Apple growers in Kashmir package their harvest to be sent to a mandi or marketplace. The policy requires that wholesale business between farmers and traders take place in a mandi, but the market courtyards have become centers of widespread corruption, with a small group of sales agents taking control. Photo credit: Stella Paul / IPSNEW DELHI, India, March 1 (IPS) – Sanjay Kapoor is editor of Delhi’s Hardnews magazine and general secretary of the Editors Guild of India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi only visits parliament on special occasions. The budget meeting was one such opportunity. Unsurprisingly, he was trying to reach farmers who were still protesting on the border of the capital Delhi against his government’s new farm laws.
Modi suggested that the farmers were “pure” and innocent but were 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.
Celebrities’ use of Twitter to support the protests spread panic among the image-conscious Modi government. Her wild Twitter trolls hit back against Rihanna and Greta.
Modi’s speech in parliament provided a clear indication of how the Indian state was trying to counter the farm protests and the support it had received from international celebrities like Rihanna and climate activists like Greta Thunberg: as a major global conspiracy.
As the internationalization of this movement poses a foreign policy challenge to the government, its diplomatic missions are aggressively targeting those who question India’s democracy and the way the agitation has been handled.
Rather astute, the Modi government has used its influence on television channels and social networks such as WhatsApp and Twitter to create a narrative in which any contradiction is against the national interest.
The most recent example was a toolkit that Greta Thunberg provided for the Indian Republic Day tractor march, Jan. 26, and that Delhi police had given permission for. This was branded a seditious act by the Modi government.
The toolkit consisted of Indian employees like Disha Ravi, a member of the Thunberg movement “Fridays for the Future” against climate change. Their crime was tweaking the toolkit, which details how the farmer’s tractor can march on Jan. 26 – and daring to get in touch with Greta and other farm groups.
At first glance, Disha did not commit a crime, but the manner in which the charges were brought has even resulted in innocuous acts, such as labeling a zoom as a crime against the Indian state. However, the courts found no evidence of ties to secessionists or the January 26 violence and granted her bail.
Why the farmers came to Delhi
First, farmers protests broke out after the farm laws were hastily passed in parliament last year. Angry Punjab farmers got out and blocked the trains first. They received no response from the national government and then besieged Delhi.
Sanjay Kapoor’s government reforms include abolishing the government’s minimum support price (MSP) for food grains, and also intend to scrap agricultural markets, known as mandis. At the beginning, the farmers were greeted with water cannons and loads of sugar cane, many of which were injured. The government later allowed them to sit in the capital.
The Supreme Court was called in to resolve the stalemate, but farmers refused to mediate, claiming that laws can be overturned by parliament and government – not the courts.
Modi also assured the angry farming community that the MSPs for the farm products will not go away. But the farm leaders, led by Rakesh Tikait of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), have insisted that they will not stop their agitation until the government puts it down in writing. It is evident that trust between farmers and the government has collapsed.
Farmers’ main fear was that these “reforms” would make agriculture unprofitable and lose control of their land as it would be bought up for contract farming by companies like the Ambanis and Adanis.
The farmers were so angry with these corporate houses, which have businesses from textiles to telecommunications, that they burned down hundreds of telecommunications towers in Punjab state.
The Government of India’s censorship and intimidation
Aware of its international reputation, the Modi government has now released law enforcement agencies to control the narrative. It blocked the internet at the protest locations and filtered the visual content that found its way onto social media.
Photoshops were added to photos of the large gathering of men and women who continued to gather in extreme cold, rain and extremely unsanitary conditions.
As expected, the life of the protesters became more difficult after the tractor march on January 26th, which resulted in violence and a bizarre attempt to hoist a sectarian flag of the Sikh faith from the flagpole where the national tricolor of the legendary Red Fort in Delhi blows.
Since then, the police have tried to banish the protesters from the capital. Now concrete walls, accordion and nails are embedded in the streets.
In addition, farmers have been penned up, making it difficult for the media to meet them. Now journalists have to walk 12 kilometers to reach some of these protest venues – accordion wires, excavated roads, and police control.
Some intrepid journalists who attempted to cover farmers’ resistance have at times been killed by persistent police. Mandeep Punia was one such reporter arrested for preventing an officer from performing his duty. Strong pressure from civil society and the Editors Guild of India facilitated his quick bail release.
But it doesn’t stop there. In the wake of the January 26 Tractor March, there were a number of riot cases against seven editors for tweeting a developing message about a person who died in a clash with police.
Their tweets were based on the testimony of the victim’s grandfather, who claimed his grandson was shot dead. Police denied this version and posted some videos to show that he died in an accident. Some of the editors quickly withdrew their tweets, but were not spared the riots.
Identical First Information Reports (FIR) accusing them of sedition have been filed in at least five states in the country. If the Supreme Court had not suspended the riot trial for two weeks, these editors could have been arrested on an arrest warrant.
Similarly, social media, the only way to provide news and expression to excited farmers, is censored by the government. When Twitter tried to withstand the pressure, its employees were threatened with the consequences of detention by the Indian Justice Minister for failing to obey the country’s law.
Since then they have fallen in line. Google, which had vowed to protect the privacy of its users, promptly provided information on the toolkit compiled by climate change activists.
But despite strong opposition to farm laws in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, the government has not given in. Every day there are reports of a large gathering of farmers in small towns and villages in northern India seeking a turnaround from the government.
The highest minister of Punjab, Amarinder Singh, has asked the central government to find a face saver for the farmers so that they can return home – otherwise they will stay there. If stubbornness prevails on both sides, the agitation will continue and make India’s struggling democracy more illiberal.
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