Four layers of barricades, permanent cemented walls on highways, trenches, concertina wires and roads embedded with spikes – this is how New Delhi, the national capital of India is being fortified on its borders which separate it from the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Hordes of police and paramilitary personnel are manning these impregnable barricades round the clock.
All these measures are aimed at separating the people of New Delhi from the hundreds of thousands of farmers who have staged a sit-in protest since the first week of December, camping on the borders of the capital. The internet has been shut down at protest sites, even in parts of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Water supply has been cut and electricity supply stopped to force the protesters to leave. Journalists are not allowed to reach them. The police has refused access to a delegation of the opposition.
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Farmers have marched from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and other states to Delhi demanding the repeal of the three laws enacted by the government of India to regulate farming and activities related to agriculture. They were prevented from entering Delhi. Since then, they have been sitting there peacefully expecting the government to bow before their determination.
While the government claims the laws are urgently needed to reform the ailing farming sector, the farmers fear they will establish a legal regime, which would facilitate corporate takeover of farming and destroy farmers completely. They are asking the government to repeal the laws, as they were rushed through Parliament without any wider consultation, bulldozing the parliamentary deliberative process.
The first stirrings of the farmers’ discontent could be felt as early as September, but the government sat still, smugly assuming that since the opposition to the laws was visible only in Punjab and some pockets of Haryana, it could be ignored and would die down. But it started swelling and even the violent police crackdown did not disperse it.
That is why the government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) deployed its favourite approach to crushing dissent: Mobilising a majoritarian sentiment to deprecate minorities and bolster support for its faulty policies.
In the beginning, the agitation was dominated by farmers from Punjab, who are mostly Sikh. So the ruling party decided to vilify the movement by suggesting it is a conspiracy hatched by Khalistanis, elements demanding a separate homeland for Sikhs.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was indeed a militant movement active in India, fighting for an independent Khalistan and there still are some Sikh groups outside India who still cherish this dream. However, today this demand does not enjoy support among the Indian Sikhs.
Nevertheless, the BJP pressed its propaganda machinery into action telling its constituents, mostly Hindus, that the movement must be crushed as it is “anti-national” and is funded by Khalistanis from overseas.
Visible support from Muslim organisations that reached out to the protesting farmers was used to claim that “jihadis” are embedded in it. There were also claims the movement was led by Maoists. The mainstream media joined the smear campaign by broadcasting vicious propaganda against the movement.
The BJP has applied the same template to crush other dissident movements in recent years. The 2019-2020 protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which discriminates against the country’s Muslim minority, were maligned in the same manner. They were called “anti-national” and a jihadi-Maoist conspiracy against India.
This succeeded in creating widespread hatred against the Muslim-dominated protests. The hate campaign turned into violence in Delhi in February last year, resulting in the death of 53 people and massive destruction.
In the aftermath of the violence, the police launched criminal cases against the protesters, charging some of them under the draconian “anti-terror” law called the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). More than a dozen activists, most of them Muslim, are now languishing in jails as a result.
Similar developments have taken place with the farmers’ protests. An incident on January 26, in which a few thousand protesters entered the iconic Red Fort in New Delhi and planted a Sikh religious flag on one of the poles, has been used by the government to reinforce its propaganda that the movement was actually a Khalistani conspiracy to defame India.
The movement’s leaders condemned the incident, but the government slapped criminal cases against them under the dreaded UAPA and the police has initiated the process of withdrawing their passports. In addition, more than 100 protesters have been arrested.
Meanwhile, the government-led propaganda has been successful in invoking anti-Sikh hatred, as social media has seen a flood of anti-Sikh posts, some inciting violence by referring to the events of 1984. That year, thousands of Sikhs were killed after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by a Sikh guard.
While the farmers’ movement refuses to be browbeaten by threats of violence and its ranks are swelling across states, the ruling party is still confident that its hate campaign would cement its support base.
Last week, the government propaganda was turned up a notch after pop star Rihanna, environmental activist Greta Thunberg and other celebrities spoke out in support of the protesting farmers. As a result, there are now claims there is an international conspiracy, which the Sikhs are a part of. In a bizarre move, the Delhi police lodged a criminal case invoking the anti-sedition law against unknown people for creating disaffection against the Indian government.
Concerns expressed by foreign officials and legislators over the government’s handling of the peaceful protest have been ignored. Instead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated the Indian nation needs to be protected from “foreign destructive ideology”.
The mishandling of the farmers’ protests is not only damaging India’s reputation abroad, but it is also stirring trouble at home. The country is ravaged by deep divisions like never before, as the ruling party continues to use majoritarian politics to push through questionable policies.
This will have serious implication for the unity of the nation, inflicting wounds which would be difficult to heal. Psychological and physical violence is tearing communities apart and making it difficult to have a reasonable public conversation.
By creating perpetual chaos, the government hopes to fuel insecurity in its constituents and present itself as a saviour, offering them safety. This may help it sustain itself in power for now, but it will definitely destroy India as we knew it or wanted it to be.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.