Delhi police’s heavy hand at ‘We20: Peoples’ Summit’ highlights Modi government’s fear of dissent

Clampdown on the civil society summit on August 19, citing permission issues, sparks concerns about free speech before the G20 summit.

Published : Aug 21, 2023 10:11 IST - 8 MINS READ

Roma Malik, an activist from All Indian Union of Forest Working People, speaks during a ‘People’s Summit on G20” in New Delhi on August 19, 2023. Prominent activists, academics and politicians have gathered ahead of next month’s G-20 Summit to highlight issues that directly affect citizens, challenge those in power and build an alternative forum, organisers of the We20 said.

Roma Malik, an activist from All Indian Union of Forest Working People, speaks during a ‘People’s Summit on G20” in New Delhi on August 19, 2023. Prominent activists, academics and politicians have gathered ahead of next month’s G-20 Summit to highlight issues that directly affect citizens, challenge those in power and build an alternative forum, organisers of the We20 said. | Photo Credit: Manish Swarup

The disruption of the “We20: Peoples’ Summit”, organised by more than 70 civil society groups and referred to as the “people’s summit on the G20,” on August 19 by the Delhi police, which falls under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, serves as the latest example of the Modi government’s response to democratic forums voicing dissenting opinions. This incident comes at a time when the Modi administration’s handling of its critics continues to raise significant concerns across the country, particularly within the context of a shrinking space for democratic dissent.

Over the past nine years, the Modi government has extensively utilised stringent laws and, in numerous cases, manufactured charges to suppress its critics. Amid politically motivated raids on media outlets, the targeting of media professionals, and aggressive takeovers, India’s Press Freedom Index is on a consistent downward trend.

In 2021, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval clearly outlined his government’s intentions, stating to a group of IPS probationers in Hyderabad that “the new frontiers of war are civil society, which can be manipulated to harm a nation’s interests”. The roster of government actions spans from demolishing the homes of protesters to regulating non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and persecuting activists engaged in environmental and human rights endeavours.

Setback to democratic ideals

The disruption of the “We20: Peoples’ Summit” at the CPI (M)-owned H.K.S. Surjeet Bhawan is termed as the most recent setback to democratic ideals. The event, which was prematurely truncated due to police intervention, aimed to deliberate on a range of pressing issues directly affecting marginalised and vulnerable segments of the population. The issues include land rights, natural resources, food security, escalating economic inequality, climate justice, and the surging influence of majoritarian politics vis-à-vis the agenda delineated for the meeting of 20 nations spanning continents, as well as the European Union, which collectively represent approximately 85 per cent of global GDP.

Given that the G20 Summit will precede the 2024 Lok Sabha election, the ruling BJP is positioning it as evidence of India’s growing stature as a “Vishwa Guru” (world teacher) and Narendra Modi’s standing as a global leader. In November 2022, PM Modi launched the G20 logo and introduced India’s G20 Presidency theme, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family)”.

Modi articulated, “The most pressing challenges we confront—climate change, terrorism, and pandemics—can be resolved not through conflict but solely by collective action.” He went on to emphasise the necessity to “depoliticise the global supply of food, fertilisers, and medical products, to prevent geopolitical tensions from devolving into humanitarian crises.” Underscoring the imperative of fostering “a candid dialogue” to address the perils posed by weapons of mass destruction and enhance global security, Modi asserted that India’s G20 Presidency would embody “healing, harmony, and hope”.

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It is reported that the Modi administration has expended Rs.50.6 crore on outdoor advertisements for the impending summit, scheduled for September 9-10 at the recently inaugurated state-of-the-art convention complex in New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, and the government appears to be operating at full throttle on the preparations. Moreover, there appears to be a conspicuous endeavour to suppress anything that might potentially tarnish the government’s image.

Following Indonesia, India assumed the G20 presidency on December 1, 2022. After hosting over 200 G20 Presidency meetings in various cities across India, the organisers of the We20 meet lamented, “We did not perceive the concerns of the labouring masses or the issues currently afflicting the economy reflected therein.” Starting on August 18, the “We20 Summit”—with the tagline “People and Nature over Profits for a Just, Inclusive, Transparent, and Equitable Future”—was initially programmed to extend till August 20. However, the Delhi police, allegedly operating under the aegis of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, hindered attendees from participating in the event on its second day.

As a substantial police contingent cordoned off the Surjeet Bhawan, the organisers retorted to police contentions that they lacked prior authorisation, stating, “We require ‘permission’ to exercise democracy.” CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury swiftly pointed out, “No police permission was ever mandated for gatherings or seminars in private premises.” Nonetheless, when the organisers sought permission, the police denied it.

More than 70 organisations, unions, and grassroots associations, including the National Alliance of People’s Movements, Focus on the Global South, All India Union of Forest Working People, Narmada Bachao Andolan, Environment Support Group (ESG), People’s Resource Centre, People First, Alternative Law Forum, Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, Delhi Forum, Jharkhand Mine Area Committee, Parisar, Basti Suraksha Manch, National Hawkers Federation, Pani Haq Samiti, and Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao, among others, played instrumental roles in shaping the event.

Following the denial of permission on August 20, the organisers released a declaration and concluded the summit before time. The declaration characterises the G-20 as an opulent networking affair for affluent and emerging market economies, ostensibly aligned with supporting vulnerable individuals and safeguarding the planet. The declaration further rebukes the G20 for neglecting to address economic, social, and ecological injustices, inequality, agrarian, food, and livelihood crises, debt burdens, accelerating climate change, as well as human rights infringements and democratic erosion.

“We, the people, insist that the G20 must promptly heed the voices and priorities of individuals, particularly those most susceptible to, and afflicted by, inequality and crises. The G20 should respond fittingly by prioritising the well-being of people and the environment over profits, striving for a fair, comprehensive, transparent, and just financial and developmental system and future,” the declaration asserts.

When the robust police cordon barricaded the H.K.S. Surjeet Bhawan complex within the CPI(M)-owned building around 11 am on August 19, Rajya Sabha MPs Jairam Ramesh and Aneel Hegde were in attendance. The roster of speakers anticipated for the seminars included activists such as Medha Patkar, Vandana Shiva, Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikhil Dey, Thomas Franco, and Shaktiman Ghosh. The organisers averred that the event aimed to amplify the voices of the people, seeking a more democratic, equitable, and inclusive financial system and political framework.

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On the inaugural day, August 18, speakers encompassing representatives from peoples’ movements, trade unions, and civil society deliberated on how the decisions of the G20, as a global informal elite consortium, impact the worldwide financial architecture, national economies, the operation of democratic institutions, as well as individuals’ livelihoods and fundamental rights.

Labelling the pomp and pageantry surrounding the G20 as an endeavour to conceal crony capitalism, the speakers accused the Modi government of displaying hostility toward civil society and those active in the human rights sector. Concerns also surfaced regarding the displacement resulting from beautification drives undertaken within and around Delhi, rendering thousands of families homeless.

We20 vs G20: The responses

Delivering a scathing critique of the government, Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Jha accused the BJP-led central administration of assaulting civil society organisations. Jha posited that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s symbolic gesture, kissing the Parliament House steps in 2014, has proven to be the “kiss of death for Indian democracy”.

Activist Teesta Setalvad opined, “While India may assert itself as the Mother of Democracy, the parliament is being wielded to undermine the constitution.” Roma Malik, an advocate associated with the All India Union of Forest Working People, expressed, “The G20 champions a capitalist agenda. We must safeguard our heritage and civilisation, Jal-Jangal-Jameen (water, forest, land).”

Questioning whether the G20 presents any avenue for the populace, economist Arun Kumar, addressing the G20 and its ramifications for India’s critical sectors, observed, “Marginalised sections remain marginalised in our policies. The spotlight remains on the already affluent. Our ruling class aligns with the ruling class of developed nations.”

Medha Patkar, the activist behind the Narmada Bachao Andolan, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the G20, asserting, “For whose benefit was it initially instituted? Evidently, this mandate is inclined toward corporations, concurrently being employed to undermine our laws and constitution.”

Vehicles drive past the logo of India’s G20 summit, along a road in New Delhi on August 10, 2023.

Vehicles drive past the logo of India’s G20 summit, along a road in New Delhi on August 10, 2023. | Photo Credit: SAJJAD HUSSAIN

Rajeev Gowda, former Rajya Sabha member and Congress leader, remarked that despite the Modi government’s concerted endeavours and tax incentives, “private entities have so far evinced no inclination to invest in sectors aspired by the government.”

Thomas Franco from the All India Bank Officers’ Confederation stated, “The entire financial sector has succumbed to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Financial Stability Board. Under the guise of reform, they advance privatisation, corporatisation, and the sidelining of the majority. We have contested these reforms since 1991, and no bank has been privatised. The need of the hour is to rise and counter fascist, corporate, and communal forces.”

Also Read | Free speech and India

Addressing the G20 and its evolving financial structure, economist Jayati Ghosh remarked, “Numerous pledges were made during the Indian presidency—eradicating inequality, addressing the debt crisis, implementing tax reforms, curbing illicit financial flows, and more. However, this G20 tenure has been the least productive, failing to even issue a joint communiqué.”

Harsh Mander, associated with Karwan-e-Mohabbat, warned, “If the government remains unchanged in 2024, the narrative of Manipur’s struggle could replicate across the nation.”

In reaction to the crackdown on the event, Annie Raja, a CPI leader, denounced the police action as an assault on the right to freedom of expression. Likewise, Rajya Sabha MP and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh remarked, “It is extraordinary that Delhi Police are impeding participation in the We20 meeting.”

Similarly, Nikhil Dey, affiliated with Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangthan, deemed the police action “manifestly autocratic,” and added, “This global elite (G20), along with its Indian leadership, is apprehensive of the voice of the people.”

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