Thousands of farmers who marched for days from Haridwar in Uttarakhand and on their way to New Delhi were stopped from entering the national capital at the border. While the government and police did not officially cite any reason for disallowing the protesters from reaching Delhi, it was speculated that the farmers were stopped because their march coincided with the visit of United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The police perhaps felt that the farmers, whose demands range from implementation of the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations and loan waiver to payment of sugarcane dues, could cause nuisance during a high-profile visit. In the end, it was the common people who suffered the most as several roads were blocked to ensure that the farmers were stopped at the borders of Delhi.
But the decision of the Delhi and UP police raises questions about their ability to handle large crowds. Some months ago, the Maharashtra and Mumbai Police smoothly managed a similar march of farmers, who walked from Nashik to Mumbai. The day they were supposed to enter Mumbai to converge on the historic Azad Maidan where they subsequently held a large demonstration, Mumbai’s school students had their board exams. On the state government’s appeal, the farmers marched quietly through the streets of Mumbai in the dead of the night to avoid traffic jams that could have inconvenienced the students. The government’s handling of the situation and the gesture of the farmers drew praise from all quarters.
The Delhi and UP police’s action also smacks of denying people the right to hold a protest and to dissent. No matter what the compulsion, the police should not have stopped the farmers as the right to demonstrate is fundamental in a democracy. The police ham-handedness also comes within days of the recent ruling of Justice D Y Chandrachud, who said that voices of opposition cannot be muzzled as dissent was a symbol of a vibrant democracy.