The words “One Earth. One Family. One Future”, which is Vasudaiva Kutumbakam in India’s ethos, flip across the website of G20 under India’s presidency. A prominent link on the home page reminds readers of what India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in November 2022 when he released the logo for India’s G20 presidency, thus setting off a series of events linked to the global process.
Here, Modi spotlighted “LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment), with its associated, environmentally sustainable and responsible choices, both at the level of individual lifestyles as well as national development, leading to globally transformative actions resulting in a cleaner, greener and bluer future” as a key goal of “India’s G20 presidency”.
He explains this can only be achieved by “striving for just and equitable growth for all in the world, as we navigate through these turbulent times, in a sustainable, holistic, responsible, and inclusive manner”.
Invoking the legacy of “Mahatma Basaveshwara, Dayanand Saraswati, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Mahatma Phule, Lokmanya Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar”, the Civil20 (C20) India process was projected as “one of the official engagement groups of the G20 that provides a platform for civil society organisations (CSO) around the world to voice people’s aspirations to the world leaders in G20.”
Its website states that it “represents a democratic, participatory, and harmonious way of working together”. C20’s goal is to “focus on solving the socio-economic matters which touch the daily lives of the people, which include education, health, environment, technology and sewa (sense of service)”.
Using massive public resources, C20 events involved only those civil society organisations, academics and media comfortable with the bigoted Hindutva vision of India that is ideologically core to the RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – Modi’s party. The BJP’s electoral symbol, the lotus, is also etched into this year’s G20 logo, leaving little doubt of its purpose.
It became essential, therefore, for progressive and independent voluntary organisations, people’s movements, independent research initiatives, free academics, media etc. to articulate their concerns about how the G20 process was being employed – to project a deliberately coloured version of India’s polity.
It was important to highlight how Narendra Modi is governing India and causing massive democratic deficits. Such voices would never find a place in the official G20 or C20 engagement groups.
This was a space for the peoples of the G20 countries – who collectively represent around 85% of the global GDP, over 75% of global trade and about two-thirds of the world’s population – to fathom risks in securing an inclusive and stable future in a fractured world riddled with crises.
For the Modi administration, We20 offered an incredible opportunity to demonstrate to the world that it is serious about building an inclusive India.
Instead, when the We20 proceedings were underway, a little before noon on August 19, a massive battalion of the Delhi police swept in and cordoned off the area in a military-style operation. Thus, the police effectively imprisoned over 400 delegates from across India who were inside Surjeet Bhavan.
Hundreds of participants, including elders and women from the most vulnerable communities who had travelled from very far to participate in the summit and ensure their voices were heard as well, were denied entry into the venue.
Participants were literally forced to stand by the cordoned gates and request the police to allow water and food to be passed through. Those outside were forced to stay on footpaths in the humid Delhi weather and under a scorching sun, without access to restrooms too. According to the police, the summit was being organised without their permission!
At the time of the police action, the session that was underway was titled: ‘Does the Modi Administration Really Deliver on Tackling Climate Change, to Protect the Environment, Biodiversity and Associated Human Rights, as Claimed With G20 and Other Global Fora?’
Participating in this discussion were India’s former environment minister and Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh, Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Rajya Sabha MP Anil Hegde, Vandana Shiva of Navdanya and the authors of this article.
The packed hall was engaged in deep conversations with the panel on how the Modi administration emasculated the Forest Conservation Act and the Biological Diversity Act over the past few weeks, and that this fundamentally weakened global action to effectively tackle climate change.
Someone popped in to whisper the event was being forced shut by the police. Unfazed, the meeting continued.
Jairam Ramesh tweeted later: “It is extraordinary that Delhi Police is stopping people from attending the We20 meeting organised by activists representing We, The People, inside a building that belongs to the CPM. The meeting is perfectly peaceful. There are no street protests. I managed to enter at 10:30 am before Delhi Police started its operations but had difficulty exiting now. This is New India Democracy.”
The matter-of-fact reference to “New India Democracy”, a phrase Modi employs repeatedly, has frightening underpinnings. The Delhi police subsequently ensured that the We20 Peoples’ Summit did not proceed on Sunday, August 20, with a letter issued by the Central District deputy commissioner of police (DCP) stating,
“Request to hold meeting inside the premises and hall of HKS Surjeet Bhawan as part of G-20 Summit by Working Group on IFIs on 19 & 20.08.2023 till 1800 hours has been considered but due to law & order/traffic reason, and non-availability of the vital information pertaining to the gathering, visitors, etc. which is needed as per oreder [sic] of Hon’ble High Court of Delhi in W.P.(C)-2965/2023, dated 10.03.2023 above mentioned program is hereby rejected”.
A review of the Delhi high court citation reveals it was specific to one event held in March 2023, and has no cross-cutting implications whatsoever.
The authors conducted a search of the Delhi police website with the keywords “public meeting”, “prior permission” and “G20”, which reveals no orders or circulars have been issued over the past five years restricting the holding of such meetings or conventions or any other such events inside closed premises, anywhere in Delhi or in the sensitive central Delhi region.
A review of the notifications issued (there are 867 records) reveals that on July 12 this year, the Central DCP issued one relating to ensuring public safety during the prevailing floods in Delhi, and another one on December 9, 2022 inviting the public to reclaim recovered stolen articles.
No written circular or order or notification issued by the Delhi police in 2022 or 2023 empowers the Central District DCP to declare, even if under duress – as is apparent from his letter – that the We20 Peoples’ Summit was being held illegally and can be shut down.
If one were to examine the claim that the summit created law and order and traffic problems, anyone visiting the venue would notice that it was held in an orderly and absolutely peaceful manner, within Surjeet Bhavan. And barring a few parked rickshaws, taxis and cars, there was absolutely no traffic anywhere in a kilometre’s radius – and this was during the week’s working days.
And why the Delhi police imagined it was essential for them to collect “vital information pertaining to the gathering, visitors, etc.” begs the question: will they, on such a premise, shut down trains, metros and bus stations, hotels, marriage gatherings, corporate get-togethers, schools, colleges, hospitals, public offices, etc. because none of these institutions gathers such “vital information”?
The unfortunate police officer’s roving expedition in presenting rationality for what is clearly an attack on the fundamental rights of the citizens of this country to gather and conduct any event peacefully is how police power is being employed under Modi’s administration.
When leaders of the G20 gather in September in Delhi, they need to reflect on what they are doing to India and its liberal democratic traditions. They cannot shy away from taking responsibility for active efforts underway to quell open, free and critical discussions about the impact of G20.
Those from Britain, the European Union and North American nations who espouse liberal democratic values need to take cognisance of this repressive state of affairs in India. It will not be an easy task when several of the G20 leaders are noted as governing their countries in rather undemocratic and even ruthless ways by various independent global surveys.
The We20 process, conducted independently without any fear or favour, introspected and interrogated vital concerns towards making the world a better place for all.
It was organised in the context of extensive climate change-related disasters across the world and brought to focus how existential crises due to climate change are colliding with the chaos resulting from neo-liberal economic models, manifesting in multiple ways in a multipolar world that is suffering from violent clashes between nations and amongst peoples within nations.
The summit delved deep into the six-agenda priorities for the 2023 G20 dialogue, such as green development, climate finance & LiFE, accelerated, inclusive and resilient growth, accelerating progress on sustainable development goals, technological transformation & digital public infrastructure, multilateral institutions for the 21st century, and women-led development.
The coming together of peoples, movements, trade unions, civil society organisations, concerned individuals and affected communities to deliberate on such critical issues should have been welcomed.
Modi could have issued a direction to all his cabinet colleagues and ensured there were ministry representatives attending and listening to what people from across India – most of who had come with their own resources – were saying. Was the Modi administration so scared of learning the truth that it instead chose to shut down the We20 Peoples’ Summit?
Leo F. Saldanha and Bhargavi S. Rao are public policy analysts associated with Environment Support Group, an intersectional, intersectoral and interdisciplinary research, campaign and advocacy initiative based in Bangalore. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].