This is the second instalment of The Hoser's Movement Series. The series aims to shed light on movements happening around the world, from the perspective of communities living in the Greater Toronto Area. It will amplify the voices of those who are normally left out of the mainstream.
On March 24, 2020 Modi announced, in a patriotic cri de cœur, one of the strongest lockdowns in the world imposed by any country during the pandemic.
At the time, India had reported only 606 cases and 10 deaths related to COVID-19.
The 21-day lockdown would come into effect at 12:01 a.m., giving people less than four hours notice to get their affairs in order, after which no one across the entire country of 1.4 billion people would be allowed to leave their homes.
With no welfare or relief plans announced for the poor, daily wage workers, and thousands of working-class people in the country who rely on small businesses to feed themselves, the entire nation descended into panic and chaos.
Two days later, when thousands of migrants left urban cities to reach their villages as soon as possible, massive crowds formed on the streets, creating an opportunity for a massive COVID-19 superspreader event. This proved the Modi government never had any plans for the poor.
The decision exposed a corrupt system, wherein a prime minister who rose up the ranks from a “chaiwala” (tea-seller) —and never forgot to brag about it— neglected his own constituents.
From thousands flouting social distancing norms in grocery stores, to the biggest labour crisis in the country’s history, the world watched and realized Modi’s hasty decision would cause hundreds of deaths —not from disease, but starvation. Many migrants died while walking back to their villages on foot from heat, starvation and road accidents.
Although the government says it didn’t collect any official data on migrant worker deaths, one unofficial count by an Indian newspaper put the number of deaths around 230. This head-grabbing and futile initiative put the onus of battling the virus on its citizens, while punishing the most vulnerable.
Fast forward to a year later, and Indians across the country are starving again. This time, not only for food, but also for oxygen.
On April 17, 2021, as India reported 261, 394 coronavirus infections, Modi addressed an election rally in West Bengal. As infections worsened due to various super–spreader events across all Indian states, Modi followed former president Donald Trump’s election approach and encouraged people to show up to voting booths in record breaking numbers to “enrich the festival of democracy."
The lack of action and utter ignorance of norms by the Modi-led Hindu-nationalist government fuelled the current COVID-19 apocalypse in India.
As cremation grounds burned round-the-clock, dead bodies of COVID-19 victims were found floating in the Ganges River. Hospital officials sat and watched in despair as their patients died due to a lack of oxygen —an action no less than genocide. Civilians and family members raced across cities to find oxygen tanks and standard over-the-counter medicines that the government should already have procured.
The new Modi approach: If you can’t escape the criticism, censor it
During the entire ordeal, Modi disappeared and remained in the shadows as the country crumbled around him. Throughout the pandemic Modi and his militia of men in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) only appeared sporadically to arrest critics of the nationalist government.
The first blow struck when the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) in India ordered Twitter to delete more than 250 Twitter handles related to the farmers’ protest. When Twitter failed to comply and reinstated the accounts a few hours later, the government sent a second notice to the social media platform to block another 1178 accounts.
The Modi government has also been busy arresting critics of the healthcare system that collapsed under immense pressure. On May 12, 2021 Delhi police arrested 25 people for putting up posters with comments critical of the prime minister. One such poster allegedly read, “Modi ji hamare bachon ki vaccine videsh kyon bhej diya (Why did you send our children’s vaccines abroad?).”
A few days later, when two people in a village in Uttar Pradesh complained about being treated for COVID-19 under a tree due to the lack of healthcare facilities, the government accused them of spreading “lies” and a report was filed against them.
New measures —labelled draconian by various critics— have forced tech companies to remove whatever content the government arbitrarily believes is illegal, including content that threatens to destroy the ‘sovereignty and integrity of India’s’ public order, decency, or morality.’
Social media companies like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook have to comply with this ambiguous rule or face being banned in the country. India has chosen to give WhatsApp an ultimatum: comply with the new rules, or face a complete ban.
Canada has also affirmed its determination to promote and protect itself from cyber security threats by asking social media companies to end or weaken their encryption models for the sake of law enforcement.
In 2020, Toronto police came under fire after they admitted to using Clearview AI – a controversial tool that scraped billions of images from the public domain without user consent and crafted biomarkers for each image to be used by police.
Although the Indian government states the laws are meant to “empower the users of social media,” civilians are scared the provisions will have a devastating impact on freedom of expression and be used to prosecute citizens as well as expand government propaganda.
Delhi Chalo: The Farmers’ Protests
The Indian farmers' protests against the three farm Acts passed by the Parliament of India have persisted for over 10 months. More than 300,000 farmers have congregated to protest the “anti-farmer” laws that make them susceptible to exploitation from big corporations.
The reforms loosen the rules around minimum pricing, storage and the sale of produce; they also give more power to private players such as agricultural businesses and supermarket chains. Most of the farmers have been protected from the free market for decades and currently sell the majority of their stock to the government-controlled markets (mandis) at fixed prices. However, the three farm Acts remove this protection. They have been labeled as “anti-farmer” by farmer unions around the world.
Farmers unions are asking the government to either withdraw the three Acts or add a guarantee of a minimum support price —an agricultural product price set by the government of India.
Between October, 2020 and January, 2021, 11 rounds of talks took place between the central government of India and the farmers’ unions, but no agreement could be met.
In November, 2020 farmers and their trade unions organized an enormous march —dubbed Delhi Chalo—towards New Delhi that included tens of thousands of farmers and their supporters, mostly from the regions and states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
Haryana and Delhi police used water cannons and tear gas against protestors and prevented them from entering the nation’s capital, so protestors staged a sit-in at the Jaipur highway outside of Delhi. Between November 28, 2020 and December 3, 2020 the number of farmers blocking Delhi in the Delhi Chalo was between 150,ooo to 300,000.
There have been several other farmers’ protests this year, some including up to 40,000 protestors.
More than 200 farmers have died, hundreds injured, and many have committed suicide. Several journalists covering the protest on-site have been arrested and reports of police torture have surfaced on the internet.
Indians need help, and the world – including Canada – must step up to put an end to this neo-facism
Modi’s apathy and inaction during COVID-19 is a scratch on the surface of a bigger, deeper issue pervading the country today.
According to the 2016 Census, there are two million people living in Canada from South Asian origin. Canadians, and the diaspora community, have come together bravely and repeatedly to support Indians during the farmers protest and the CAA Bill, and by donating to Indian COVID-19 relief funds.
Torontonians can help the Indian community by protesting against the injustices at the Indian consulate in Toronto or by donating to the following organizations:
Photo by Swarnavo Chakrabarti