India’s Response to Farmer Protests Stirs Fears of Modi’s Energy

NEW DELHI – First came the allegations of foreign infiltration. Police complaints against protest leaders followed and protesters and journalists were arrested. Then the government blocked internet access in places where demonstrators were gathering.

As India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi struggles to quell month-long farmer protests against new market-friendly farming laws, critics and analysts see a pattern of restriction on freedom of expression that they fear will lead India down a dangerous path of intolerance.

In responding to other controversial measures – including citizenship laws penalizing Muslims, the fight against the disputed Kashmiri region and peasant protests – Mr Modi’s government has resorted to arrests, suppressed dissenting voices and blocked the internet. Internet freedom pursuit groups say India is slipping.

While some of the tactics are not new in India’s recent history, many fear that Mr. Modi will take them to new heights.

Gyan Prakash, a professor of history at Princeton University, said the closest parallel was in the 1970s, the period known in India as the emergency rule. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi restricted civil liberties, imprisoned political opponents and closed the news media.

“But the BJP attack is also very different and even more damaging to the remnants of democracy in India,” he said, referring to Mr. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party.

He cited what he called a creeping dismantling of the pillars of democracy under Mr. Modi, from coercion and control of the mass media to influencing the courts.

“Critics often call it an” undeclared emergency, “” said Prakash, who wrote a book on the era of emergency rules. “It’s much worse and more damaging in the long run because the arrest and denial of bail for detainees are an assault on the remnants of the rule of law institutions.”

The efforts have been increasingly condemned internationally by human rights groups and internet personalities alike. A tweet from pop star Rihanna in support of farmers dominated Indian social media on Wednesday, sparking a reaction from pro-modi entertainers in India calling for unity and denouncing outside voices as an attempt to divide the country.

The State Department released a rare statement addressing the tweets without naming anyone specifically.

“We would like to stress that these protests must be seen in the context of the democratic ethos and politics of India,” said the ministry. “The temptation to make sensational social media hashtags and comments, especially when celebrities and others resort to them, is neither accurate nor responsible.”

As the government and its most dedicated supporters grow more vigilant, people across the country are becoming more cautious about what they say.

On television channels, critics choose their words carefully so as not to make offensive statements. A stand-up comedian remains in jail, without bail, for a joke the police have yet to prove. Journalists and opposition politicians have been tried for tweets that the authorities describe as “misleading” or for reports of reports questioning the government’s version of events.

In Uttarakhand, a state led by Mr. Modi’s party, the police chief said his armed forces were investigating social media posts for “anti-national” posts and that passport applications could be denied to anyone who posted such content.

In Bihar state, led by an ally of the Modi, police said applicants would be disqualified from government agencies if found to have “participated in a law and order situation, protests, traffic jams, etc.”

The showdown between the government and farmers, who had camped peacefully on the New Delhi borders for two months calling for the laws to be repealed, turned chaotic and violent last week during a tractor pull of farmers into town. At least one person died in a police accident. Hundreds of police officers and farmers were wounded.

While farmers claimed the violence was part of a government plot to derail their movement, officials were quick to use it as evidence that the protest needed to be broken down. Dozens of police complaints have been filed against the farm managers. Some journalists at the scene were arrested, while others were brought to justice for “misleading” tweets for reporting protesters’ allegations that the man who died was shot dead by police.

Since then, police have erected barricades and barbed wire and even planted spikes in concrete to prevent movement towards New Delhi. The government temporarily turned off electricity and water in one of the camps before turning off the internet in all three camps and restricting journalists’ access to them.

This week, Twitter temporarily banned dozens of reports related to the farmers’ protest, including the report from The Caravan, a news coverage magazine that covered the demonstrations at length. According to reports in local news agencies, the suspension was at the request of the Indian government. A spokesman for Twitter was not immediately available for comment. A freelance journalist who wrote for The Caravan has also been arrested, the magazine said.

“This type of barricade – this is not the Pakistani border,” said Mahender Singh Dhanger, 65, a protesting farmer at the Ghazipur protest site, referring to the heavily fortified border with India’s archenemy.

Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a spokesman for the BJP, said the decision to restrict the internet and erect the barricades was an “administrative move by the police”. The party said opposition politicians criticized the force for its gentle handling of the chaos during the tractor procession.

“It’s been over 70 days,” he said. “If you look at the historical way other countries and governments have handled protests, you will see the difference.”

The protesters “crossed all borders on January 26th,” added Agarwal, “but the Prime Minister still said he was ready to speak to the farmers anytime, anywhere.”

Some protesting farmers believe that the government’s stronger hand could work against it.

The violence during the January 26 tractor march raised questions about the future of the protest movement. But farmers seemed delighted with last week’s efforts to arrest Rakesh Tikait, a protest leader whom police have accused of being involved in the violence.

When security forces surrounded the Ghazipur protest area that night, Mr. Tikait cried on the stage and threatened to hang himself instead of going to jail. His emotional outburst spread widely on social media, drawing more supporters from the villages who began to flock within hours. The number of protesters seems to have increased despite the internet cuts.

If past protests are any clue, those punished by the police could face a long ordeal.

Following protests in Kashmir in 2019, many of the region’s political leaders who had long supported the Indian state remained under house arrest for months. Twenty-one protesters and activists who fought against the citizenship law in New Delhi are still being held under a tough law known as the Illegal Activities Prevention Act a year later. They have been repeatedly denied bail, with the exception of one pregnant woman who was given bail on humanitarian grounds.

Mahavir Narwal, the father of Natasha Narwal, a graduate student and activist who was arrested for rioting last year, said her trial had been repeatedly delayed and police told the court they were collecting more evidence. He said the application of the draconian law and delaying trials are tactics to scare anyone who thinks of protest.

“If you are arrested on these charges,” Narwal said of the Illegal Activities Act, “bail is almost impossible.”

Mujib Mashal reported from New Delhi and Sameer Yasir from Srinagar, Kashmir. Hari Kumar contributed to coverage from Ghazipur, India.

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