Public protests are a hallmark of a free, democratic society and an important tool for people to show their dissatisfaction towards the actions of a government. India, primarily an agrarian economy, has 70% of the population depending extensively on the success of the agriculture sector for their basic subsistence. Even during the ongoing global pandemic, this sector has been a major contributor to the economic stability of the country.
The agriculture reforms (Farm Bills) were pushed by the government in the wake of the pandemic, which were believed to raise the standard of productivity of the agriculture sector as well as bolster private investment. The first amendment to the Essential Commodities Act deregulates the cap on the storage of food, thus threatening national food security. The second amendment to the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 restricts the government role in the agricultural market leaving it susceptible to the market forces. The third amendment to the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, introduces the provisions for contract farming in the country, thereby allowing the entry of corporate houses in the agriculture sector. The ‘Farm Bills’ are said to weaken the farmers’ negotiating powers as well as open up the market to corporate companies, thus giving them the power to dictate terms to the farmers.
However, the said reforms were devised without any prior consultation to the farming states or farming groups of the country. The bills were introduced as ordinances in June 2020 and passed by the Parliament in September 2020, during the monsoon session without debate or discussion on the same.
Therefore, the world today is witnessing one of the largest organized strikes in human history with over 250 million farmers in India sitting on the borders of the national capital, New Delhi in a bone-chilling winter for more than two months. The protest centers around the demand for repealing the three agriculture reform bills and introducing legal provisions for an assured minimum support price.
Restricting a Peaceful Protest
The initial stages of the protest from June to November 2020 were characterized by various peaceful sit-ins and railway blockages in the states of Punjab and Haryana. With no response or redressal from the central government in the meetings held on October 14 and November 13, the farmers decided to stage a peaceful protest in the national capital on November 26.
The actions of the state to stifle the peaceful protest by using various means go against the spirit of democracy and are violative of the right to assemble peacefully and freedom of movement within the country enshrined in the Article 19 of the Constitution of India and Article 20 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which are signed and ratified by India.
The use of Police Force
Initially, the government tried to thwart these peaceful protests by barricading the highways, digging trenches in the roads and parking heavy trucks filled with sand on the roads leading to the Capital. The police even used water cannons and tear gas shells on unarmed farmers without considering their safety, to stop them from entering the capital.
Thereafter, on January 26, 2021, the peaceful tractor rally organized by farmers turned violent as the police used tear gas and excessive force to dispel the protesters, injuring many. In consequence, the authorities imposed legal restrictions on the assembly of people. Enforcing the same, many protesters have been detained and cases have been filed against the farmer union leaders. The authorities have ‘fortified the borders’ of the national capital by the use of spikes, concrete barricades and trenches to prohibit the entry of protestors.
Threats and Coercion
Apart from the direct use of force against the protesting farmers, the government even adopted indirect means by using the state’s machinery to weaken the protest by sending investigation agencies after the farmers and organizations aiding the protest. This can be seen through the use of the National Investigation Agency, to summon farmer leaders and even NGO organisers for cases registered against them under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). There have been Income Tax raids and inquiries against the farmer agents of Punjab for adding pressure on the ongoing agitation and attempt to dissuade the movement.
The government has also tried to silence journalists and politicians speaking in favour of the protest by either arresting them or charging them with sedition for causing disharmony via their tweets and by misreporting facts. A journalist Mandeep Punia was brutally assaulted, arrested and later detained in judicial custody for allegedly obstructing the policemen in the discharge of their duties as an attempt to clampdown journalist activities. The Twitter accounts of individuals, organizations supporting farmers protest and several news agencies were also suspended to restrict live reporting from the protest sites.
Additionally, the internet services were suspended on the sites of the protest and in several districts of Haryana under the lieu of maintaining public order which led to a complete information blackout for the protesting farmers and limited their access to the developments around the border area.
The Role of Judiciary
The government approached the Supreme Court of the country to call off the protest, wherein the Apex Court refusing to call for the dispersal of the protest, recognised the right to peaceful protest as a constitutional right of the people. In addition to this, the Supreme Court also stayed the execution of the enacted laws. Subsequently, an expert committee has been set up to review the reforms, which is to present a detailed report after conducting a stakeholder analysis.
In contradiction, the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court have respectively refused to conduct an independent investigation into the incident occurring on January 26 and denied an application filed to release the illegally detained farmers by the police. Thus, making the stance of the judiciary inconsistent on the matter.
Sustaining the Protest
In a democracy dissent and dialogue should ideally continue simultaneously. But the state remains duty-bound to ensure the wellbeing of the people at all times. With the protesting farmers being denied entry into the capital, the protest has continued unconventionally for over two months on the national highways at seven different locations in harsh winter. The authorities have taken on a nonchalant approach towards efforts ensuring the accessibility of basic provisions like food, water, warm clothing, shelter, waste disposal, health and sanitation facilities. The excessive barricading at the protest sites have cut access for the people to sanitation and water provisions, thus causing many hardships. The government violates its obligations to ensure the right to health and human dignity by not providing for provisions to the protesting farmers.
A survey of the basic amenities available at the protest sites highlights the troubles faced by the protesters, especially the women due to lack of accessible toilet and sanitation facilities. The protest has been solely sustained by the efforts of various NGOs and volunteer organizations working tirelessly to make ends meet by trying to provide basic necessities like food, medicines and tents to brave the weather for all the people sitting at the borders.
The farmers’ agitation started as a local movement and drew global support, with leaders of various countries and organizations around the world being vocal about their support. Even the Secretary-General of the United Nations has commented on the Right of the people to demonstrate peacefully without interference by the authorities.
Additionally, global media houses have given extensive coverage of the various developments of the agitation. Even international personalities have banded together to show their solidarity with the movement. The farmers’ protest also gained international impetus with people of the Indian diaspora as well as farmers of various countries voicing their support for the farmers’ agitation against the laws.
The way Forward
Despite the agriculture sector being the backbone of the Indian economy, it remains the most overlooked and neglected till date with a mere 2% of the total budget allocated to it. According to records farmer suicides account for an estimated 7.4% of the total suicides committed in the country due to numerous reasons like crop failure, land inequality, excessive debt burdens and minimum social security provided by the government.
Hence, the agitating farmers have faced grave violations of their freedoms and liberties guaranteed under law. There is an urgent need for reforms in the agricultural sector. However, the present reforms harbour many grievances for the farmers who are the primary stakeholders in the same.
Peacefully protesting and voicing dissent are important rights of the citizens in a democracy. The continuous use of disproportionate and excessive force on these protesters by the state is unjustified and is in breach of internationally and constitutionally guaranteed human rights.
Thus, instead of discrediting and silencing the dissent, there needs to be a constructive dialogue that includes farmers in consultations on the provisions of the agricultural reform proposals. This will ensure that the new reforms are not merely imposed on the majority of the population, but rather understood and willfully welcomed.