With the splendor and color of military parades, India’s Republic Day celebrations are among the most eye-catching.
But on Tuesday, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government prepared to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the country’s Constitution with another parade of armed forces, an unlikely force prepared to take center stage.
Protesting Indian farmers, who have been camping on the outskirts of New Delhi for two months to call on Mr. Modi to repeal laws that will reshape Indian agriculture, are preparing to enter the capital with thousands of tractors.
The show of force, after the central government failed in its frenzied efforts to stop the tractor from running, dramatically illustrated how the standoff with the farmers embarrassed Mr. Modi. Although he became the most dominant figure in India after crushing his political opposition, the peasants were always defiant.
In September, Modi passed three farm laws in parliament that he hopes will inject private investment into a sector that has suffered from inefficiency and lack of money for decades. But farmers were quick to speak out against them, saying the government’s easing of regulation had left them at the mercy of corporate giants who would take control of their businesses.
As their protests gathered momentum and anger, with tens of thousands of farmers camped out in the cold for two months and dozens dead among them, the government has proposed changing parts of the laws to include their demands. The country’s Supreme Court also intervened, ordering the government to suspend laws until it comes to a resolution with the farmers.
But farmers say they won’t stop until a repeal, and they’ve started to step up the pressure. In addition to their tractor march on Tuesday, they announced their intention to hold a march to the Indian Parliament on February 1, when the country’s new budget is presented.
Tensions were high until Tuesday, with some officials claiming the protests were infiltrated by insurgent elements who would resort to violence if farmers were allowed to enter the city. Just days before the tractor march, farmer leaders took to media a young man they claimed to have arrested on suspicion of a plot to shoot the leaders on Tuesday to disrupt the rally. Neither set of claims could be independently verified.
There was some confusion about the scope and size of the tractor step before it started. Reports in local media, citing Delhi police documents, said the march would not begin until after the much-publicized Republic Day parade in the heart of New Delhi. Reports also said the number of tractors and how long they could stay inside the city had been capped.
But farm leaders at a press conference on Monday said there was no limit to the time and number of tractors as long as they stick to the routes laid out by Delhi police. The route maps suggested a compromise between farmers and the police that could allow protesters to enter the city without approaching sensitive institutions of power.
Leaders said around 150,000 tractors had gathered at the capital’s borders for the march, that around 3,000 volunteers would try to help police keep order and 100 ambulances were waiting.
Farm leaders, both in statements to protesters and at the press conference, have repeatedly called for peace during the tractor march.
“Remember that our goal is not to conquer Delhi, but to win the hearts of the people of this country,” they said in instructions posted online for the walkers, who were told not to carry arms – “not even sticks” – march and to avoid provocative slogans and banners.