NEW DELHI: The mainstream and social media have come under unparalleled attacks from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party as farmers camp out on the outskirts of the Indian capital, demonstrating against new agriculture laws they claim would devastate their earnings.
Critics say the huge protests have been used to intensify a ban on freedom of expression, arrest journalists and freeze Twitter accounts.
Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a civil rights advocacy organization, said it was a very chilling trend for the press.
Activists, journalists and media watchdogs hurried to criticise Twitter, which said it operated upon an Indian authority’s legitimate legal order.
On Monday, hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts were deleted, including those of news websites, activists and a farmers’ union. Many have since been repaired, like The Caravan.
In the past two weeks, at least nine journalists have been suspected of reporting the demonstrations offline.
The cause for the clampdown was the death of a protester, Navneet Singh, when on January 26, after a group of farmers veered from a negotiated protest route and stormed New Delhi’s Red Fort of the 17th century, the mainly peaceful protests turned violent. In the clashes, hundreds of police and farmers were wounded.
On Friday, thousands of farmers in a politically critical Indian state protested against new agricultural regulations, signalling increasing support for a month-long drive to scrap government reforms.
Tens of thousands of farmers have been camped out on the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi, for more than two months, furious at what they see as legislation that favours private buyers at the detriment of producers, calling for the revocation of laws adopted in September.
Most of the initial support for the protests came from rice and wheat growers in northern India, particularly from the opposition-ruled Punjab state. But more than 10,000 farmers from across the political and religious spectrum gathered in Uttar Pradesh state on Friday to demonstrate their support for the protests in a sign of a growing challenge to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Ramkumar Choudhary, a local leader from the Bagpat district, said that if the government rolled back the rules, thousands more would travel to Delhi.
“So far, only 1% of people have moved out of the villages. “The day we send 50 percent of our people to Delhi, there will be no place to move,” he said after addressing the crowd of Hindu and Muslim farmers in the village of Bhainswal.
Devender Singh, a sugarcane farmer who attended the protest, said there was popular support for the unrest.
“Farmers are unable to make ends meet,” he said, “100 percent of farmers from all communities are joining the protest.” Hundreds of police, mostly armed and wearing riot gear, stood by, but there was no trouble.