It was a bit bizarre – but was happening right in front of us at the GT Karnal Bypass in Delhi.
One group of tractors was travelling towards and into Delhi – while another bunch was moving in the opposite direction, from Delhi, towards Singhu. They actually crossed each other on the highway and this juxtaposition seemed at some level to capture the confusion on the ground. The group returning from Delhi was doing so on the call of their leaders. Some of them had gone into the capital in the morning wrongly believing their leaders had decided to enter the city along a route other than the one agreed on with the police.
Farmers protesting against the three laws rammed through Parliament in September had organised their own Republic Day parade, moving from different points on Delhi’s borders like Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur, Chilla and Mewat. There was also one march at Shahjahanpur on the Rajasthan-Haryana border, where floats representing India’s states and union territories were travelling a distance of nearly 60 kilometres. It was, as the All India Kisan Sabha put it, the largest popular and civilian celebration of Republic Day ever.
It was a massive, peaceful, disciplined – and completely unprecedented exercise, a reclaiming of the Republic by ordinary citizens, farmers, workers, and others. It involved lakhs of people, many tens of thousands of tractors – and was coordinated with similar events and parades in almost all states of the Indian union.
But a relatively small group was able to divert the media gaze away from this incredible exercise and its astonishing scale – and focus it on the upsetting and isolated – even if spectacular – events within Delhi. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), comprising 32 farm unions spearheading the protests on Delhi’s borders for over two months, has strongly condemned the violence and vandalism of the groups that entered Delhi breaking away from the prescribed route. The SKM has denounced their action as “a deep-rooted conspiracy to knock down the peaceful and strong farmers' struggle."
“The main rally was to have started at 10 a.m.” says Karamjit Singh from the Kirti Kisan Union, one of the 32 SKM constituents. “But miscreants led by Deep Sidhu and Lakha Sidana [and others] – neither of them part of the 32-union SKM – caused a disruption. They started off dismantling barriers moving towards Ring Road, Delhi, at 8 a.m., and instigating some others to join them. It was these people who entered the Red Fort and hoisted their own flag there.”
Deep Sidhu has since gone on record confirming his participation and role in the events within Delhi. Sidhu has been a close associate of the BJP Lok Sabha MP from Gurdaspur, Punjab, Sunny Deol.
“We don't support them at all. We know what they did was wrong. Whatever happened on the 26th won't be repeated and we will keep this protest peaceful as it always was. We don't advocate breaking barricades or hoisting the flag at the Red Fort. We will ensure such nuisance doesn't occur in future," says Karamjit Singh.The breakaway groups launching their ‘rally’ earlier and breaking the barricades caused confusion amongst several who thought this was the new plan of the leadership. The path from Singhu to Delhi for the march was predetermined and approved by the police. But these groups took a different route while entering Delhi, proceeding towards the Red Fort. While they entered the fort, clashes erupted between the protesters and the police. Some were able to enter the fort and place a religious flag alongside the Indian flag.
In contrast, in the giant main rally, which dwarfed the numbers of the vandals in Delhi, tractor after tractor, group after group, proudly waved the national flag.
"We are farmers. We harvest crops which provide you food. Our aim is to repeal the three farm laws. Our aim was never to enter the Red Fort and place the flag there. Whatever happened yesterday was wrong," says Baljnder Singh, 45, a farmer from Shera Shera village, Moga, Punjab.
But from that point the media gaze shifted entirely to the small breakaway groups and their staged drama in Delhi. This meant largely ignoring the main, entirely peaceful rally. Farmers belonging to the 32 collaborating unions followed the approved path and took their tractors on that prescribed route. There were many who walked alongside the tractors, while some moved on their bikes and bicycles.
When the farmers of this rally entered the stretch within Delhi, there were no clashes or incidents of rioting. Many residents on the Delhi route they traversed came out and greeted them with flowers, fruit, and water. Among them was Babli Kaur Gill, 50, from Rohini, who distributed packets of water to the farmers moving on their tractors. She said, "I have come here for them. They provide us with everything we need. I wake up early morning and ask for tea. Then I have rotis for breakfast. All these are provided by farmers. Look at the protests and the plight of the farmers. A woman has been staying with a 12-month-old-child at Singhu. Why is she doing that? When there is no land, how will she able to raise him? The government must repeal the laws at the earliest. "
"I could have spent time merrily with my family at home today since it's a public holiday. But I chose to come here to support the farmers," said Ashfaq Qureshi, 38, from Sadar Bazar, Delhi. Qureshi greeted the rally holding up a board saying ‘Welcome to Delhi’.
The tractors were quite a sight, many having been beautifully decorated with colourful papers, ribbons and flowers. Indian flags were fluttering high on top of them. Farmers sang songs in pride and solidarity, asserting they would not bow down before the three farm laws. "The government will have to listen to our appeal. It is giving us the laws which we do not want. It has already sold itself to Ambani and Adani,” said Maninder Singh, 48, from Patiala, walking alongside the tractors in the parade. “But we will not lose this struggle. We will fight till our last breath."