By guest contributors Saba Kohli Dave* and Namrata.*
In the wake of the historic farmer’s protests in India, on February 8th, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hailing from the country’s contentious Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), compared protestors to parasites in Parliament. This politically motivated comparison comes as no surprise as there has been a steady state-led crackdown on those asserting civil rights and liberties through protest. However, the state made a miscalculation when it promulgated three agriculture-related ordinances in June 2020, which were passed in Parliament under controversial circumstances in September 2020. Since November, farmers across India have been the major voices of dissent, outraged at laws that were passed without their consultation.
Why are the farmers protesting?
The 3 farm laws were passed blurring legal and constitutional lines. The bills were arrived at without pre-legislative consultation, tabled without scrutiny, and passed through a dubious “voice vote.” They have been perceived by a majority of farmers as the government abrogating its responsibility to protect and support India’s agricultural sector and disturbing the rural economy by corporatising agriculture. The social and economic repercussions of these laws have also been outlined in the discourse around the protests. The laws are a clear shift away from the Indian state’s post-independence stance on agriculture, and a push toward privatisation and deregulation.
Previously, the government ensured farmer protection, autonomy, and food sovereignty through necessary entitlements and benefits such as minimum support prices (MSP) for their produce, a regulated wholesale market, and bought surplus for the subsidised ration shops (public distribution system). This was done so as to correct the power imbalance between the companies and the farmers. Now, these new laws lead the agricultural sector down a slippery slope by allowing private wholesale markets, letting private actors dictate prices, with no state protection from market fluctuation, denial of legal redress for farmers in contract farming deals, disincentivising traders to buy in the government regulated wholesale markets, and ultimately, food insecurity.
The State’s Response
The State responded to the peaceful farmers’ protests with a heavy hand. In an effort to stop farmers from entering the city, the government ordered trenches to be dug on roads, including on national highways, leading into Delhi – the seat of the Central government. Shipping containers, barricades with barbed wire, water cannons (in the middle of a brutal winter), and tear gas were also used to prevent assembly. Additionally, protestors were framed as “Khalistanis (separatists)”, “anti-social”, and “terrorists” in an attempt to malign them.
All the negotiations between the government and farmers’ unions were inconclusive. The government gave verbal (not legal) commitments of the continuation of the MSP, and the farmers stuck to their demand for complete repeal. All the while, the state assault on farmers at the borders continued.
On 12 January 2021, the Supreme Court of India stayed the implementation of the 3 farm laws in response to the growing protests. It then went on to appoint a four-member Committee of experts which would “listen to the grievances of the farmers on the farm laws and the views of the government and make recommendations.” All members of this committee had previously expressed their support for the farm laws. As the protests gathered momentum and all attempts at curbing them failed, the government agreed to suspend the farm laws for a period of 18 months. Protesting farmers rejected the committee and the government’s offer and continued their demand for complete repeal.
Around this time, farmer unions announced that they would lead a tractor rally into the city of Delhi on India’s Republic Day (26 January). Movement leaders emphasised that farmers follow prescribed routes and maintain peace and calm. On 26th January, however, many of the designated routes were blocked by the Delhi police, and some rogue factions used other routes to go to the historical monument of Red Fort and raised a Sikh religious flag. This gave the Government the chance to change the narrative and paint the protest as anti-national and violent. Both farmers and police personnel sustained injuries, one farmer lost his life, over 100 protestors were arrested, and several went missing.
The Aftermath of Republic Day
The tractor rally gave the Government the perfect opportunity to legitimise its strategy of brute force against protesting farmers. The first thing the government did was to start the construction of a wall along the borders to prevent farmers from entering the city. The wall was reinforced with barbed wire and nails, and a huge battalion of police and border security forces. This was followed by cutting off the supply of essentials like water and electricity to the region. All of these measures constitute a violation of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights including the right to a dignified life recognised by the Constitution of India. Further, the internet was suspended at the borders of Delhi and the neighbouring State where farmers were assembled. Interestingly, India leads worldwide when it comes to internet shut-downs. In 2019-20, there were 164 instances of internet shutdown, and since the beginning of 2021, there have already been around 10 instances. The legality of these shutdowns is suspect, as the Supreme Court of India has categorically held that access to the internet is a fundamental right protected under the right to freedom of speech and expression.
Those shedding light on the on-ground reality or voicing an opinion have paid a heavy price. One journalist, Mandeep Punia, was caught on video being dragged away by the police and was subject to police violence in custody. Upon receiving bail, he spoke about the made-up charges against others who were in jail. Similarly, 24-year-old Dalit labour rights activist Nodeep Kaur** has been in police custody for about a month for organising workers and protesting against farm laws. Her lawyer claims that Kaur has been sexually assaulted and tortured in police custody.
As attacks on the ground continued, free speech censorship occurred in the online world. On the 30th of January, Twitter abruptly suspended around 250 accounts, including those of prominent journalistic portals and accounts covering the farmers’ protests, who were critical of the government. These accounts were withheld on the directions of the Central Government issued under a deeply problematic provision of India’s Information Technology law. Subsequently, Twitter restored these accounts on free speech grounds. Twitter’s decision to unilaterally restore these accounts was met with legal threats by the Government of India (GoI). The tussle between Twitter and the GoI continues, with the latter now directing Twitter to suspend over 1000 accounts for allegedly spreading misinformation and provocative content about the protests. Attacks on speech through violence, threats, slapping of criminal charges, office raids, internet shutdowns, unlawful imprisonment, have become a common affair in India, with the country’s rank falling to 142 on the Global Free Speech Index.
On 3rd February, Greta Thunberg tweeted a toolkit on the farmers’ protests. The Delhi police filed a First Information Report (FIR) against unnamed makers of the toolkit for “participating in a criminal conspiracy” and “promoting enmity.” The GoI sees this commonly used protest toolkit as a part of a larger international conspiracy to harm India. The Delhi police have ordered social media giants such as Google to provide information on the creators of the toolkit and have registered a case for sedition and conspiracy against unnamed persons. A 21-year-old climate activist has been detained in connection with this case. Flaming conspiracy theories and disinformation, and the weaponisation of criminal law against dissenters, is a frequent tactic of this government.
As India finds itself home to the world’s biggest protest, one which has unified people across religious, caste, and gender lines, it also finds itself plummeting into an authoritarian abyss. Several farmers have lost their lives in this struggle. What India is witnessing is an ‘undeclared emergency’ – a period where all fundamental rights are de-facto suspended. The authors of this piece are in awe of the courage and resilience of our farmers and dissenters. As more and more people rise, across borders, and speak truth to power, hopes for a better day stay alive.
*Saba Kohli Dave works in the field of participatory democracy in India, [email protected]
*Namrata is a lawyer based in India, [email protected]
** Koor was released on bail following the publication of this article.
Farmers protesting at the #KisanMuktiMarch in Delhi on November 30, 2018. Image from Flickr by Joe Athialy. CC BY-NC 2.0
Women raise slogans during their protest against the farm laws in Bathinda, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Credit: PTI Photo
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