Peasant protests in India: Internet cut off in New Delhi as farmers clashed with police

Haryana’s Ministry of Information and Public Relations on Sunday said online access would be suspended in at least 14 of the 22 districts in Haryana state near New Delhi until 5 p.m. Monday. That order was first imposed for 24 hours in three Haryana districts on Tuesday, but has since been extended every day.

An internet shutdown of 48 hours was also imposed late Friday in three other areas around the borders of Delhi.

Officials said those blackouts should have been lifted Sunday night, but Paramjeet Singh Katyal, a spokesman for Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body representing protesting farmers, said the internet was still down on Monday.

The internet restrictions came last week after scenes of violence as demonstrations continue against three agricultural laws passed in September. Since late November, hundreds of thousands of protesters have gathered on the outskirts of New Delhi to demonstrate against changes they say have not been consulted and are damaging their livelihoods.

Last Tuesday, thousands of protesters stormed New Delhi’s historic Red Fort, as police used tear gas and batons against the protesters.

Dozens of officers were injured and one protester died when a tractor overturned during protests near the Delhi police station, police said on Wednesday. More than 100 protesters are still missing, Samyukta Kisan Morcha said on Sunday.

An internet shutdown has also been imposed in areas around New Delhi from noon to midnight on Tuesday.

Darshan Pal, a leader from Samyukta Kisan Morcha, condemned the shutdown of the internet, calling the actions “undemocratic.”

“The government does not want the real facts to reach the protesting farmers, nor does their peaceful behavior reach the world,” Pal said in a statement on Sunday. “It wants to spread its false spin on farmers. It also fears the coordinated work of the farmers’ unions across various protest sites and tries to cut off the means of communication between them.”

Nevertheless, farmers are still joining the protests, Katyal of Samyukta Kisan Morcha said Monday. “Normally these village groups work against each other, but this time they have all united for the collective struggle,” Katyal said.

Additional deputy police commissioner in Delhi, Jeetendra Meena, said police had deployed more troops at the border in case protests broke out on Monday.

Concerns about democracy

While India is the world’s most populous democracy, it also topped the world in internet shutdowns in 2019, according to Access Now, an advocacy organization that tracks internet freedom.
In 2019, the government imposed a months-long internet outage in Indian-controlled Kashmir after India rewritten its constitution to lift Kashmir’s protected autonomy.
That same year, authorities shut down the internet in other areas, including parts of New Delhi, amid widespread protests against a controversial citizenship law that many consider discriminatory against Muslims.
The approach is controversial. In India, some individual shutdowns have been challenged by the courts and efforts are being made to change the country’s laws to make the imposition of such blackouts more difficult.

The closures also come amid mounting concerns about press freedom in India.

On Saturday, Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist covering the protests, was arrested at the Delhi-Haryana border, Punia’s lawyer Akram Khan told CNN on Monday.

Punia has been remanded in custody for 14 days from Sunday, charged with hindering an officer from performing his duty and voluntarily inflicting pain and assault or criminal violence to deter an officer from his duty.

“(The) accused was merely performing his journalistic duties and another journalist was detained with him but was released around midnight,” said a bail request from Punia.

But Meena of the Delhi Police said Punia was not carrying an ID card when he was caught in a scuffle between villagers and protesters. Meena said that Punia incited farmers and put pressure on the police.

Devdutta Mukhopadhyay of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a non-governmental organization, said the government was using “extremely draconian” measures and the internet suspension was disproportionate. Online access remains limited in the majority of Haryana, affecting not only the protesters but also citizens forced to work and study from home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

She said there were reports of mob violence against protesters, adding that it was important for farmers to get their side of the story out, as unbalanced coverage could spark negative public opinion.

The closure could set a “very dangerous precedent,” she added.

“It’s not like deleting specific posts or pages that you think are inaccurate or inflammatory, this is shutting down an entire means of communication.”

Last week, India’s Congress Party, along with 15 other opposition parties, wrote a joint letter condemning the way the protesters had been treated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. calling their response “arrogant, adamant and undemocratic.”

Why farmers protest?

The massive farmer protests posed a major challenge to Modi as months of demonstrations and sit-ins across the country against his key agricultural policies have turned into a stalemate marked by stalled talks between farmers and his government.

Indian farmers storm New Delhi's Red Fort during tractor protest

For decades, the Indian government offered farmers guaranteed prices for certain crops, giving them long-term assurance that they could theoretically make investments for the next crop cycle. The new rules allow farmers to sell their goods to anyone for any price, giving them more freedom to do things like sell directly to buyers and sell to other states.

But farmers argue that the new rules will make them worse off by making it easier for companies to exploit farm workers and helping big companies lower prices. In contrast, while farmers can sell crops at high prices when there is demand, they may struggle to meet the minimum price in years when there is too much supply in the market.

The laws are so controversial because agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion population, and farmers have argued for years to raise guaranteed minimum prices. They are the largest electoral bloc in the country, making agriculture a central political issue.

The government has held talks with leaders of more than 30 farmers’ unions who oppose the laws, but the talks have gone nowhere.

Last month, India’s Supreme Court issued an injunction suspending the three controversial agricultural laws and ordered the creation of a four-member mediation committee to help the parties negotiate. But farmer leaders have rejected every court-appointed mediation committee.

According to Samyukta Kisan Morcha, at least 147 farmers have died during the months of protests from various causes, including suicide, traffic accidents and exposure to cold weather. Authorities have not released an official figure on the death toll of protesters.

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