Indian Government Must Stop Crushing Farmers’ Protests: Amnesty

Farmers protesting in New Delhi, India. Photo: AIKSCC
Farmers protesting in New Delhi, India. Photo: AIKSCC

Amnesty reports that the protest sites resemble a war zone after the police erected metal and wire barricading, as well as concrete and stone boulders. 

The Indian government must immediately stop its escalating crackdown on protesters, farming leaders and journalists, amid ongoing nationwide demonstrations against three recently introduced farm laws, Amnesty International said on February 9. The organization also called for the immediate and unconditional release of those arrested solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

Rather than investigating reports of violence against protesters and bringing suspected perpetrators to justice, the authorities have resorted to hindering access to protest sites, shutting down the Internet, censoring social media and using draconian laws against protesters who have been peacefully voicing their opposition to the new laws for several months now, Amnesty said.

“We have seen an alarming escalation in the Indian authorities’ targeting of anyone who dares to criticize or protest the government’s repressive laws and policies. The crackdown on those protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) still hasn’t ended, while new efforts to quell the anti-farm legislation protests have taken shape. The crushing of dissent leaves little space for people to peacefully exercise their human rights including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in the country,” said Rajat Khosla, Senior Director of Research, Advocacy and Policy at Amnesty International.

At least eight leading journalists and politicians have been charged with sedition after reporting on the farmers protests. They have been charged with misreporting, spreading disharmony and inciting riots via their tweets on Republic Day.

Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist for The Caravan, was arrested on the evening of 30 January, shortly after The Caravan published a story in which he reported that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had sent rioters to attack the protesting farmers. Initially accused of obstructing the police, and then of violence, Mandeep Punia was detained for an initial period of 14 days without being allowed to see a lawyer but was later granted bail, Amnesty said in its report.

On 1 February, hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts including those belonging to news websites, activists and actors were suspended for more than 12 hours after the government said users were posting content inciting violence due to their use of the hashtag #FarmersProtests. Twitter reversed its decision by the evening.

However two days later, on 3 February, the Indian government served a notice on  Twitter to comply with an order to remove content and accounts related to hashtags linked to the farmers’ protest. The same day, many news media organizations reported that journalists’ access to the protest sites were being hindered by the police. 

The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights called on 5 February for the Indian authorities and protesters to exercise “maximum restraint”, adding that the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression should be protected both offline and online. India is a  member of the Human Rights Council and a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

“The Government of India needs to engage and listen to its people. The authorities must stop threatening, demonising, and arresting peaceful protesters and stop treating them as ‘anti-nationals’ or ‘terrorists’,” said Rajat Khosla. “Amnesty International calls for the immediate and unconditional release of activists and others who have been arrested for simply exercising their right to peaceful protest and for the government to stop the harassment and demonization of protesters.”

Amnesty reports that the protest sites resemble a war zone after the police erected metal and wire barricading, as well as concrete and stone boulders. More than 2,000 iron nails have reportedly been strewn on roads leading to the sites. The police have allegedly blocked access to portable toilets constructed by the farmers and will not allow street cleaners to clear the growing mounds of garbage, leading to concerns about the spread of infectious diseases. Internet services have been repeatedly suspended in Delhi’s main protest sites and many adjoining districts. 

Amnesty adds that a peaceful assembly does not lose its peaceful character due to sporadic violence or unlawful behaviours of some individuals. Where a small minority tries to turn a peaceful assembly into a violent one, police should ensure that those who are protesting peacefully are able to continue to do so, and not use the violent acts of a few as a pretext to restrict or impede the exercise of rights of a majority.

Farming groups say more than 100 people have gone missing since the 26 January tractor rally, as draconian laws like sedition and UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) have been used to clampdown on protesters. Amnesty says that at least six senior citizens are among the 120 people arrested in connection with the violence that broke out in the capital during the rally on Republic Day, according to a list released by the Delhi police.

The Editors Guild of India (EGI), The Press Club of India, the Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Delhi Union of Journalists, and the Indian Journalists Union, Reporters without borders have all released statements condemning the crackdown on journalists covering the protests.

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