GHAZIABAD/NEW DELHI: The agitation against the farm laws appeared to regain momentum on Saturday after rallying support from the agricultural community of the crucial western Uttar Pradesh region, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed that his government's proposal to protesting farmers stands and it is a "phone call away" for talks.
Farmer leaders held a day-long fast on Mahatma Gandhi's death anniversary at the protest sites on the borders of the national capital including Ghazipur, on the Delhi-Meerut highway, that has now become the new focal point of the stir with more protesters converging there, days after the crowds had waned following the violence at the tractor rally on January 26.
Agitating union leaders claimed that protesters were also heading back to Singhu and Tikri borders from Punjab and Haryana, The administration remained on high alert with Internet services temporarily suspended at the Singhu, Ghazipur, and Tikri borders of the national capital, as well as in the adjoining areas.
Haryana has also suspended mobile internet services in 17 districts till Sunday evening.
Security personnel, including anti-riot police and paramilitary forces, were deployed in strength.
Multiple layers of barricades including concrete blocks had been put at the protest sites.
Wearing garlands, the farmer leaders, who had called for observing 'Sadbhavana Diwas' (Harmony Day) on Saturday after the immense outrage over violence by protesters during their Republic Day tractor rally, sat on the dais during the fast.
Addressing the protesters in Ghazipur, Bharatiya Kisan Union Rakesh Tikait, whose emotional appeal had galvanised farmers from Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand to flock to the protest site, said they have fought this battle for over two months now and "won't relent or retreat".
"The movement was and is strong," BKU's Meerut Zone president Pawan Khatana said, a day after tens of thousands of farmers from politically sensitive western Uttar Pradesh had gathered in Muzaffarnagar to participate in a mahapanchayat in a massive outpouring of support for the agitation after Tikait broke down following administration's attempt to remove the protesters on Thursday night.
Till now, the agitation was seen as mainly being led by Punjab-based farmer unions.
With the opposition gearing up to raise the issue of farmers' agitation in Parliament, Prime Minister Modi told floor leaders of various political parties that his government's offer on agri laws made to protesting farmers "still stands" and it was a "phone call away" for talks.
At the customary all-party meeting convened by the government ahead of the Budget Session, the prime minister, responding to the references by opposition leaders about the "unfortunate incident" on Republic Day, said that the "law will take its own course".
"The prime minister assured that the Centre is approaching the farmers' issue with an open mind," Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi said.
"The prime minister said the Centre's stand is same as it was on January 22, the last meeting between the protesting farmers and the Centre and proposal given by Agriculture Minister on the farm laws still stands. Modiji reiterated what Tomarji had said - that he (Narendra Singh Tomar) is a phone call away for talks," Joshi said, quoting the prime minister.
While the farmer unions have insisted that the laws be scrapped, the government has said it is ready to suspend the Acts for 18 months and carry out amendments.
A multitude of green-and-white caps, symbolic of the unions spearheading the battle, union flags and the tricolour, planted on tractors, dotted the Delhi-Meerut highway on Saturday.
On various tractors and camps, photos of legendary farmer leaders such as Chaudhary Charan Singh and Mahendra Singh Tikait have been put up.
Villagers brought water in clay pots and home-made food for Rakesh Tikait in a show of solidarity, even as local authorities sent tankers of drinking water and mobile toilets at the protest site.
Tikait urged the government to restore internet services.
Khatana, who is at the demonstration site with Tikait, asserted that "it is not a political protest".
"Anybody who shares the ideology of the BKU and Rakesh Tikait is welcome here. But it is our appeal to those who do not wish to support the movement till the end that please do not come only to leave in between," he said.
Several opposition parties including the Congress, TMC, AAP, RLD, DMK and the Left have openly supported the stir and demanded that the Centre repeal the laws.
Abhimanyu Kohar, a senior member of Samkyukt Kisan Morcha which is an umbrella body of farmer unions, said the ongoing agitation will gain strength as farmers in large numbers will join them in the coming days.
Farmer leader Balbir Singh Rajewal said in Chandigarh that he expects a record gathering by February 2 at the border points of Delhi.
"People in large numbers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand are reaching the protest sites," Rajewal claimed.
He accused the Centre of instilling a sense of fear among people by showing pictures of Tuesday's "unfortunate incidents".
Rajewal appealed to those joining the agitation at Delhi's borders to keep the protest peaceful.
"It is our responsibility to keep the agitation peaceful," he stressed.
The farmer leader urged the Centre to shun its "stubborn attitude" and withdraw the three farm laws.
Asked about the next meeting between the protesting farmers and the government, he said, "When they call us, we will certainly go".
To a question on joining the investigation following notices issued by the Delhi Police to farmer leaders in connection with the Republic Day violence, Rajewal said, "We will send them a reply."
The Delhi Police has issued the notices to around 20 farmer leaders, including Rajewal, over the violence during the farmers' tractor parade, asking why legal action should not be taken against them.
A team of forensic experts on Saturday visited the Red Fort, where the protesters had indulged in vandalism, hoisted a religious flag and attacked police personnel, to collect evidence.
The Delhi Police has so far registered 38 cases and arrested 84 people in connection with the violence on Republic Day, officials said.
The police received 1,700 video clips and CCTV footage from public and is taking help from forensic experts to analyse the material and identify the culprits, Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) B K Singh said.
He said the Crime Branch, which is investigating the nine cases related to the violence including at the Red Fort and ITO, is also examining dump data of mobile phone calls and registration numbers of tractors.
Heavy security deployment, including personnel of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), Rapid Action Force (RAF) in anti-riot gears and civil police, continued at the protest sites.
Police had on Friday used tear gas and baton charge to break up a clash between farmers and a large group of men who claimed to be local residents at the Singhu border.
The Delhi Traffic Police said movement on the National Highway 24 (Delhi-Meerut Expressway) has been stopped.
Apart from the three borders of Delhi, internet services will remain suspended in their adjoining areas too effective from 11 pm of January 29 to 11 pm of January 31, a Union Home Ministry official said.
The decision has been taken to "maintain public safety and averting public emergency" under Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules 2017, the official said.
Farmer unions claimed that protests were held in several parts of Punjab on Saturday.
Thousands of farmers have been protesting since late November at Delhi's borders with Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, demanding a rollback of the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.
The protesting farmers have expressed apprehension that these laws would pave the way for the dismantling of the minimum support price (MSP) system, leaving them at the "mercy" of big corporations.
However, the government has maintained that the new laws will bring better opportunities to farmers and introduce new technologies in agriculture.
Meanwhile, various Punjab unions on Saturday claimed that with more and more farmer groups marching towards Delhi, there would a be a record gathering of peasants and farm labourers on the borders of the national capital by February 2.
Bharatiya Kisan Union (Rajewal) president Balbir Singh Rajewal said he expects a record gathering by February 2 at the border points of Delhi.
Farmers and farm labourers at some places including Sangrur and Mohali in Punjab observed hunger strike in support of farmers' agitation on Saturday.
Protesting farmers even burnt effigies of the Centre at 400 places in 14 districts of Punjab against the new farm laws, demanding its repeal.
"People from several areas area are heading towards Delhi borders to join the agitation," said Bharti Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) general secretary Sukhdev Singh Kokrikalan on Saturday.
"Our 'jatha' (group) of at least 700-800 tractors will leave for the Tikri border protest site on Sunday," said Kokrikalan.
He said only those people who went for participating in the January 26 tractor parade came back.
He insisted that the laws enacted by the BJP-led central government would cause heavy damage to the farm sector of the country.
BKU (Rajewal) leader Balbir Singh Rajewal said people in large numbers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand are reaching the protest sites.
"Possibly by February 2, there will again a record gathering of people at the protest sites," claimed Rajewal, insisting that it would be completely peaceful.
Rajewal also appealed to the people joining the agitation at the Delhi border to keep the protest peaceful.
He also asked them not to get provoked which otherwise would affect the ongoing peaceful agitation.
To express solidarity with protesting farmers, panchayats of some villages in Bathinda, Ludhiana and Sangrur in Punjab even passed resolutions, asking villagers to send one person from each family to the protest sites, said farmer leaders.
Farmers from Punjab and Haryana have been camping at Delhi's borders for several weeks, demanding the repeal of the farm laws and a legal guarantee on the minimum support price for crops.
They have been claiming that the new laws will weaken the MSP system, despite the Centre seeking to assure them in vain that the MSP system was here to stay and the new laws would only provide more options for farmers to sell their produce.