When farmers are terrorists and Greta gets charged with conspiracy for tweeting: Law as storytelling

The ongoing farm protests pose an incredible study for sociology of law and the anthropology of the state. While reading the following chronology, note the role of how physical presence is regulated, how events in different spaces affect each other (Twitter) of interpretations of the *purpose* of legislation, and of how government institutions have reacted, either wielding laws or refusing to wield them, and using criminal cases to tell stories.

September 2020: Indian legislative passes agricultural bills which allow companies to buy farmers’ produce in non-state fora without certain protections. No consultation with farmers happened, but one of the bills is nonetheless called Farmers “Empowerment and Protection” Agreement. India’s richest men, one of them with a market monopoly, has previously announced his intention to expand into the agricultural market.

November 2020: Tens of thousands of farmers arrive in the outskirts of New Delhi, protesting against the laws. Trade unions have made extensive presentations on the risks, for example that companies will refuse to buy via state fora, and will therefore drive prices down. Farmers also lament that despite farmers’ suicides in the past decades and the crucial role of food security, farmers were not consulted, and the laws were passed in a rushed way. Constitutional lawyers point out that the laws relate to agriculture, which the central government is not authorized to legislate on.

December 2020: The government accuses farmers of being uneducated and misguided. Then it calls farmers terrorists, alleging that Sikh separatists are leading the movement. The Supreme Court takes up the case, stays the implementation of the laws – and instead of ruling on the constitutionality of the laws proposed mediation between farmers and government.

January 2021: The government proposes to delay the implementation of the laws to focus on mediation and negotiations – but reiterates that it has no intention of taking back the laws. Farmers reject the offer and reiterate that they will only accept the total revocation. On India’s Republic Day, farmers hold a large protest, for which they have received permission only in a certain area. Ruling party supporters pose as farmers and spread misleading information on social media. Although farmers have already died of other causes during these protests, for the first time, violence erupts. The government puts up physical barricades and shuts down the internet locally (for my analysis on the illegality of internet shutdowns, read here).

February 2021: Rihanna and Greta Thunberg tweet about the protests, merely stating they stand in solidarity. The government laments misunderstandings and foreign interference – similar to an abusive husband who is beating his wife daily, and whose neighbours now rush over to see what is happening. The Delhi Police registers a case against Greta for “promoting enmity between groups” and “criminal conspiracy”. Journalists reporting from the scene are arrested.

I stand in solidarity with farmers. As I argued when Kashmir’s Article 370 & 35A were revoked (here): Even if the law is made to protect them and helps them (which I firmly assert it isn’t), communication and collaboration are crucial. At the same time, I want to express that the police’s registering cases against Greta and journalists cannot be countered with reference to legality. I have seen repeated posts saying “If protesting is a constitutional right in India, then how is doing so abroad a crime under Indian law?” And this totally misses the point. What matters here isn’t what is said, but with what purpose it is said, and what it aims to communicate. I cite here a concept by Walter Benjamin:

Legal violence has a “mythical character, in other words a god-like force that rules mortals’ fates, is its ambiguity and unpredictability. The unfathomable and unpredictable anger of the gods, which can neither be made sense of rationally nor be predicted in advance, threatens mortals as potential targets of violence or reduces them to potentially punishable subjects. In other words, the power and anger of the gods, whose truth cannot be ascertained by human capacities, haunts the present and future of human beings as fate.”

Yonucu, Deniz. “The absent present law: An ethnographic study of legal violence in Turkey.” Social & Legal Studies 27, no. 6 (2018): 716-733.

Critical legal scholars and anthropologists have highlighted the performative aspects of law:

“Trials embody and perform claims about the authority of the state. Trials of enemies of the state exist not to prove guilty or innocent but, rather, as stages of enactment of state power.”

Yonucu, Deniz. “The absent present law: An ethnographic study of legal violence in Turkey.” Social & Legal Studies 27, no. 6 (2018): 716-733.

The state is picking its scapegoats to tell a narrative (for more on how threats to economic growth are framed as security threats, read here). And what we – including me with this post – are engaging in is telling a counternarrative. Ultimately, however, just as Trump got away will continuously changing his story, the power of the state is that it can literally decide which narrative and which story is Capital T Truth. Their power is to pick which Truth it will base its actions on. And this will be what we will perpetually struggle in: Telling a story to counter the other story.

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