During the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enacted three agricultural reform laws that adversely impacted the livelihood of Indian farmers. The three laws weakened restrictions that have protected Indian farmers from the free market for decades and consequently left them vulnerable to big corporations that would ultimately destroy their way of life. In response, farmers tenaciously protested against these laws. The farmers faced government opposition and police brutality as a result. This article will dissect the egregious human rights violations that occurred in the wake of the protests. Primarily, this article addresses the history and trajectory of political corruption in India that led up to this moment in time and shaped the way that the country handled the Farmers’ Protest.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in September 2020, the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), succeeded in passing three agricultural reform laws. The measures were introduced under the guise that they would unshackle farmers and help them secure better prices for their crops by allowing them to directly sell their produce to big buyers outside of the government-regulated wholesale markets.1 Hundreds of thousands of farmers have since argued against these reform laws because the fine print reveals that this legislation will hurt their livelihood, leave them with no bargaining power against big private retailers, and put them at risk of losing their businesses and land to big corporations.2 Indian farmers responded to the laws by tenaciously protesting for their very right to live, while the government and police forces retaliated and attempted to strip away their human rights.3
The merit of these laws is a topic that is widely researched and studied by many economists. While some assert that the reforms are necessary, others have criticized the manner in which the laws were imposed, citing a parliamentary maneuver that was used to push the reforms to the upper house of parliament within a questionably short time frame.4 Additionally, there was reportedly little to no consultation with farmers, those who are most directly impacted by these laws.5 The dynamics of the Indian Parliament and the motives behind the BJP’s push to implement these laws has been attributed to the rise of right-wing authoritarianism in the country’s recent years.6
India has plummeted in democracy metrics across the board, including the Press Freedom Index, where it now ranks 142 of 180 countries.7 The Human Freedom Index ranks India at 111 of 162 countries; notably, just 4 ahead of Russia.8 In September 2020, human rights group Amnesty International ceased operations in India following sustained assaults from the Indian government.9 These combined developments have greatly contributed to the gross violence inflicted upon peaceful farmers protesting these measures at the hands of Indian police.10
The events arising from the agricultural reform legislation are especially agonizing for Sikh farmers as they have endured a painful history in India. Beginning in June 1984, following a misinformation campaign, the Indian government launched a series of attacks that resulted in egregious human rights abuses.11 This included the state-sponsored assaults on Sikhs following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984 and the Indian government’s utilization of their military to assault Darbar Sahib of Amritsar, more commonly known as the Golden Temple and the preeminent spiritual site of the Sikh faith.12 The assassination sparked four days of riots in which more than 8000 Sikhs were killed in revenge attacks.13 In the decade that followed, a campaign of extra-judicial killings that targeted Sikhs continued, which resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths.14 To this day, the government of India has neither acknowledged nor apologized for this spree of violence, yet it remains a visceral memory for many Indians, especially Punjabi Sikhs.15 Along with the rise of the Hindu Nationalist BJP led by current Prime Minister Modi, hate crimes towards Sikhs in the country—the demographic which accounts for the largest number of farmers in India—have also risen.16
The main occupation for Sikhs in India has historically been agriculture.17 The farming sector in India is made up of approximately sixteen million Sikhs.18 This number also makes up nearly sixty percent of the state of Punjab’s population, the state which is home to the majority of Sikhs in India.19 Given these demographics, the farming legislation disproportionately targets India’s Sikh population. It is not unreasonable to think that this attack on India’s largest Sikh population was partially motivated by the discriminatory ideas of Hindu-Indian nationalism that India was founded upon when it achieved independence in 1947.20 Farmers and allies of all faiths and backgrounds responded by protesting against the agricultural reform legislation.21 By standing together they are not only resisting unfair legal reforms, but they are also fighting for India’s democratic and secular character.
The Indian Government under Prime Minister Modi is experiencing a dangerous regression in free speech rights in pursuit of its Hindu nationalist agenda. The peaceful farmer protesters, largely led by Sikhs, faced police brutality and baseless criminal charges.22 Journalists and politicians were arrested and refused bail for simply speaking out about farmers who have been killed by police in the wake of these protests.23 The central government shut down mobile internet services at several protest sites and also authorized some states to suspend mobile internet services to prevent the spread of disturbing imagery of police violence against peaceful protestors through the global web.24 Under international human rights law, specifically the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), India has an obligation to ensure that such restrictions and shutdowns of the internet as well as other forms of communication are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern.25 Article 19 of the ICCPR creates a duty of obligation for Indian officials to refrain from using broad shutdowns to curtail the flow of information or to harm people’s ability to freely assemble to express political views, a duty which the Indian government violated through its response to the Farmers’ Protests.26
The BJP has cited the Khalistani agenda, a Punjabi Sikh separationist movement from the 1970s and 1980s, to discredit the Farmers’ Protests because it opposes their Hindu nationalist movement.27 The government has accordingly taken action against humanitarian organizations and individuals that provided aid at protest sites.28 Indian police forces launched an investigation into organizations like Khalsa Aid, a United Kingdom-based and internationally recognized organization that provides humanitarian aid to global communities, for attempting to provide aid to protesting farmers.29 Police officers even physically disrupted and assaulted doctors that administered medical aid at protest sites.30 The excessive force used against protesters, which includes assaults, tear gas deployed against protesters, and barbed wire placed around protest camps, is a culmination of the rise of right-wing authoritarianism in India, accompanied by the leading Hindu nationalist political agenda against Sikhs.31
This article discusses the challenges that farmers have faced in India as a result of the recent agricultural reform legislation. Part II(A) provides context for the authoritarian rise of Prime Minister Modi. Parts II(B) and II(C) provide further background on the rise of Hindu nationalism and ethnic democracy in India. Parts III(A) and III(B) critique the merit of the agricultural reform laws and dissect the egregious human rights violations that have occurred in the wake of the protests. Part III(C) argues that India violated numerous articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its own Constitution as a result of the government’s response to the protests. Finally, part IV concludes by reasserting that the country’s history of political corruption has led up to and shaped this moment in time, but that there is still hope for India’s future.
II. Historical Background Shaping the Current Conflict
A. The Authoritarian Rise of Modi and His Hindu Nationalist Campaign
Authoritarian rule is rooted in the centralization of power and the deprivation of the people’s personal freedoms.32 History has revealed that authoritarian regimes tend to rise at times of uncertainty and rapid change. For example, in Hungary, Viktor Mihály Orbán achieved victory in the 2010 election on the back of the global recession in 2008 through his promise of tough Orbanomic economic policies, a name derived from the Hungarian Prime Minister’s name himself.33 The Orbanomics regime adopted a range of unorthodox economic policies exemplified by the so-called “mega-taxes” that were presented to the public as the only means of achieving two key objectives that were so greatly needed at the time in Hungary: reducing Hungary’s inflated debt burden and rebalancing the ratio between foreign and Hungarian capital.34 The rise of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed a similar formula.35
Modi inherited an economy from former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that was encrusted in corruption and caused Indian citizens to distrust their government.36 The 2G Spectrum Scam that occurred under Manmohan Singh is said to be the biggest scam in the history of independent India, and Time Magazine called it the “second biggest instance of the abuse of executive power,” just below Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.37 India is divided into various telecommunication zones with corresponding zonal licenses, and in 2008, 122 new 2G licenses were granted to telecom companies on a first-come, first-served basis.38 In 2010, the supreme auditing body of India, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), issued a report revealing that 2G licenses had been issued to telecom operators at throwaway prices causing a deficit of Rs 1.76 lakh crore, the equivalent of forty billion U.S. dollars.39 Moreover, the licenses were issued fraudulently to ineligible applicants who had submitted fictitious documents and used fraudulent means of obtaining the licenses and access to Spectrum.40 Many of the fraudulent license owners then went on to sell the licenses to Indian companies at high premiums.41 In a free and fair bidding process, these profits should have been accrued to the public exchequer.42 The face of the scam was then telecom minister A. Raja, who allegedly intentionally evaded the auction rules to benefit selective telecom players.43
Modi was elected in 2014 with a central platform that promoted the eradication of corruption from the previous administration.44 His platform was symbolized through his highly advertised “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” campaign depicting imagery of him cleaning litter from the cities and villages of India.45 His platform encouraged demonetization to clean the corrupt economy of undeclared currency, tax evaders, and counterfeit notes that were allegedly funding terrorists.46 Through his declaration of demonetization as the primary strategy, Modi drew a line between anti-national elements and “honest, hardworking people.”47 The overarching, ambitious goal was to create common enemies, in that anything or anyone who did not fit into his vision of a perfect and unified India was cast as an enemy.48 This “other” quickly expanded from tax evaders, to encompassing individuals that were painted in an anti-national image, including Muslims and Sikhs.49 Thus, the rise of Hindu Nationalism under Modi’s administration began.
While Modi promised to heal the nation’s economy, India’s economic growth rate continued to decline under his cabinet. His promise of expanding the job market remains largely unfulfilled.50 His demonetization efforts to take the majority of banknotes out of circulation rendered many families’ life savings valueless and created financial hardship for most of the nation.51 To compensate for his failed demonetization efforts, Modi and his followers ramped up the “Hindutva,” also known as the Hindu Nationalism campaign.52 It began with false accusations that Muslim men were impregnating Hindu women to alter India’s demographic balance.53 Next came the “cow protection” public lynching of Muslim men who were falsely accused of eating beef in a country where cows are sacred to the people and where cow slaughter is banned in several states.54 In 2017, Modi appointed Hindu radical priest Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state.55 The following year, he initiated the most serious armed combat with Muslim-majority Pakistan in two decades.56
Human rights violations stemming from a Hindu nationalist agenda have been a hallmark of Modi’s entire political career. He is a lifelong member of the RSS, a right-wing paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization which seeks to turn India into a Hindutva state.57 In late 2001, Modi came into power as the state of Gujarat’s Chief Minister.58 Shortly after in February 2002, a train filled with Hindu pilgrims traveling to Gujarat stopped in the town of Godhra, which is forty percent Muslim and prone to religious violence.59 The train caught on fire, killing fifty-nine passengers, and Modi, shortly after, endorsed a widespread anti-Muslim strike citing Muslims as the cause of the tragic fire.60 In 2005, an Indian government investigation discovered that the fire was entirely an accident and not an act of religious violence by Muslims, as portrayed by the media.61 As a result of the investigation into Modi’s response to the train fire that was criticized as stoking anti-Muslim sentiment, ninety-four people were put on trial, thirty-one were convicted, and eleven were sentenced to death.62 In 2005, Modi was banned from entering the United States and Europe due to his involvement in the mass murders of 2000 people—who were mostly Muslim—during the 2002 Gujarat pogroms which resulted from Modi’s response to the train fire as the state’s Chief Minister.63 The decision cited the Indian National Human Rights Commission Report, which stated that there was a “comprehensive failure on the part of the state government to control the persistent violation of rights to life, liberty, equality, and dignity of the people of the state.”64
B. History Repeats Itself: The 1984 Sikh Genocide
The Hindu Nationalist campaign under Modi is not new to the country. There was similar nationalist rhetoric spread following the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.65 In the early 1980s, the armed Punjabi separatist Khalistan movement sought independence from India.66 Militant religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale sought refuge within the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, the holiest of Sikh shrines, to evade arrest.67 Upon realization of where he was hiding, Prime Minister India Gandhi ordered “Operation Blue Star” and deployed troops to the Golden Temple.68 The troops seized and attacked the Temple, ultimately causing serious damage to the shrine and killing hundreds of people, including innocent religious pilgrims.69 Sikhs worldwide fearfully interpreted this military action as an assault on the Sikh religion.70 In response, two of Prime Minister Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards murdered her as an act of revenge.71 Following her assassination, anti-Sikh mobs—instigated by Congress party leaders—went on a violent rampage against Sikhs in several major cities across the country.72
Authorities blamed every incident of mass communal violence against Sikhs on a spontaneous public reaction and refused to arrest any perpetrators.73 On many occasions, the police even took part in violence against Sikhs.74 Perpetrators armed themselves with iron rods, knives, and combustible materials such as petrol and diesel as they entered Sikh neighborhoods, attacking and killing Sikhs indiscriminately.75 In the aftermath of the violence, the government reported that at least 20,000 people fled the country in fear of their lives.76 To this day, there is no actual confirmed number of deaths resulting from these riots. However, it is estimated that at least 17,000 Sikhs lost their lives due to the targeted attacks.77
In 2011, Human Rights Watch reported the Indian government had yet to prosecute those responsible for the mass killings of Sikhs in the 1980s.78 According to the 2011 WikiLeaks cable leaks, the United States investigated the riots and concluded that the Indian National Congress was complicit in the riots.79 The United States government referred to the involvement in the riots as “opportunism” and “hate” by the Indian Congress towards Sikhs.80 In December 2018, thirty-four years after the initial riots in 1984, the first high-profile conviction occurred with the arrest of Congress leader Sajjan Kumar.81 Today, only thirty people in total have faced convictions for the mass violence and deaths that occurred towards Sikhs.82 The lack of accountability and egregious failure of the Indian government to prosecute the perpetrators most responsible for the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 has resulted in the Modi-controlled country becoming more predisposed and vulnerable to communal violence today, as portrayed through the nation’s history.
C. Ethnic Democracy on the Rise in India
India’s constitution defines the country as a “secular” nation. About 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people are Hindus, while millions of constituents identify themselves as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains.83 However, the Hindutva campaign aims to reform the Indian legislature to contain language from the Hindu religion and to convert India into a unified Hindu state.
Hindu nationalism has had dangerous consequences related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Hindu nationalists were quick to link the virus to Muslims and invented the conspiracy theory of “coronajihad,” targeting hate speech and disinformation towards Muslims.84 As a result, Muslims were beaten down in the streets, denied hospital beds, and Muslim healthcare workers were ostracized.85
The Prime Minister and his elected officials’ Hindutva agenda also seeped into Indian policing, with widespread reports of disproportionate police abuse towards Muslims and Sikhs.²¹ One prime example is the February 2020 attacks of communal violence in Delhi that killed fifty-three people, forty of whom were Muslim.86 Despite allegations that BJP leaders incited the violence and police officials were complicit in the attacks, there was no credible and impartial investigation into these authorities.87 Rather, authorities targeted activists and protest organizers that spoke out against political corruption.88 Comparably, authorities responded to the farmers’ protests by vilifying minority Sikh protesters and opening investigations into their alleged affiliation with separatist groups.89
III. Political Corruption and Egregious Human Rights Violations by Indian Government Upon Farmers
Not only did Modi’s demonetization scheme fail to fulfill his promise of repairing India’s economy, but it also ruined the prospects of hundreds of thousands of farmers and small business owners—the sectors that relied most heavily on cash transactions. Things took an even darker turn for the lives of Indian farmers when three agricultural reform laws passed in September 2020: The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Act, the Farmers’ Empowerment and Protection Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities Act (collectively “the Acts”).90 This section will dissect and critique the merit of these agricultural reform laws, evaluate the egregious human rights violations that Indian officials have committed in response to farmers protesting these laws, and argue that the country’s history of political corruption has had a significant impact on the way that the protests were handled.
A. India’s Agricultural Reform Laws Have Unfounded Merit and Failed to Satisfy Promises Made to Farmers
At the height of the pandemic in India in June 2020, the Indian Government promulgated three agricultural reform laws in response to a growing concern over a collapse of the economy and the spread of the COVID-19 virus.91 All three reform laws collectively represented a fundamental reorientation of the existing regulatory framework surrounding agricultural marketing in the country.92 Each of the agricultural reform laws deals with a different aspect of regulating agricultural marketing, but together they were intended to create a unified national market that would connect agricultural supply chain actors directly to farmers in to reduce traditional reliance on other intermediaries.93
A mere three months later in September 2020, the ordinances were brought to Indian Parliament to be discussed as legislative bills, which were then approved and passed in the same month.94 Critics argue that Indian Parliament blatantly disregarded standard parliamentary procedure by passing the bills as quickly as they did with minimal discussion, amidst a global pandemic.95 The Indian Parliament also notably failed to highlight any potential ramifications of the bills in their discussion.96 Critics further argue that the Indian government failed to utilize the parliamentary discussion as an opportunity to clarify its vision to Indian citizens for promulgating the bills.97 Rather, the bills passed without any clear communication to the public about what consequences they would later have.98
From the outside looking in, it would appear as though the Indian government took advantage of its population’s high illiteracy rate with its suspicious parliamentary maneuver when it passed bills that contained complex legalese with little to no discussion. The three bills amount to about 25 pages in fine print and complex legalese that a majority of the Indian population would have great difficulty understanding. According to a recent report published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, India has the highest adult illiteracy rate in the world.99 There are 287 million illiterate adults in India, accounting for 37% of the illiterate population in the entire world.100 A significant portion of India’s illiterate population resides in rural areas, especially encompassing its agricultural communities and those that would most directly be impacted by the agricultural reform laws.101 Agriculture accounts for an estimated 18% of India’s GDP and employs more than half of the country’s workers; however, agricultural communities are among those most deprived of resources in the nation.102 Education continues to be seen as a luxury that cannot be attained by farming families due to financial hardships.103 Further, according to recent figures from India’s Ministry of Agriculture, poor living conditions in rural areas have been viewed as the primary contributing factor for thousands of Indian farmer suicides in recent years.104
An estimated 126 million Indians are small farmers who were directly impacted by the agricultural reform laws.105 The first of the three bills, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Act, relaxes restrictions governing the purchase and sale of farm produce.106 The second bill, the Essential Commodities Act, relaxes restrictions on stocking.107 The third of the bills, the Farmers’ Empowerment and Protection Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, introduces a dedicated legislation to enable contract farming based on written agreements.108 On their face, and especially to illiterate farmers that had no choice but to hear simplified breakdowns of the bills, the bills do not appear very troublesome to farming communities. Modi’s cabinet attempted to convince concerned farmers that the bills would be beneficial by describing them as a vehicle that would enable private individuals to invest in agricultural food supply chains more easily.109 The pitch given to farmers was that this will lead to gains in efficiency downstream along the supply chain that will be passed on to farmers in the form of higher profits.110 However, the three bills need to be dissected as a collective to get to the root of why they are in reality harmful to the livelihood of Indian farmers.
Prior to the introduction of these three bills, agricultural trade in India was primarily regulated under the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Acts.111 These acts were mainly introduced in the 1960s with the primary goal of ensuring that farmers had access to organized markets.112 They were designed to be a “democratic, decentralised system with physical auctions as the bases of price discovery and licensing of traders as a way to ensure payment” to farmers.113 The Acts mandated that certain agricultural commodities be purchased through government-regulated markets, otherwise known as “mandis,” with designated commissions and marketing fees.114 Traders and intermediaries were required to have a license issued by the APMC to operate in these mandis.115 The mandis had the benefit of oversight by the government to minimize potential risks of exploitation of farmers by traders and intermediaries.116 While the APMC Acts were designed to protect the interests of farmers, they actually rendered farmers dependent on intermediaries and commission agents, who often left farmers with little to no bargaining power and reduced profit margins.117
Beginning in 1991, India embarked on a mission to liberalize its economy, part of which included reforming the APMC Acts.118 Critics felt that the Acts compromised farmers in favor of trading middlemen and advocated for more private sector participation in agricultural trade.119 In 2000, India released a National Agricultural Policy document, which stated that “private sector participation will be promoted through contract farming and land leasing arrangements to allow accelerated technology transfer, capital inflow, and assured market for crop production.”120 With this policy, India’s vision for agriculture shifted to allow private individuals access to the agricultural market.121 This would later set the stage for the three farming reform bills that Modi’s administration passed in 2020, which represented a culmination of a prolonged effort to change the regulatory environment of agricultural markets.
Collectively, the three bills aim to reduce barriers that agricultural food chain supply actors face in connecting with farmers by reducing traditional reliance on the APMC-based intermediaries and by creating a single unified national market.122 While all three bills are touted as focusing directly on farmer welfare, the bills overwhelmingly rely on supply chain actors to take advantage of reduced market regulation.
The first bill, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Act, promised to create “an ecosystem where farmers and traders enjoy freedom of choice,” where there are “competitive alternative trading channels” that “promote efficient, transparent and barrier-free inter-State and intra-State outside APMC.”123 This bill removed previous restrictions on corporate land-buying and commodity stockpiling, and thus allowed businesses to bypass government-regulated markets. Consequently, this reform removed any protections that farmers previously had under the APMC acts against the market and eliminated government subsidies that enabled farmers to survive the turbulent market.124 To put it into a global perspective, almost all farming around the world is subsidized in one form or another.125 Indian farmers worried that they would be forced into bankruptcy and lose their land as a direct result of this bill.126 They feared that their traditional farming way of life and only means of income would disappear and be replaced with large, corporate-owned farms that would use mass commercial pesticides and cause permanent, irreparable environmental damage.127
The second bill, the Essential Commodities Act, generated comparatively less controversy than the other two bills. It created transparent rule-based price triggers that attempted to remove the unpredictability in notifying stock limits.128 However, the restriction would only be deployed under “exceptional circumstances which may include war, famine, extraordinary price rise and natural calamity of grave nature.”129 The bill suggests that for horticulture produce, stocking limits will only be invoked if there is a 100% retail price increase, using a base price.130 Critics believe that this number is too high for this bill to ever be deemed relevant and essentially rendered this amendment meaningless.131
The third bill, the Farmer (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, is generally referred to as the “Contract Farming Bill.”132 The bill allows private traders to engage with farmers via written contracts if they so choose, but it removes the prior mandate for a written agreement.133 The goal is to allow parties in the agricultural market to undertake written contracts of their own free will and outside the purview of any governmental agency.134 The issue point of this bill is that if a company or private trader were to violate the terms of the contract, farmers would be unable to enforce it, which ultimately leaves them vulnerable to becoming victims of fraud. This bill also stripped away farmers’ rights to take any dispute with traders to court, and instead mandates that disputes be arbitrated by a local government official.135 Long before Modi’s administration, there was already a long, documented history of political corruption in India.136 Farmers feared their concerns would fall on deaf ears because there are many corrupt local government officials who have a reputation of being paid by big corporations—the very corporations that strive to defraud and dispossess farmers of their land.137
The bleak economic outlook for the future of India’s farmers has contributed to psychological degradation in the country. According to recent data released by Indian government, more than 10,000 people in the agricultural sector in India committed suicide in 2020 alone.138 However, including the undocumented cases of suicide, the number of farmer suicides since the agricultural reform bills passed is projected to be much larger.139 Former Indian Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda weighed in on the issue by justifying farmers’ responses to the bills and criticizing the manner in which they were pushed through parliament.140 Other critics, including Sudha Naranayanan, Associate Professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, have stated their concern that these bills may be the start of an “irreversible withdrawal of the state from a critical sector in the economy, paving an easy path for big business.”141 However, the Indian government maintains that those who object to these bills should be viewed as enemies of the country because they are obstructing India from economic progress.142 Accordingly, Modi held a press conference to urge Indian citizens not to listen to the concerns of farmers because their concerns are rooted in fake news and misinformation spread by opponents of Modi’s political party.143
Perhaps a driving factor for why the agricultural reform bills generated so much anxiety in both opponents and proponents of the bills is not only the fact that the language of the bills themselves is intentionally confusing in nature, but also because so much was left unsaid by the Indian government regarding the consequential impact of the bills. Legislative reforms in marketing, especially those concerning deregulation and withdrawn intervention of the state, need to be situated within a larger context of state intervention. As such, it is necessary that there be a clear articulation to the public of the intended trajectory of the new policies. In the case at point regarding how the Indian government handled the promulgation of these agricultural reform bills, there has never been any clarity provided to the general public. Instead, Modi and his cabinet insisted that the citizens of India should have faith in their government and that all should blindly believe that the bills will boost the economy of the entire nation.144 While the intended trajectory of these policies will certainly benefit parties at the top of the supply chain and big businesses, they will leave Indian farmers—the backbone of the largest industry of the nation—penniless and powerless.
B. Police Perpetuate Unjust Violence Upon Peaceful Protesters
When the Indian government passed the Acts in September 2020, farmers began to protest in the northernmost state of Punjab, where farm unions are stronger than in the rest of the country.145 Initially, the protests targeted big businesses, whom the farmers knew the agricultural reform laws would favor.146 Members of the farm unions blocked all railroads in the state, stopped collection of toll taxes on the highways, and blocked the corporate-owned gas stations, shopping malls, and warehouses in the state.147 When the government failed to respond to the farmers’ concerns, activist farmers in Punjab and Haryana responded by issuing the “Delhi Chalo” call, meaning “onwards to Delhi,” in November 2020.148 Hundreds of thousands of farmers all across India marched to Delhi in protest of the agricultural reform laws.149 While the farmers were peaceful in their protest measures, they were immediately, and almost unexpectedly, met with police and military forces who indiscriminately deployed tear gas and water cannons to combat the protesters’ progress and freeze their movement.150 Despite the physical assault protesters were met with, Punjab farmers persisted and held langars (communal eating in accordance with the Sikh faith) for all who protested and even for the police officers camped at protest sites.151 It was a beautiful gesture of openness and inclusivity and an insight into the kind hearts of the farmers who were simply fighting for their livelihoods.
Soon, farmers from other states, including Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, began to join in on the farmers’ protests.152 On November 26, 2020, over 250 million individuals participated in a nation-wide strike against the reforms in solidarity with protesting farmers, causing several states across the country to shut down.153 The farmer’s protest in India during this time was recorded as one of the largest protests in human history.154 Throughout the duration of the protests, there were anywhere from 50,000 and all the way up to 700,000 people camped out at a time at protest sites.155 One of the main slogans heard at these protests was “Kisan Mazdoor Ekta Zindabad,” which translates to “Long Live Farmer-Worker Unity.”156 Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh farmers all united for this cause, negating the right-wing BJP’s divisive strategies to divide Indian society along lines of religion under a Hindu-nationalist agenda.
The Indian government responded by promoting the agricultural reform bills on mainstream media and by framing the protesting farmers’ efforts as “anti-national” and alleging that farmers were seeking a separatist movement.157 Farmers attempted to combat the government’s efforts to paint their protest negatively by reporting daily imagery from the grounds of the protest sites onto social media, popularized by the slogan “No Farmers, No Food, No Future.”158 This sparked global attention to the cause, and various human rights organizations began to document, many reportedly directly through their social media channels, the human rights abuses suffered by the protesting farmers at the hands of police, military, and even government officials.159
Several journalists were charged with sedition, misreporting, and inciting riots after reporting from the ground the egregious human rights violations they witnessed at the farmer protests.160 Mandeep Punia, a journalist for The Caravan, was arrested in January 2021 shortly after he reported during a Facebook live session that the ruling BJP sent activists to attack protesting farmers.161 He was charged with obstructing the police and inciting violence.162 Then, in February 2021, thousands of Twitter accounts were suspended, including those belonging to news websites, activists, and celebrities, after the Indian government stated that users were posting content that was inciting violence due to the use of the hashtag #FarmersProtests.163
The protests continued for long months throughout 2021, despite a second global wave of the pandemic, scorching summer heat, and monsoon floods.164 The protest sites were self-sufficient. Protesters lived in reinforced tents and stocked food grown in their own villages.165 Despite gradual media coverage withdrawal and continued backlash from police, the farmers tenaciously continued their fight.166
The protest sites eerily resembled warzones.167 The police erected metal and wire barricading, strewed iron nails on roads leading to protest sites, blocked access to portable toilets constructed by the farmers themselves, and prohibited street cleaners from clearing the growing mounds of garbage, which led to public concern about the spread of infectious diseases.168 Internet services were repeatedly suspended surrounding major protest sites.169 Farmers say that more than 100 protesters went missing since January 2021 due to draconian laws like sedition and the use of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to clampdown on protesters.170 While no official number has been reported, it is estimated that over 700 people died over the course of these protests.171
On November 19, 2021, fourteen long months after the protests initially began, Modi finally announced the unconditional repeal of the draconian farm bills.172 However, the distrust in the government had become so severe at that point that farmers continued their protests for an additional twenty-two days following the announcement.173 The farmers referred to their withdrawal from protest as only a suspension because their concern over a minimum support price for their crops across the country remained pending.174 The government promised to form a committee to investigate the matter, but depending on how the investigation goes, farmers vowed they will pick up protests again if necessary.175 While the Indian Parliament has now issued a written guarantee of its withdrawal of the farm bills, the farmers’ victory did not come free of sacrifice: many lost their lives and far more experienced numerous human rights violations by government officials.
C. The Indian Government Violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles of Its Own Constitution with Its Response to Protesting Farmers
In September 2020, right before enacting the agricultural reform measures, India reinforced its stance on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by issuing a joint statement with the United States recognizing the many differences in national traditions and reaffirming fundamental freedoms and rights for all.176 In general, the UDHR outlines basic human rights and freedoms including the right to freedom from torture, the right to free speech, the right to a fair trial, and the right to live in freedom and safety.177 The UDHR also includes various civil and political rights including the rights to life, liberty, and privacy.178 Further rights that are protected under the UDHR include the right to form groups and organize peaceful meetings, as well as protections for journalists and social and political activists and their work.179
The United Nations officially adopted the UDHR in 1948, and India contributed significantly to its content.180 The UDHR is characterized as one of the world’s greatest living documents and the “common language of humanity.”181 In the decades following the adoption of the UDHR, the Indian National Congress expressed its human rights concerns regarding India’s struggle for freedom.182 The Indian National Congress sought for a global governing body that would eradicate colonialism and achieve the colonized people’s right to self-determination.183 India succeeded in challenging the “sovereignty” clause of the U.N. Charter by having a resolution passed that sought to censure South Africa for its racist treatment of Indians living in the country.184 This victory opened up a new paradigm, where countries could no longer hide behind national borders and continue to violate human rights without facing a global challenge posed by the United Nations.185 Given India’s history of advocating for the UDHR, it is incredibly disheartening to witness the human rights violations that occurred in the wake of the farmers’ protests.
Article 3 of the UDHR specifically affirms the right to life and to live in freedom and safety.186 The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) has documented India’s violation of Article 3 of the UDHR since as early as 2019 when it released a forty-three page report calling on India to stop human rights violations in Kashmir.187 The report explicitly detailed civilian killings caused by excessive force.188 These violations in Kashmir occurred as a result of Indian authorities imposing harsh and discriminatory restrictions on the Muslim-majority state following India’s revocation of the state’s constitutional status on August 5, 2019.189 This anti-Muslim act was arguably a culmination of Modi’s efforts to unify India through a Hindu nationalist regime. India again violated Article 3 of the UDHR in its handling of the farmers’ protests, and this time with a large percentage of the violence occurring in the Sikh dominated state of Punjab.190
The total number of deaths that have occurred since the protests began in 2020 as a result of excessive military, police, and even civilian force remains unknown because many protesters have gone missing.191 Families of protesting farmers allege that over 100 protesters have disappeared throughout the course of the long running protests.192 In October 2021, as many as 9 peaceful protesters were killed in one day when a civilian allegedly drove his car over the protesters with intent to cause harm.193 While no concrete number of reported deaths exists due to governmental attempts to conceal its monumental failures in handling the protests, the estimated reported number today exceeds 700.194
Tens of thousands of protesting farmers left their homes, in many cases hundreds of miles away, to remain camped at the protest sites until their voices were heard.195 They slept in make-shift tents, under tractors, and in tractor trolleys throughout the coldest winter in Delhi’s recorded history.196 A large portion of these protesters included women, children, and the elderly, many of whom succumbed to injuries and bitter conditions as they were surrounded by barbed wire, barricades, spikes, and police and paramilitary officers.197 In February 2021, the Deol Foundation released a human rights report on Indian farmers and made a plea to the United Nations to send a fact-finding mission to India cover the alleged human rights abuses of farmers in Punjab.198 Lord Singh of Wimbledon, patron of the Deol Foundation, stated that the foundation has “grave concerns regarding the government of India’s use of propaganda, the media, the judiciary, and the police and paramilitary forces.”199 The Deol Foundation also reported the startling discovery that ambulances were being restricted in their access to these sites.200
The fundamental right to go to court on contractual disputes, under Articles 6 and 7 of the UDHR, was also stripped from farmers with the enactment of the Famer (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, otherwise known as the “Contract Farming Bill.” Article 6 states that every person has the “right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.201 Article 7 states that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.”202 The Contract Farming Bill stripped away farmers’ rights to take any dispute with traders to court, thus rendering them susceptible to becoming victims of fraud through arbitrary contracts that had no legal obligation for enforcement.203 While the law has been repealed as of late 2021, this violation of Articles 6 and 7 of the UDHR by the Indian Government cannot go unnoticed.
The Indian government breached numerous articles of its own constitution in addition to its breach of the UDHR. Article 19 of the Constitution of India provides freedom of speech to express one’s opinion freely without any fear through oral, written, or electronic communications, broadcasting, and the press.204 Article 19 was breached because journalists were unjustly arrested for reporting on the state of the protest sites, and the country also shut down access to the internet near the protest sites to prevent farmers from posting about the protests on the internet. In the case of twenty-one-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, Delhi police broke into her home to arrest her solely for allegedly posting an online toolkit to aid those around the globe that wanted to help protesting farmers by organizing their own peaceful solidarity actions.205 Disha Ravi’s toolkit was later reposted by global celebrities, including Greta Thunberg.206
Article 20(1) of the Constitution of India provides that no person shall be convicted of any offense “except for violation of a law in force at the time of the commission of the act charged as an offence, nor be subjected to a penalty greater than that which might have been inflicted under the law in force at the time of the commission of the offence.”207 The Indian government breached Article 20(1) of its Constitution when its police forces arbitrarily arrested several journalists and peaceful protesters, not for violating any law or committing any crime, but for their involvement in the farmers’ protests. Making matters all the more disturbing, there are claims that female reporters were sexually assaulted by police officers after they were detained.208 Reports indicate that male police officers arrested labor rights activist Nodeep Kaur at a protest site under charges of rioting and unlawful assembly.209 The officers then publicly beat her, dragged her by her hair into a van, slapped, punched, and sexually assaulted her, resulting in heavy bleeding that lasted several days.210 The story of this twenty-three-year-old activist garnered global outrage after Meena Harris, niece of American Vice President Kamala Harris, called for her release in a tweet.211
Article 14 of the Constitution of India prescribes the right to equality before the law and equal protections of the laws within India.212 India’s government breached Article 14 through the enactment of the Contract Farming Bill because it deprived farmers of their right to contest breach of contract before a court and subjected them to cruel and unusual punishment at the hands of Indian police for peacefully protesting. Further, Article 32 of the Constitution of India provides individuals with the right to move to the Supreme Court to seek justice when they feel that their rights have been “unduly deprived.”213 India’s government also breached Article 32 of its Constitution because per the subtext of the new farmer laws, farmers had their right to go to court stripped over these claims.214
Article 21 of the Constitution of India secures the right to life and the right to personal liberty.215 In Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India described this article as the “heart of fundamental rights.”216 Supreme Court Justice Bhagwati stated that Article 21 “embodies a constitutional value of supreme importance in a democratic society.”217 The Supreme Court stated in the Maneka case that the rights guaranteed under Article 21 cannot be suspended during an emergency.218 The farmers’ protests continued for well over a year and resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries. The country was in a state of emergency, but nevertheless, farmers’ rights under Article 21 were unjustly stripped.
The Supreme Court further stated in Maneka that the right to life under Article 21 does not mean the mere act of existence.219 Rather, it means the right to live with human dignity, the right to a decent environment that includes pollution-free water and air protection, the right to free legal aid, the right to a fair and speedy trial, the right to emergency medical aid, and the right against inhumane treatment.220 India’s government breached all of these rights as a result of its response to protesting farmers. Protestors’ access to emergency medical aid was stripped when ambulances were not allowed access to the protesting sites.221 Farmers argued that the right to a pollution-free and decent environment was stripped because big corporations would begin using harmful pesticides in its production of agriculture, ignoring generational organic farming traditions.222 The right to a fair and speedy trial was stripped from farmers per the subtext of the new farming laws.223 Police forces also subjected farmers to inhumane conditions at protest sites.
Article 25(1) of the Constitution of India states that subject to “public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”224 Article 29(1) of the Constitution of India protects the interests of minorities in India and provides that any citizen residing in the territory of India shall have the right to preserve any distinct language, script, or culture of his or her own.225 Accordingly, the Indian government’s unjust targeting of Sikh farmers during the protests, as reported by journalists and protestors themselves, constitutes violations of both Articles 25(1) and 29(1).
The farming bills were a target aimed at the agricultural sector in the country, primarily occupied by farmers of the Sikh faith. The government, coupled with the media, made strong arguments to convince the people that the protests led largely by Sikh farmers were an attempt to derail India’s economic progress and should be viewed as a terrorist threat to the nation. However, the world witnessed India’s egregious violations of farmers’ human rights as a result of their unrepentant activism, including that of the journalists who documented the abuses. The protesters’ tenacious fight should be viewed as a testament of the human spirit. They sacrificed so much over the course of fourteen long months. They were subject to cruel and unusual punishment, police brutality, suffered while camping out in scorching summers and freezing winters, denied medical assistance, painted in a terrorist image, and even lost their lives. Despite all their losses, they continued fighting for the fundamental right to their livelihood and against the corruption of Modi’s cabinet that was responsible for the democratic decline of the nation. Against all odds, the farmers achieved this goal in November 2021 when Modi finally announced the unconditional repeal of the draconian farm bills.
IV. Hope on the Horizon Despite India’s Horrifying History of Pogroms and Religious Violence
There were blatant attempts by Indian media to paint protesting farmers in a negative image teeming with Sikh separatists, similar to what had happened only a few decades earlier when Sikhs were violently attacked following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Religious pogroms have been horrifyingly common throughout India’s recent history, including the Gujarat pogrom in 2002 following the train car fire accident that resulted in hundreds of Muslim deaths and the Sikh Genocide in 1984 resulting in thousands of Sikh deaths and hundreds of thousands of Sikhs migrating away from India in fear of their lives. The BJP party sees India as a country for Hindus first and foremost and uses a divide-and-rule tactic that was adopted from British colonists before India achieved its independence. Anyone that disagrees with India’s Hindu Nationalist efforts is painted as “anti-national” and a terrorist threat to the country. As a result, India’s democratic facade is rapidly collapsing. However, many remain hopeful that the country can become a unified nation, accepting of all faiths, if the country can rally together in the 2024 election to beat Modi and the BJP. As hundreds of thousands of protestors rallied together against Modi and his farming bills, presumably the largest congregation that has come together against the Prime Minister since his election in 2014, India stands a strong chance of toppling his authoritarian rule and reclaiming its democracy come the next election.
Landing Image by Rupinder Singh on Unsplash.
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3 Ciara Garcha, The Punjabi Farmers Standing Up for India’s Democracy, Cherwell (Jan. 21, 2021), https://cherwell.org/2021/01/21/the-punjabi-farmers-standing-up-for-indias-democracy/.
4 Simran Jeet Singh, The Farmers’ Protests Are a Turning Point for India’s Democracy – And the World Can No Longer Ignore That, Time (Feb. 11, 2020), time.com/5938041/india-farmer-protests-democracy/.
10 Meenakshi Ganguly, Indian Authorities Lash Out at Protests, Hum. Rts. Watch (Feb. 2, 2021), https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/02/indian-authorities-lash-out-protests.
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22 Ganguly, supra note 10.
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25 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Dec. 16, 1966, S. Exec. Rep. 102-23, 999 U.N.T.S. 171., Article 19.
27 Adnan Abidi, India: Government Policies, Actions Target Minorities, Hum. Rts. Watch (Feb. 19, 2021), https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/19/india-government-policies-actions-target-minorities#.
28 Gujari Singh, Escalating Human Rights Abuses at the #FarmersProtest, Sikh Am. Legal Def. & Educ. Fund (Feb. 13, 2021), https://saldef.org/escalating-human-rights-abuses-at-the-farmersprotest/.
31 Drop Cases, Protect Media Freedom, supra note 24.
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50 Jonah Blank, How Hinduism Became a Political Weapon in India, Atlantic (May 24, 2019), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/05/hindu-natinalism-narendra-modi-india-election/590053/.
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53 Blank, supra note 50.
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65 Karuna Madan, Anti-Sikh Riots: What Happened in 1984 and After?, Gulf News (Nov. 21, 2018), https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/india/anti-sikh-riots-what-happened-in-1984-and-after-1.60501721.
66 India: No Justice for 1984 Anti-Sikh Bloodshed, Hum. Rts. Watch (Oct. 29, 2014), https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/10/29/india-no-justice-1984-anti-sikh-bloodshed#.
67 Madan, supra note 65.
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78 India: No Justice for 1984 Anti-Sikh Bloodshed, supra note 66.
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84 Coronajihad, Equality Labs, https://www.equalitylabs.org/coronajihad.
85 Sunitaa Viswanath, Modi’s Religious Nationalism Hurts Hindus, Too, Foreign Pol’y (May 26, 2021), https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/05/26/modi-hindu-nationalism-hindutva-hurts-hindus-too/.
86 Abidi, supra note 27.
90 Patralekha Chatterjee, Agricultural Reform in India: Farmers Versus the State, Lancet (Apr. 2021), https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(21)00060-7/fulltext.
91 Sudha Narayanan, The Three Farm Bills: Is This the Market Reform Indian Agriculture Needs?, India F. (Nov. 27, 2020), https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/three-farm-bills.
93 Chatterjee, supra note 90.
94 Narayanan, supra note 91.
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96 Narayanan, supra note 91.
99 Didem Tali, India’s Rural Farmers Struggle to Read and Write. Here’s How “AgriApps” Might Change That., GOOD (Sept. 15, 2015), https://www.good.is/tire-company-startup-to-use-nasa-Technology-to-end-flats-and-reduce-waste.
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106 Narayanan, supra note 91.
111 T. Nanda Kumar, Agri Reforms: Where Did the APMCs Go Wrong?, Fin. Express (Sept. 25, 2020), https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/agri-reforms-where-did-the-apmcs-go-wrong/2091149/lite/.
118 Tali, supra note 99.
119 Narayanan, supra note 91.
123 The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act § 11.4.1 (2020).
124 Sikh Human Rights Group, India: Unions Oppose Agricultural Reforms for Empowering Large Agribusinesses While Pushing Small Scale Farmers Further into Debt and Precarity, Bus. & Hum. Rts Resource Ctr., https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/india-farmers-converge-on-delhi-in-protest-against-deregulation-reforms-that-threaten-livelihoods/.
128 The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, No. 22, Acts of Parliament, 2020 (India) § 5(a).
130 Narayanan, supra note 91.
135 § 5(a), supra note 128.
136 Narayanan, supra note 91.
138 Gunisha Kaur, The Country Where 30 Farmers Die Each Day, CNN (Mar. 17, 2022), https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/17/opinions/india-farmer-suicide-agriculture-reform-kaur/index.html.
139 Gunisha Kaur & Simran Singh, Critics Denounce Indian Agriculture Reforms as Empowering Large Agribusinesses, Pushing Punjab’s Small-Scale Farmers Further into Precarity & Debt, Bus. & Hum. Rts. Resource Ctr., https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/opinion-critics-denounce-indian-agriculture-reforms-as-empowering-large-agribusinesses-pushing-punjabs-small-scale-farmers-further-into-precarity-debt/.
140 Narayanan, supra note 91.
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145 Amandeep Sandhu, How India’s Farmers Launched a Movement Against Modi’s Farm Bills – And Won, Yes Mag. (Jan. 19, 2022), https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2022/01/19/india-farmers-movement.
150 Sikh Human Rights Group, supra note 124.
151 Sandhu, supra note 145.
153 Sikh Human Rights Group, supra note 124.
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164 Sandhu, supra note 145.
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177 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, GA Res 217A (III), UNGAOR, 3rd Sess, Supp No 13, UN Doc A/810 (1948) 6.
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181 Press Trust of India, supra note 176.
186 Kothari, supra note 180.
187 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Update of the Situation of Human Rights in Indian-Administered Kashmir and Pakistan-Administered Kashmir from May 2018 to April 2019 (8 July 2019), available from https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/INKashmirUpdateReport_8July2019.pdf.
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190 Sikh Human Rights Group, supra note 124.
191 India: Government Must Stop Crushing Farmers’ Protests and Demonizing Dissenters, supra note 159.
193 Mahesh Kumar, A Farmer Protest in India Turns Deadly, Leaving 9 Dead and a Town on Edge, NPR (Oct. 4, 2021), https://www.npr.org/2021/10/04/1042972083/a-farmer-protest-in-india-turns-deadly-leaving-9-dead-and-a-town-on-edge.
194 Parth, MN, 100 Days and 248 Deaths Later, Indian Farmers Remain Determined, Aljazeera (Mar. 5, 2021), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/5/100-days-and-248-deaths-later-indian-farmers-remain-determined.
195 Deol Foundation, Deol Foundation Releases Human Rights Report on Indian Farmers, PR Newswire (Feb. 23, 2021), https://www.prnewswire.com/in/news-releases/deol-foundation-issues-an-open-letter-to-the-united-nations-863416465.html.
198 Plea Made to UN Over Human Rights Abuses of Indian Farmers, Scottish Legal News (Feb. 23, 2021), https://www.scottishlegal.com/article/plea-made-to-un-over-human-rights-abuses-of-indian-farmers.
201 India: Abuses Persist in Jammu and Kashmir, supra note 189.
202 Kothari, supra note 180.
203 § 5(a), supra note 128.
204 India Const. art. 19, cl.
205 Indian Authorities Target Activists, Journalists as They Suppress Support for the Farmers’ Protests, Monitor Tracking Civic Space (Feb. 24, 2021), https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2021/02/24/indian-authorities-target-activists-journalists-they-suppress-support-farmers-protests/.
207 India Const. art. 20(1), cl.
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212 India Const. art. 14, cl.
213 India Const. art. 32, cl.
214 § 5(a), supra note 128.
215 India Const. art. 21, cl.
216 Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, AIR 597, SCR (2) 621 (1978).
221 Plea Made to UN Over Human Rights Abuses of Indian Farmers, supra note 198.
222 Sikh Human Rights Group, supra note 124.
223 § 5(a), supra note 128.
224 India Const. art. 25(1), cl.
225 India Const. art. 29(1), cl.