It seemed somewhat weird to watch grown men burn a picture of Greta Thunberg in India. Her charge? Highlighting the farmers protest on social media, which apparently warranted activists from the United Hindu Front to protest her. Despite being one of the biggest peaceful protests in India’s history, the farmers protest has polarised India, and the divisions are underlined by blatant misinformation. Sikh separatists, part of a global conspiracy against India and terrorists in disguise: these are the many accusations being flung at individuals who are simply trying to protect their livelihoods.
However, the nature of these conspiracy theories is rather insidious. They are being peddled from the very top with BJP politicians and even some prominent Bollywood actors joining in! I was awestruck watching my childhood icons sporting #IndiaTogather and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda to undermine the legitimate claims of the farmers. Yet India, like many other nations rapidly adapting to cheap and easily available smartphones, is facing the dangers of social media. WhatsApp circles are the primary source of communication for a large proportion of the population. A closed loop of inflammatory posts without any verification mechanism, forwarded by unaware uncles and aunties, swept up in the febrile mood of a divided nation. It’s no wonder that social media is the means of organisation for BJP thugs, who target enemies of the government such as Muslims and now… farmers.
The most horrifying thing, however, is the complicity of previously independent institutions. Disha Ravi is a 21-year-old environmental activist who has been arrested with a charge of Sedition, a law enacted by the British colonialists to silence dissent during India’s freedom movement. Even though she only created a toolkit informing people about the protest and how they can get involved. Many experts such as Justice Deepak Gupta, a former judge of India’s constitutional court and N C Asthana, a former senior police officer, have made it clear that there is nothing in the toolkit that can be linked to violence or disorder on the ground. However, the police and the magistrate courts that have permitted her detention remain adamant that, “this was not just a toolkit, the real plan was to defame India and create unrest here.”
Disha isn’t the only victim in the state’s crackdown of free speech, journalists have found themselves targeted and harassed by the BJP apparatus, for covering the farmers protest- particularly instances of police unjustly attacking peaceful protesters. It’s no surprise therefore that India has plummeted in democracy metrics across the board: The Press Freedom Index, where it ranks 142 of 180 countries and the Human Freedom Index, where it ranks 111 of 162 countries, just four ahead of Russia. In September 2020 human rights group Amnesty International ended operations in India after persistent assaults from the Indian government.
I remember reading about India’s elections back in 2019, it was touted as the greatest democratic exercise in the world. Hence, it is somewhat depressing watching this nation descend into authoritarian tendencies, especially as my own country of Bangladesh isn’t doing so peachy on the democratic front. The erosion of an independent judiciary, law enforcement and even free speech is leading to a one-party state, and even worse: it’s a party vilifying 40% of the population instead of listening to them.