NEW DELHI — Thousands of protesting farmers poured into the Indian capital of New Delhi on Tuesday as they used their tractors to pull barricades apart, prompting police to fire tear gas and marking a chaotic start to an event that had already been set to pose a direct challenge to the government.
The farmers protesting against India’s new farm laws had been expected to start a procession of tractors through the city at noon local time, to prevent interferences with celebrations commemorating India’s Republic Day holiday in central Delhi. But farmers began to dismantle barricades about two hours early amid some apparent confusion among protesters.
The protest had already threatened to upstage the 72nd annual celebration of the inception of India’s Constitution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi oversaw a lavish parade by the armed forces, but news broadcasters showed surreal scenes of Mr. Modi saluting officers while chaos was breaking out in several parts of the city just a few miles away.
At the city’s border with the village of Ghazipur, where farmers have been camped out for months in protest, tractors removed a shipping container placed to block their route as police stood by helplessly. Elsewhere, thick clouds of tear gas rose over approved march routes as farmers on tractors, on horses and on foot forcefully began their rally hours ahead of schedule.
The farmers waved flags and taunted police officers, TV news showed. Many carried long swords, tridents, sharp daggers and battle axes — functional if largely ceremonial weapons. It appeared that most protesters were not wearing masks, despite India’s Covid-19 outbreak.
Indian TV news showed that smaller groups broke away from the approved routes, tipping over buses and violently clashing with overwhelmed police armed with bamboo batons as they marched toward central Delhi. By early afternoon, Delhi police commanders had deployed officers carrying assault rifles. They stood in the middle of key roads, staring down the protesters, rifles aimed at the crowds.
Still, the majority of protesters were sticking to the approved routes and skirting the city center. At one of the capital’s largest junctions, near India’s Supreme Court in the heart of Delhi, farmers on tractors retreated after police fired several volleys of tear gas.
“Once we make it inside Delhi, we’re not going anywhere until Modi repeals the law,” said Happy Sharma, a farmer from the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh who was among 27 people riding in a tractor trolley.
The demonstration, after the central government failed in its frantic efforts to prevent the tractor march, dramatically illustrated how deeply the deadlock with the farmers has embarrassed Mr. Modi. Though he has emerged as India’s most dominant figure after crushing his political opposition, the farmers have been persistently defiant.
In September, Mr. Modi rushed through Parliament three farming laws that he hopes will inject private investment into a sector that has been troubled with inefficiency and a lack of money for decades. But farmers quickly rose up, saying the government’s easing of regulations had left them at the mercy of corporate giants that would take over their businesses.
As their protests have grown in size and anger, with tens of thousands of farmers camped out in the cold for two months and dozens of them dying, the government has offered to amend some parts of the laws to reflect their demands. The country’s Supreme Court also intervened, ordering the government to suspend the laws until it reaches a resolution with the farmers.
But the farmers say they will not stop short of a repeal, and they have begun increasing pressure. In addition to their tractor protest on Tuesday, they have announced plans to march on foot to the Indian Parliament on Feb. 1, when the country’s new budget will be presented.
Tensions were high leading up to Tuesday, with some officials claiming the protests had been infiltrated by insurgent elements who would resort to violence if the farmers were allowed inside the city. Just days earlier, the farmers’ leaders brought in front of the media a young man they claimed to have arrested on suspicion of a plot to shoot the leaders on Tuesday to disrupt the rally. Neither set of claims could be independently verified.
There was some confusion about the scope and size of the tractor march before it was to begin. Reports in the local media, citing documents from the Delhi police, said the march would begin only after the high-profile Republic Day parade in the heart of New Delhi had culminated. The reports also said the number of tractors and how long they could stay inside the city had been capped.
But farm leaders at a news conference on Monday said there were no time restrictions or limits to the number of tractors, as long as they stuck to the routes set out by the Delhi police. Maps of the routes suggested a compromise between the farmers and the police that could allow the protesters to enter the city but not get close to sensitive institutions of power.
The leaders said that about 150,000 tractors had been gathered at the borders of the capital for the march, that about 3,000 volunteers would try to help the police with keeping order, and that 100 ambulances were on standby.
The farm leaders, in statements given to the marchers as well as during the news conference, repeatedly appealed for peace.
“Remember, our aim is not to conquer Delhi, but to win over the hearts of the people of this country,” they said in instructions posted online for marchers, who were told not to carry weapons — “not even sticks” — and to avoid provocative slogans and banners.
“The trademark of this agitation has been that it’s peaceful,” said Balbir Singh Rajewal, one of the main leaders of the movement. “My request to our farmer brothers, to our youth, is that they keep this movement peaceful. The government is spreading rumors, the agencies have started misguiding people. Beware of it.
“If we remain peaceful, we’ve won. If we turn violent, Modi will win.”
Jeffrey Gettleman and Hari Kumar contributed reporting.