A month-by-month review of the last year, from protests to the pandemic
By July, there were 1 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in India. Throughout the world, the virus has intensified that cracks that already existed in the social structure, highlighting inequalities. There were plenty of those in India. Most of the sick waited for treatment in the crowded wards of under-funded public hospitals, with only a lucky, wealthy few able to afford private care.
And the virus taught us lessons too. One of those is the danger of fake news and conspiracy theories. In a climate of uncertainty, they thrived: first there were rumours that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus in a “corona jihad”, leading to violent attacks in some areas. Then there was the theory that a vegetarian diet could prevent you from catching the virus. Others advocated drinking cow’s urine.
More than ever, in a crisis situation it is imperative to think carefully about where information comes from and the evidence behind it. More and more of India’s media is controlled by the government and has become a mouthpiece for BJP opinion. At the same time, social media makes it as easy to spread lies as genuine information. The phrase “going viral” suddenly feels all too real.
On 5th August 2019 the government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and began a tough crackdown that included a complete communications blackout that lasted months. One year on, life in the region is harder than ever: just as curfews began to ease earlier in the year, the pandemic hit and a new lockdown enforced.
Many of the politicians, activists and journalists imprisoned last year remain in police custody. Qazi Shibli, editor of the Kashmiriyat, was released after nine months in prison, charged with “creating fear and panic” and “waging war against the Union of India” but never brought to trial. His case had made Time magazine’s list of the ten most urgent threats to press freedom.
The communications blackout has been eased, but the internet is still not fast enough for everyday use. Small businesses are unable to function, and students are unable to access online resources. The past year has been devastating to the local economy and brought many to the brink of destitution. Eclipsed by the pandemic, the world has largely forgotten about what’s going on; yet, as Arundhati Roy writes, “what Kashmir faces is nothing less than cultural erasure.”
In September Narendra Modi passed three new agricultural bills known as the farm reforms. They are widely considered to favour big agribusiness at the expense of small-scale farmers, who fear that they will no longer get even the Minimum Support Price for their produce. Many consider it a “death warrant”, and it proved the last straw. Most farmers have seen their incomes steadily decrease over the past few years; there was a sense of growing resentment towards the government.
In protest, hundreds of thousands of farmers from around the country – particularly Punjab and Haryana – took part in local protests before marching on the capital, with the cry “Dilli chalo” – “Let’s go to Delhi”.
Three months later, they haven’t gone away. Nor has the core of the new agricultural laws: privatisation. The government has been gradually expanding its control by privatising much of the public sector, and is using the same strategy to increase profits. As big agribusiness profits, so will the government – at the expense of farmers.
October 2020 marked India’s warmest night temperatures in fifty years. That may not sound very serious compared to the nightmare of a global pandemic, but it warns of another, hidden pandemic – climate change – that is already with us, and that will claim many more lives than the coronavirus unless governments take action.
A report earlier this year called for urgent measures to tackle India’s greenhouse gas emissions, which could cause rises in temperatures of 4.2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This would be devastating, and mean more heatwaves, more flooding, and millions displaced from their homes as ecosystems are destroyed.
Climate change and environmental destruction happen gradually, so they don’t often make the news. Yet if we’re not careful, they will come to define the way we live in the twenty-first century. Already the air in big cities is so bad it’s actually killing people, and the poorest in our society will suffer most; the families with fewest resources face much greater health risks.
The farmers’ protests continued into the winter months, and in late November the protesters called for Bharat Bandh – a general strike. Opposition parties supported the strike, and the farmers braved increasingly cold temperatures as they refused to back down.
Only one year into Modi’s second term in office, he faces stronger criticism than ever before – for his authoritarian policies, for his handling of the virus, and for putting the interests of big companies before those of the people. Could Bharat Bandh signal the end of his popularity?
“Our country is like a bunch of flowers, but Modi wants it to be of the same colour. He has no right to do that. I am here to protest against that mindset,” said one of the protesters, a farmer’s wife in her sixties.
In a climate of protest, let’s not forget the farmers of Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh, who took to the streets in December 2019 and have now been calling for justice for an entire year.
The new state government, led by Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, went back on the previous administration’s pledge to make Amaravati the new state capital when local farmers had already pooled their land to contribute to the project. Construction work stopped, and what was meant to emerge as a new, vibrant metropolis instead became a ghost town.
Tens of thousands of farmers lost their livelihoods, and have now been holding protests for more than 365 days. It has become a peaceful people’s movement – one that shows no signs of disappearing until the government takes action.
From January, with the mass uprising against the CAA, to the farmers’ protests later in the year and the ongoing struggle in Amaravati, 2020 has been a year of protest. And despite everything else, in times of tremendous adversity this gives a glimmer of hope: Indian democracy originated in peaceful protest, and perhaps peaceful protest can help us recover it.