Protesting Farmers Drive Tractors into New Delhi on Republic Day

Farmers protest during a tractor rallyThousands of Indian farmers on tractors entered New Delhi Tuesday as the country marked its Republic Day, escalating protests against new agricultural laws passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Farm leaders and protesters, who’ve been camped at various border points around the capital for two months, have pushed Modi’s administration on the defensive and rejected a series of overtures aimed at ending the impasse.

The protest, meant to run parallel to the military parade to celebrate India’s becoming a republic, had permission from local police but began ahead of the time set aside for it, news reports said. At at least one border point, protesters broke through barricades and police used tear gas to control the crowds, according to reports.

India’s Supreme Court last week had refused to rule on a government petition to stop the event, leaving it to the police to decide.

The tractor rallies marked the entry of the protesting farmers into the capital and were among the biggest challenges facing Modi’s government as it takes on a powerful voting bloc. The farmers entering New Delhi are mostly from the neighboring states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. But they have also found support in other Indian cities, including financial capital Mumbai, where protest marches have taken place.

”More than a 100,000 people with tractors have gathered here and we expect more to join us,” said Manjit Rai, 57, a farm leader coordinating entry at the Singhu border — one of the half a dozen entry points into the capital. “People are enthusiastic about the celebrations and we are determined that we will peacefully continue to make our case.”

The government has offered to suspend the laws for as long as 18 months while it talks with the protest leaders, but the farmers have stuck to the their position that they want a repeal of the legislation they say will hurt their incomes and leave them vulnerable to big corporations.

The new legislation aims to overhaul the way farm goods are produced and sold in the country of more than 1.3 billion people, almost half of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihood. The government has defended the measures as an opportunity to open up state-run wholesale markets to more private sales, which it says would help farmers increase their cash earnings and make India more self-reliant.

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