AROUND 1,000 farm protesters stormed the venue of a high-profile “kisan panchayat” organised by the ruling BJP in Haryana Sunday, forcing Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar to cancel his visit to the site on the outskirts of Kaimla village in Karnal district.
The incident also saw clashes between supporters of the BJP event and opponents of the Centre’s new agriculture laws, with leaders on both sides saying that several persons suffered injuries during the confrontation.
On Monday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a clutch of petitions related to the laws, with talks between the Centre and farmer unions failing to make any headway despite protesters camping on Delhi’s outskirts for over a month.
The panchayat in Kaimla, organised by local BJP MLA Harvinder Kalyan, was part of the party’s plan to hold such meetings to mobilise support for the laws. However, the protesters had warned that they would block the event as “the central government is holding meetings with farmer leaders while the BJP is holding functions to mobilise support in favour of anti-farmer laws”.
On Sunday, despite the police launching a mild lathicharge, using water cannons and tear gas, and setting up seven checkpoints, the protesters managed to reach the venue through wheat fields surrounding the area. They took over the site, and damaged the stage and a temporary helipad set up for Khattar’s arrival.
Haryana BKU president Gurnam Singh Chadhuni later referred to the incident in a video message and said that “we have got it done certainly because they (BJP) were holding a programme in Kaimla village parallel to our agitation”. “The BJP says they will hold 700 rallies to break farmers’ agitation. We will oppose wherever BJP holds such rallies because this agitation is to save the country,” he said.
MLA Kalyan said senior BJP leaders on the stage, including state president Om Prakash Dhankar, Education Minister Kanwar Pal Gujjar and Sports Minister Sandeep Singh, were taken to a temple nearby “for security purposes”.
“Those who entered the rally venue were anti-social elements, not farmers. There was laxity on the part of police although they had made arrangements. How did they (agitators) reach the venue?” the MLA said.
However, local farm leader Rajender Arya accused BJP supporters of stone-pelting and attacking farmers. “The Chief Minister should understand the feelings of farmers and avoid such functions till the matter is resolved. The administration should have allowed farmers to stage the protest near the venue instead of stopping them at the national highway, which is several kilometres away,” he said.
Karnal Deputy Commissioner Nishat Kumar Yadav told The Indian Express: “We had deployed 1,500 policemen to maintain law and order during the event.” Yadav said police have not received any information about any injuries. IGP (Karnal range) Bharti Arora was seen monitoring security arrangements.
Karnal SP Ganga Ram Poonia said police have decided to lodge an FIR against 71 persons for “entering the venue with sticks, damaging government property, conspiracy, assault on government employees and instigating people”
The incident triggered a political firestorm with Khattar later accusing Opposition parties of inciting the protesters to break law and order, and describing those behind the protests as “unscrupulous elements”.
Congress general secretary Randeep Singh Surjewala accused the state government of resorting to “event management” and organising a “sarkari mahapanchayat”.
“If the government wishes to communicate with farmers, they should have done it with the annadata (food providers) who are sitting at Delhi’s borders for the past 46 days. Instead of hearing them out, farmers are being brutalised and beaten up,” he said.
Senior INLD leader Abhay Singh Chautala said the opposition to “BJP’s kisan panchayat has sent a clear signal that the anti-farmer laws won’t be tolerated”.
In Karnal, the protesters started gathering at neighbouring Gharaunda town at 9 am. By then, the administration had parked loaded trucks on the road to the venue to block them. Around 11.30 am, police used water cannons and fired tear gas shells as the protesters, whose numbers had increased to well over a thousand, remained firm on reaching the venue.
With all road routes to the panchayat blocked by police, several of the protesters walked through the fields for almost 7 km to reach the venue around 1 pm. Soon, clashes broke out between a group of BJP supporters and the protesters. The police again used teargas and launched a mild lathicharge to disperse the agitators.
With the protesters refusing to disperse, a group of men from the rally venue arrived armed with sticks. But the group soon fled as the number of protesters swelled and the situation escalated. At 1.35 pm, the protesters rushed to the venue, damaged the stage, threw out chairs and tore up the tent.
Even as the police, led by DGP (Crime) Muhammad Akil, tried to disperse them, the protesters remained near the venue till 2.45 pm to ensure that the panchayat was cancelled.
“The real farmers are in the fields and not with the agitators,” said Rampal Ror, a BJP supporter from neighbouring Bastara village who had arrived to participate in the panchayat.
However, there were also participants who expressed sympathy for the protesters. “If we are taking part in the rally to be addressed by the Chief Minister, it doesn’t mean that we are against the agitators. A boycott is not the solution as dialogue is must to resolve the matter,” said Rajpal Singh, an ex-serviceman and local resident.
“If the farmers keep sitting on dharnas, the BJP won’t get any seat in the elections. It was our compulsion to come to the rally because the Chief Minister was coming to our village,” said Balkar Singh, a farmer from Kaimla.