Inside India’s clampdown on dissent

A farmer addresses protesters blocking a highway outside Delhi on March 6. (AP Photo / Altaf Qadri)

As the farmers' protests in India pass their 100th day, Geneva Solutions spoke to human rights lawyer and Right Livelihood Award laureate Colin Gonsalves about how the demonstrations have exposed a wider government crackdown on freedom of expression and dissent.

Since 26 November, tens of thousands of farmers have been camped on the outskirts of Delhi to protest against a series of agricultural laws passed by Narendra Modi’s government in September, which they say put their livelihoods at risk. The three laws at the heart of the dispute are some of the biggest reforms to India’s agricultural industry in decades, but were passed without consultation of the farmers who make up more than 40 per cent of India’s workforce.

Although there is agreement that India’s agricultural industry needs modernising, farmers argue that these reforms are not the way forward. Following the introduction of a system of agricultural subsidies in the 1960s known as the “Green Revolution”, the sector has stagnated. While a small group of wealthier farmers have prospered, the majority remain extremely poor and burdened by debt, with an epidemic of suicides in Punjab in recent years indicative of the crisis facing the industry.

Modi’s government maintains that the laws, which loosen regulations and open up the sector to private investment, allow farmers greater freedom to negotiate better prices for their crops. But farmers fear that they will leave them vulnerable to further exploitation by big corporations and exacerbate existing problems.

The protests were initially concentrated in northern states such as Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where many of the farmers who would be hit hardest by the reforms live. But when they were met by silence from the government, the farmers walked and drove to Delhi with the intention of staying there until the laws were revoked.

After one hundred days and multiple rounds of talks between the government and representatives from India’s farmers unions, the protests show no sign of ending. Makeshift camps have been constructed on the outskirts of Delhi and, although the government has temporarily postponed the laws, the farmers say they will not leave until they are scrapped.

In response, the government’s suppression of the protests and all those connected with them is becoming increasingly draconian. When farmers first marched to Delhi, they were hit by tear gas, water cannons and beaten with sticks by police. On 26 January, India’s Republic Day, Prime Minister Modi agreed to let the farmers into the city to march along a preapproved route. However, when farmers broke from the route and surged into the centre of Delhi, they were again met with violence in which one protester was reportedly shot in the head by police.

“It seems to me that the government has decided to engage in a war of attrition,” says Colin Gonsalves, a prominent human rights lawyer and recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, speaking to Geneva Solutions from Delhi. “A deadly war of attrition.”

Crackdown on dissent. In the past month, the government has surrounded the camps with heavy concrete blocks, hammered thick nails into the ground and erected barbed wire fences. In some of these camps, water and electricity have been cut off and basic amenities removed to pressure protesters into leaving, and heavily armed police in riot gear patrol the city’s borders. Since the start of the protests, at least 248 farmers have died on the outskirts of Delhi - some through ill-health, others through suicide - according to data collected by Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of farmers’ unions. Some 200 farmers were arrested during the 26 January protest, with many detained under harsh anti-terrorism legislation.

This brutal response to the peaceful protests has been seen as indicative of a broader crackdown on dissent in India that has intensified since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.

“The human rights situation has probably never been worse than it is today,” says Gonsalves. “The government is very extreme in its repression of human rights activists. Freedom of speech is penalised everywhere. Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) are persecuted all across the country, and there's an atmosphere of fear - abject fear. I've never seen a worse situation than the one in which we are today.”

RS7736_WolfgangSchmidt_Colin Gonsalves-3699.jpg
Colin Gonsalves received the Right Livelihood Award in 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo: Wolfgang Schmidt)

Gonsalves is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India and the founder of the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), an Indian national network of public interest lawyers. Over three decades, his clients have included the country’s most vulnerable people, including ethnic and religious minorities, refugees, women and the poor. In recent months, he has been vocal on the government’s crackdown on farmers' protests and use of the sedition law in particular to silence dissent.

Gonsalves says the farmers' protests have laid this repression bare, particularly the government’s crackdown on freedom of expression. Journalists who reported on the 26 January protest were charged with sedition - a colonial-era law which has been used increasingly frequently in recent years against anyone who is seen to criticise the government. Modi’s government has also been accused of trying to censor information about the protests by requesting the removal of hundreds of Twitter accounts that mentioned them, including those of journalists and media outlets. “There’s no free press [in India],” says Gonsalves. “Journalists live in fear. Their families are destitute. The conditions they face are very, very pathetic.”

A series of sweeping laws on digital media regulation introduced last week have raised fresh concerns that the government is tightening its grip on people’s online activity. Passed on 11 March, the new rules have brought almost everything that happens online under government regulation, including giving the government power to remove “objectionable” online content and demand user data from tech companies, effectively removing people’s right to privacy. Although the BJP claims the laws will make the internet safer, critics argue they will have a chilling effect on India’s digital space, making it the most heavily regulated of any major democracy.

Much of India’s mainstream media is already widely viewed as under government control, but some online news outlets remain independent. Social media in particular is seen as a vital tool for organising protests or criticising the government. However, Modi’s government has exerted greater control over the digital space to curb dissent in recent years. In 2020, India came top of the global list for the most internet shutdowns for the third year in a row, according to digital rights group Access Now.

Intimidation of young activists. Young activists who challenge the government, and who often use social media to mobilise support and communicate with one another, have also become a target in recent years. In February, the arrest of 22-year-old environmental activist Disha Ravi drew international attention. Ravi, who is a prominent figure in India’s Fridays For Future movement and has frequently criticised the government’s policies, was charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy for distributing a “toolkit” document connected with the protests. Police claimed her actions were evidence of a “coordinated international conspiracy” against India.

Ravi's arrest was criticized by many rights groups as an attempt to intimidate young activists who speak out against the government. “The saddest thing today is the terrorizing by the state of young people,” says Gonsalves. “It's a tactic to bully and scare, and it's worked for a long time.”

The young activist was released without charge due to the lack of any credible evidence to support the police's accusations against her. Gonsalves says her case could be a “turning point”, laying bare the authorities misuse of laws to silence critics. India has the largest body of young people in the world, and he is hopeful that they will be the group who bring change to the country. “I would like to see young India rise in revolt,” he says. “Rise in insurrection against the government - peaceful, but very energetic peacefulness. A no holds barred opposition to this tyranny. I think it might just happen…some very energetic, peaceful, direct action will take India out of the mess in which it is. ”

Under the international spotlight. The deteriorating human rights situation in India has gained more and more international attention recently. In a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council at the end of February, high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet referenced the ongoing farmers protests. She also condemned charges of sedition against journalists and activists and “attempts to curb freedom of expression on social media” as “disturbing departures from essential human rights principles.”

Gonsalves says the international community has long turned a blind-eye to human rights violations in India, with governments across the world “prepared to jettison their human rights principles in order to do good business.” But he hopes that now, with the farmers protests' bringing more scrutiny to the government's actions, this may be about to change.

“The West has been for a long time in love with India and its democracy, but there's no democracy left,” says Gonsalves. “Now I think there is a turn, and it might just be that we will begin to look more closely at the terrible things happening in India, because they're too large to be ignored.”