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Silencing of Dissenters in India and the Silence from the World

Farms and Farmers by WBK Photography - © Kannan Muthuraman - 2015

Article by Pream Akkas,

The Indian government’s response to the recent farmer’s protest illustrates how the Modi administration continues to enforce policies that disadvantage marginalized voices despite international pushback and criticism, indicating that further international action is necessary to prevent this trend. The Indian government should not be able to enforce policies that further disadvantage its marginalized populations and silence dissenting voices because it is committing grave human rights abuses against its own population. As international leaders fail to effectively intervene, the Hindu nationalist regime will persist in committing human rights abuses to stifle dissent and enforcing policies that further disadvantage its marginalized populations. International leaders have a responsibility to hold India accountable for compliance with international law treaties on human rights and humanitarian law by threatening to sever relations or enforce specific economic sanctions, such as an arms embargo, that would not further harm India’s disadvantaged communities.

Since November 26, 2020, farmers, workers, their families (including women and the elderly), and allies have been protesting on the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi, for the repeal of three agricultural bills passed in September 2020. While the Indian government states that the rules are aimed at deregulating and modernizing the agricultural markets, protestors are worried that the laws dismantle the current market system, which creates a guaranteed minimum price and allows even small farmers to sell their produce at a fair price.

On January 12, India’s Supreme Court put the new farm laws on hold in an attempt to end the protests, but demonstrators persisted. On January 26, India’s Republic Day, violence erupted when some protestors broke through police barricades, entered the city, stormed the 17th Century Red Fort, and hoisted a Nishan Sahib, the flag of Sikhism on a minaret of the Red Fort (the majority of farmers in India are Sikh and Sikh farmers from Punjab dominate the protests). The protestors clashed with police, overshadowing the Delhi Republic Day parade, the main attraction of India’s Republic Day celebrations. Security forces fired tear gas and water cannons on some of the tens of thousands of tractors.

The government has also arrested journalists and activists and removed access to water, sanitation facilities, and internet at protest sites. International actors have expressed solidarity with protestors and condemned the Indian government for stifling dissent; but until international actors hold India accountable by imposing material consequences, the administration will continue to enforce policies that have grave consequences for its marginalized communities and stifle dissent through human rights abuses.

A History of Silencing Dissent and Arrests

Stifling of dissenting voices by the use of force, arrests, internet shutdowns, and human rights violations are neither unprecedented nor surprising under the administration of Prime Minister Narenda Modi and the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. During the 2019 government’s decision to revoke special status for Indian-controlled Kashmir, thousands were arrested and even after the protests, many of the political leaders in the region remained under house arrest for months. The internet was entirely shut off for seven months and the 4G mobile internet ban was not lifted until February 6 this year. The Indian government attempted to delegitimize the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination and resistance by associating their struggle with “Islamic terrorism.” Similarly, during the late 2019 and early 2020 protests across India against the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which establishes a religious test for immigrants to the disadvantage of Muslims, the police arrested thousands and blocked internet access in many Muslim-dominated regions. Like the Kashmir and CAB protests, the recent demonstrations have received international support with rallies in the United States and Canada. Nonetheless, the Indian government has done little to respond to these pleas and continues to exert similar violations against protestors to no end.

During the ongoing farmers’ protests, the Indian government and media suggested that protests against the agricultural bills are “Khalistani,'' or members of a Sikh seperatist movement that Indian media often labels as an anti-national terrorist group. A media report quoting Delhi Police sources claimed that Pakistan-based Inter-Services Intelligence and “‘rogue elements linked to Khalistani outfits’ are likely to hijack and disrupt the tractor rally,” in reference to the rally on Republic Day.

Journalist Mandeep Punia is among hundreds of activists and journalists who have been arrested in connection to the protests. Punia was arrested just hours after he posted a 15-minute long live video on Facebook from a farmers’ protest venue, describing how a mob of fifty to sixty individuals carrying national flags pelted stones and a petrol bomb at protestors in the presence of thousands of policemen. A video of the police arresting Punia also circulated on social media and showed the police violently manhandling Punia.

India’s International Law Violations

Recently, the government also blocked internet access in places where protestors gathered. Article 19 (2) of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party, hold that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) similarly states that the freedom of expression inclusions “receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Section 32 of the UDHR further adds “[t]he promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.” However, India was one of multiple countries that opposed this amendment and continues to impose Internet shutdowns in response to local protests against international law.

In addition to stifling dissent by arresting protestors and journalists and banning internet access in protest sites, the government also shut off access to water and sanitation, in violation of international laws. The 2010 and 2015 UN General Assembly Resolutions, of which India voted in favor, “explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights.” Protestors have been forced to use the toilet publicly, which disproportionately impacts women and the government shutting off access to toilets is accordingly in violation with the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which India signed and ratified. The treaty places a duty on States to “ensure to women… the right to enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to… sanitation.” Despite India’s obvious violation of international treaties, different states and even international bodies like the UN have done little more than give ambivalent criticisms.

International Response

On February 1, the agriculture minister Narenda Singh Tomar defended the laws in parliament, indicating that the government is still unwilling to repeal the legislation or negotiate with protestors. Just as the special status of Kashmir is still revoked and the CAB has not been repealed, the agricultural bills likely will not be repealed and will have dire consequences for Indian farmers. The Modi administration is also likely to continue enforcing discriminatory policies that further disadvantage its marginalized groups unless there is effective intervention by threatening the severance of diplomatic relations or targeted economic sanctions that would not further harm the very farmers the sanctions would aim to protect. International intervention is necessary to convey that the violation of human rights is not an “internal affair” and the administration will be held accountable for its abuses.

Despite facing international criticism for its suppression and violent treatment of protesters, the Indian government has not experienced any consequences. On November 30, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participated in a Zoom meeting organized to celebrate the birth anniversary of the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak and stated that “Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest.” India’s foreign ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava responded, "such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country.” Prime Minister Trudeau has neither responded nor taken any action to indicate that his words were more than mere rhetoric to appease Canada’s large Sikh community. As an influential international leader, Trudeau is not solely responsible for forcing India to comply but, as he conveyed, he can defend the right of peaceful protest in India by compelling the Indian government to comply with international laws concerning the freedom of expression.

‘War-Like’ Restraint On and Offline

On February 4, the U.S. embassy in New Delhi responded to the Internet shutdown by stating, “We recognize that unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy.” The embassy also urged Modi to resume talks with farmers but also offered support to government measures to “improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment.” The ambivalent response from the Biden Administration fails to hold the Modi regime accountable for its actions, which we see time and time again.

Similarly, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called on both protestors and Indian authorities to “exercise maximum restraint” amidst ongoing protests by farmers, tweeting, “The rights to peaceful assembly and expression should be protected both offline and online. It’s crucial to find equitable solutions with due respect to #HumanRights for all.” The UNHCR’s comments suggest that the current struggle in India is a two-sided conflict between equal parties that fails to acknowledge the significant power imbalance that inherently exists between the government and its citizens, particularly poor disadvantaged citizens whom the government is punishing simply for dissenting.

The barricades blocking protesters, made of iron nails, barbed wire, boulders, and makeshift walls which farmers and opposition leaders described as “war-like fortification” vividly illustrate the power imbalance the UNHCR highlighted. Political analyst Suhas Palshikar wrote that the barricades send a dual message: “One is a message of distrust and disregard, the other is the message that power and the people are clearly separated.” The measures taken to silence the protesters and pressure them to return home illustrate this very disregard for the people and that despite being “the world’s largest democracy,” the power does not remain with the people.

As minority populations in India are increasingly silenced by internet shutdowns and human rights abuses, the right-wing government becomes increasingly fascist. Global powers are particularly equipped to strongly and consistently condemn the Indian government and incentivize compliance with international treaties by threatening to sever treaties or enforcing an arms embargo. It is the responsibility of international leaders like President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau to mitigate this transition by compelling the Indian government to comply with international law.


S. Pream Akkas (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2023) is interested in international humanitarian law and immigration and refugee law. Pream holds a B.A. in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies from Columbia University. She is fluent in Bengali and conversational in Spanish and Arabic.



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