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A tale of two protests

Leaders of the agitation in Ottawa as also on the US-Canada border have been arbitrarily arrested without charge. Indian and Canadian governments handled protests on their soil employing different tactics. India held eleven rounds of talks with protestors seeking a middle path, while Canada refused to discuss demands.

HARSHA KAKAR | New Delhi |

The farmers’ agitation which began in August 2020 in parts of Punjab and Haryana mushroomed and reached the borders of Delhi within months. By December, farmers had blocked roads leading to the capital. By the time it concluded, the nation had an economic loss of Rs 60,000 crore.

The government was compelled to barricade the protest site and deploy police to contain the agitation. Protestors dug in, constructed temporary structures and established facilities to feed those present, all without hindrance. The protests ended in December last year, with the government acceding to their demands.

The agitation was funded by organisations based in Canada and the US as also Sikhs for Justice, supported by Pakistan. Social media influencers including Mia Khalifa, Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and Malala Yusufzai, backed them on social media platforms. Indian social media influencers, including sports personalities and film stars, attempting to counter their global counterparts, were heckled by national political parties which sought to exploit these protests for their own political gains ignoring reputational damage to the nation.

On the contrary, the truckers’ agitation in Canada, demanding rollback of vaccine mandates, which blocked Ottawa and also shut the US-Canada border crossing, received limited external support. The truckers, like their farmer counterparts in India, camped in Ottawa. They too, similar to Indian farmers, constructed temporary structures to house and feed supporters through Canada’s severe winters.

Leaders of the agitation in Ottawa as also on the US-Canada border have been Canada arbitrarily arrested without charge. Indian and Canadian governments handled protests on their soil employing different tactics. India held eleven rounds of talks with protestors seeking a middle path, while Canada refused to discuss demands. There was no attempt to stall the flow of funds to protestors in India while the Canadian government froze bank accounts of the trucker’s union.

There were no arrests in India while hundreds were detained or fined in Canada. India, following democratic norms, approached the courts to determine the applicability of laws, while Canada imposed an emergency. And yet, the world terms India as a flawed democracy and Canada a genuine one. India is ranked 53rd in the global democracy index while Canada 5th.

Evidently, yardsticks employed to determine democratic norms are meaningless. Only the location of a nation counts; Indian democracy is flawed while Canadian democracy is genuine. Even the Western press’s comments on both these protests were biased. The New York Times tweeted on the farmers’ protests, ‘As India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi struggles to quell months of protests by farmers, critics and analysts see a pattern of curtailing free speech that they fear is sending India down a dangerous path of intolerance.’

On the Canadian protests, it tweeted, ‘As protests stretch on in Canada and truckers’ block supply chains to the US, some Canadians are asking, why hasn’t Prime Minister Trudeau ordered the authorities to quash the protests.’ The BBC displaying a fake picture of a farmer being threatened by the police, stated, “The defining image of farmers protests in India.” In the case of Canada it stated, “Freedom convoy truckers’ cause chaos in Ottawa.”

The Washington Post published an article on the farmers’ protest titled, ‘Can India’s protesting farmers restore its democracy,’ while writing on the truckers, ‘Justin Trudeau’s move to end the truckers’ protest (by imposing emergency) was risky but correct.’ Multiple global media networks and private (so-called) influencing groups also criticized India for suppressing democratic rights despite the government taking no such action.

Canada being part of the American continent, not a single global social media influencer came forward to support the truckers’ nor did a single global institution comment on Trudeau suppressing democracy by invoking emergency powers. Only Elon Musk justifiably and rightly compared Trudeau to Hitler. When the farmers’ protests were on, Trudeau stated, “The situation (farmers’ protests) is very concerning. All of us are worried about family and friends, and this is a reality for many. Let me remind you, Canada will always defend the rights of peaceful protesters. We have intimated our concerns to the Indian authorities.”

Where did the rights of peaceful protests vanish when truckers began descending on Ottawa? There were reports that when truckers’ protests commenced, Trudeau went into hiding. Is this how national leaders act? Trudeau’s deputy, Jagmeet Singh, a known Khalistan supporter tweeted, “I am deeply concerned about the violence against farmers in India. Those calling to harm farmers must be held accountable and the right to peaceful protest must be protected.” Why is he backing crushing peaceful protests in Canada? Protests in India are peaceful hence cannot be suppressed but can in Canada.

The Delhi leadership could have, in retaliation to Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh, spoken on the truckers’ protests and offered similar concerns, but have, on the contrary, displayed maturity and understanding by maintaining silence. Only the Indian foreign office sarcastically commented on the agitation conveying the desired message.

The foreign office spokesperson stated, “We are following developments in Canada in the context of blockades and protests. We have noted that the government of Canada has actually invoked the Emergency Act. Let me leave it at that on that issue.”

Anti-India bias was also visible during the Citizenship Amendment Act agitation as also when India revoked article 370 in Kashmir. Similar criticism continues to flow with the ongoing Hijab protests. Currently, when Canada is applying non-democratic means to crush peaceful protests, there is global acceptance. Is it because the world cannot accept a rising power from Asia or is it because India is a powerhouse which cannot be ignored? While the above can be debated, the truth is that we as a nation are divided.

Every decision of the government has to be questioned and protests and agitations exploited for vote banks, providing fuel to international media and organisations. Indian cultural, religious and social fault lines are such that elements within and outside exploit them. Further, the government’s silence to international criticism aggravates the scenario. It is essential to set our house in order before questioning global criticism of our handling of internal disagreements.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)