Farmers force way into Haryana, head to Delhi

Thousands of farmers from Punjab broke barricades and forced their way into Haryana on Thursday, braving tear gas shells and water cannons en route to Delhi, where law enforcement officials deployed stringent crowd control measures as residents grappled with long traffic snarls in border areas.

By late evening, a large group of farmers — both from Haryana and Punjab — reached a toll plaza at Panipat, about 100km from the Capital, setting the stage for a confrontation with the Delhi Police, who have refused to give them permission for protests within the city limits. Leaders of farmers’ groups said that they will resume their march — christened “Delhi Chalo” —on Friday morning.

While Delhi prepared for a possible law and order challenge as well as traffic disruptions, high drama unfolded in Haryana on Thursday, as farmers from Punjab entered the state a day after being thwarted by border barricades.

The police in Ambala erected barricades on an overbridge on the Ghaggar river connecting the Haryana town with Punjab’s Patiala. Farmers threw several of these barricades into the river, facing tear gas shells by law enforcement personnel. Protesters could be seen waving black flags and shouting slogans.

The police made announcements on loudspeakers, asking farmers on the Punjab side to disperse, but that did not help. As smoke from tear gas clouded the skies and farmers outnumbered security personnel, they were allowed to enter Haryana around noon.

However, their forward march was not smooth, with frequent barricades and trucks filled with sand on the Grand Trunk (GT) Road blocking their way. This led to traffic snarls that hit commuters as well. But the farmers marched on.

Apart from this confrontation in Ambala district, there were face-offs between protesters and the police in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Haryana’s Sirsa, Kurukshetra, Fatehabad and Jind districts bordering the Congress-run Punjab. At Karnal, there was another face-off and police again used water cannon. A farmer was injured, though no arrests were reported.

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal were among those who criticised the Haryana Police’s action.

Haryana Police chief Manoj Yadava, however, said that his force acted with “great restraint”. “In this entire episode, not only a number of police personnel were injured, but police and private vehicles were also damaged,” he said in a statement.

As tension spiralled, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh and his Haryana counterpart, Manohar Lal Khattar, exchanged words over Twitter. While Singh asked Khattar why his government was stopping farmers, and the BJP leader told him to stop “inciting” them.

Food bowl Punjab is at the centre stage of the farmers’ agitation against the government’s moves to open up agricultural markets in the country and bring sweeping reforms to the farm sector, which supports nearly half the population.

Farmers have demanded a repeal of three laws enacted by Parliament in September which, together, allow agribusinesses to freely trade farm produce without restrictions, permit private traders to stockpile large quantities of essential commodities for future sales and lay down new rules for contract farming.

Farmers say the reforms would make them vulnerable to exploitation by big corporations, erode their bargaining power and weaken the government’s minimum support price (MSP) system, which offers cultivators assured prices from the government, largely for wheat and rice.

Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar and railways, food and consumer affairs minister Piyush Goyal held day-long negotiations on November 13 with leaders of several farmers’ groups in an attempt to end over two months of a politically challenging agitation. The discussions were inconclusive, but both sides had agreed to continue negotiations in the future.

“New farm laws were the need of the hour. In the coming time, it’s going to bring revolutionary changes. We’ll talk to the farmers on December 3,” Tomar told ANI on Thursday, reiterating that the Centre was ready to talk with farmers and resolve differences.

In the Capital, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) announced stopping trains from neighbouring cities in the National Capital Region (NCR) — Gurugram and Faridabad in Haryana, and Noida and Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh — to Delhi on Friday, a decision that could likely impact thousands of interstate commuters at a time when stringent restrictions are already in place in borders areas. However, it will be business as usual for trains to these cities from Delhi.

From barbed wires at the Haryana and Uttar Pradesh borders to blocking highways with dumpers full of mud and sand, the Delhi Police on Thursday took a host of steps to stop the march of representatives of about 500 farmers’ groups that are protesting against three contentious laws enacted recently by Parliament with an aim to liberalise the farm sector.

During the day, Metro services remained suspended on seven corridors for most parts and normal operations resumed from 5pm. On the road, heightened checking at Delhi’s borders with both Haryana and Uttar Pradesh resulted in huge jams and confusion among commuters. The border connecting Haryana’s Sonepat with Delhi’s Narela was closed for three hours in the evening.

Notwithstanding the arrangements, two small groups reached Jantar Mantar, Delhi’s protest venue, and Manju Ka Tilla in north Delhi. Eish Singhal, DCP-New Delhi, said that 70 farmers and activists were detained at Jantar Mantar and then let off. “We have registered a case under IPC (Indian Penal Code) section 188 (disobedience to an order by a public servant),” Singhal said. He refused to describe them as farmers. “They arrived in cars. Most of them were already in Delhi,” Singhal added. A group of 35 people from different states landed near Majnu ka Tilla and began a protest. “They had arrived by public transport such as trains and buses. We have detained them and are booking them for not following the Covid-19 safety protocols,” NS Bundela, joint commissioner of police (central range), said.

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