India must repeal its draconian laws and allow democracy a chance.
A massive uprising of farmers and laborers is currently underway in India. Hundreds of thousands of farmers, laborers, and allies have been protesting for over two months in their respective home states, in response to three federal bills passed by the ruling BJP government, dubbed as farm reforms. However, farmer unions, farmers, laborers, and allies have rejected these bills and asserted that the bills are actually privatizing the sector, and further promoting corporate takeover- spearheading an eventual slow death of the small farmer. In response to the lack of action, thousands of protestors, under the leadership of farmer unions and activists alike began marching to the National Capital of New Delhi- demanding that these acts be repealed. Protestors were met with state-sponsored violence, with Indian police using water cannons, rocks, and tear gas on protestors.
A large portion of these farmers are from the Northern State of Punjab (pronounced “Panj-aab”) and primarily hail from the Sikh community, which forms the majority of the population there. It is important to note that Punjab is also one of the few states in India that has openly rejected the Modi-led BJP government, with the BJP securing less than 10% of the popular vote in either the state or federal elections. In fact, since the fall of the Sikh Empire in 1849, Punjab has been home to countless movements. Be it the British or the Government of India, non-violent protestors fighting for Sikh rights, Punjabi rights, or at the intersection of both- were met with, and continue to be met with, state violence.
With the farmer protests picking up steam, a legitimate concern is that existing draconian laws of India may be used to suppress, oppress, and gag the masses. Sikh farmers from Punjab are leading this effort with the goal of benefitting farmers across the country- regardless of their religion. However, Indian news networks in the country have created flashy headlines to shift the narrative to one about Sikh separatism. Such lazy nationalistic journalism may fetch viewers for these networks, but they also pose a real danger to thousands of legitimate protestors, many of whom have already endured almost two decades of state sponsored violence and criminalization through both the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), both acts that were used to arrest and unlawfully detain hundreds of thousands of Sikhs in Punjab. An estimated 100,000 to 250,000 Sikhs were killed at the hands of Indian police during the 1980's-1990's. Thousands were “disappeared,” and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee the oppressive laws and genocide, resulting in the mass exodus of Sikhs to countries such as Australia, England (UK), Canada, and the United States- where they sought, received, and continue to receive political asylum.
TADA was written and passed during the Sikh freedom movement in Punjab during the mid 1980’s. The Act most notably reversed the presumption of innocence with section 21 of the Act stating that one “..shall be presumed to be guilty unless contrary is proved.” The Act provided the police with unprecedented and unchecked power allowing persons to be detained for one year without charge, remain in police custody for 60 days, and the ability to hold secret trials with secret witnesses.
Roughly 75,000 individuals were arrested under TADA in its official 10-year span during the 80’s and 90’s. Although officially repealed, many remain detained under TADA.
UAPA was originally introduced in the 1960’s to prevent unlawful activities- enacting restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression, right to assemble, and right to form associations/ or unions, all in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of the country. Unlike TADA however, UAPA remains in effect, and has been further amended to read that individuals may be designated “terrorists” prior to any trial- bringing fresh criticism to an already controversial act.
In fact, just last year, three Sikh youth, Arwinder Singh, Surjit Singh and Ranjit Singh, were sentenced to life imprisonment and charged with “waging war against the state” based merely upon the recovery of incriminating literature, books, and pamphlets. No ammunition was found on these youth, nor they were charged with an act of violence.
Even more heartbreaking, is the story of 21-year-old, Lovepreet Singh, who tragically took his life after being harassed by the National Investigation Agency empowered by the UAPA- for his supposed support of Khalistan (an independent Sikh inspired state) through social media because he had served langar (community meal) to peaceful protesters against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Delhi. The CAA, which blatantly discriminates against Muslim refugees coming to India from neighboring countries, sparked protests across India, leading to the arrest of many Muslim and youth activists under the UAPA.
For more details on these Acts, please read this recent publication by the World Sikh Organization, titled: Enforcing Silence: India’s War on Sikh Social Media.
Even without invoking UAPA, the Indian government is already criminalizing some protestors with outlandish charges. One such example is Navdeep Singh, a young farmer who climbed a police water cannon vehicle and turned off the water supply that was being used on peaceful protestors. For this act, Navdeep Singh has been booked for attempted murder. Similarly, farmer union leaders were also arrested in anticipation of their participation in said protests.
By labelling Sikhs as separatists and/or “terrorists,” the media is providing the government with the low-bar “proof” it needs to arrest, detain, and disappear protestors without cause. Protest is amongst the pillars of any democracy. Peaceful protests shed light on issues faced by the masses, and encourage politicians to act on behalf of their constituents. If India wants to be known as the world’s largest democracy, it must unequivocally reject and repeal draconian laws such as the UAPA, release the many prisoners who remain detained under the now repealed TADA, and lift the ban on Amnesty International, which is yet to be granted permission to visit Punjab to verify reports of human rights violations in the state. The world is watching.
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