New Delhi Police issue search notices for more than two dozen farmer leaders, asking them to surrender passports following a rampage at historic Red Fort on India's Republic Day. Farmers have called off their next week's march to parliament.

Farmers listen to a speaker as they continue to protest against three farm laws, at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border in Ghazipur on January 28, 2021.
Farmers listen to a speaker as they continue to protest against three farm laws, at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border in Ghazipur on January 28, 2021. (AFP)

India has issued a "look out" notice in the hunt for dozens of farmer leaders after tens of thousands of farmers riding tractors and horses stormed India's historic Red Fort this week, a dramatic escalation of their protests that are posing a major challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government. 

Over 30 farmer leaders who have held nearly a dozen rounds of stalemated talks with Modi's government over three controversial farm laws, were also asked to surrender their passports, the Indian Express reported on Thursday.

The farmer leaders have been named in 25 cases including rioting, criminal conspiracy, attempt to murder, and robbery, the Express said, adding 19 people have been arrested and 50 others detained in connection with the violence at the iconic Mughal-era structure. 

The decision was taken following meetings chaired by Indian Home Minister Amit Shah since Tuesday when the large scale violence took place in the national capital, Livemint reported, quoting officials.

Farmers deny allegations

A protest parade of tractors around the city's fringes to coincide with Tuesday's Republic Day celebrations turned to chaos when some farmers diverged from agreed routes, police said, breaking through barricades and clashing with police officers, who used tear gas and batons to try to restrain them.

Some protesters carrying ceremonial swords reached as far as the Red Fort, where PM Modi gave an annual speech, pushing dozens of policemen from the high walls and hoisting flags. 

Delhi's police chief S N Srivastava said 394 police officers and constables were injured in the violence.

"The violence occurred because terms and conditions were not followed," he said.

Farm leaders say they were not involved in the violence, blaming unruly elements for sabotaging their peaceful movement. 

The main opposition Congress and several other parties that back farmers' demands said on Thursday they believe that an impartial investigation will reveal the government's "nefarious role in orchestrating those events."

"Every effort has been made, to discredit a legitimate mass movement through a government-sponsored disinformation campaign," said a joint statement of leaders of several opposition parties. 

The protesters appear to have been led there by an actor who previously campaigned for PM Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP), Article 14 reported on Thursday. 

The news website also accused New York-based Sikhs for Justice – a separatist group that's campaigning for an independent homeland for Sikhs in India – of incitement. 

It was not clear how many protesters had been injured, but one farmer died after his tractor overturned during the clashes. Some farmers allege the 30-year-old was shot dead by police.

READ MORE: Angry farmers storm India's Red Fort in massive tractor rally

Govt in no mood to cancel laws 

Agriculture employs about half of India's population of 1.3 billion, and unrest among an estimated 150 million landowning farmers is one of the biggest tests Modi has faced since coming to power in 2014.

While the protests are beginning to undermine support for Modi in the countryside, his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party retains a solid majority in parliament, which has shown no sign of bending to the farmers' demands.

The government says agriculture reform will open up new opportunities for farmers.

Tens of thousands of farmers have been camped on the outskirts of New Delhi for two months to protest against reforms of the agriculture sector, which they say benefit big private buyers at the expense of growers.

Water shortages, floods, and increasingly erratic weather caused by climate change, as well as debt, have taken a heavy toll on farmers.

More than 300,000 farmers have killed themselves since the 1990s. 

Nearly 10,300 did so in 2019, according to the latest official figures. 

Farmers and their workers are also abandoning agriculture in droves – 2,000 of them every day according to the last census in 2011.

Hunger strikes planned

Following Tuesday's storming of Red Fort, Indian farmers said they have postponed a march to parliament on February 1, the day of the government's budget announcement.

Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the group of farm unions organising the protests condemned the Red Fort violence. 

It said on Wednesday the unions will hold rallies and a hunger strike on Saturday but there will be no planned events on Monday, when Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is due to present the annual budget.

"Our march to parliament has been postponed," farm leader Balbir Rajewal told a news conference. 

"(But) our movement will go on."

READ MORE: Why can't India's agricultural sector keep up with the rest of its economy?

'We will not step back'

Farm leaders from the eastern state of Odisha to the western state of Gujarat said on Wednesday they will continue to support protesters in Delhi.

"We have already made it clear that we want all three agriculture bills to be repealed," said Raman Randhawa, a farm leader from Rajasthan state.

"We will not step back before the laws are scrapped totally by the government."

READ MORE: India’s farmers feel short-changed, and they have a point

Source: TRTWorld and agencies