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Sunday, May 9, 2021
Sanjay Kapoor is editor of Delhi's Hardnews magazine and General Secretary of the Editors Guild of India.
NEW DELHI, India, Mar 1 2021 (IPS) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not really like attending parliament – except on special occasions. Budget session was one such occasion. Unsurprisingly, he tried to reach out to farmers still protesting at the border of the capital Delhi, against his government’s new farm laws.
Modi suggested that the farmers were ‘pure’ and innocent, but misinformed and provoked by ‘professional agitators’. These ‘professional agitators’ include pop star Rihanna, niece of US Vice President Meena Harris and even porn star Mia Khalifa.
The celebrities’ use of Twitter to support the protests spread panic in the image-conscious Modi government. Their ferocious Twitter trolls hit back against Rihanna and Greta.
Modi’s speech in parliament provided a clear indication of how the Indian state attempted to counter the farm protests and the support it had received from international celebrities like Rihanna and climate activists like Greta Thunberg: as a grand global conspiracy.
As the internationalisation of this movement is creating a foreign policy challenge for the government with its diplomatic missions aggressively hitting back at those who question India’s democracy and the way the agitation has been handled.
Rather astutely, the Modi government has used its influence on TV channels and social networks like WhatsApp and Twitter to build a narrative where any dissent is against national interest.
The most recent example was a toolkit shared by Greta Thunberg for the tractor march on India’s Republic Day, 26 January, for which the Delhi Police had given permission. This was branded as a seditious act by the Modi government.
The toolkit had Indian collaborators like Disha Ravi, a member of Thunberg’s ‘Fridays For Future’ movement against climate change. Her crime was tweaking the toolkit that detailed how to help the farmer’s Tractor march on 26 January – and daring to be in touch with Greta and other farm groups.
At the face of it, Disha committed no crime, but the manner in which the charges have been framed has made even innocuous actions like making a Zoom call a crime against the Indian state. However, the courts found no evidence of any links with secessionists or the violence of January 26, and granted her bail.
Why the farmers came to Delhi
Initially, the farmers’ protests erupted after the farm bills were hastily passed in parliament last year. Angry farmers from Punjab stepped out and first blocked trains. They got no response from the national government and then lay siege around Delhi.The government’s reforms propose to do away with the Minimum Support Price (MSP) that government gives for food grains, and also intends to scrap agriculture markets, the so-called mandis.
At the beginning, the farmers were greeted with water cannons and cane charges, leaving scores injured. Later, the government allowed them to sit around the capital.
The Supreme Court was brought in to find a solution to the stand-off but the farmers rejected intermediation, claiming that laws can be annulled by parliament and the government – not by the courts.
Modi, too, assured the enraged farming community that MSPs for the agriculture produce will not go away. But the farm leaders led by Rakesh Tikait of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) have been adamant that they will not end their agitation until the government puts it down in writing. Quite visibly, the trust has broken down between farmers and the government.
The biggest fear of the cultivators was that these ‘reforms’ could make farming unviable and that they could lose control over their land, as it would be bought over for contract farming by corporate houses like the Ambanis and Adanis.
So angry have been the farmers with these corporate houses, which have businesses from textile to telecommunications, that they have burned hundreds of telecom towers in the state of Punjab.
The Indian government’s censorship and intimidation
Wary of its international reputation, the Modi government has now unleashed enforcement authorities to control the narrative. It blocked the internet at the protest sites and filtered the visual content that found its way onto social media.
Photos of the large congregation of men and women who continued to assemble in extreme cold, rain and in extremely unhygienic conditions were photoshopped.
Expectedly, the life of protestors was made more difficult after the 26 January Tractor March that saw violence and a bizarre attempt to hoist a sectarian flag of the Sikh faith from the flag mast, where the national tricolor flies from Delhi’s iconic Red Fort.
Since then, the Police has made attempts to block the protestors from the capital. Now there are cement walls, concertina wires and nails embedded on the roads.
Moreover, the farmers have been boxed in – making it difficult for media to meet them. Now journalists have to walk 12 kilometers to reach some of these protest sites – ducking concertina wires, dug up roads and police scrutiny.
Some intrepid journalists who tried to report on the resistance of the farmers have at times come to grief from a heavy-handed police force. Mandeep Punia was one such reporter, who was arrested for preventing a public official from doing his duty. Strong pressure from the civil society and the Editors Guild of India facilitated his quick release through bail.
But it doesn’t stop there. Immediately after the 26 January Tractor March, there were a string of sedition cases against seven editors for tweeting on an evolving news story about a person who died in a clash with the police.
Their tweets were based on the testimony of the victim’s grandfather who claimed that his grandson had been shot. The Police denied this version and released some videos to show that he died from an accident. A few of the editors quickly withdrew their tweets, but they were not spared from the sedition cases.
In at least five states of the country identical First Information Reports (FIR) had been filed charging them for sedition. If the Supreme Court had not stayed the execution of the sedition case for two weeks, these editors could have been arrested on a non-bailable warrant.
Similarly, social media, the only way that allows some news and expression for the agitating farmers, is censored by the government. When Twitter tried to resist pressure, its employees were threatened with the consequences of being jailed by India’s law minister if they did not abide by the country’s law.
Since then, they have fallen in line. Google, which had sworn to preserve the privacy of its users, promptly handed over information on the toolkit put together by the climate change activists.
But despite the strident opposition to the farm bills in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, the government has not relented. Every day, there are reports of large congregation of farmers taking place in small towns and villages of north India seeking a turnaround from the government.
The Chief Minister of Punjab, Amarinder Singh, has pleaded with the Central government to find a face-saver for the farmers so that they can return home – otherwise they will keep sitting there. If obstinacy on both sides is anything to go by, then the agitation will continue and make India’s struggling democracy more illiberal.
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