Police Trying to Shut Down 'We20' Meet Once Again 'Underscores India’s Democratic Backslide'

Organisers have carried on with workshops at CPI(M)'s Surjeet Bhawan where 70 people's movements and civil society organisations had organised a seminar, which has drawn more attention after Delhi police's high-handedness. 

New Delhi: Speakers, including parliamentarians, academics and activists said the sudden police crackdown on the ‘We20’ people’s summit at New Delhi – which is critical about the G20 leader’s summit to be hosted by India – reflects India’s severe backsliding on the democracy scale.

Congress MP and former union minister Jairam Ramesh said the conduct of police goes against all democratic norms.

“Most undemocratic, absolute fascism, absolutely against all democratic norms. Perfectly peaceful meeting, seminar taking place and this reflects the mindset of the Modi government,” Ramesh said as he left the venue after his designated workshop.

Ramesh has also tweeted that while he managed to enter at 10.30 am, before Delhi Police began its “operations,” he had difficulty exiting.

A total of nine workshops were planned in the summit to deliberate on key issues pertinent to the G20 agenda such as agriculture and food security, climate crisis and just energy transition, rising inequalities, labour and employment, alternative ideas of development, democracy and dissent and more.

‘Modi govt attempts to shut down We20’

The event’s organisers noted in a lengthy statement that “When G20 leaders gather in Delhi in a few weeks, they will be walked around Delhi, and tall claims will be made that India is a liberal democracy. All they need to do is contrast the actual diversity of India, its peoples, languages, its faiths, and its cultural and natural biodiversity, with what is being projected through G20 and C20 platforms in India.”

They wrote that the real picture is of majoritarian and cultural imposition – “all of which is nothing short of using global forums to promote bigoted and highly divisive Hindutva agenda that Modi champions.”

‘Requisite permission’

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan’s Nikhil De called the situation extremely sad, especially considering the narrowing of democratic space.

“We, as an organisation [MKSS] have all been fighting for even Jantar Mantar, the last democratic space and we got a decision from the Supreme Court. And this is not even an outside space, this is an inside space. If even parties cannot have this space, does the BJP not hold discussions and seminars? Does the Congress not have discussions? And here, all of us in civil society keep looking for space. Now they are saying requisite permission was not taken. I don’t understand,” he said.

The Wire has learnt that police and security forces had said that the event cannot happen – a day after it had already been inaugurated.

The police initially asked people to leave but after people resisted, they stopped and have currently restricted themselves to preventing entry into Surjeet Bhawan.

“For a normal seminar or discussion of G20, what kind of permission is needed?” asked De.

“Inside too there are not some large number of people, no fire rules are being broken. What kind of image do we want to project in G20, that India is not allowing any kind of discussion or dissent? There is no protest. This is a discussion about things G20 has been discussing. We have been deeply concerned about all of them, we have 40 years at the grassroots and India can actually showcase to the world like MNREGA, like pensions, debate within the state itself, like Right to information,” he said.

De said that he was supposed to speak on the digital data protection act but he was not let inside by police. “Whether someone agrees with you or not, these are democratic points of view. It’s a real shame that we are not being allowed to speak, using force to shut it down. Even if there is a problem, [the government] should speak to organisers separately and say that India encourages discussion and allows debates,” he said.

‘Shocking violation of our academic freedom’

Professor Nandini Sundar, who is a sociologist at Delhi University said that she “had come to the We20 seminar to learn more about what G20 means for all the peoples for all countries which are part of G20.” The event had sought to highlight that the G20 was an “informal elite club” of traditional and selected powers whose decisions impact the policies and financial architecture of the whole world.

“It is really shocking that the police have barricaded this meeting from outside. They have surrounded the HKS Surjeet Bhawan. It is a shocking violation of our academic freedom, of our freedom of expression, of our right to know and engage in this kind of conversation. There are people who have come from all parts of the country to learn and the police have provided absolutely no reason why in a private building we need to ask for permission, police permission, to discuss what we want to discuss,” Sundar said.

Photo: By arrangement

‘Why does the government now allow people to express themselves?’

Among participants is also Medha Patkar, activist and politician working on matters of concern for Dalits, tribals, workers and farmers.

“G20 is a gathering of international capitalist and industrialists, taking place in Delhi. In this context, several people movements, farmers, women, living in slums, who are discussing issues of concern, what they expect from G20. Now, if G20 will take decisions on land and people and we have our views, why is government scared of us expressing them? So many people have gathered in Surjeet Bhawan, they have placed cops at gates, not allowing people to come in. Now intellectuals, MPs like Jairam Ramesh and Aneel Hegde are here. Why does the government now allow people to express themselves and have their say?” Patkar asked.

She also questioned as to why the government cannot accept that people will have views on law, policies and other aspects of governance.

“People who work with movements are no strangers to police action, but if this is the message India gives to the world and world leaders, then when Pradhan Mantri ji went to US and said we take all people along when we take decisions and we don’t discriminate on the basis of caste or religion in India, then that would be proven to be a lie. If we are speaking here of protecting the biosphere, land, environment, living beings, then isn’t the PM saying exactly that in Paris and other places? How is what we are saying different? We are not going to get scared nor scare anyone. We will keep moving forward,” she said.

CPI(M) issues statement

Meanwhile the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which owns the Harkishan Singh Surjeet Bhavan, said that the action of the Delhi Police, to try and stop a seminar-cum-workshop “was totally uncalled for and an attempt to suppress dissenting opinions being voiced.”

“The police sought to stop the meeting stating that it had not got police permission. No police permission was ever required for such meetings or seminars in private buildings,” it said, registering protest against what it called arbitrary action.

“The Modi government must stop interfering, through the Delhi Police, in the democratic right of citizens to hold discussions and seminars in the capital,” it said.

(With inputs from Yaqut Ali)