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Farmers protest against three new farm laws in Ghazipur on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border, January 30, 2021.  © 2021 Pradeep Gaur / SOPA Images/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

(New York) – Eight journalists who covered the farmer protests in India and violence in Delhi on January 26, 2021 are facing baseless criminal charges, Human Rights Watch said today. The Indian authorities should drop the charges, which include sedition, promoting communal disharmony, and making statements prejudicial to national integration.

“The Indian authorities’ response to protests has focused on discrediting peaceful protesters, harassing critics of the government, and prosecuting those reporting on the events,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government instead should conduct a transparent and impartial investigation into the January 26 violence in Delhi.”

Hundreds of thousands of farmers have been protesting on the outskirts of Delhi since November 2020, demanding that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government withdraw three farm laws passed in September. The protests were peaceful until January 26, India’s Republic Day, when protesters broke through police barricades to enter Delhi and clashed with the police. A group of protesters breached the historic Red Fort and hoisted the Sikh religious flag alongside the national flag. Many of the farmers are Sikhs. One protester, Navreet Singh Hundal, 26, died in the violence. Delhi police said nearly 400 police officers were injured.

The police in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Haryana states have filed cases of sedition and promoting communal disharmony against six senior journalists and editors – Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, Paresh Nath, Anant Nath, Vinod K Jose, and a Congress party politician, Shashi Tharoor – for allegedly “misreporting” the facts around the death of the protester. Delhi police, who report to the BJP home minister, Amit Shah, also filed a case against them.

On January 31, Uttar Pradesh police filed a case of promoting enmity between communities and making statements prejudicial to national integration against Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, for tweeting a news report on the claims made by the dead protester’s family. His family says that he died from gunshot injuries, while the police said he died when his tractor overturned.

On January 30, Delhi police also detained the journalists Dharmender Singh and Mandeep Punia, who were covering the protests, alleging that the two “misbehaved” with the police. Punia had been investigating a mob who threw stones at the farmers and vandalized their tents at the protest site on the Singhu border between Delhi and Haryana on January 29. While the police released Singh the next day, they sent Punia, a freelance journalist, to judicial custody for 14 days for allegedly obstructing and assaulting a police officer. While mob members said they were local residents, news reports say that they were BJP supporters belonging to a Hindu nationalist group.

Journalist associations and opposition political parties have widely condemned the crackdown. The Editors Guild of India said the police cases were “an attempt to intimidate, harass, browbeat, and stifle the media.” It demanded that the cases be immediately withdrawn and said that the media should “be allowed to report without fear and with freedom.” The Press Club of India, Press Association, the Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Delhi Union of Journalists, and the Indian Journalists Union also demanded the withdrawal of cases and pressed for the repeal of the colonial-era sedition law used to silence dissent.

Following the January 26 violence, the central government shut down mobile internet services at several protest sites bordering Delhi to “maintain public safety.” The Haryana state government also suspended mobile internet services in most of the state until February 1. Internet rights groups condemned the shutdowns, saying the government was using them “to suppress the free flow of information related to peaceful assembly and the fundamental right to protest.”

Under international human rights law, India has an obligation to ensure that restrictions on the internet and other forms of communication are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information or to harm people’s ability to freely assemble and express political views, Human Rights Watch said.

The Delhi police have filed 44 criminal cases and arrested 122 people in relation to the violence. The police have also filed cases of rioting, attempted murder, and criminal conspiracy against at least 37 well-known farmers’ union leaders and activists alleging that they made inflammatory speeches and were involved in the violence. These include the prominent social activists Medha Patkar and Yogendra Yadav, the president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Haryana unit, Gurnam Singh Chaduni, and the Bharatiya Kisan Union spokesperson, Rakesh Tikait. Most of the farmer representatives named in the criminal cases had been involved in talks with the BJP government on the farm laws over the last several weeks. These farmer unions have dissociated themselves from the violence.

Even before the violence, in January, the National Investigative Agency questioned farm leaders, Sikh activists, and journalists based on allegations that a group, Sikhs for Justice – which advocates secession – is aiding the protests. For several weeks, senior BJP leaders, their supporters on social media, and pro-government media have been trying to discredit the protesting farmers, claiming they have a Khalistani agenda, referring to the Sikh separatist movement in Punjab in the 1970s and 80s. The Delhi police, alleging conspiracy, have also filed a case under the key counterterror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and sedition law.

Actions against prominent leaders of the farmer protests and activists have raised concerns that the authorities might target them in politically motivated cases under draconian terrorism, sedition, and other laws, as they have done in recent years against peaceful activists, lawyers, student leaders, and academics protesting against discriminatory citizenship policies or calling for protection of Dalit and Adivasi rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“Indian authorities should be releasing activists and others already jailed or facing criminal charges in politically motivated cases, not adding to that list,” Ganguly said. “They should use investigations to hold those genuinely responsible for violence to account, not as a means to silence outspoken critics and shut down protests.”

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