Patralekha Chatterjee | India@2024: A portrait of power and fragility

Farmer demonstrations highlight the delicate balance in India's political landscape.

At a time when the ruling BJP spares no effort in telling us why Bharat matters, heavy security has been deployed to stop thousands of farmers of the same Bharat from entering the nation’s capital to renew their demands for assured crop prices. It is equally ironic that at a time when India’s global clout is rising, and when its political messaging pivots around power, both within and outside the country, there are visible markers of fragility.

The protesting farmers, who began their march from Haryana and Punjab, are asking for a guaranteed minimum support price for all crops. Till date, there are no signs that they will give up their “Delhi Chalo”.

We have been down this road before. Back in 2021, protesting farmers camped on the capital’s outskirts for more than a year. Then, as now, the government responded in a by-now familiar way.

The government’s response to “Delhi Chalo 2.0” exudes might and fragility. How else do you describe suspension of the Internet in several districts in Haryana, barriers of barbed wire, spikes, and cement blocks at Delhi’s borders to deter tractors from pushing through. And teargas. The Delhi police, which is under the control of the Union home ministry, has sealed multiple entry points into the city.

At the time of writing, the national capital is under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). The entry of tractor trolleys into the city is not allowed. Ditto with large gatherings. The old CrPC still prevails because the Bhartiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, the new law that is meant to replace it, is not yet in effect. We are told this is a precautionary measure in response to the farmers’ Delhi Chalo march.

This sense of siege goes beyond the capital ‘s territorial boundaries. Sauntering around Delhi’s Lodhi Estate earlier this week, past the India International Centre, where Delhi’s well-connected gather, I chanced upon a posse of policemen, barbed wire, and bright, yellow metal barricades. Clearly, some of these had been used during the G-20 summit in New Delhi last September. Stickers with the words “One Earth, One Family, One Future” remained.

This time, in a first, the Haryana government airdropped teargas shells on the protesters via drones, news reports say.

In the ongoing battle of optics, however, there can be unexpected twists. On Basant Panchami, visuals emerging from the Shambu border point between Punjab and Haryana showed the protesting farmers flying kites to restrict the teargas firing zone of the drones. This unorthodox strategy involves using the long strings of kites to entangle the rotors of the drones, potentially causing them to crash. Meanwhile, Punjab authorities have raised objections to Haryana's use of drones at the Shambhu border.

The obvious question: why should a democratically elected government with a hugely popular leader and a huge mandate, and which expects to return to power with a thumping majority very soon, resort to such a panoply of strategies to deal with its own citizens?

India is a complex country. No one ever said it is easy to deal with competing interest groups in a hugely diverse country of 1.4 billion people. But surely the point of a popular mandate is to be able to negotiate effectively with divergent interest groups without having to manifest or exercise brute power.

Protesting farmers are not unique to India. Farmers across Europe are up in arms. Friends in Europe tell me that the Internet has never been suspended anywhere to quell the protests.

Now, a petition has been filed in the Punjab and Haryana high court challenging the “obstructive actions” of the Central and state governments, including sealing of border between Haryana and Punjab to “prevent the farmers from exercising their constitutional right to assembly and protest peacefully”, reports LiveLaw, a legal portal. The plea also questions the suspension of mobile Internet services and bulk SMS in several districts of Haryana, including Ambala, Kurukshetra, Kaithal, Jind, Hisar, Fatehabad and Sirsa, stating that it “further exacerbates the situation, depriving the citizens of their right to information and communication”.

Haryana is not the only place where the Internet is shut down. Remember Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir? It is part of a broader picture. Despite India’s rising global stature, it features in the list of governments that use Internet shutdowns to deal with protests and political challenges. Eight governments in Asia imposed 55 Internet shutdowns in 2023, with most of them recorded in Iran and India, according to an analysis by Surfshark, a cybersecurity company focused on developing humanised privacy and security solutions. India imposed 11 Internet restrictions in 2023, of which eight were in relation to anti-government protests, according to the Surfshark report. This includes the ongoing mobile data service suspension in parts of Manipur, the analysis notes. Interestingly, neighbouring Pakistan also deals with political tensions by shutting down the Internet.

Internet shutdowns impact businesses, livelihoods, education, and healthcare for huge numbers of people. Between 2019 and 2021, the Internet was shut down in India for 14,280 hours and cost the national economy about $4.7 billion, says Leaflet, a legal portal.

“Internet shutdowns were declared a violation of the freedom of expression in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India by the Supreme Court of India,” pointed out an October 2023 report by Software Freedom Law Center titled “A Trend of Long Internet Shutdowns in India, The Manipur Crisis”.

Significantly, both Central and state governments in India have resorted to suspension of the Internet. From 2016 to 2022, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana have had the most Internet outages across India.

Another strategy increasingly used in India and part of the BJP’s political messaging is what has come to be known as “bulldozer justice”. It is intended to be a deterrent.

In several states, homes of people alleged to be rioters, many of whom are Muslims, have been bulldozed, citing provisions of local municipality laws terming such buildings as illegal encroachments.

Many have pointed out that adopting “bulldozer justice” is tantamount to giving up on the rule of law.

Once again, what is the message we want to send out? Is it one of a country which always follows the due process of law as mandated by the Constitution of India or is it one which resorts to extra-judicial methods? And what then?

No one knows how the ongoing farmers’ protests will pan out. No one can predict the future with certainty. The bottom line -- in the battle of images, barbed wire, barricades and bulldozers -- reflects a deeply divided country. Persisting with dialogue is the only way out.

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