When India was celebrating 73rd Republic Day, thousands of farmers drove their tractors to the Red Fort. These farmers, protesting three farm laws since September in states and for two months at three locations on Delhi border, were seen on television news channels beating police officers with sticks and trying to overrun them by tractors. Videos of this violence soon began circulating on social media, and the farmers, whose protest for more than four months had remained non-violent and peaceful, began villains. There were pictures of some of the protesters unfurling a flag at the Red Fort. This sparked widespread claims that the protesters had taken down the Indian flag and replaced the tricolor with the Khalistan flag. BJP leaders amplified these claims through social media. Right-wing propaganda website OpIndia also wrote in an article that protesters unfurled Khalistan flag from the Red Fort.
During fact-check, it was found that protesters neither took down the Indian flag nor replaced it with a flag of Khalistan. The flags hoisted by them were the Nishan Sahib or Sikh religious flags. Yellow or saffron triangular flags with the Khanda – two swords – are Sikh flags; they are not Khalistan flags. Even hoisting of Sikh flags on the Red Fort on the Republic Day was wrong, and no one possibly justify the violence.
How did the Delhi Police allow protesters to reach the Red Fort, is a question that immediately comes to mind. Police said they had chalked out circular routes from Ghazipur, Sindhu and Tikri borders for the tractor parade. “It was decided that the protesters will enter Delhi but remain in areas near the border from the three entry points. Several protesting groups, however, veered off the course,” a police officer was quoted as saying in a newspaper. The police charged at the protesters with lathis and even lobbed tear gas shells to bring the situation under control.
But the question is, were the farmers responsible for what happened? Were they the ones who became violent, thrash police officers and hoist flags on the ramparts of the Red Fort?
Reports that followed didn’t seem to suggest this. The farmers’ unions distanced themselves from the violence claiming that outsiders instigated protesters. Punjabi actor and singer Deep Sidhu and gangster-turned-activist Lakha Sidhana were accused of being Centre’s plants among the protesters to discredit the long protest. Reports suggested that about 6,000 protesters were led by these elements and they resorted to violence so that the Delhi Police gets an excuse to bulldoze the protest. TV news crews were party to this game plan, the reports said. They showed only this group and the violence unleashed by them on their channels, and conveniently blacked out more than 100,000 others who drove their tractors peacefully into the national capital and drove out to the protest sites equally peacefully.
The police should deal with the people who were involved in the violence with a stern hand and initiate criminal proceedings against them. There cannot be two ways about this. After all, the country has seen pictures of how police officers were dangling from the boundary of a trench and then falling off in a bid to save themselves from the mob. According to Delhi Police, over 300 policemen received injuries in the violence and people need to be held accountable for this.
But, returning to the moot question that we raised at the beginning of this piece, were the farmers involved? Should they be blamed?
Let’s look at some more facts. According to government reports, there were 200,000 tractors in the parade by protesting farmers on Republic Day. This roughly translates into two million protesters, considering there were 10 people on each tractor. Imagine two million people on 200,000 tractors in Delhi and yet no shops were looted, no private or government building was damaged, there was no arson, no civilian was injured, there was no attempt to get into residential areas and go on a rampage, no woman or girl was molested or sexually harassed and there were no slogans against the country. What do these facts suggest? They simply suggest that the farmers came peacefully and returned peacefully.
For the violence and flag hoisting at the Red Fort, the police are equally to be blamed. Why was the group that went to the Red Fort allowed to enter the iconic building? In some videos, police were seen casually sitting even as protesters went into the fort. If police could keep hundreds of thousands of protesters in check for two months (at the border sites), why couldn’t they stop a few thousands from breaking barricades and veering off to different routes?
This is the tricky balance in a democracy, where citizen rights and civil liberties must be respected, decision-making should be participative and representative, but the authority of the State and law and order must also be preserved. With the farm protests turning anarchic and violent on Republic Day, the debate has moved from the substance of the farm laws — which was the original point of discord between protesters and the government — to the nature of Indian democracy, the authority of the Indian State, and the possibilities and limits of the politics of protest. The dark episode — for which farm unions bear responsibility — has lessons for all sides and will have a far-reaching impact.