FARM FIRE SINGES CITY: Protesters storm the Red Fort and unfurl the Nishan Sahib. (AFP photo)
NEW DELHI: The script had been read out and the red lines drawn, but nothing went as planned when the farmers took out their tractor rally on Tuesday. A dash to the heart of Delhi on speeding tractors that rammed barricades and even threatened to mow down policemen, widespread vandalism and destruction of public property and prolonged clashes with the cops marred a two-month-long peaceful agitation on the farm laws. This was capped with the unfurling of the Sikh religious flag, Nishan Sahib, at Red Fort even as cops were battling the protesters in the foreground.
The leaders who had promised a peaceful march and should have reined in the hotheads did the disappearing act and the volunteers who were supposed to keep the rally on course were not be seen anywhere. This was a pyrrhic victory, bitter harvest of what turned out to be a rudderless agitation when it came to hitting the streets.
Police showed extraordinary restraint as use of force against farmers was never on the table during discussions amongst the brass. However, this strategy landed over 120 cops in the hospital, half of them with severe injuries. A few are critical and in ICU. A farmer driving a tractor dangerously crashed into barricades near ITO and died on the spot.
Ignoring the schedule of 12pm to 5pm that had been agreed upon for the tractor rally, the protesters at Singhu and Ghazipur borders had begun challenging the cops as early as 6.30am. They soon began making attempts to break through the barricades. This was even before the Republic Day parade had begun. By 8am, the barricades at Singhu were down and 45 minutes later, Tikri too had been breached. The tractor rally was on, still on course.
By 10am, around 6,000-7,000 tractors had entered Delhi, cocking a snook at police and violating virtually all mutually agreed terms and conditions. When this group reached Mukarba Chowk on G T Karnal Road around 10.40am, it insisted on moving towards Central Delhi, instead of going on the predesignated route. The cops tried to reason with them but the farmers, led by Nihangs on horses carrying swords and kirpans, charged at police and broke several layers of barricades between Mukarba Chowk and Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar. The protesters were teargassed and mild force used but to no avail.
Meanwhile, a section of farmers at Ghazipur border smashed the barricades at several points and headed towards ITO, through Akshardham and Millennium Park, where they were joined by some farmers from Singhu. Things were getting chaotic at Tikri too. Here, a section of the protesters refused to turn towards Najafgarh and insisted on marching towards Peeragarhi and Central Delhi, leading to day-long clashes with the cops.
However, it was at ITO that the protesters met with stiff resistance from the cops which turned the intersection into a battleground. The farmers turned violent and broke barricades, damaged iron railings and dividers and even tried to run over the policemen with their tractors. Around 12.35pm, the cops fired teargas shells and lathicharged the protesters, setting off a cat-and-mouse game. The protesters pelted the cops with stones.
With the arrival of reinforcements after the conclusion of the R-Day parade, police succeeded in stopping them from entering the New Delhi district and moving towards Parliament. One section of protesters then turned towards Red Fort with another staying put on Vikas Marg.
Having reached the ramparts of Red Fort, the protesters hoisted the Nishan Sahib amidst much cheering even as police were being attacked in the vicinity. It was only late at night that some order could be restored and the crowd removed from the area.
The clashes between police and farmers continued throughout the day. Most of the incidents were reported from Mukarba Chowk, Ghazipur, ITO, Seemapuri, Nangloi, Tikri Border and Red Fort.
Delhi Police — caught between overseeing R-Day security and handling the spiralling violence — used mild force, including teargas, and suspended internet at many places. The request for the latter was made by the special cell to the home ministry which gave the order without much of an impact.
According to intelligence officials, things spun out of control as the protesters were virtually leaderless. While the talks had been held with the elderly union leaders, youngsters took charge on Tuesday morning, refusing to heed any counselling or instructions by police, with the leaders having disappeared from the scene.
Reacting to the day's developments, police commissioner S N Shrivastava said, "The time and the routes for the tractor rally were finalised after several rounds of meetings. But the farmers drove their tractors off the routes and before the fixed time, leading to vandalism in which many police personnel were injured."
"Public property has also been damaged. I appeal to the protesting farmers not to indulge in violence, maintain peace and return through the designated routes," he added.