A make-or-break moment for farmers
The TLDR: In the wake of the Republic Day violence, the government shifted into high gear—seizing the moment to unleash multiple efforts to clamp down on the disoriented and in-disgrace protesters. And it looked as though they would succeed—except one union leader’s tearful outburst on television revived the farmers’ lost josh. The events of the past 24 hours reveal a movement at a critical tipping point that will determine its fate.
The government crackdown
The government moved on multiple fronts to squash the protests, and charge those who it viewed as culpable—including not just union leaders, but also Shashi Tharoor and others.
The FIRs: The Delhi Police on Thursday issued notice to 40 union leaders for violating the terms of the agreement for the Republic Day rally. In a separate FIR registered in Delhi, 37 leaders have been charged with rioting, criminal conspiracy, attempt to murder and robbery. A number of them say they weren’t even in Delhi during the violence. And much as with anti-CAA protesters indicted for the Delhi riots, the police statement alleged there was a well-planned conspiracy to incite violence:
"The Special Cell is investigating the conspiracy and criminal designs behind these unfortunate events of January 26. A preliminary assessment suggests there was a preconceived and well coordinated plan to break the agreement reached between Delhi Police and the leaders of farmers organisations, to indulge in violent confrontation with the security forces, to breach the sanctity of iconic and historical structures and monuments and to create an international embarrassment for the government on the occasion of the Republic Day."
As of Thursday, the police have filed 25 criminal cases, arrested 19, and detained 200 people in connection with the violence.
Also charged: The Noida police have filed an FIR against eight other people, including Shashi Tharoor and a number of journalists: Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, editors of The Caravan, and Rajdeep Sardesai. The charge: misreporting, spreading disharmony and inciting riots via their tweets on Republic Day.
Eviction campaign: Various state authorities moved swiftly to issue notices to farmers on the borders—ordering them to vacate the protest sites:
- The Haryana police forced out hundreds of Madhya Pradesh farmers from their dharna site on the Delhi-Agra highway.
- Security forces descended on the two largest protest sites—Tikri and Singhu—on the Haryana border to cordon off the protesters. And a group of "locals" staged a counter-protest demanding that the farmers leave.
- The government also cut electricity, water supplies and internet connectivity at the sites.
Big push in Ghazipur: But the heaviest crackdown took place on the Uttar Pradesh border (of course)—where the local magistrate and police gave farmers until midnight to vacate the protest site. Vast numbers of paramilitary and police forces swarmed UP Gate, and section 144 (which prohibits large gatherings) was imposed in the area.
Signs of success
It initially looked as though the government had succeeded in disbanding the protests. Four unions withdrew from the morcha to distance themselves from the R-Day violence. And the crowds started to thin at the three key protest sites: Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur. But farmers claimed that the lower numbers were misleading: “Just because there were too many people in the run-up to the [Republic Day] parade. Now that they have gone back, it looks like this."
But in Ghazipur at least, authorities sounded very confident:
“Sources in the administration said it was a matter of time before the site was vacated. ‘We are trying to carry out the process peacefully. Farmers are packing up. There are some women in the tents and the langars will take some time to be vacated,’ said Shailendra Singh, ADM City Ghaziabad.
He said the leaders were trying to delay the process to save their skin. ‘There is visual evidence that proves one of the leader's presence at the Red Fort during the Republic Day clashes,’ he alleged. Sources in the administration said farmer leaders were negotiating for safe passage with them while taking a tough stand on the stage.”
So it’s all the more ironic that it is in Ghazipur that the tide suddenly turned.
A sudden resurgence
The Ghazipur site: has been occupied for months by farmers from Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. And it is also the point where many UP farmers broke away from the main tractor rally—into ITO and later the Red Fort. Over the course of the day, hundreds of police and paramilitary forces arrived at the site, dressed in anti-riot gear. And water and electricity supplies were cut off.
The key union leader: at Ghazipur is Bharatiya Kisan Union spokesperson Rakesh Tikait. When the Delhi police arrived to serve him notice, he took to the stage and issued a plea to the farmers to stand their ground. He also refused to leave the site:
“We will not vacate the protest site and we will not court arrest… I know what will happen to me and my supporters after we are arrested… We will get shot here if need be, and we shall die before we leave… I will hang myself… If anything goes wrong. The police and administration will be responsible.”
But his equally powerful brother Naresh—who is presently in Tikait’s village—signalled his readiness to withdraw his union members.
Tikait’s tears: But as he left the stage, an emotional Tikait spoke to the TV channels, and started to cry:
A sudden turn: Tikait’s tears went instantly viral, and had a galvanising effect—first on his supporters who started to stream back on to the site. Farmers in Haryana moved in to block the Chandigarh national highway. And the numbers in Ghazipur started to swell again, as farmers from nearby Meerut, Baraut, Baghpat and Muradnagar reached the site to lend their support to Tikait. And clips shaming farmers who stayed home spread far and wide:
More importantly, Tikait’s brother changed his mind, and tweeted out this warning:
"Kal Hogi Mahapanchayat! Rakesh Tikait ko giraftaar karne ki dhamki denewale sunn le ki unhe Baba Tikait ke ek-ek sipahi ko giraftaar karna padega, ek-ek kisaan ko giraftaar karna padega." (Tomorrow is the day of the Maha Panchayat! Those who are threatening to arrest Rakesh Tikait must know that they will need to arrest every soldier and every farmer of Baba Tikait.)
The ripple effect: As word spread of Tikait’s defiance, villages across Punjab and Haryana moved quickly to provide reinforcements:
“In Punjab, announcements began in several villages once again to send one person per house to Delhi to keep people at the protest sites charged up… even people sitting on dharna at Singhu and Tikri borders started calling up their relatives and friends asking them ‘not to break the chain.’”
The outcome: The presence of security forces has been dialled down to avoid an ugly confrontation.
Also backing the farmers: In the aftermath of the violence, many opposition parties spoke out to condemn the violence—and offered little by way of support to the farmers. But now in a rare show of unity, as many as 16 opposition parties have decided to boycott the President’s address to the joint sitting of both the Houses of Parliament in solidarity. Of course, the bigger question is what they will do when they do attend the coming union budget session.
The bottomline: It remains to be seen if this redoubled defiance represents a real tipping point—or if it will evaporate as the police cases pile up. Then again, arresting farm leaders who have innumerable supporters ready to rise up en masse isn’t quite as easy as rounding up activists and students.
India Today has the best chronology of how the tide turned in Ghazipur. The Hindu has the array of FIRs filed against the farmers. Indian Express has more on the call for backup. Also in Indian Express: Farmers’ internal post-mortem on what went wrong on R-Day. Times of India reports on the FIR issued against Deep Sidhu. Also in TOI: Will farmers finally turn to opposition parties for support? And if you missed it: Here’s our explainer on what went down on Republic Day.