On the night of January 25, as I was ready to hit the bed, I got a call from my source on the Tikri border of Delhi. Why would he call me so late? I wondered. Of course, the next day (January 26) was a big day because farmers protesting against Centre’s three contentious farm laws were going to take out a massive, but peaceful, tractor march on a pre-decided route. I picked up the phone. “Sir kal dekhna kya hoga, jarur ana! (Sir, do come tomorrow, you will see a lot of things)” And he banged the phone. I was definitely geared up for some action the following day, but what I actually saw was far from what I had imagined.
Here’s an eye-witness account of the events that happened in and around Red Fort on the Republic Day which brought a bad name for a two-month peaceful protest, waged by farmers who are convinced the Centre’s new laws will destroy their livelihood.
It was early in the morning on January 26 when I took a metro to the Tikri border. It is one of the three protesting sites where the farmers have been camping since November 26. Other two borders are Singhu and Ghazipur.
India was celebrating its 72nd Republic Day and more than 10 lakh farmers seated atop 3 lakh tractors were ready for a massive tractor morcha within the national capital the same day.
While the tractor march was expected to start at 12 noon, I planned to reach the Tikri border at 7 in the morning to get first-hand information about what to expect as the day progresses.
When I reached Mundka Metro station, 5 stations away from the Tikri border, my phone started beeping and was soon flooded with notifications.
I casually looked at my phone to know that protesting farmers at Singhu border had breached the police barricades. I called my source to know the situation at the Tikri border, but he said “not as of now, but very soon it will be breached”.
I felt an adrenaline rush moving through my body. I wished I were a superhero, who could jump from roof to roof to reach my destination within minutes.
The farmers who were supposed to leave the Tikri border at 12 noon, started at 8 in the morning towards Nangloi where they had to take a turn to Najafgarh and proceed further to the Kundli–Manesar–Palwal expressway, finally returning to the site where they have been camping for more than two months now.
I reached the Tikri metro station just in time to see farmers breach the barricades. I saw hundreds of farmers on foot running towards Delhi. They were followed by farmers on tractors which too were moving towards Delhi now. One..two..three…hundred…two hundred…a thousand…two thousand….the long line of tractors seemed endless. It was for the first time in my life (and I could speak for thousands of onlookers) to have seen such a large number of tractors moving back to back. The tractors had speakers playing patriotic songs or farmers’ protest songs in Punjabi and Haryanvi. Every tractor had an Indian flag along with their respective union flag. I boarded one of them to move along. Besides tractors, farmers had jeeps, cars and bikes as transport.
The protest was peaceful till then and everybody was full of ‘josh’ (enthusiasm). In the next 20 minutes, tractors entered Delhi where they were welcomed with flowers. Meanwhile, reports started trickling in from Ghazipur border that farmers had breached the barricades and were moving ahead in big numbers.
At Mundka, it was still peaceful. A group of local residents had organised a dance to the beat of dhols for the visitors’ entertainment. Posters with the message, “We support farmers” were spotted at different locations.
Everything was smooth till 11 in the morning when reports appeared on the use of tear gas shells on farmers from Ghazipur and Singhu borders. It was now clear that a large number of farmers were actually heading for the Red Fort.
Meanwhile, the news disturbed farmers at the Tikri border, who also decided to go to Red Fort instead of moving towards Najafgarh, as per the plan. Very soon several tractors were seen heading towards the Red Fort, in violation of instructions given by farmer leaders.
The police used tear gas shells to stop them. There was smoke all around but the tractors kept moving. My eyes were itchy and watery due to tear gas shells. I couldn’t focus on what was happening around me but kept moving ahead.
Meanwhile, the farmers had reached the Model Town area of Delhi. I could hear instructions from farmer leaders over speakers that the farmers were not supposed to go to Red Fort and should come back immediately.
A group of farmers I saw discussed the route with the police and was sent back to the Tikri border. However, farmers with more than 100 tractors did not take note of police and farmer leaders’ warnings and went ahead to the Red Fort. They breached the barricades, banged the buses, and also ran the tractors behind police personnel.
Everything happened so fast that I didn’t realize what to do…whether to attend phone calls of my parents who were worried for me or to reply to my editors, or talk to the farmers near me or look at the reports coming in from other borders.
Now farmers from every border left the entire convoy to reach the Red Fort; most of them were coming from the Ghazipur border. It was 1 in the afternoon and I planned to move to Red Fort now. It took me an hour to reach my destination.
At Red Fort, I saw several farmers climbing on top of the historic structure while many others were still coming in. The group of farmers from Tikri border too had reached Red Fort by then. The strength of the farmers was much higher than that of the police, who were not prepared for this at all.
The protesters raised slogans: “Is baar lal kile par jhanda kisan failayega (This time farmers will unfurl the flag on the Red Fort)” Within moments, farmers entered Red Fort and unfurled ‘Nishan Sahib’ – a flag representative of Sikhism. Some media reports later said the farmers removed tricolour to unfurl Nishan Sahib flag, but that was not the case. The farmers unfurled Nishan Sahib on different poles.
By now the crowd was aimless and directionless as they had no clue what they need to do next. One thing I would like to mention here is that I had not seen such an unruly crowd during the last two months of farmers’ protest. These men definitely had a different agenda. It was a very scary scene.
While the farmer leaders kept requesting their fellow protesters to return as this is not their way of getting heard, the mob was not willing to listen. At this point of time, I thought they were so wrong in doing what they were doing because this is precisely what the government would have wanted them to do so that the well organized movement would collapse.
Also watch: Farmers enter Delhi, tear gas fired
Police lathi-charged them and used tear gas shells but it took them Wednesday morning (January 27) to evacuate the space completely. Out of 10 lakh people who joined the rally, nearly 20,000 to 30,000 reached the Red Fort while others maintained the route and came back peacefully by 6 in the evening. I think more than 95 percent farmers maintained peace, but in a protest which involves more than 10 lakh people, even 5 percent can create a huge ruckus, just like the one we experienced on Tuesday.
At 7 in the evening, I planned to rush back home and write my stories, but I did not get any transport. Metro was closed and so were buses and private vehicles. I had to remain at that particular place with my phone battery dying till I called one of my friends to pick me up on a bike around 9pm. I walked nearly 5kms to reach the location where he picked me up. I reached home late in the night and discussed the turn of events with my parents. After listening to my account of the day’s events, my father said, “Thousands are blamed because of one.” He was so right. As a journalist, I won’t support the ones who jumped up the Red Fort, but I won’t judge the ones who participated in a peaceful rally either. It is a day I would like to forget.