The Modi government’s repression against Indian farmers’ protests (Solidarity 581) could signal the Hindu-nationalist regime’s panic-stricken weakening and decline, or the onset of an even more consolidated authoritarianism.
The repression is harsh and escalating.
About two hundred farmers have died as a result of protracted living in protest camps over the winter, and about twenty have committed suicide. A smaller number have been directly killed, including a 27-year-old who lost control of his tractor after it was hit by a bullet when troops attacked the peaceful mass protest in Delhi on India’s Republic Day (26 January).
The regime and its large networks of fascistic supporters have unleashed a tidal wave of denunciation and witch-hunting against the farmers, calling them terrorists and Sikh-separatists (a high proportion of those protesting are Sikh).
People criticising or exposing the regime are routinely denounced as “anti-national” or “leftist”, and often now also as traitors and terrorists – and subjected to witch-hunting and worse. A recent controversy between the government and YouTube involved the former defending the continued circulation of a video from its supporters calling for journalists to be hanged.
Critical and independent-minded journalists have become a target for legal repression. Following the Republic Day events, six prominent journalists who reported on them, including opposition MP Shashi Tharoor, have had legal proceedings initiated against them for charges including sedition.
There have been numerous arrests, not just of farmer activists but of their supporters – joining many other activists imprisoned in India for challenging the regime and big business. The arrest of two young women from different parts of the social spectrum dramatises what is happening now.
Disha Ravi, a 21 year-old climate activist, was arrested on 13 February.
Ravi had been an organiser of “Fridays for Future India”, coordinating student climate strikes in the southern city of Bengaluru. She became prominent internationally. Part of her motivation, she told the media, was seeing her grandparents, who are farmers, struggle with the effects of climate change.
After Greta Thunberg tweeted in support of the farmers’ protests, the regime and its supporters claimed a global conspiracy “against India”, and police began investigations into those connected to the “toolkit” (campaign briefing) Thunberg had promoted. Ravi was the first arrest; now warrants are out for two of other climate activists, Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk.
“We live in a country where dissent is suppressed”, Ravi had said previously. “Only a government that puts profit over people would consider asking for clean air, clean water and a liveable planet, an act of terrorism.”
23-year-old labour activist Nodeep Kaur, a member of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (Association for the Empowerment of Labourers) union, was arrested on 12 January and has been in custody since then. Her union comrade Shiv Kumar is also being held.
From a poor, Dalit (“lowest”, most oppressed caste), Sikh background in Punjab, until December last year Kaur worked in a bulb-making factory in Haryana, like Punjab a centre of the farmers’ movement, on the border with the Delhi region. When she decided to join the protests, she was fired without pay. In and alongside the farmers’ struggle she been central to a campaign raising workers’ issues including non-payment of salaries and harassment by employers.
Kaur is accused of multiple crimes including attempted murder, assault, rioting, intimidation, trespass and extortion, because of her role leading workers’ protests against employers. In fact it was the employers’ thugs who used intimidation and violence against the workers.
She has been refused bail, and her sister Rajveer says she has been tortured and sexually assaulted in jail. Her case and treatment were raised on Twitter by Kamala Harris’ niece Meena, prompting a wave of vicious denunciation and conspiracy-theorising by Hindu nationalists. In general, however, Kaur has not had quite the same degree of international attention as the more recently arrested Disha Ravi.
India’s Campaign Against State Repression, a student union-led network, has said: “The targeting of a young Dalit woman who dared to raise her voice for the rightful demands of the workers has been met with the most cruel, misogynistic barbarity of the men in uniform who have resorted to sexual violence. The impunity of the police stands firmly on a Brahmanical, patriarchal, Hindutva ground.”
Rajveer quotes Nodeep as saying: “If farmers and labourers unite, the government is in trouble!”