Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts

Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts
A farmer talks on his mobile phone during an ongoing protest to demand minimum crop prices, near the Punjab-Haryana state border at Shambhu in Patiala district on February 22, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 05 March 2024
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Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts

Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts
  • Farmers march on Delhi to demand higher prices for crops, Internet shutdowns hamper flow of food and aid 
  • Campaigners say shutdowns aim to quell dissent as India tops world charts of Internet switchoffs

SHAMBHU, India: They have been beaten with canes, doused in tear gas and blocked by concrete barricades and metal spikes but the thousands of farmers trying to march to India’s capital to demand higher crop prices also face an invisible barrier — digital blackouts.

As their caravan of tractors and trucks moved from the northern state of Punjab toward New Delhi in February, the farmers found their phones going dead as state authorities imposed temporary Internet shutdowns.

It is not the first time authorities have cut the Internet — India imposed the highest number of Internet shutdowns in the world in 2022 — and campaigners fear more digital crackdowns ahead of elections expected by May.

Farm union leaders are seeking guarantees, backed by law, of more state support or a minimum purchase price for crops.

The farmers, who set off on their “Delhi Chalo” (Let’s go to Dehli) protest in early February, were stopped by security forces about 200 km (125 miles) north of the capital, with water cannons and tear gas used to push them back.

They are now camped out at Shambhu Barrier, on the border between the states of Punjab and Haryana.

Since Feb. 12, Haryana state authorities have cut access to mobile Internet services at regular intervals and for several days at a time. They said they did so to “stop the spread of misinformation and rumors” and to prevent the mobilization of “mobs of agitators and demonstrators,” according to local media.

The farmers, many of whom are members of the Sikh religious minority from Punjab, say the shutdowns made it hard to get medical help for the injured and to source food. It also cut them off from their leaders, making coordination difficult.

“Snapping the communication lines only spreads rumors and distresses our families,” said Hardeep Singh, a 28-year-old who was nursing an injured eye after recent clashes with police.

“We’re already far away from home and the communication blackout adds to our miseries,” he said.




Farmers shout slogans during a protest against India's central government to demand minimum crop prices in Amritsar on March 5, 2024. (AFP)

Neither the chief minister’s office in Haryana nor the state’s telecoms ministry responded to requests for comment.

Campaigners have accused the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of repeatedly using Internet shutdowns to stifle opposition.

“The alarming trend of Internet shutdowns coupled with widespread online censorship is a grim reflection of digital authoritarianism, particularly in the lead-up to elections,” said Gayatri Malhotra of the digital rights organization Internet Freedom Foundation.

“Should this trajectory persist, it threatens to severely impede people’s access to information, curtail their capacity to make informed electoral decisions, and restrict their freedom to organize, assemble and communicate their electoral demands peacefully,” Malhotra told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

NO SIGNAL

India frequently uses Internet shutdowns to control protests, including in disputed Kashmir and northeastern Manipur state, where dozens have died in ethnic clashes since last year.




A farmer performs a fire breathing act during a protest demanding minimum crop prices, at Shambhu Haryana-Punjab border near Ambala some 220 Km from New Delhi on February 14, 2024. (AFP)

Mobile access has also often been cut during elections and examinations and these shutdowns were often imposed for indefinite periods and without the publication of shutdown orders, in violation of a 2020 judgment by the nation’s top court.

The state of Haryana ranks fourth in the country for the highest number of Internet shutdowns, following Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, and Manipur, according to Delhi-based advocacy group Software Freedom Law Center.

The farmers’ protests have already sparked other restrictions.

Dozens of accounts on social media platform X have been suspended for backing the farmers, with rights groups and those affected calling the step a worrying sign in the world’s largest democracy where nearly a billion people will cast their votes in national elections due by May.

Although the farmers’ protest is confined to Punjab for now, their complaints of falling incomes resonate more widely, highlighting a perception in India’s huge rural hinterland that Modi has done too little to support the farming community and raise living standards.

Over 40 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people are dependent on agriculture and many say they have suffered economically under Modi. Hardeep Singh, for example, grows wheat and rice on his four-acre farm, but like many he said poor returns on investments, including pesticides and farm equipment, made it increasingly difficult to make ends meet without guaranteed prices for his produce.

While pollsters say Modi will almost certainly win a rare third term in office, the discontent of farmers will be a headache for years to come.

The federal agriculture ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the protesters’ demands for higher guaranteed prices for all crops.

‘STATE OF DARKNESS’




Farmers hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against India's central government to demand minimum crop prices in Amritsar on March 5, 2024. (AFP)

Farmers said the blackout not only stopped them from spreading their message to the outside world, but also blocked them from receiving information and instructions.

“The Internet was our primary means of ensuring our protests receive adequate coverage and reach a wider audience, free from the interference of mainstream media that often portrays us in a negative light,” said Taranjeet Singh, a 34-year-old farmer. In Punjab, Singh is a common surname and middle name.

To overcome the challenge, many farmers have installed television sets in their tractor trailers to get the latest news.

The blackouts also make it harder to treat injured and sick people, and to contact emergency services such as ambulances.

“We are forced to walk several kilometers away from the protest site to access stable wireless network connections, which wastes our valuable time, and could prove fatal for those injured and requiring immediate medical care,” said Baba Sukhdev Singh, a 50-year-old volunteer with the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, one of the unions leading the march.

Many farmers also said signal jammers were being used in the area, preventing them from contacting people in their villages to ask for food supplies.

Taranjeet Singh said farmers were left walking around in desperation, asking one another about what the protest leaders might want them to do next.

“The communication blackout casts us into a state of darkness, exacerbating the chaos and confusion,” he said.


Supporters, opponents of Tehran clash in London

Supporters, opponents of Tehran clash in London
Updated 25 May 2024
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Supporters, opponents of Tehran clash in London

Supporters, opponents of Tehran clash in London
  • Event to mark death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi descends into violence
  • 4 injured, 1 arrested: Metropolitan Police

LONDON: Clashes in London between supporters and opponents of Iran’s government on Friday left four people with injuries, Sky News reported on Saturday.

One person was arrested on suspicion of violent disorder following the clashes.

Metropolitan Police officers were called to the scene at about 6 p.m. following reports of violence.

Pro-Tehran demonstrators had held an event to mark the death of President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash last week.

Outside the venue, anti-Tehran protesters held a counter-demonstration, and clashes broke out between the two sides.

A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said four people were treated by paramedics for injuries. “Their injuries are not believed to be either life threatening or life changing,” the spokesperson added.

“Further inquiries will now follow to establish what further offences took place and to identify those involved.”


G7 says will try to use frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine

G7 says will try to use frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine
Updated 25 May 2024
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G7 says will try to use frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine

G7 says will try to use frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine

STRESA: The G7 will explore ways of using the future income from frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine, finance chiefs from the Group of Seven industrial democracies said on Saturday, according to a draft statement seen by Reuters.
The G7 froze some $300 billion of Russian assets shortly after Moscow invaded its neighbor in February 2022.
“We are making progress in our discussions on potential avenues to bring forward the extraordinary profits stemming from immobilized Russian sovereign assets to the benefit of Ukraine,” the draft statement said.
The statement will not undergo significant changes before a final version to be released later on Saturday, a G7 source said.


Millions vote in India’s grueling election with Modi’s party likely to win a third term

Millions vote in India’s grueling election with Modi’s party likely to win a third term
Updated 25 May 2024
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Millions vote in India’s grueling election with Modi’s party likely to win a third term

Millions vote in India’s grueling election with Modi’s party likely to win a third term
  • Next-to-last phase of voting with temperatures forecast to surge to 47° Celsius in the capital New Delhi
  • More than 111 million people in 58 constituencies across eight states and federal territories are eligible to vote

NEW DELHI: Millions of Indians are voting Saturday in the next-to-last round of a grueling national election with a combined opposition trying to rattle Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign for a third-consecutive term for himself and his Hindu nationalist party.
Many people lined polling stations before the start of voting at 7 a.m. to avoid the blazing sun later in the day at the peak of Indian summer. The temperature soared to 43 Celsius (109.4 Fahrenheit) in the afternoon in the Indian capital.
Lakshmi Bansal, a housewife, said while the weather was hot, people usually went out to shop and even attend festivals is such heat.
“This (election) is also like a festival, so I don’t have a problem voting in the heat,” Bansal said.
Saturday’s voting in 58 constituencies, including seven in New Delhi, will complete polling for 89.5 percent of 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament.
The voting for the remaining 57 seats on June 1 will wrap up a six-week election. The votes will be counted on June 4.
President Droupadi Murmu and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar were among the early voters. Opposition Congress party leaders, Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, also voted in New Delhi.
Mehbooba Mufti, a former top elected official of Indian-controlled Kashmir, held a protest with her supporters Saturday claiming that scores of her party workers were detained by the police to prevent them from voting. Mufti, the chief of the People’s Democratic Party who is contesting the parliamentary election in the Anantnag-Rajouri district, said she complained to election officials.
In West Bengal state, workers belonging to the All India Trinamool Congress party, blocked the car of Agnimitra Paul, one of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party candidates, as she proceeded to vote in Medinipur constituency. The two parties are rivals in the state and their workers often clash on the streets.
This election is considered one of the most consequential in India’s history and will test Modi’s political dominance. If Modi wins, he’ll be only the second Indian leader to retain power for a third term, after Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister.
A less-than-expected voter turnout in the previous five rounds of voting seems to have left both sides guessing about the outcome of the election.
Election authorities said they are taking steps to ensure voters’ comfort, such as setting up fans and tents and providing drinking water.
Most polls predict a win for Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is up against a broad opposition alliance led by the Indian National Congress and powerful regional parties.
Modi was involved in a highly acrimonious and mudslinging campaign with the opposition, led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family that has produced three prime ministers.
“When the polls began it felt like a one-horse race, with Modi leading from the front. But now we are seeing some kind of shift,” political analyst Rasheed Kidwai said. “The opposition is doing better than expected and it appears that Modi’s party is rattled. That’s the reason you see Modi ramping up anti-Muslim rhetoric to polarize voters.”
Kidwai said the opposition has challenged Modi by centering its campaign narrative on social justice and rising unemployment, making the contest closer than expected.
Modi ran his campaign like a presidential race, a referendum on his 10 years of rule. He claimed to help the poorest with charity, free health care, providing toilets in their homes, and helping women get free or cheap cooking gas cylinders.
But he changed tack after a poor turnout of voters in the first round of the election and began stirring Hindu nationalism by accusing the Congress party of pandering to minority Muslims for votes.
Hindus account for 80 percent, and Muslims nearly 14 percent, of India’s over 1.4 billion people.
Manish Bhatia, a New Delhi voter, said that “politics on the basis of caste and religion is dangerous for the country,” adding that voting should be based on how candidates perform.
Nearly 970 million voters — more than 10 percent of the world’s population — were eligible to elect 543 members to the lower house of Parliament for five years.
Voters’ relative apathy has surprised some political analysts. In the five rounds of polling the voter turnout ranged between 62.2 percent to 69.16 percent — averaging 65.9 percent. By comparison, India’s 2019 national election registered the highest-ever voter turnout — 67.11 percent. Modi’s BJP won 303 seats in parliament in 2019.
Modi’s inauguration of a massive Hindu temple for the most revered Lord Rama, his massive roadshows, and big public rallies raised the BJP’s hopes of a massive a surge of voters in its favor.
The current prim minister came to power in 2014, dislodging the Congress party that governed the country for nearly 55 years after India won independence from British colonialists in 1947.
Before the election, the opposition INDIA alliance was seen bickering, but it has since held together, particularly after two chief ministers of two opposition-controlled states were sent to jail on corruption charges. Both deny the accusations.
One of them — New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal — has since been released on bail and returned to the campaign trail.
In March, Gandhi completed a 6,713-kilometer (4,171-mile) walk across the country, starting in the violence-hit northeastern state of Manipur, to raise awareness on issues of poverty, unemployment, and democracy with voters.
“The walk helped Gandhi boost his image as a serious politician among the voters, and that is helping the opposition,” Kidwai, the political anaylast, said.
 


India’s massive election faces heatwave challenge in penultimate phase

India’s massive election faces heatwave challenge in penultimate phase
Updated 25 May 2024
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India’s massive election faces heatwave challenge in penultimate phase

India’s massive election faces heatwave challenge in penultimate phase
  • The Election Commission has deployed paramedics with medicines and oral hydration salts at polling stations in Delhi
  • In Haryana, people residing near polling booths pitched in to help voters, handing out cold drinks, dry fruits and milk

NEW DELHI: The world’s largest election may become the hottest on Saturday, as Indians participate in the next-to-last phase of voting with temperatures forecast to surge to 47 degrees Celsius (117 degrees Fahrenheit) in the capital New Delhi.
More than 111 million people in 58 constituencies across eight states and federal territories are eligible to vote in the general election’s sixth phase, which recorded a turnout of 10.82 percent in the first two hours of the 11-hour poll.
The overall turnout in the same phase of the last elections in 2019 was about 63 percent.
“There is a concern, but we hope that people will overcome the fear of the heatwave and come and vote,” Delhi Chief Electoral Officer P. Krishnamurthy told Reuters.
Voting in the elections began on April 19 and will conclude on June 1, with counting set for June 4.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who is favored to win a third consecutive term, also asked people to “vote in large numbers” in a message on social media platform X on Saturday.
The Election Commission has deployed paramedics with medicines and oral hydration salts at polling stations in Delhi, which have additionally been equipped with mist machines, shaded waiting areas and cold water dispensers for voters.
In some parts of the northern state of Haryana, people residing near polling booths also pitched in to help voters beat the heat, handing out cold drinks, dry fruits and milk free of cost.
Among those who cast their ballot early in Delhi were Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party and Modi’s main rival, his mother Sonia Gandhi and sister Priyanka Vadra.
“We are keeping all our grievances aside and casting our vote for our constitution and democracy,” Vadra told reporters.
Opposition leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose bail after pre-trial detention of nearly two months in a graft case has given fresh impetus to the opposition campaign, also voted in the capital.
Price rise and unemployment were two of the major issues mentioned by voters to Reuters when asked about the factors that determined their ballot.
“The government boasts about fast economic growth but the reality on the ground is very different,” said Delhi voter Fazal, 46, who only gave his first name and works at a multinational corporation, adding he also voted to “save democracy.”
Ashok Ghana, a plumber in the eastern state of Odisha, who said he voted for the BJP, added that “price rise and the non-availability of jobs” were the issues he considered.
Among those who voted based on the situation in their region was property dealer Praveen Chauhan, 43, in Delhi.
“My main issues are clean water, electricity, access to good health care and education,” he said, adding that the Kejriwal-led Delhi government “has given us that till now.”
While the heatwave was a concern in Delhi, a cyclone that is expected to hit land tomorrow was being closely watched in eastern Odisha and West Bengal, parts of which are also voting on Saturday.


Taiwan calls China’s military drills a ‘blatant provocation’ to world order

Taiwan calls China’s military drills a ‘blatant provocation’ to world order
Updated 25 May 2024
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Taiwan calls China’s military drills a ‘blatant provocation’ to world order

Taiwan calls China’s military drills a ‘blatant provocation’ to world order
  • The drills were launched three days after Taiwan’s President Lai Ching-te took office
  • Exercises involved simulating strikes targeting the island’s leaders as well as its ports and airports

TAIPEI: China’s two-day military drills around Taiwan were a “blatant provocation to the international order,” Taipei said in a statement Saturday after the war games encircling the self-ruled island ended.
The drills were launched three days after Taiwan’s President Lai Ching-te took office and made an inauguration speech that China denounced as a “confession of independence.”
China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, regards Lai as a “dangerous separatist.”
By Friday evening, a presenter for state-run military news channel CCTV-7 said the Chinese army had “successfully completed” the operation dubbed “Joint Sword-2024A.”
In a statement, Lai’s presidential spokesperson Karen Kuo reiterated that ensuring peace and stability across the region was “related to the common interests of the international community.”
“However, China’s recent unilateral provocation not only undermines the status quo of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait but it is also a blatant provocation to the international order, triggering serious concern and condemnation from the international community,” she said.
Kuo added that Taiwan hopes “China will take the safety and happiness of the people on both sides into consideration, pursue mutual benefit, coexistence... stop all kinds of political and military intimidations on Taiwan and the region.”
Self-ruled Taiwan has its own democratically elected government, military and currency, but Beijing has said it would never renounce the potential use of force to bring the island under its control.
Chinese military analysts told state news agency Xinhua that the People’s Liberation Army vessels had inched “closer than ever before” to Taiwan’s shores during the two-day military drills.
The exercises involved simulating strikes targeting the island’s leaders as well as its ports and airports, they said.
In regards to China’s various military actions, Kuo said that “the president and the national security team have a full grasp of the situation” and called for the public to “rest assured.”