NEW DELHI — Indian farmers taking part in more than two months of protest against new agriculture laws began a daylong hunger strike Saturday, as they sought to reaffirm the peaceful nature of their movement following recent violent clashes with police.
Farmer leaders said the hunger strike was timed to coincide with the death anniversary of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, who was famed for his nonviolent resistance to colonial rule. Nevertheless, the protesters said they remained furious at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government.
“The way the government is spreading planned lies and violence is condemnable," said a statement from the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, or United Farmers’ Front, a coalition of farmers’ unions.
Tens of thousands of farmers have been camped on the edge of New Delhi since November, seeking the repeal of laws passed in September that they say will favour large agribusiness and corporations, devastate the earnings of many farmers and leave those with small plots behind.
Modi and his allies say the laws are necessary to modernize Indian agriculture. Multiple rounds of talks between the two sides have been unsuccessful.
The protests had largely been peaceful but violence erupted on Tuesday, India’s Republic Day, when tens of thousands of farmers riding tractors and marching on foot knocked out police barricades and stormed New Delhi's 17th century Red Fort in a brief but shocking takeover.
The clashes left one protester dead and nearly 400 police officers injured. Officials did not say how many farmers were injured, but many were seen bloodied after police in riot gear hit them with batons and fired tear gas.
Tensions have remained high since, with sporadic clashes between protesters, police and unidentified groups shouting anti-farmer slogans. On Friday, a group of around 200 people barged into one protest site despite heavy security, threw stones at farmers and damaged their tents.
The group demanded that farmers vacate the area and said they had “insulted” the national flag during their tractor parade on Republic Day. The farmers alleged that the vandals were largely made up of members of a Hindu nationalist group that has close ties with Modi’s party.
On Saturday authorities blocked mobile internet services at three protest sites, a favoured tactic of the Modi government to thwart protests. India’s Home Ministry said internet services would remain suspended until Sunday to “maintain public safety.”
Farmer leader Rakesh Tikait said the government was “in delusion if it feels our movement will be weakened” by suspending the internet.
“The more they try to crush the voice of the farmers, the greater this movement will become,” Tikait tweeted.
The protests pose the biggest challenge to Modi since he took office in 2014 in part because farmers are the most influential voting bloc in the country and a key part of the economy. In a rare show of unity, 16 opposition parties boycotted a parliamentary address by the ceremonial president Ram Nath Kovind, who is from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.
Both sides appeared to be growing more entrenched.
Rather than try to lower the temperature after Tuesday's clashes, the government has filed cases against journalists, activists and opposition politicians, accusing them of sedition and inciting violence.
The farmers, meanwhile, have seen their ranks swell by thousands more new protesters since a video of Tikait breaking down in tears while talking to reporters was shared widely on social media on Thursday.
“Our movement has gained strength after the Republic Day rally. We have decided that we won’t go back," said Sukhdev Singh, another farmer leader who was taking part in Saturday's hunger strike. “If we are to die, we will die here.”
___ Associated Press video journalist Shonal Ganguly contributed to this report.
Sheikh Saaliq, The Associated Press