As hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers charge ahead with their monthslong protests of new agricultural laws on the outskirts of New Delhi, the movement has spilled over to the internet.
Like on the ground where police have arrested at least eight journalists and dozens of demonstrators, the Indian government is attempting to silence dissent online.
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh described the situation to talk show host Lilly Singh on Tuesday, “farmers are just asking for their rights. By asking for their rights they’re being labelled as terrorists. They’re being considered disloyal to the country. There is a very violent and suppressive and oppressive climate created by the Indian state and by the police.”
Jagmeet and Lilly have been outspoken supporters of the Indian farmers, along with famous actors, comedians, authors, NBA and NFL players, Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and Meena Harris, niece of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who’ve all recently tweeted about the protests.
These tweets prompted an angry response from the highest levels of the Indian government.
“Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken,” said India’s Ministry of External Affairs in a statement. “The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”
The Indian government has also repeatedly demanded Twitter suspend more than 1,000 accounts that it claims are spreading misinformation about the protests. India threatened to jail Twitter employees there for up to seven years, BuzzFeed News reported.
Twitter said it did take action on more than 500 flagged accounts that violated its rules and restricted the visibility of hashtags containing what it deemed to be harmful content. However, the social media company refused to restrict tweets from journalists, media companies, activists and politicians.
“To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law,” Twitter said in a statement Wednesday. “We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter, and strongly believe that the tweets should flow.”
The protests began last November when predominantly Sikh farmers began a peaceful march from Punjab and Haryana states to the Indian capital to oppose the laws they say favour big farming corporations and will ruin their livelihood. The Indian government maintains the laws are necessary to modernize the country’s vast agricultural sector.
Tensions escalated on Jan. 26 in a violent clash between farmers and police that left one protester dead and hundreds injured.
Police also laid “baseless” charges that should be withdrawn, demanded Human Rights Watch. Police have erected concrete barriers and barbed wire and planted spikes around the capital city to prevent farmers from entering.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has intermittently cut off internet and phone service to the farmers’ camps to suppress protests — a move condemned by internet rights groups.
“Internet shutdowns cannot be used to prevent people from exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceful protest,” Internet Freedom Foundation said in a statement.
Canada’s large Sikh diaspora, with family ties to Punjab’s agriculture industry, has staged demonstrations throughout the winter. On the steps outside the B.C. legislature earlier this month, supporters lined up 200 pairs of traditional Punjabi shoes to represent the 200 farmers who’ve died during the protest, according to a farmers’ union.
The next week, supporters in Edmonton drove in a convoy waving signs in solidarity with Indian farmers.
“The world is now watching and that has caused extreme embarrassment for the Indian government,” said Jindi Singh, national director for Khalsa Aid Canada, a humanitarian organization supporting farmers on the front lines.
“We have to keep amplifying the story, trying to keep it in the media, putting pressure on our local politicians, to remind India of its human rights obligations to allow people to not only peacefully protest but also the freedom of movement.”
Jagmeet echoed this sentiment to Lilly.
“Public pressure is an incredibly powerful tool to help the farmers that are fighting for their rights to have that story told and also to raise awareness around the violence they’re facing,” Jagmeet said.
“A democracy can’t hold itself out to be a democracy if they’re going to meet peaceful protests with violence.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously described the situation as “concerning” and said Canada will always defend the right of peaceful protest.
However, the federal government appears now to be looking to India potentially to supply more vaccine doses.
When asked about Canada’s current relationship with India on Wednesday, Trudeau did not comment on the protests.
“We are going to continue to build on the strong relationship between Canada and India and ensure that we are looking out for our citizens while at the same time we are looking to recover the global economy and create opportunities for everyone,” Trudeau said.