Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader from the opposition Congress party, handed the president a copy of a petition that he said had attracted 20 million signatures online.

“The prime minister wants to help two, three business people” by introducing the farm laws, said Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The government says the reforms passed in September are meant to overhaul antiquated procurement procedures and open up the market.

Tens of thousands of farmers have camped out on national highways for weeks demanding the government withdraw the laws that they fear will eventually dismantle regulated markets and stop the government buying wheat and rice at guaranteed prices.

Six rounds of talks between government officials and farmer union leaders have failed to resolve the deadlock. Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week offered to “very humbly” hold further discussions.

Priyanka Gandhi, a leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, is seen on a bus after being detained along with party supporters outside the party headquarters, in New Delhi, India, December 24, 2020. REUTERS

On Thursday, the government again invited protesting farmers to further talks.

Farmers union leaders have accused the government of trying to weaken and discredit them by describing protesting farmers as “anti-nationals”.

“You are dealing with protesting farmers in a manner as if they are not aggrieved citizens but political rivals,” Samyukta Kisan Morcha, or United Farmers’ Front, a coalition of farmers unions, said in a letter addressed to the farm ministry on Thursday.

“Farmers would be compelled to intensify their agitation further for their survival if the government continued to treat them in this manner,” the letter said.

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