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Agriculture

Republic Day Violence: A Tale of Two Conspiracies

While the Delhi Police claims that the farmers involved in the tractor rally had plotted to capture the Red Fort, a Punjab Vidhan Sabha committee states that the January 26 melee was the result of a scheme by the Delhi Police to defame the protesting farmers.

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Chandigarh: The Punjab Vidhan Sabha committee that was set up to investigate the alleged atrocities by the Delhi Police on farmers, youths and others from Punjab in the aftermath of the January 26, 2021 violence in the national capital during the farmers’ protests, has stated that the Republic Day incident in Delhi was the result of a conspiracy by the Delhi Police to defame the protesting farmers.

The panel submitted its report to the Vidhan Sabha speaker Rana K.P. Singh last week for the consideration of the state government. 

At the same time, the Delhi Police, which had arrested about 150 people after the farmers and other protesters entered the Red Fort where they raised the Sikh religious flag, continues to claim that the farmers had hatched a conspiracy to capture the Red Fort and convert it into a site for their continuing agitation against three agriculture laws that has seen them camped at the borders of Delhi since November 2020.

The police made this claim in a charge sheet it had filed this May. 

According to a news report in the Indian Express on September 15, to support its assertion that the Republic Day violence was “a deep-rooted, well-orchestrated conspiracy”, the police cited a “rise” in the sale of tractors in Punjab and Haryana between November 2020 and January 2021. 

“The sale of tractors rises to a considerable extent rapidly in a well-orchestrated conspiracy and with the sole object to take tractors to Delhi for agitation and protest,” says the charge sheet.

 Also read: Delhi Police Cites Rise in Tractor Sales to Prove Conspiracy Angle of Republic Day Violence</a>

Like the Punjab Vidhan Sabha Committee and the Delhi Police, many of the people who watched the violence in Delhi this Republic Day play out on their television screens via the live reports of news channels are divided on what had actually happened.

The farmers protesting three agriculture laws that they believe will harm their livelihoods had planned a tractor rally through the national capital after the annual Republic Day ceremony ended on January 26.

The rally was to follow a certain route agreed upon by a committee of farmers’ representatives and the Delhi Police.

However, according to the farmers and their supporters, when they set off for the rally in the city, they found that the route that had been designated for them had been barricaded by the police. Rather than return to their camps, they diverted to other routes and some of them arrived at the Red Fort, a historic site in the national capital where the Prime Minister of India traditionally hoists the tricolour on Independence Day and where the national flag flies every day.

Farmers hoist flags at the Red Fort during the Kisan Gantantra Parade on January 26. Photo: PTI

The farmers and their supporters at the Red Fort then noticed an empty flagpole and used it to raise the Sikh religious flag. Meanwhile, violence broke out in parts of Delhi including the Red Fort as groups of the farmers and their supporters grappled with the police.

By the time the violence ended, the farmers and the Delhi Police had accused each other of instigating the violence. The police then registered approximately 44 first information reports (FIRs) and arrested more than 150 farmers, mostly from Punjab, charging them with several offences including rioting, vandalising public and private property and attacking police personnel.

Opposing perspectives

Kuldeep Singh Vaid, the Congress member of the legislative assembly (MLA) who chaired the Punjab Vidhan Sabha committee looking into the allegations of atrocities committed by the Delhi Police on the farmers and their supporters from Punjab, told The Wire that many of the cases filed by the Delhi Police regarding the Red Fort violence were false.

“We have a fair reason to believe that the majority of the Punjabi youth who have been charged are facing completely false cases,” he said.

According to Vaid, the committee had recorded the statements of more than 70 people who had been arrested in the aftermath of the Republic Day violence and later released on bail and reached the conclusion that a deep-rooted conspiracy had played out on January 26 in order to defame the farmers’ protest.

Vaid said that the Punjabi youth who were part of the tractor rally had originally planned to take a different route, but the Delhi Police had deliberately changed their route and diverted them towards the Red Fort.

“Most of the participants in that rally were from far away villages and had no idea where they were heading,” said Vaid.

He added that the police claims that the farmers had insulted the national flag at the Red Fort and tried to capture the site were not true. “No one touched the Indian flag or tried to lower its prestige. They just unfurled the Sikh religious flag on an empty pole and left the premises,” he said.

The Delhi Police, however, has a completely different narrative.

Policemen stand guard in front of the historic Red Fort after clashes between police and farmers, in the old quarters of Delhi, India, January 27, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

According to a police challan (note), the protesters on January 26 had not followed the prearranged route for the tractor rally but had instead broken barricades to enter Delhi and then clashed with the police and vandalised property in several parts of the national capital. 

The charge sheet filed in May not only supported its claim of a conspiracy to capture the Red Fort by pointing to a ‘rise’ in the sales of tractors in Punjab and Haryana between November 2020 and January 2021, but also claimed that there are several video clips of the leaders of the protest instigating their supporters to “modify their tractors and get heavy metal accessories installed so that the police barricades can be breached”. 

All these video clips were recorded prior to Republic Day, the charge sheet says.

However, Jagmohan Singh, spokesperson of Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), a group of farmers’ unions that coordinates the farmers’ protests at the borders of Delhi, told The Wire that the tractor sales theory of the Delhi Police is baseless. “It is only meant to terrorise the SKM leadership and involve them in the conspiracy,” he said. 

Jagmohan said that he had been part of the committee that had met the Delhi Police when they decided the route for the tractor rally on Republic Day. 

“But to our surprise, the police put barricades on the pre-decided routes, thereby forcing the farmers to take a different route, one that went towards the Red Fort,” he added.

Also read: ‘Autopsy Doctor Told Me He’d Seen the Bullet Injury But Can Do Nothing as His Hands are Tied’

The farmers’ arguments

One of arguments used by the farmers to point to their innocence in the Republic Day violence is the observations made by the magistrates who granted them bail.

For example, on February 20, 2021, in the bail order for 10 farmers from Punjab who had been arrested under several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) after the tractor rally, Delhi metropolitan magistrate Aakash Sharma observed in respect of one of the charges: “It appears that the charges have been trumped up against the accused persons as section 333 IPC ought not to have been invoked.”

Section 133 of the IPC deals with voluntarily causing grievous hurt to a public servant to deter her or him from her or his duty. It was one of the main charges filed by the Delhi Police against the farmers who had participated in the tractor rally on January 26. 

Farmers participate in a tractor march on Republic Day, as part of their protest against the Centre’s farm laws, in Gurugram, January 26, 2021. Photo: PTI

When the magistrate went through the evidence provided by the police relating to FIR No. 22/21 registered at Paschim Vihar West Police Station to prove that the farmers had “grievously” injured some police personnel, he pointed out that the evidence in the form of the medical reports of the police personnel concerned did not show that they had been assaulted. This led him to make the observation documented in the bail order – that the charge of Section 133 of the IPC appeared to have been trumped up. This observation has been used ever since by the farmers involved in the tractor rally to prove that the violence for which many of them had been arrested had not been a planned conspiracy.

Advocate Prem Singh Bhangu, the convenor of the legal cell of the SKM, told The Wire that the police had randomly picked up farmers from the Delhi streets and then invoked false cases against them to weaken the agitation that had started in November 2020 and captured the imagination of the country and the world. 

“If the Delhi police are so confident of these charges then why is it that nine months later, the charge sheets are still awaited for most of these cases?” asked the advocate. 

He added, “To my knowledge, out of 44 FIRs registered by the police nine months ago, only a single charge sheet has been filed so far in connection with the alleged violence and the unfurling of the Sikh religious flag in Red Fort. Let them present the charge sheets and we will challenge them legally and even move higher courts to quash these FIRs.” 

In response to Bhangu’s allegation, Delhi police spokesperson Chinmoy Biswal told The Wire that the police are not bound to respond to every allegation made by the protesting farmers. “They make new claims every now and then,” Biswal said. “I don’t have exact details right now, but the investigation must be underway in cases where the charge sheets are awaited,” he added.  

 Actor Deep Sidhu and former gangster Lakha SaIdhana (currently out on bail) are the main accused in this charge sheet.  

 ‘We were falsely implicated’

 Harpeet Singh, a 20-year-old from Zira town in Punjab’s Ferozepur district, was among the 150 protesters arrested by the Delhi police for the Republic Day violence.  

“We had just peacefully marched towards Delhi during the tractor rally on Republic Day,” Harpeet told The Wire. “We were not involved in any violence or any fight with the police. Nor did we vandalise any public property,” he added.

Also read: A Republic of Protest

At about 4 pm that day, Harpeet said, the protesters were asked to return to the Singhu border. 

“As we looked for an autorickshaw to take us back, we saw a private bus in which some of our Punjabi brothers were already seated, so we entered the bus,” explained Harpeet about the events of the rest of the day. “Later I realised that the bus was a police vehicle that had been picking up protesters from different places. I was taken to a police station in western Delhi and then sent to Tihar jail after a police case was registered against me. One month later, a local court released me on bail.”

 Harpeet is charged with 14 offences relating to rioting, assault, conspiracy and violation of the Epidemic Disease Act and Disaster Management Act. 

 Pradeep Singh, a 30-year-old farmer from Bansipura village in Ludhiana district, also claimed that he had been falsely implicated. 

Farmers on their tractors move towards Delhi during their rally on Republic Day, at Singhu border in New Delhi, Tuesday, January 26, 2021. Photo: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

He told The Wire that the day after the tractor rally on January 26, he and some other men had gone to various police stations in Delhi to seek the protesters who had not returned to the Singhu border after the rally. 

“Upon arriving at a police station, we were not allowed to leave. We were arrested sometime later and then sent to Tihar jail,” he claimed.  

According to Vaid, the Punjab Vidhan Sabha committee has recommended to the state government that it should take up with the Centre the issue of having these cases withdrawn.

“The people who have been charged in these cases should also be given free legal aid and financial help and compensation from the government given that the farmers were ill-treated in jails after being implicated in false cases,” he said.

“We have several other important recommendations in our report. But the report can’t be made public before it is duly tabled on the floor of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha house most probably in the next assembly session,” Vaid added.

Also on the Vidhan Sabha committee were Kulbir Singh Zira and Fatehjung Singh Bajwa, both MLAs from the Congress, Sarabjit Kaur Manuke, an MLA from the Aam Aadmi Party and Harinderpal Singh Chandumajra, an MLA from the Shiromani Akali Dal.