India’s farmers are months into one of the largest protests in human history. As they weather rain, cold, violence, and slander, one truth is only gaining momentum with each day: The world is watching.
The protests began when the Indian government passed three laws in September 2020 which, broadly, opened up the agricultural market to privatization. Though intended to invigorate and no doubt globalize the industry, farmers argued that the laws in fact inhibit their independence and financial protection. They called for the laws to be repealed — not amended — and began to protest outside India’s capital, New Delhi.
Despite India’s reputation for heat and humidity, Delhi winters can be brutal. Homes designed to withstand high temperatures and heavy rain do not defend effectively against nights where the temperature approaches freezing — especially without central heating. India’s farmers have been camped outside Delhi for most of winter, and over 140 have died in the extreme conditions. Farmer suicide, already a problem in India, has continued throughout the protest.
More than half of India’s workers are farmers — that’s over 250 million people. Yet they remain grossly underpaid, many just barely breaking even to stay fed, clothed, and housed. India is a top exporter of fruit, vegetables, wheat, rice, and 68 percent of the world’s spices, including ginger, garlic, pepper, turmeric — to name just a handful of essentials you might find in your own kitchen. Many of the farmers are Sikhs from Punjab and Haryana, a religious minority that has faced prior injustice and violence at the hands of the Indian government.
On Jan. 26, Republic Day in India, farmers entered New Delhi to peacefully March for their cause, but violence broke out. Protesters were beaten, tear gassed, and jailed. After that, the Indian government’s messaging and action laser-focused on violence in the capital — regardless of who was committing it. The farmers were labeled dangerous threats and internet shutdowns began in protester camps, making it increasingly difficult to communicate within the camps and to remote supporters (internet shutdowns are one of the Indian government’s favorite techniques, used to stifle news and dissent in Kashmir in 2019).
If the farmers protests sound similar to summer 2020’s Black Lives Matter uprising in the U.S., they should. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (a big supporter of Donald Trump) and his team deploy the same repetitive and harmful language to make their citizens believe peaceful protesters are a threat (Modi also has ties to Hindu nationalists, whose conservatism is on par with white supremacist abroad). Just as summer’s protests were met with unprovoked police violence and maligned by the national government, so too are the winter protests in India. This is nationalism weaponized, fascism made real.
As a nation….We are literally becoming that uncle who beats his wife, is cruel to his kids, never stops yelling at his family, and then has his pride hurt when people from other houses hear the commotion.
— Vir Das (@thevirdas) February 3, 2021
On Feb. 2, Rihanna tweeted out a CNN story about the internet shutdowns around Delhi with the words “why aren’t we talking about this?!” It was the Indian government’s nightmare: International attention from someone with no immediate ties to India — and negative attention, as far as they’re concerned.
Indian politics and media often operate within a vacuum and put on their best face for the world, whether it’s visiting Hollywood celebrities, foreign dignitaries, or tourists. In some ways this connects to centuries of colonialism and contorting to please the white man, but those days should be over. Whenever India gets attention for something bad, like unchecked poverty or rape culture, people are poking their nose in private national matters.
So it was when Rihanna tweeted and when Greta Thunberg followed. So it has been with the constant graphic threats lobbed at Meena Harris, lawyer and niece to the Vice President of the United States, who has been vocal about the protests for months. All three women and many more have been intimidated over social media, even had their photos burned by Indian extremists. Recall the graphic threats directed at Georgia’s Secretary of State , among so many others (and many more) by Trump supporters unhappy with the results of November’s U.S. election, and the response: “It has gone too far.”
The kind of hate , misogyny, threats, abuse I have seen on my timeline in the last two days is something I have never witnessed before ( Given that i am immune to the worst possible trolling on social media). If this is not intimidation, I don’t know what is
— Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub) February 4, 2021
With the spike in awareness, India’s prime minister and government deployed the best method of controlling their own people: Bollywood celebrities. A handful of prominent actors shared a statement along with toothless messages about propaganda and unity (remember when Republicans used that same word to absolve a violent insurrection instigated by their party?). Kangana Ranaut kept it original as always, continuing her tirade of harassing Twitter users, denouncing the protest, and suggesting “eradication” of the farmers (she also called Rihanna a “porn singer” and a fool).
24-year-old Nodeep Kaur was arrested on Jan. 12 for supporting the protest and subsequently beaten and sexually assaulted in police custody. Activist Disha Ravi was jailed in February for sharing Thunberg’s protest toolkit in a Google doc. Kaur received bail on Feb. 26 (after it was denied in multiple courts) and Ravi around the same time. It sends a clear and deeply troubling message: that dissent will not be tolerated, will in fact be punished, in what is supposed to be the world’s largest democracy.
Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi, young female activists jailed for supporting the farmer protests in India, were granted bail. I want to believe it’s in part because so many people spoke out against the government’s silencing dissent. Please stay loud — this fight is far from over.
— Meena Harris (@meenaharris) February 26, 2021
And while both women were imprisoned (and many more protesters jailed, harmed, or dead), the world continued to watch, the audience growing. Late night hosts Lilly Singh and Trevor Noah made videos about the protests. Grassroots organizations such as the Sikh Coalition, Khalsa Aid, and Sikh Expo continue to spread awareness and collect donations supporting farmers on the ground.
It’s easy to detach from domestic affairs in distant countries, but the Indian farmers protest shows us that advocacy from far and wide makes a difference. In the U.S. we saw how criticism of a President and administration’s undemocratic actions spur action — from getting out the vote to inspiring others to run for office and eventually ushering in new leadership. There are those within the Indian government who recognize the magnitude of this movement and the human rights violations occurring. Kaur and Ravi’s freedom was hard-fought and overdue, but demonstrates the power of online support, hashtags, and awareness — which grow every day.