NEW DELHI — Tens of thousands of protesting farmers drove long lines of tractors into India’s capital on Tuesday, breaking through police barricades, defying tear gas and storming the historic Red Fort as the nation celebrated Republic Day.
They waved farm union and religious flags, where prime ministers annually hoist the national flag to mark the country’s independence.
The deeply symbolic act of taking over the monument was shown live on hundreds of news channels. People watched in shock at the scope of the farmer protests, now seen as the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Thousands more farmers marched on foot or rode on horseback while shouting slogans against Modi. At some places, they were showered with flower petals by residents who recorded the protests on their phones.
Police said one protester died after his tractor overturned, but farmers said he was shot. Television channels showed several bloodied protesters.
Leaders of the farmers said more than 10,000 tractors joined the protest.
For nearly two months, farmers — many of them Sikhs from the Punjab and Haryana states — have camped at the edge of the capital, blockading highways connecting it with the country’s north in a rebellion that has rattled the government.
They are demanding the withdrawal of new laws, which they say will commercialize agriculture and devastate earnings.
“We want to show Modi our strength,” said Satpal Singh, a farmer who drove into the capital on a tractor along with his family of five. “We will not surrender.”
Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at numerous places to push back the rows of tractors. Authorities blocked roads in an attempt to stop the farmers from reaching the center of the capital. Thousands, however, managed to reach some important landmarks.
“We will do as we want to. You cannot force your laws on the poor,” said Manjeet Singh, a protesting farmer.
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Authorities shut some metro train stations and mobile internet services were suspended in parts of the capital.
The government insists that the agriculture reform laws passed by Parliament in September will benefit farmers and boost production through private investment.
Farmers tried to march into New Delhi in November but were stopped by police. Since then, unfazed by the winter cold, they have hunkered down at the edge of the city and threatened to besiege it, if the farm laws are not repealed.
The government has offered to amend the laws and suspend their implementation for 18 months. But farmers insist they will settle for nothing less than a complete repeal.
The protests overshadowed Republic Day celebrations, which mark the anniversary of the adoption of India’s constitution on Jan. 26, 1950. Modi oversaw a traditional parade, displaying the country’s military power and cultural diversity, albeit scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Since returning to power for a second term, Modi’s government has been rocked by several convulsions including a flagging economy, widening social divisions and a criticized pandemic response.
Agriculture supports more than half of India’s 1.4 billion people. But the economic clout of farmers has diminished over the last few decades. Once producing a third of India’s gross domestic product, farmers now account for only 15 percent of the country’s $2.9 trillion economy.