Farmer protest reaches Delhi on India's Republic Day

Republic Day celebrations take place against the backdrop of agricultural protests that have grown into a rebellion

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Tens of thousands of farmers riding tractors and horses reached the Indian capital on Tuesday, defying a ban on their presence and clashing with police in an escalation of months of protest.

The group had planned to march into Delhi on the country’s Republic Day after nearly two months of sit-ins on the borders of the city against new farm laws they say will harm their livelihoods.

The government had agreed to allow a symbolic tractor march parade around the capital’s borders, dozens of miles away from the main Republic Day celebrations venue in the high security central Delhi, where India puts its military and cultural might on display with parades every January 26.

But farmers, mostly from Uttar Pradesh, northern Punjab and Haryana state, poured into the capital city from three entry points, some of them armed with swords and spears.

Many of the nearly 20,000 tractors – part of the march – were on their way to the centre of the city, as residents showered flower petals and cheered at the marching protesters.

Television footage showed farmers pushing through steel barricades and clashing with police, who threw teargas shells and used batons to push back the protesters. At some spots police in riot gear fought pitched battles with protesters, who hurled stones.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government insists the laws passed in September will boost production and bring in private investment, but farmers say this commercialisation will ruin their income.

Since being stopped at the borders of Delhi in November, the group has hunkered down, setting up encampments and threatening to besiege the capital until the farm laws are repealed.

Several rounds of talks between farmer unions’ and government have failed as both sides refuse to budge.

At the Ghazipur border to the east of the capital, hordes of farmers from Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and nearby states marched on a four-lane highway. They sat on top of tractors, carrying national flags, while shouting slogans of independence and singing songs hailing farmers.

Many showered each other in flower petals, as teams of police in riot gear kept the vigil.

Tarlok Singh, a 75-year-old farmer from Uttarakhand, who has been protesting at the border since November called the protest a “historic” moment for the farmer community.

"This rally is symbolic, it is a sign of farmers' unity, strength and determination. This is our fight for independence from government laws. I woke up at 4am because I was excited for this rally," Mr Singh told The National.

Vipin Kumar, 28, a farmer who owns five acres of a sugar cane farm in Baghpat, called the rally an answer to the government.

“This government called us terrorists, Khalistanis. They said we are a handful of farmers so this rally is our show of strength and unity. Modi should know we are not handful … he should see the sea of farmers today and be ready for our protests until he repeals the laws,” Mr Kumar said.