The protesters, numbering in the tens of thousands, had intended to enter Delhi but were stopped by a huge police blockade out the capital.
The standoff took place at the state border between Haryana – Delhi’s neighbouring state – and Punjab, from which most of the farmers hailed. Police set up barricades across a large highway bridge, and videos showed farmers trying to scale the blockage and in some cases throwing sections of fencing into the river below.
The protests were called in defiance of laws passed by Narendra Modi’s government in September, which seek to reform agricultural practices and open up the process of buying farmers’ wares to private market forces.
Farmers see the measures as a way of reducing the amount they get paid for produce, which until now has been guaranteed by government-backed minimum pricing structures, and the reforms have been described as a “death warrant” for a sector where suicides due to financial struggles are already rife.
Police had denied permission for the farmers to enter Delhi on the basis that this would breach Covid-19 social distancing guidelines, but opposition politicians noted that no such qualms were presented during recent political rallies organised by the ruling party.
Meanwhile, traffic into Delhi was significantly impacted by enhanced police checks at the border to prevent farmers entering the capital.
Punjab’s Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, whose party is in opposition to Mr Modi’s BJP at national level, said that for nearly two months farmers have been protesting peacefully in Punjab without any problem.
“Why is Haryana government provoking them by resorting to force? Don’t the farmers have the right to pass peacefully through a public highway? It’s a sad irony that on #ConstitutionDay2020 the constitutional right of farmers is being oppressed in this manner. Let them pass,” tweeted Mr Singh, while urging the Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar not to push the farmers “to the brink” and let them take “their voice to Delhi peacefully.”
He asked the BJP to direct its state governments “not to indulge in such strong-arm tactics against the farmers” while noting that the “hands that feed the nation deserve to be held, not pushed aside.”
Mr Khattar hit back, however, and asked Mr Singh to stop “inciting innocent farmers” himself.
Protests and political wrangling over the new farm laws have been going on for months in India, and in October the state government of Punjab passed its own law to “correct” the reforms, saying it would continue to guarantee farmers a minimum support price.
Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal also said he supported the farmers and called the central government’s reforms “anti-farmer”. “Peaceful protest,” he said, was a “constitutional right” for the farmers.
The protests were planned to take two days, and while many farmers were blocked on the main highway, farmer representative groups claimed others were able to enter Haryana and thereby reach the capital through other routes.
There were separate, simultaneous protests in several other parts of the country on Thursday, including Delhi itself, Bihar and Odisha states. Some of these saw political leaders and the heads of farmer bodies detained by police.