At historic fort, India farmers raise flag and vow to battle on

Jalees Andrabi with Glenda Kwek
·4-min read

Armed with a spear and a sword, farmer Sher Singh climbed over the main gate of India's historic Red Fort and raised a Sikh religious flag to the cheers of a large crowd of protesters.

Thousands of farmers poured into New Delhi Tuesday, heading to the fort in the heart of the city where Singh emerged as a symbol of their push against India's agricultural reforms.

The farmers' protest coincided with Republic Day -- synonymous with ceremonial splendour and military parades -- but the agricultural workers, bashing through barricades on their tractors, were not there to celebrate.

The day's demonstrations marked the culmination of a larger two-month protest to overturn laws deregulating their sector, the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rule in six years.

Modi's Hindu-nationalist government has enacted a raft of sweeping and controversial reforms since coming to power in 2014, which have triggered street battles, including in Delhi.

The farming reforms have touched a raw nerve in the vast nation of 1.3 billion people, where nearly 70 percent of the population draws its livelihood from the sector.

On a day when the capital holds its biggest military pageant, the rush of tractors to central Delhi and the efforts to take over the iconic fort marked a symbolic victory for farmers.

The site is not just the former seat of power for the Mughal empire, but also where the prime minister raises the national flag on India's independence day.

Locals came out of their homes to watch the tractors roll down the Delhi streets, lining up on both sides of the road to offer water and other refreshments. Some even showered them with flower petals.

- 'Ready to die' -

Singh, a "Nihang" Sikh warrior wearing an electric-blue robe and a foot-high turban, had a clear message for the government.

"We're ready to die. This government has been ignoring us for long but they can no longer do that," Singh told AFP at the 400-year-old fort.

"This is a historic day... We are not fighting the tricolour (flag) but Modi's ego. Our flags symbolise that India is for everyone not just Modi and his party or his rich friends."

Around him, other Nihang and farmers -- many from the northern state of Punjab -- wielded ceremonial weapons including swords, daggers and even a medieval-style morning star.

Nearby, more than a dozen barefoot Nihang sat astride horses and perform gatka, an ancient martial art as others beat drums.

Tens of thousands of farmers have held sit-ins on key roads into Delhi after being blocked from marching into the capital in late November over the laws.

Modi has said the changes would allow farmers to sell to private buyers instead of just at state markets.

But the demonstrators -- mostly from states in northern India near Delhi -- fear that under the new system, large corporations would squeeze them for profits and destroy their livelihoods.

Emotions were high among the protesters, who feel the government is selling them out to big companies.

At the fort -- a UNESCO World Heritage site built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who also erected the Taj Mahal in the mid-1600s -- scores of police watched silently as thousands of farmers crowded into the structure.

"We have been peaceful (in our protests) all the time but the government thought we are powerless. In a democracy the power lies with the people," a farmer from the northern state of Punjab, Avtar Singh, told AFP.

"We stand for our rights and demands and will leave Delhi only once the government accepts them. This fight is long and we are ready to sacrifice our lives for the cause."

Rajesh Kumar, 45, a farmer from a Sonipat village in the northern state of Haryana, said he had been camped at Singhu border since November 26, the first day of the protests.

"Everyone is proud of us back home and two hundred tractors came from our village," Kumar told AFP, adding that he would stay in the capital until February 1, the day the government releases its annual budget and when farmers said they would march on foot to parliament.

"For two months we were protesting at the border and today, I feel relieved that I have come all the way here to Red Fort. I never thought I would come here."