he government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ended 2021 on a much less popular note than it started the year. But by no means has it laid down its arms, aided in no small part by the complete lack of a political opposition bearing the capacity to challenge its authority. The lack of consequences for the many human rights violations that had been committed and attributed to authorities and supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suggest as well that there will be few changes to the tried and tested tactics of arm-twisting and punishing those who are seen as threats. Neither is there any evidence to suggest an abandonment of the ideology that seeks to polarize and drive religious cleavages among India’s peoples.
However, the humiliating blow dealt by the farmers on the government last year does suggest that the Modi administration will be constrained to exercise caution in its dealings with the people. The regime has been forced to acknowledge that the greatest threat to its hold on power comes not from political opposition parties, but from public movements. And while it is difficult to predict how the trauma caused by the devastating second COVID-19 wave in India will manifest in the long run, it is safe to say that trust has been lost, and many will turn to self-reliance and community action rather than look to the government in times of emergency.
For India, 2021 was a year of great devastation, yet also one of great resilience and victories. While it was hit near mid-year by a merciless second wave of COVID-19, which took many lives and left millions of families in tatters, the experience also became a time of solidarity and public unity. Citizen groups acted in unison with civil societies, making available resources that ordinarily would have been provided by the government.
The resilience of the Indian people, however, was best shown by the farmers who protested the imposition of three new farm laws that they felt had been introduced with the express intention of deceiving them and putting them at an extreme disadvantage and handing over indiscriminate control of the agricultural sector to crony capitalists. The protests, which began in 2020, turned virtually all Delhi borders into protest sites for over a year, causing much international censure and condemnation by citizens at home and overseas.
Despite efforts to control media representations of the events by way of imposing media blackouts and installing satellite jammers at protest sites, powerful images of groups of farmers setting alight effigies of Modi and tycoons Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani made their way to international publications. Many noted that this muzzling of mainstream and social media by those in power is a relatively new phenomenon, applied to ensure projection of key personalities in a flattering light and the underplaying of questionable decisions. Frequent reports of channels being suspended, editors being arm-twisted into dropping stories, and journalists being threatened and occasionally harmed have led to India being ranked 142 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. This has prompted leading journalist Rajdeep Sardesai to observe, “A large section of the Indian media has become a lapdog, not a watchdog.”
Yet, in a political climate where most Indians refrain from upsetting the ruling party, the farmers persisted. As the movement grew and celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg tweeted in support of the protesters — only to be trolled mercilessly by the leadership and their supporters for allegedly “spreading propaganda” and “interfering in a nation’s internal matters” — state forces grew violent. State-initiated violence resulted in many hundreds dead. In one particularly horrific incident in a district in Uttar Pradesh, the son of the Union home minister of state indiscriminately mowed down a group of protesting farmers with his SUV, killing four. In retaliation, the farmers lynched four others, including BJP workers, bringing the incident’s death toll to eight.
But the angry farmers refused to vacate the protest sites for over a year, making it difficult for the government to justify allowing tens of thousands of people to remain on the streets. The protest became an international embarrassment for the government.
More importantly, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and polarized state, was slated to have elections in early 2022. The presence of masses of disgruntled farmers at protest sites situated at every border of the capital city of Delhi would not have boded well for a government seeking to maintain its stronghold there. The state of Punjab, which has often proven to be an electoral challenge for BJP, posited even bigger challenges due to its large Sikh and farmer population, many of whom belong to families that traditionally also have members enlisted in the armed forces.
This demographical detail might have affected the state’s decision to refrain from deploying the army to disperse the protesters. With its hand forced, electoral gains could not be compromised, and the government unconditionally retracted the controversial laws.
Hate and hubris
While the outcome of the farmer protest was largely a positive one — albeit at a high cost of human life — the same cannot be said for the state of the Muslim population in India, which continues to be marginalized, targeted, and discriminated against. The city of Gurgaon, known for its high rises, Fortune 500 company offices, and condominiums, saw communalism rear its ugly head again in 2021 when Hindutva forces disrupted the Friday prayers of the Muslim community in open parking lots. The Muslims were compelled to disband and remove themselves under the threat of violence for weeks in a row. In addition, instances of hate crimes against Muslims continued to rise, whether by way of cow vigilantism, pogroms, police brutalities, mob lynchings, or even harmful legislations like “love jihad” — all of which seek to subjugate the Muslim community.
The Hindu holy town of Haridwar brought the year to a close with a conference of Hindutva zealots, including BJP ministers openly calling for the genocide of Muslims, to the sound of thunderous applause and chanting by their supporters. Gregory Stanton, president of the U.S.-based Genocide Watch, was quick to flag these occurrences early this year. He warned India of an impending genocide against Muslims, and reminded the country’s leaders that incitement to genocide is an international crime, even as he noted the Indian government’s reluctance to condemn such hate speech.
Although expectations of harmony, peace, and unity had long been absent in the Indian consciousness, there did exist considerable public confidence in the government with regard to the management of the COVID-19 crisis. And so when the Delta variant struck India sometime in May last year, the people were expecting their elected leaders to step up and manage the crisis. Instead, they were abandoned by a leader who fell unnaturally silent as bodies began to pile up, forcing citizens to turn parking lots and public parks into crematoriums. “The government had no response strategy,” said former Union Minister Kapil Sibal. “Its hubris, complacency, and lack of foresight led us to the current predicament.”
By the first few weeks into the crisis, it became clear that government assistance would not be forthcoming. Almost every neighborhood formed its own networks that would enable it to access basic assistance without having to rely on government authorities. Civil societies and public groups stepped up, shouldering the responsibility of forming SOS networks that assisted desperate families with information about hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, medication, and even crematorium schedules.
Modi was heavily criticized for his “vaccine diplomacy,” the establishment of which had led him to export millions of doses before inoculating India’s own population. He refused to dip into the PMCares Fund that contained large donations by the Indian people toward fighting COVID-19. Indeed, the prime minister maintained a stoic silence until the wave passed, by which time unofficial sources estimate that five million lives had been lost.
Citizens step up
In the face of governance failures, weakened government institutions, and the loss of an independent media, civil society and citizen groups have emerged as the bulwark of public assistance, political resistance, and opposition. This was clearly seen during the Delta wave, when public groups and concerned citizens mobilized resources to help assuage fears and provide assistance.
We the People, a movement that has been characterized by the unification of a number of organizations, activists, and student leaders working collaboratively to oppose the harmful Citizenship Amendment Act, is just one of the many examples of people-led political resistance. But this has not come without a cost. The Modi government has sought to silence intellectuals, activists, lawyers, and even students who challenge harmful, divisive policies through the archaic Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Known more popularly as UAPA, the law has been freely exploited, resulting in an influx of young and old, educated Indians being imprisoned, often for years. Anjana Prakash, former Patna High Court judge, has remarked, “The UAPA over the years has degenerated into a lethal weapon to quell dissent … it is time for the government to redeem itself and repeal that UAPA in the national interest.”
In truth, the Pegasus Project exposé in 2021 revealed a further list of individuals that had been targeted, most of whom are dissenters, journalists, and activists who have been inimical to the BJP’s agenda. Journalist and author Ullekh NP comments, “The multiplicity of crimes committed by this government is truly shocking. Now data laws have also been thrown out along with respect for democratic rights.”
With the Modi administration’s reputation in shambles, much now depends on the ongoing Uttar Pradesh poll, which takes place from Feb. 10 to March 7. The reelection of Yogi Adityanath, a staunch Hindutva leader, could well serve as a booster shot, helping the government regain some of its lost footing.
But it is important to recognize that democracy does not disappear between elections. The tools of peaceful protest, electoral responsibility, and dissent are integral to this machinery, which, when exercised, have proven to execute monumental changes.
In India, civil society and public groups have emerged as defenders of humanitarian and democratic ideals, challenging compromised government institutions and governance apparatuses. As we move forward, reliance on these groups and individuals to keep the leadership honest will only grow. Yes, there are darker turns in these woods that we have been taught to expect, but as Egyptian internet activist Wael Ghonim once said, “The power of the people is much stronger than the people in power.” ●
Insiyah Vahanvaty is a sociopolitical writer and editor. She has written extensively on human rights, hate politics, gender, and democracy.