As the farmer’s protests reach full throttle, the Indian government has also doubled its efforts to silence dissenting voices, both domestic and foreign. While Indian journalists and critics continue to be booked and jailed and internet blockades become the new normal, not just the foreign media but even American congressman have called out the BJP government on its increasing defiance of democratic norms, reports ANJALI JAIN.
stifle dissenting voices has been swift, as many journalists and opposition leaders have been charged with sedition while many others, including activists and protestors, have been jailed on dubious charges.he farmer’s protests against the contentious new farm laws have gripped the nation for months now. The growth in the intensity of the unrest has been exponential, culminating in the violence and chaos that was witnessed in the capital on Republic Day. The government’s response to
An internet blockade has also been enacted in the area where protestors have gathered, with many human rights violations also being reported. Barricades and barbed wire have been erected at the protest sites, along with spikes being planted in concrete, with what is reminiscent of a disputed border, to stop protestors from marching towards New Delhi. There have also been reports of electricity and water being cut off from one of the protest sites intermittently by the government.
The government’s efforts to silence those speaking against it has led to the international media questioning the legitimacy of India’s claim of being the world’s largest democracy. As the debate surrounding the farmer’s protests has now shifted focus to India’s idea of democracy and freedom of the press, many foreign media outlets have spoken against the actions of Central Government.
“Down the Road to Dictatorship”
Comparing India’s internet blockade and pressure on Twitter to suspend those who speak up against the government with what the new military government is doing in Myanmar post its recent coup, The Washington Post has called Modi’s India nothing short of a dictatorship. In its editorial, the American newspaper has said: “Such civil liberties violations are perhaps to be expected from the perpetrators of what is unquestionably a military coup. India, however, claims the mantle of world’s largest democracy — but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration behaves much the same as a dictatorship.”
While it believes a ban on the site similar to what TikTok suffered last summer is unlikely as the officials also rely on Twitter to spread their own propaganda, it says , “The future for these sites in these nations looks dubious. The services are vital lifelines for civilians, but those lifelines turn poisonous when regimes co-opt them to spread disinformation or to erase good information and dissent.” It ended by saying that countries like India and Myanmar face the tough choice of either standing up to the democratic values they claim to uphold or “admit they’re not democracies after all.”
“Loss of Democracy’s Central Ethos”
“For the past several years, India’s government has steadily chipped away at the edifice of its free press and, over the past week, once again gone too far,” wrote Vidya Krishnan for The Atlantic. “These latest attacks, part of a pattern of legal cases, personal threats, and intimidation against news outlets and individual journalists, make certain what was becoming evident: The freedom of the press, a constitutional right, is endangered in Modi’s India. The brazen use of social media networks to censor journalists, the use of the police and courts to silence them, and, more fundamentally, the belief that those who report on protests are somehow undermining the state illustrate how much has changed in India, and how far the country has strayed from its founding ideals.”
She has called the duelling images showcased by news channels on 26th January this year, those of “a celebration of India’s democracy on the one hand, the crushing of dissent on the other” a perfect visual metaphor for what has become the reality of modern India.
She claims that the central ethos of unity, diversity, equality and fraternity upon which India as an independent nation took birth have now been lost. “Today, that a majority of Indians are Hindu is not a demographic fact, but a governing premise; whereas liberty of thought was once prized, journalists are now arrested; and what was once a union of states, united in their diversity, is a society divided, where Muslims are not welcome, where farmers are beaten for defending their rights.” She concluded her piece by saying: “With each sacrifice, we will chip away at the founding ethos, outlined in our constitution and heralded on Republic Day, until those words have no meaning.”
The New York Times, in an article headlined “Modi’s Response to Farmer Protests in India Stirs Fears of a Pattern”, has said that India is heading down a dangerous path of intolerance as it curtails free speech and press freedom. “In its response to other contentious policies — including citizenship laws that disadvantaged Muslims, its clampdown on the disputed Kashmir region and the farmers’ protests — Mr. Modi’s government has resorted to arrests, stifling of dissenting voices, and blocking of the internet. Groups that track internet freedom say India is slipping.” These critics further believe that while India has a shoddy history of silencing voices, referring to the emergency era seen in the seventies when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, Modi is taking these efforts to new heights.
The article has noted that as the eyes of both the government and its devoted followers turned vigilantes grow increasingly watchful, the citizens are ever cautious of what they say in fear of the undemocratic retaliations that have now become a growing trend for the country. “On television channels, critics choose their words carefully to avoid making an offensive statement. A stand-up comedian remains in jail, denied bail, for a joke the police have yet to prove he made. Journalists and opposition politicians have been taken to court because of tweets that the authorities label misleading, or for reporting accounts that challenged the government’s version of events.”
Pointing towards the house arrests of political leaders in Kashmir after the abrogation of article 370 and the protestors and activists who still remain in jail a year later, booked under the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for participating in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the article has stated: “If past protests are an indication, those punished by the police could have a long ordeal ahead of them.”
“Erosion of the Fourth Estate”
Writing for the British news outlet The Guardian, political reporter Hartosh Singh Bal has spoken up against the FIRs filed against employees and journalists of The Caravan, a news magazine. Similar cases have also been filed in various states and it is no coincidence. “These cases in quick succession seem to be no coincidence, given the Caravan and the Wire are among the few media organisations willing to look at the ruling government critically, at a time when much of the mainstream media has effectively become a propaganda outlet for Modi’s government,” he said.
Referring to the arrest of Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist for the Caravan and the government’s orders of suspension of the magazine’s Twitter accounts along with those of over 250 others who prominently spoke up in support of the protests, he says that these actions have “gone unchallenged because the institutions of constitutional democracy that are meant to function as a check on executive overreach have largely given way.” He believes that factors like Modi’s majority in both houses of parliament along with an ineffective political opposition have led to there being little legislative restraint in the actions of the government. “The civil service and the police act more as political extensions of the government rather than constitutional functionaries,” Bal added.
In conclusion, the editor believes: “Much of India’s press has already been compromised, exhibiting complicity and subservience to the government. But these new legal actions have a clear aim: to silence or weaken what remains of the fourth estate. If honest reporting from the ground can be treated as “sedition” then there may soon be little serious journalism left in India.”
US Congress Members Speak Up Against Internet Restrictions
The international media is not the only foreign body taking note of farmer’s protests and the central government’s controversial reactions to them, especially the internet blockade enacted around the protest sites. Top members of the United States Congress belonging to the Indian Caucus have urged the Indian government to ensure that it maintains the norms of democracy in relation to the protestors.
In a virtual meeting held with India’s Ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, US Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman among others belonging to the Indian caucus spoke regarding farmers’ demonstrations in India. “I urged the Indian government to make sure that the norms of democracy are maintained and that protesters are allowed to protest peacefully and to have access to the internet, and to journalists. All friends of India hope that the parties can reach an agreement,” Sherman said.
Regarding internet restrictions, the US administration said that “unhindered access to information, including the Internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy”.
(Anjali Jain is a journalism student at the Symbiosis Institute for Media and Communication, Pune and an intern with The Leaflet.)