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Defiance at India farmer camps as police call for protest end

New Delhi – Farmers at major protest sites on the outskirts of India’s capital were defiant today as authorities called for an end to their months-long sit-in against agriculture reforms in the wake of a deadly riot in New Delhi.

Thousands of farmers on tractors went on a rampage in Delhi on Republic Day on Tuesday, leaving one person dead and at least 400 injured.

The violence was condemned by the government, and police yesterday increased their numbers outside the camps on the outskirts of Delhi, where tens of thousands of protesters have stayed since late November as they call for the new laws to be repealed.

Authorities in Uttar Pradesh state, which neighbours Delhi, called for one camp in particular — the Ghazipur camp — to be cleared. But the farmers said they would not budge.

“Even if the police comes, we will sit here, peacefully, until the laws are repealed,” Bhagwant Singh, 53, a farmer from Rampur in Uttar Pradesh, told AFP at the site.

Police sealed the roads into Delhi beside the main protest camp at the Singhu border crossing, which remained packed with protesters, although some had left.

Tensions were high at the Singhu camp with many protesters carrying a stick, sword or axe — and even enormous ladles used in giant cooking pots at the camp’s kitchens — while regular announcements over a PA system in Punjabi told people to stay awake and alert.

March called off

Earlier, farmer unions scrapped next week’s planned march on parliament on February 1, the day when the government unveils its annual budget, although nationwide rallies were still planned on Sunday.

Two roads blocked by the protesters for weeks were cleared late Wednesday as two unions out of the 42 representing the farmers withdrew from the protest, each blaming other groups for Tuesday’s events.

“I am so ashamed and sad about (Tuesday) that I announce an end to our 58-day-long sit-in protest at this (Delhi) border,” one union leader, Bhanu Pratap Singh, announced on Wednesday.

Another protest camp on the outskirts of the Indian capital was also cleared overnight, with local police denying claims that they had emptied the site using force.

“Yes, many people left as they were disappointed about Tuesday but we are still here, and hope they will be back,” Baljinder Singh, 32, from the northern state of Punjab, told AFP on Wednesday at Singhu.

“It was a minor blip. The government planned it and changed the direction of our tractor march, and they intentionally directed us towards the city centre,” Baljinder added.

Delhi police have signalled a tough line, saying they are studying footage and using face-recognition technology to identify and arrest those involved in the violence.

On Wednesday police commissioner SN Shrivastava said that the farmer unions, having promised that Tuesday’s tractor rallies would stick to agreed routes, had “backstabbed” the authorities.

Twitter has also suspended several hundred accounts, most of them outside India, which were sharing “fake and inflammatory” reports to incite religious or regional violence around the protest, Shrivastava said.

Farming has long been a political minefield, with nearly 70 per cent of the 1.3-billion-strong population drawing their livelihood from agriculture.

The government says the industry is massively inefficient and in need of reform. But protesters fear the new laws deregulating the sector will leave them at the mercy of big corporations. — AFP

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