Farmers’ protests in India have seen the participation of millions of farmers and activists as well as international state and non-state actors like climate change activist Greta Thunberg and the United Nations. It is arguably the largest protest the world has ever seen. The general strike organized on 26th November, 2020 by farmers’ and workers’ unions saw participation of 250 million people – the equivalent of 75% of United States’ total population. Historic numbers, to say the least. Protests played a significant role in India’s recent history. Forcibly quieting protesters can only be a loss for our nation.
Inalienable to Indian Democracy
Mass movements are integral to India’s democratization processes and they have long occupied a central role in shaping public policy and legislations. India’s genesis itself is a product of popular struggle against British Rule and many of our Prime Ministers and leaders participated in this. Our founding fathers, especially Gandhi, believed in the idea of a common man standing up for himself and expressing his dissent to the policies of the regime.
This precedent of protests is reflected in the Constitution of India (Article-19) which guarantees it as a right to our citizens. It was believed by Dr B.R. Ambedkar, one of the founding fathers and drafters of our Constitution, that protests would be rare in an Independent India as other means would be available to get justice. However, we have seen many mass movements happen in our country since, which have brought down governments, initiated socio-economic and political reforms, and changed the nature of our institutions. Jayaprakash Narayan led peaceful demonstrations causing the fall of the “invincible”, dictatorial Government of Indira Gandhi in 1977, a feat thought impossible leading to the first Non-Congress Government since our Independence. Similarly, Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in 2011 was instrumental in taking down the scam-riddled central government. Social issues like rape have also been addressed through protests, evidenced by the large-scale movement after the Nirbhaya case in 2012-13, which forced legislators to address the situation immediately.
The idea of protests is so ingrained not even Prime Minister Modi can avoid it. Modi recently called demonstrators Andolanjivi (protestor for protest’s sake). However, he too was an Andolanjivi in 1970s and 80s protesting against the Congress government then.
It must also be noted that violence in protests is inseparable from India’s mass movements and not a new phenomenon after the election of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) at the centre. In fact, the end of Congress’ hegemony and the rise of BJP at the Centre was a result of Hindu nationalist movements in late 1980s and early 90s in which violence was a primary characteristic. Their quick dismissal of entire causes like the opposition to the Citizenship Act last year and the current Farmers’ Bills due to the element of violence is hence ironic.
Protests throughout our history are of a disruptive nature. The slogan Dilli Chalo (Let’s go to Delhi) is common to many movements in addition to the recent farmers’ one. It signifies that citizens in solidarity can always come to the seat of power demanding justice, should the rulers become comfortable avoiding problems. Blocking roads, closing shops and creating traffic jams are sometimes the only way a Government might listen to citizens, as they have tangible effects. All of these actions combine to form a typical Indian protest – cherry-picking one action to invalidate the larger conversation is deliberately ignorant.
Suppression of dissent and loss of India’s identity
Another prevalent issue is how the machinery deals with its dissidents. A lot of the legislation used for silencing detractors can be traced to Colonial times which remained after independence. Just as protests are intrinsic to Indian democracy, the laws to suppress them are as well. One of them is “sedition law” given in the Indian Penal Code (Section 124-A), which has been construed to treat dissidents as rebels and put them in jail. Gandhi and Nehru, our first Prime Minister, were charged under the same provision by the British and subsequently imprisoned. Disha Ravi, an activist who edited two lines of a document shared by Thunberg to show solidarity with farmers has also been arrested under this provision. Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) is another legislation, which has been used to detain dissenters most recently during the ongoing protests.
The protestors and detractors are often termed “Anti-National”, aided by the press which is reluctant to criticize the Government. This leads to social ostracization and, in some cases, death threats. Police have also been increasingly used to discourage protestors through harassment and brutality. As I write this article, the possibility of severe repercussions, such as public vilification or police reports, is not far-fetched.
Public demonstrations are integral to the Indian experience. They can drag the legislators to the ground and make them address our problems; an implement of true accountability in the hands of the populace. The current regime, aided by previous mistakes, has undeniably put us on a road which will lead to the death of civil rule in India. However, if we continue to protest and dissent, unafraid, unapologetic and free, we might just avoid our destination.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.