After the shocking violence and vandalism on Republic Day, farm groups went into a huddle and it appeared that the protests would lose momentum. But when the Uttar Pradesh Police sought to disperse protesters from Ghazipur, at Delhi’s borders, Bharatiya Kisan Union leader, Rakesh Tikait’s resistance and emotive appeal led to a renewal of the agitation.
The images of thousands of protesters, continuing to oppose the State for months, in a largely non-violent manner, lend themselves to a captivating narrative and evoke solidarity. Even those who believe that the farmers are wrong in their demands or have been maximalist during negotiations cannot but help admire the tenacity and determination of this mass movement.
This is the broad explanation for the range of international reactions to the farm protests. But this response cannot be understood in isolation.
The overwhelming tone and nature of the international media’s coverage of contentious domestic political issues reinforce a narrative that India is turning back on its democratic, secular, pluralist roots and its open and free society is no longer as open and as free.
The under-representation and exclusion of minorities from the power structure of the ruling party; instances of hate speech by members of organisations broadly associated with the ideological worldview of the ruling dispensation; and a set of laws and policies — from the effective abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the subsequent detention of leaders and crackdown on connectivity to the process to update the National Register of Citizens in Assam, which left out 1.9 million residents of the state, from the enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the Shaheen Bagh protests to the Delhi riots — have all fed into this perception that India is sliding back from its constitutional roots.
The recent international response to the farm protests has to be seen in this wider context, for in itself, the agitation may not have elicited a response except from Sikh members of the diaspora.
The problem, however, for the government is that irrespective of what it sees as the flaws in the liberal international narrative on India, this narrative is becoming more entrenched. If India were not a democracy, or if it did not care about its image as a responsible and rule-abiding member of the international community, which respected human rights internally, this may not have mattered — after all, there are a range of countries with a far worse record on civil liberties which continue to escape the same level of scrutiny.
The fact that there is a new administration in Washington, which will be far more amenable to the views of human rights groups as well as factor in international media coverage, adds to the challenge. Dismissing the narrative, therefore, is not an option.
The government, then, has a choice. It can feel that the only way to counter what it sees as mischievous propaganda is by doubling down and converting it into an instrument of nationalist mobilisation. This week, what appeared to be coordinated tweets from political leaders, ministers, and a range of Indian celebrities in defence of Indian sovereignty was an outcome of such a strategy. This may even be helpful domestically and put critics on a backfoot.
But it doesn’t help in countering the challenge posed by the perception that Indian democracy is in trouble. And that is why the most effective response is not by issuing a statement but by strengthening India’s democratic framework.
India has the right to take its own decisions, frame its own laws, and work according to its own nationally defined priorities. Its democratically elected government has the mandate to push legislative changes and reorient policies within the framework of law.
But at a time of global interconnectedness, there is bound to be enhanced scrutiny of its internal record. The focus should be to improve that record and communicate more effectively to the world.