The angry calls of defiance blasted from the loudspeakers. “We are not going away, no matter what,” shouted the speaker, to loud cheers from the crowd. “Reverse the black laws.”
For weeks, the atmosphere in the Ghazipur farmers' protest camp on the outskirts of Delhi had been cheerful. But by Friday morning it had turned to cold fury.
Since November, tens of thousands of Indian farmers have been encamped at the site, and in two other locations along highways going into Delhi, to demand the repeal of new agriculture laws they say will destroy their livelihoods. As negotiations between farmers and the government continued, the police had left them in relative peace for two months. But suddenly all that changed.
The state government ordered the farmers to vacate the Ghazipur protest site, and by Thursday night hundreds of police in riot gear descended on the area to clear the farmers, and the camp’s water and electricity was cut off.
But the farmers were not to be moved easily. Their numbers swelled and an estimated 18,000 tractors from neighbouring states assembled at the border. After a stand-off that continued well into the night, the police backed down.
“We understand that government will file cases against us to intimidate us and try to create fissures among farmers but we are not going to budge,” said Roop Lal, a farmer from Faridabad, Haryana, who was camped out at Ghazipur.
Balwinder Singh, a 50-year-old farmer, was among those who had rushed into the camp from Meerut, a city 80km east of Delhi, on Thursday night when he heard of an impending police crackdown. "The police attempt to remove the protesters last night was an assault on the dignity of farmers," he said.
By Friday, the tension and scenes of violence had spread to neighbouring Singhu protest camp, where a crowd of 200 men, largely made up of members of the Hindu nationalist group Hindu Sena, descended on the farmers, throwing stones at the protesters and tearing up their tents, shouting at them to clear the road. Chaos erupted as police responded with tear gas and batons, though the retaliation appeared to be largely against farmers.
The farmers' protests have proved to be one of the greatest challenges to the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government, led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi. Farmers, who make up almost 50 per cent of India's workforce, say the agriculture laws passed by the government in September, without their consultation, put their livelihoods at risk and will leave them at the mercy of large corporations.
Farmers, led by powerful unions, have remained adamant they will not call off the protests until the laws are repealed. Nine rounds of negotiation with the government have come to nothing.
Tensions had begun to rise on Tuesday, India’s Republic Day, after a march in Delhi by the farmers turned violent. Thousands of farmers, many on tractors and horseback, burst through barricades around Delhi and stormed India’s historic Red Fort, with the police responding with teargas and batons.
One farmer died and more than 200 arrests were made, with many of the farmers detained under draconian anti-terrorism laws. Police reports were also filed against journalists, activists and opposition politicians accusing them of “sedition” and inciting the violence at the Red Fort.
The clashes had initially appeared to divide the farmers, whose protests had been peaceful up to this point. Several farmers’ unions condemned the violence and expressed concern it would turn the country against their cause. Many said the violence had been led by rogue figures planted in the movement by the BJP.
But as word spread of a government order to clear the Ghazipur camp, which was declared "unlawful", the farmers vowed to stay put until the laws were repealed. In a speech broadcast across news channels on Thursday night, the farmers' union leader, Rakesh Tikait, broke down in tears. "This government will destroy farmers, BJP's goons will come and attack them with the police," he said.
Security remained tight around Ghazipur and Singhu camps on Friday, with police banning people and trucks carrying water from entering. The anger against the government was potent among farmers who vowed no amount of force would make them move. "In the last two elections we voted Modi to power and he promised that he will make the life of a farmer better, but he betrayed us," said Sukhi Singh, a landowner in Mohana village in Haryana.
“Under Modi the plight of farmers has been aggravated and the prices of fertilisers and seeds have increased. The government is yet to reimburse us for the crops sold two years ago.”
Others had shown up in solidarity. Kamaljeet Gill, the president of a taxi union, said the protests were about protecting India. "We have come in support of farmers," he said. "If we stay silent now then this country will be mauled by Modi's corporate friends." – Guardian