Thousands of farmers in India have put on a show of defiance, blockading several major highways near Delhi for hours on Saturday, in response to controversial farming laws and harsh police tactics that led to the suspension of internet services and sedition charges filed against journalists.
- Farmers are protesting plans to deregulate the agriculture industry
- Protests turned violent last month when a former Melbourne resident was killed
- Police have denied media reports he was shot by officers
The three-hour blockade, called “chakka jam”, was carried out amid a heavy security presence, with concrete barriers and razor wire erected near protest camps to try and prevent a repeat of the violence witnessed on January 26, India’s Republic Day.
“Our movement remains peaceful and it will continue till we will get back our rights,” 50-year-old farmer Kishan Singh said.
The farmers and their supporters are angry at government reforms that seek to deregulate the agriculture industry and give private enterprise a much greater ability to circumvent regulated wholesale markets and deal directly with farmers.
The Government argues the reforms would boost investment, but farmers fear it will leave them at the mercy of big business.
Saturday’s blockade, which ended without any major incidents, was also in response to the recent death of a protester and concerns over the state of Indian democracy following the suspension of internet access at protest sites and criminal charges filed against journalists and media outlets.
Authorities again switched off the internet on Saturday at three major protest camps.
“This does not happen in a democracy,” farmer Parmender Singh told the ABC.
“It’s a dictatorship.”
Farmers and their supporters have been camped outside the national capital for months, but the mostly peaceful protests took a violent turn in January after thousands of protesters broke police barricades and stormed the capital, making their way to the historic Red Fort.
Tractors were used as battering rams and to plough through police lines.
Protest leaders condemned the violence.
Protester Navreet Singh died at the rally amid the chaos.
The 25-year-old was studying at university in Melbourne for three years with his wife but returned to India in 2019 as he could not get his study visa extended, his grandfather told the ABC.
His wife is still in Melbourne continuing her studies.
“He wanted to work and settle in Australia,” his grandfather Hardeep Singh Dibdiba said.
“His wife is still in shock, unable to talk.”
Police said he was killed when his tractor flipped after hitting a barricade and CCTV footage was released to support the statement.
A post-mortem report, prepared by three doctors at a hospital in Uttar Pradesh, said the death was due to “shock and haemorrhage as a result of antemortem head injury” sustained during the crash.
But Mr Singh’s supporters and family members have alleged the 25-year-old was shot, something Delhi Police have strenuously denied.
“My grandson sacrificed his life for the movement,” his grandfather said.
Police claim reports of shooting death are false
Footage of Mr Singh’s body has been circulated on social media, and the family say it shows what appears to be bullet wounds in his neck and behind his right ear.
The family have received the post-mortem report but have also requested an X-Ray scan but were told this is not possible.
Mr Singh’s body has been cremated.
Police responded to the media reports, claiming they are false.
At least eight journalists who tweeted or reported allegations have since been placed under police investigation, including former TV news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai, senior editor Mrinal Pande, and Caravan reporter Vinod Jose, with the threat of sedition charges now looming.
An independent journalist was also arrested during the protests and criminal proceedings have also been launched against senior Opposition MP Shashi Tharoor.
Police accused the journalists of “misreporting” and “spreading disharmony”, but the journalists have challenged the police action in the Supreme Court.
Media organisations and journalism advocacy groups have rallied in support of the journalists.
Senior journalist Jyoti Malhotra, who is the national and strategic affairs editor at The Print, said it was “like using a rocket launcher to kill a fly.”
“It seems so out of whack that it’s brought us [journalists] all together,” she said.
Ms Malhotra said there may have been problems with the initial tweets that were later deleted or corrected, but the threat of sedition amounted to “desecrating the republic”.
“Sedition implies that you’re trying to overthrow the state or there’s an insurrection,” she said.
“There was nothing like that.”
“We will fight these cases.”
India’s rating on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index has slipped in recent years from 27th in 2014 to 53rd in 2020.
Internet switched back on after backlash
After the violence in central Delhi, the government imposed an internet blackout in areas where protesters had gathered, a move authorities said was to stop further unrest.
The internet was switched back on after condemnation in India and abroad.
“You are completely cut off from the world without internet,” farmer Ashish Rana told the ABC.
“Our families were worried about our well-being. They kept on asking us to show what’s happening here. Even voice calls were not working properly.”
US pop star Rihanna tweeted a message of support for the farmers’ movement, followed soon after by Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg who shared a document detailing how people across the world could amplify the movement.
Delhi police have since launched an investigation into the document’s authors, stating it promoted further unrest.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement saying “sensationalist social media hashtags” were “neither accurate nor responsible”, and cricket great Sachin Tendulkar tweeted “external forces can be spectators but not participants.”
The Indian Government has threatened legal action against Twitter after it restored previously suspended accounts, including those belonging to journalists and current affairs website the Caravan.
Protesters do not represent majority, government says
The agriculture reforms would erode the role of large, regulated wholesale markets, known as Mandis, and more easily allow private buyers to deal directly with farmers in an unregulated space.
The government maintains the laws empower farmers, giving them the ability to choose what they grow and who they sell to, as well as attract much-needed private investment into the sector.
It has also argued protesters do not represent the majority, with most of the outrage centred in the well-off foodbowl states of Punjab and Haryana.
But protesters argue the laws would leave farmers vulnerable and lead to lower prices, particularly as agriculture is still largely a family-owned enterprise in India.
The laws would also allow private businesses to stockpile produce, something farmers fear will lead to market manipulation.
They also fear minimum support prices for wheat and rice would disappear, something the government denies.
“This government is anti-farmer and pro-corporation,” 73-year-old farmer Rajvir Singh Pehlwan said.