(New Delhi) Tens of thousands of protesting Indian farmers have blocked highways across the country in defiance of the government’s internet and phone blackout, facing off against a heavy security deployment stationed behind rows of razor wire and concrete blocks.
They’re demanding a repeal of laws pushed through parliament last year by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which they claim favor big companies over small landholders.
They have rejected the government’s offer to suspend the reforms for 18 months, as well as a mediation process established by the Supreme Court.
“I believed PM Modi would bring about a change and voted for the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in 2014 and 2019 and in the state elections in 2017 but no more,” said farmer Maksood Ahmed Ansari at one of the protest sites outside New Delhi. “We fell for the promises, but no more.”
Backed by a growing international campaign of celebrities and activists such as Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, farmers issued a statement on Friday calling for an “immediate reinstatement” of telecommunication services that were disrupted at protest sites outside of the capital, New Delhi border.
“The government’s efforts to suppress the voice of disagreement continue,” the farmers’ unions said in a statement.
India restricted internet use more than any nation in 2020 and suffered the highest economic cost as a result, according to a report by Top10VPN.com, a company that reviews virtual private networks.
Indian authorities have resorted to internet shutdowns to stem protests in recent years, including nationwide demonstrations over a discriminatory citizenship law and after it revoked the special autonomous status of Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim majority region.
4G mobile internet services are being restored in Kashmir, the region’s Information Secretary Rohit Kansal said late Friday on Twitter.
“Time and again government authorities use times of political unrest to monopolise their control over information,” said Allie Funk, New York-based senior research analyst at Freedom House.
“That the world’s largest democracy can carry out such sweeping abrogations with little or no push back from other countries has just allowed the curbs to be normalized.”
The government has toughened its stance against the protesters after violent clashes broke out last month: Authorities fortified Delhi’s borders with concrete barricades, concertina wire and long metal spikes at key protest sites in addition to cutting water, phone and internet service.
On Wednesday, the government issued a legal notice to Twitter over its decision to restore the handles of users who tweeted the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide on Jan 26, saying those tweets were “designed to inflame passions, hatred and factually incorrect”.
The government sought an “emergency blocking” of the “provocative” Twitter hashtag and dozens of other accounts.
Twitter initially complied but later restored most of the accounts, citing “insufficient justification” to continue the suspensions. The technology ministry warned the company, in a letter seen by Reuters, of legal “consequences” that could include fines or jail, saying the government was not required to justify its demand to ban accounts.
Free speech activists say the government should not attempt to use legal provisions to muzzle freedom of expression, while others argue Twitter should comply or go to court.
“Twitter is playing with fire,” said an Indian social media executive who was surprised by the company’s non-compliance. “If there is a legal request, you are required to take down content. You are free to challenge it” in court.
Meanwhile, the farmers’ agitation continues to grow after four months of daily protests.
“I have been here since the beginning, it is now a people’s movement. Farmers across states like Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh are here and more are joining in,” said 30-year old Dheeraj Rathi, a farmer from Uttar Pradesh.
“We voted them to power, over 100 farmers have died during the protest but not a single representative has bothered to come or try and resolve this issue. Let the elections come and you will see how things change.”
Modi’s administration has defended the laws, saying they eliminated cartels that exploited farmers and would ultimately boost incomes by making the agricultural sector more competitive. The legislation passed easily in a parliament dominated by Modi’s allies, which won a landslide in a national election in 2019.
The increased global attention on the farmers’ protests threatens to damage India’s reputation as it looks to attract more investment from companies looking to diversify supply chains away from China in the wake of the pandemic and burgeoning geopolitical tensions. – TNR, Reuters and Bloomberg News