Lethal force used against farmers as drought drives protest

Peaceful Assembly 

The worst drought in 140 years in southern India has driven farmers to protest over the lack of government assistance to help those in need. The dire conditions for agriculture have forced many farmers to rely on loans to support their livelihoods. An alarmingly high rate of farmers committing suicide is indicative of how severe the problem has become. In April, farmers across Tamil Nadu, who have directly suffered as a result of the drought, staged a prolonged sit-in demanding a comprehensive drought relief package and loan waivers for those affected. A series of demonstrations mobilised over a hundred farmers staging protests in Jantar Mantar, Delhi, urging the government to do more to assist communities affected by the drought.

Using unusual methods to express frustration, some farmers have used the skulls of farmers they claimed committed suicide, stripped naked, bitten mice and snakes as well as threatened to drink their own urine during their protesting. The protests lasted 40 days and were eventually called off after Indian authorities relented by devising a suitable relief package for farmers in the region. 

While the farmers in Tamil Nadu managed to negotiate a settlement with Indian authorities, the social impact of the prolonged drought has rippled through Indian states. In addition to the farmers in Tamil Nadu, farmers in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh witnessed their livelihoods put at risk due to the lack of water. On 1st June 2017, farmers in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh began a protest which quickly spread to six districts of the state and lasted a total of ten days. Frustrated with the government's response to the drought crisis, the mobilisations quickly escalated, with protesters setting fire to buildings and vehicles. On 6th June 2017, as tensions reached a boiling point, Indian security forces opened fire on the protesting farmers, killing five and injuring eight. While authorities claim that the protesters instigated the violence, the use of live ammunition and lethal force to quell a protest has been widely condemned. The video below shows Indian security forces being told to use excessive force when necessary to contain the protest. 

The incident has placed a spotlight on the multitude of social and economic issues facing farmers in India. An estimated 1,600 farmers committed suicide in 2016 alone due to debt or crop failure. In the aftermath of the clashes, Indian authorities enforced a curfew in Mandsaur which was later removed. Indian authorities also subsequently offered assistance to the farmers to ease their situation. 

Latest reports from the ground note that 35-40 prominent social activists have been arrested by security forces en route to Mandasaur to show solidarity with the farmers' families. Indian authorities claim that the activists had purposefully intended defy a prohibitory order not to visit Mandasaur. 

In a separate incident, women's rights have also driven recent social mobilisations in India. Since the fatal gang rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh in 2012, civil society has been at the forefront of awakening India's moral conscience and campaigning for safer cities. The case sparked nation-wide protests in support of the victim. Protesters called on the authorities to tackle the growing issue of sexual violence against Indian women. As the case finally concluded on 5th May 2017, four of the suspects were sentenced to death for their part in the crime. Human Rights Watch commented on the situation, stating that: 

"The court verdict on Friday was a response to a shocking and highly publicized act of sexual violence. But the verdict on society is still that far too many women and girls are subject to sexual violence that is not reported and that does not receive an appropriate response from authorities. The government should use this moment of public attention to galvanize a renewed and expanded effort to protect women and girls’ safety and rights".

An estimated 34,000 Indian women were victims of sexual violence in 2015 alone.

Ongoing tensions in Kashmir 

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the flagrant use of lethal force against protesters in Indian-administered Kashmir has become more and more commonplace. On 6th June 2017, a protest in Ganavpora, Kashmir turned violent leading to the death of at least one protester. Residents in the village were about to break Ramadan fast, when security forces entered the area to conduct a search for two suspected militants. The move by Indian security forces was not welcomed by locals and quickly sparked a protest against the intrusion. As the situation spiraled out of control, Indian security forces used live ammunition to disperse the growing crowd. 22-year-old Adil Farooq Magrey was caught in the crossfire and hit by a bullet to the torso. He died before reaching the hospital. In a statement to media, a local resident reflected on the outbreak of violence, declaring that: 

“These people (forces) did not allow us to break the fast. It irked the villagers. Then someone called other villagers and people assembled and threw stones at the forces. The forces fired pellets, tear gas and bullets”.

Indian authorities imposed a curfew across Kashmir after the killing of Adil Farooq Magrey in an attempt to prevent further unrest. 

Expression

On 5th June 2017, Indian security forces raided the residences of the founder of private television broadcaster New Delhi TV (NDTV), Prannoy Roy. The raid occurred after authorities accused Roy of corruption and money laundering. As a highly influential and liberal broadcaster, the outlet claims it has come under a concerted attack in recent years. In a statement, NDTV fervently denied any allegations of wrongdoing and reiterated its commitment to impartial broadcasting, asserting that: 

"NDTV and its promoters will fight tirelessly against this witch-hunt by multiple agencies. We will not succumb to these attempts to blatantly undermine democracy and free speech in India. We have one message to those who are trying to destroy the institutions of India and everything it stands for: we will fight for our country and overcome these forces".

Freedom of speech groups in India claim that the media landscape is becoming increasingly dominated by state-owned outlets and the harassment of NDTV constitutes a worrying threat to plurality of media opinion in India.

Social media ban 

Following the ongoing clashes, in late April Indian authorities banned access to social media in Kashmir. Authorities claimed that the ban would prevent further violence. 22 websites, including Skype, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, were banned for "being misused by anti-national and anti-social elements". While the ban momentarily stopped the use of social media, activists have started using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to bypass the ban. Freedom of speech groups condemned the move by Indian authorities, claiming it antagonises an already volatile situation and contravenes international human rights commitments. UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye expressed his concerns, stating that:  

"The internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment and fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression".

Indian authorities have a well-documented track record of using social media bans to try and prevent the dissemination of information in Kashmir. On 26th April 2017, Indian authorities lifted the ban on social media.

Association

As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, elements of Indian civil society have been calling for greater regulation of the sector as well as a specialised government agency to oversee enhanced regulation. The calls come after some civic actors believe that the absence of a law to audit government-funded organisations has hampered efforts by civil society to improve financial transparency. After a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) case was filed to the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) was instructed to devise regulations for the auditing, accreditation and registration of the civil society sector. 

Indian authorities have opened 159 investigations against various civil society organisations (CSOs) for the alleged misuse of government funds. Similarly, a further 718 CSOs were blacklisted for failing to comply with financial regulations. In light of these, on the 26th April 2017 authorities in India framed a law with the intention to “systematise the entire process of accreditation, fund utilisation and audit of NGOs” with criminal punishment for non-compliance. CIVICUS Monitor partner, Voluntary Action Network India's CEO Mr. Jaitli viewed the developments positively, stating that: 

“This process shall benefit the sector with transparent and clean image while improving accountability to society and government”.

As previously reported in earlier updates on the CIVICUS Monitor, while strengthened laws to regulate the operation of CSOs may improve financial transparency, they also come at a time when Indian authorities have waged a concerted attack on freedom of association of critical CSOs.