AILSA CHANG, HOST:
To India now, where two months of peaceful protests turned violent. Farmers are locked in a standoff with the Indian government over agriculture reforms, and today it came to blows in the streets of the capital, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It started like every annual Republic Day holiday in India - with a military parade in the capital.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FRAYER: But everyone knew what was coming. Tens of thousands of farmers on tractors - they've been protesting on the city's outskirts for months, their anger percolating. They obtained police permits to enter the city today. They were supposed to wait until after the military parade was over, but some broke through barricades early and veered off the agreed-upon route. Locals cheered them on and threw flowers, but then...
(SOUNDBITE OF TEAR GAS CANISTER FIRING)
FRAYER: Police fired tear gas from highway overpasses and beat farmers with bamboo rods. Farmers stormed the 17th century Red Fort, a tourist attraction and symbol of power in the heart of Delhi. They waved flags from the ramparts, and rallies spread across the country.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).
FRAYER: Hundreds gathered on a cricket field in downtown Mumbai, including Megha Mallick.
MEGHA MALLICK: We came here for farmer support because they are not getting what they want.
FRAYER: What they want is the repeal of three farm laws that deregulate produce markets. Farmers fear they'll lose price guarantees, though the government insists they will not. It's a dispute over quite technical pricing rules, but it's become a rallying cry for people who want to honor India's agrarian roots. Up to two-thirds of Indians still work in agriculture, mostly on small farms. Their profits are already meager, and COVID has plunged India into a recession. Economist R. Ramakumar says farmers fear the government is putting big corporations ahead of them.
R RAMAKUMAR: This is a fight for democracy. This is a fight for people, not a set of oligarchs or a set of multinational companies.
FRAYER: Others say Indian agriculture desperately needs some kind of reform. Seema Bathla is another economist. She supports the government's laws.
SEEMA BATHLA: These laws will give farmers the choice - or, you can say, the freedom - to farmers to sell wherever they wish to sell.
FRAYER: The problem, she says, is that the government botched the rollout. It didn't explain these laws well to the people whose lives they affect most, and so farmers' fears have taken over, she says. Last week the government offered a compromise, an 18-month suspension of the laws. But farm unions refused. They want them scrapped forever.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)
FRAYER: After nightfall, farmers climbed down from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort, but they did not go home. They went back to their protest camps on the outskirts of Delhi, and they're planning another march in less than a week.
Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.
(SOUNDBITE OF D NUMBERS' "XYLEM UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.