In September 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government passed three laws regarding India’s agricultural sector, India’s single largest economy. According to the prime minister, these laws will “liberate” the farmers. In reality, hundreds of millions of farmers disagree and have taken to the streets to protest.
The Laws and Protests
According to Modi’s government, the laws enacted on September 20 would give farmers more freedom to compete in the free market system. However, as the protests show, farmers strongly oppose the new legislation. An essential component of the current system is the Minimum Support Price (MSP) whose role is twofold: to protect farmers by requiring the government to purchase any production surplus and to conversely ensure a set, stable price for years when crop failure happens. Despite the Indian government claiming that MSP will stay, protesters are pushing for an explicit clause to provide some economic security.
250 million people across the country participated in a strike in solidarity with the farmers. Peaceful protesters, mostly in Delhi, have been met with extreme suppression. Numerous groups in the capital have been surrounded by barricades, barbed wire and left with no access to basic hygienic facilities. Additionally, the internet was cut off in several areas, as well as food and water supplies.
It is not a total surprise, however, that the current government’s first instinct is to resort to violence, rather than to listen to the farmer’s concerns. Ethnic and religious tensions in India are not new, but Modi’s far-right Hindu-nationalist party, the BJP, being in power has exacerbated these. The majority of the protesters are Punjabi Sikhs or Muslim, groups against whom hostility has grown with the increase in Modi’s unwavering dedication to Hindu supremacy.
What Freedom of Speech?
Modest estimates say that at least nine leading journalists face criminal charges for reporting on only one incident of police brutality after Navreet Singh was shot in the head by police and died.
Delhi police have detained 200 protesters, charging them with rioting, damaging public property, and attacking police officers. The police have blamed the protestors for instigating violence, even though the head of an umbrella organisation of 40 farmers’ unions has distanced themselves from these actions, vowing to continue protesting peacefully.
Farmers stormed the Red Fort on January 26, and the police response was swift. Footage of the farmers clashing with Delhi police went viral online, and in turn, the police responded in their own way. They shut down Delhi’s internet, affecting over 52 million people in the area. A telecom analyst said that because the internet services were essential for mobilising large crowds, the government would only bring the services back if they were again comfortable with the “law and order situation.”
On February 1, Twitter suspended hundreds of accounts linked to the farmers’ protest for over 12 hours. The Indian government demanded these accounts be removed for allegedly urging violence through the hashtag #modiplanningfarmersgenocide. The list of blocked accounts included investigative news sites, activists and political commentators, and popular accounts like Kisan Ekta Morcha and Tractor2Twitr. Despite Twitter restoring the accounts swiftly, they got handed a non-compliance notice by India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. The government claimed that “In India, we value freedom and we value criticism because it is a part of our democracy. But freedom of expression is not absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions.”
On February 9, Amnesty International released a statement calling for the ending of India’s crackdown on protesters. Part of the statement reads, “rather than investigating reports of violence against protesters … the authorities have resorted to hindering access to protest sites, shutting down the Internet, censoring social media.”
What Does Rihanna Have to do With This?
On February 2, international superstar Rihanna tweeted to her over 101 million followers, “Why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest” and linked to a CNN article about the Indian government shutting off the internet in New Delhi in response to protestors. Teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg followed closely after, tweeting that she stood in solidarity with them.
As well, US Vice President Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris tweeted: “It’s no coincidence that the world’s oldest democracy was attacked not even a month ago, and as we speak, the most populous democracy is under assault. This is related. We ALL should be outraged by India’s internet shutdowns and paramilitary violence against farmer protesters.”
The response by the government and its loyalists was swift. Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut responded to Rihanna calling her a “fool” for her support of the protesters, calling them “terrorists who are trying to divide India.” The Ministry of External Affairs released a statement the next day expressing that celebrities should properly understand the issue and “the temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.” They also commented that only a “very small section” of farmers disagree with the new bills – small section being 250 million people in this case.
The Punjabi Diaspora Mobilises
For reasons ranging from economic migration to the aftermath of the Sikh genocide in 1984, the Punjabi diaspora is expansive and reaches around the globe. For Punjabis in the diaspora, like University of British Columbia student Devan Minhas (ਦੇਵਨ ਮਿਨਹਾਸ), social media has long been a key part of staying connected to her culture. In an interview with Minhas, she shares her personal sentiments about the farmers’ protest and her experience being a part of the Indian diaspora.
“As a first-generation child belonging to immigrant parents, I have really leaned on social media to stay connected not only to the protests but also my own culture and identity. Growing up, there was a lot of trauma surrounding the genocide in my hometown. While I knew about it, I did not get to know specifics until I was older and sought it out myself through social media and through seeing exposure of it online. I think that minority cultures have been able to find a system of preservation through social media; it is a way for them to make sure that their lives and identities aren’t being flushed out by the narrative of a perfect nationalist Indian.”
The response to the protests by the Modi government was disappointing to many citizens domestically and internationally — but it was not a surprise, says Minhas.
“The statement released by the Minister of External Affairs is lackluster and insulting, but what is more intriguing is the response of Bollywood stars right after. Several suddenly spoke up and called on Indians to not believe the ‘propaganda’ and to take direction and heed from the government. The hashtags #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda have been shared by multiple stars who would have otherwise never shared support for the farmers. Despite Bollywood capitalizing on Punjabi culture, language, music, and dance Bollywood has consistently been silent when it comes to speaking out in support of the minority. They will use Punjabi backdrops and perform Bhangra in their dance sequences, but when it comes to supporting them, Bollywood is quiet. It is just another example of India being fine with their minorities but only when it comes to exploiting them or gaining something out of them. If nothing else, they are at least consistent in their hatred and alienation of minorities. Whether it was not privately or not, by calling on Bollywood stars to speak out against the protests the government is ensuring that regular citizens who have not yet made up their mind on the protests will likely show support for the government. All in all, the Indian government’s response to the protests is both disappointing and laughable, in my opinion.”
In light of the farmers’ protests, members of the Indian diaspora have banded together to bring awareness to what is happening in their home country. Social media is an essential component of this. Minhas explained how social media has helped her stay connected.
“Most Punjabis come from a farming background one way or another, and a lot of the diaspora was able to leave the country because of the work of their ancestors on the farms. Today, I look at the protestors and I see my grandparents. I see my aunts and uncles and I see my cousins. Social media has helped me, and much of the diaspora, humanize these protestors and see ourselves in them. It’s like I can see myself in them, and what my life very easily would have become if not for a few different decisions. I think that is partially why the diaspora has been working so hard on making sure that the protests stay alive globally. There is a need to be doing something for them, even thousands of kilometers away and social media has helped me stay connected to the protests and to my own people. There is a lot of navigation of privilege that comes with being a part of a diaspora, and I think that the coverage of the protests through social media by the diaspora is an excellent example of using our privilege for good, for something substantial.”
As if violently cracking down on peaceful protesters wasn’t enough, Modi’s government has attempted to shut down any avenues of information getting out by shutting down the internet and arresting journalists who try to report the truth about the farmers, their motives, and the government’s negligence. Crushing dissenting opinions is the act of authoritarianism on the part of the government, and coupled with rising nationalism, it is inapt to continue to call India the ‘largest democracy in the world.’
The combination of social media, those on the ground, and those in the diaspora do give some hope.
“It is literally keeping them alive … the fact that people are talking about them and are posting about them is keeping the Indian government and police at arm’s length,” Minhas said. “There is immense power in social media from a social justice standpoint, the connection between the diaspora, social media, and the Farmers protest is both insightful and ensuring a preservation of information.”
As the protests pass their 90th day, the farmers remain steadfast in their pursuit of justice, and with growing international support, there is hope.
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