State intimidation of protesting groups cannot serve as a substitute for political dialogue
The NIA’s decision to summon people associated with the ongoing farmers agitation as ‘witnesses’ in a sedition case is definitely out of the ordinary, even if not entirely surprising. Punjabi actor Deep Sidhu and farmers’ leader Baldev Singh Sirsa are among 40 people it has summoned in connection with a fresh case registered on December 15, 2020 against Sikhs for Justice, a U.S.-based organisation that is banned by India. Others summoned include functionaries of Khalsa Aid, a Sikh charity that provided material support to agitating farmers, and those who organised a community kitchen for them. The insinuation of the NIA in the very act of summoning them as ‘witnesses’ follows statements by BJP leaders that linked the agitation to Khalistani separatism. Law officers of the government told the Supreme Court last week that anti-national forces that had infiltrated the protests were misleading the farmers. This portrayal of critics of a government policy as either misled and ignorant or anti-national actors forecloses all possibility of any honest dialogue with them. That may not be an unintended outcome for a government that has never been enthusiastic about consultative processes. In this instance, the government and the Court proffer dialogue with protesters while agencies employ intimidatory measures against them.
Efforts to undermine the legitimacy of political actors opposed to the government have acquired a predictable pattern. Its critics are routinely labelled anti-national by social media trolls and functionaries of the ruling BJP. Investigations follow, often by central agencies, the NIA and the Enforcement Directorate. The state responses to agitators in Kashmir, Bhima Koregaon and during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act have been heavy-handed. That, probably, is the message that the government wants to convey to all dissenters, current and prospective: it will not feel restrained by principles of federalism or democratic norms in putting down protests. The NIA’s move cannot be seen delinked from this broader context. Sikhs abroad are a vibrant segment of the diaspora, having links with the motherland, including through donations to religious and charity activities. Other diaspora groups also support activities, including in the fields of education and health. The Narendra Modi government has a policy of harnessing the strength of Indian diaspora everywhere for national progress. There has to be a high threshold to consider any such community activity as anti-national and no consideration of religion must influence that assessment. The NIA’s instant move has been condemned as intimidation, among others, by the Akali Dal, until recently a BJP ally. Strong-arm tactics may be unavoidable when there is an immediate threat of violence. But replacing political dialogue with state intimidation is never strategically prudent. The government must talk to the farmers in good faith.