After 15 months of protests by farmers across several states, the Centre on November 19 made a U-turn to announce its decision to repeal the three contentious farm laws passed last year. While elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh may have influenced the BJP government's decision to roll back the Bills, this is not the only time the government faced widespread protests over a new legislation or reform measure.
In fact, in its first term itself, the BJP government faced mass protests following the proposed changes to the land acquisition act. Since then, the two terms of the Modi government has seen faced several mass protests and public outrage.
Here's taking a look at some of the moves initiated by the Modi government that led to noisy protests across the nation since 2014.
1. Land Acquisition Reforms (2015)
One of the first moves by the Modi government that ran into protests was the land acquisition ordinance which sought to add amendments to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. The proposed reform to the land acquisition act immediately led to protests, with the Opposition coming down hard on the government's alleged "anti-poor" policies. Critics said the ordinance new gave the government the power to neglect public purpose and social impact assessments during land acquisition for certain government projects.
The 2013 Act also carried a clause that sought the consent of 70 per cent of landowners for PP-related land acquisitions. The 2015 ordinance sought to do away with the consent clause as well. Critics claimed that the ordinance was aimed at making it easier for private companies to acquire agricultural land.
(Youth Congress leaders organise Kisan Sabha against the proposed land acquisition reforms in New Delhi, 2015 | Credit: PTI)
The move led to the mass protests, spearheaded by Congress and the coinage of Rahul Gandhi's now-famous dig "suit-boot ki sarkar" as a reference to the Modi government.
The ordinance was introduced in Lok Sabha in February 2015 and passed by LS in March but failed to pass the Rajya Sabha. After the ordinance failed to get Parliament's approval in the first leg of the budget session, the government promulgated it as the RFCTLARR (Amendment) Ordinance, 2015 in April and then again as the RFCTLARR (Amendment) Second Ordinance, 2015 in May.
(AAP workers burning copies of the ordinance in Guwahati, 2015 | Credit: PTI)
However, after repeated failed attempts to pass the ordinance and amid continued protests, the Centre decided to withdraw the proposed reforms with the PM assuring the nation during his August Mann Ki Baat broadcast that the ordinance will lapse. "I am open to any suggestion in the interest of the farmers...I saw how the farmers were being misled and a fear psychosis created. My dear farmers, you should not be misled and definitely never be scared. And I do not wish to give anyone the opportunity to mislead you and scare you. For me, every single voice in the nation is important but most important to me is the voice of the farmer. We had issued an ordinance. Tomorrow, on August 31st (2015) the deadline for this ordinance ends. I have decided to let this ordinance lapse,” he said.
2. Occupy UGC Movement (2015-16)
It all began when the University Grants Commission, a statutory government body, decided to scrap non-NET fellowships in 2015, leading to massive protests from students across central universities of India.
(Students lead a protest march to the Parliament in New Delhi against the UGC reforms in 2015 | Credit: PTI)
What started as a students' movement for safeguarding their right to education soon turned into a full-blown battle between students and the government with the suicide of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Venula in 2016, causing a snowballing effect. As students from several central universities, including Vemula's Hyderabad University, took to the streets and demanded justice against caste discrimination in the education system, student leaders like then JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid rose to prominence.
(Protesters demand resignation of University of Hyderabad VC and justice for Rohith Vemula following his death on January 17, 2016 | Credit: AP)
While the Occupy UGC protests continued in various forms (later in the form of protests against fee hikes implemented by UGC in universities like JNU), the demonstrations against UGC's policies appear to have set the tone for protests in the coming years, mainly against the Centre's increasing control over the UGC and educational institutions.
It was among one of the protests organised at this time by some JNU students against the hanging of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhatt in February 2016 when slogans for "azadi" were raised, leading to the arrest of Kumar. Upon his release, Kumar in a memorable speech in JNU had said that his arrest and the media attention on "anti-national" slogans and students was just a way for the government to divert attention from the UGC protests
(Former JNUSU leader Kanhaiya Kumar giver a rousing speech to a packed audience after his release from prison in the JNU sedition case, 2016 | Credit: PTI)
Since 2014, several teachers bodies, students as well as civil society members have protested against the shrinking autonomy of universities and colleges under the UGC with respect to hiring, syllabus and other aspects that were previously under the universities' control. Now, the government's decision to convert UGC into the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) is being seen as another step in that direction.
The Occupy UGC movement set the ground for a culture of widespread student agitations and led to the establishment of a network of student protests that attacked the government on multiple issues. It also set the 'liberal vs right wing' narrative in the country and spawned terms like "anti-national" which continue to resonate through national politics in 2021.
(Student leaders reiterating their demands to then Union HRD minister Smriti Irani at the height of 'Occupy UGC' movement in 2015 | Credit: PTI)
The massive crowds at rallies organised by JNU and Jami Millia Islamia also established the power of student politics and movements as an important voice of social discourse and dissent in the country, way before the 2019 anti-CAA/NRC protests.
3. Demonetisation (2016)
On November 8, 2016, India withdrew Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes from circulation in a bid to curb the flow of black money in the economy. What followed were days of long queues outside ATMs, machines running out of cash, and several deaths due to the sudden jolt to the cash economy through demonetisation.
(Endless queues outside banks and ATMs after the government announced note ban in 2016 | Credit: PTI)
While some sections of the country hailed demonetisation as a bold move by the Modi government to counter black many, others saw it as a failure. In the days post demonetisation, images and tales of cash-strapped people making beelines outside banks and ATMs for hours with limited success shed light on the hardships faced by citizens following the sudden announcement.
Five years on, experts find it difficult to ascertain whether demonetisation really had a positive impact on taking black money out of circulation. Critics have also questioned the transparency of the decision.
(Congress workers organise protests against note ban in New Delhi in 2016 | Credit: PTI)
An RTI later revealed that the demonetisation decision was taken at an RBI board meeting at 5:30 pm on November 8, 2016. The decision was then vetted by the Cabinet. To stop any leak of this sensitive information before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced it to the nation at 8 pm, all cabinet ministers and officials were asked to switch off their mobile phones before entering the meeting.
(Protests against demonetisation in New Delhi | Credit: PTI)
Even within the government, very few, including the then finance minister, Arun Jaitley, the finance secretary, the RBI governor and a select few in the Prime Minister’s Office reportedly knew about the decision to scrap Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes.
4. GST Reforms (2017)
The Goods and Services Tax (GST), which aims to bring India's 1.3 billion-strong population under a single market for the first time since the country's independence from British rule in 1947, came into force in July 2017, after a lengthy parliamentary process.
The Goods and Services Tax (GST) – a one-nation one tax - regime had aimed to be transparent and ease compliance than the pre-GST indirect tax structure that according to experts had broad scope of tax evasion.
(Traders agitating against GST in New Delhi, 2017 | Credit: PTI)
The initial months of GST's implementation were marred by a stuttering IT infrastructure while taxpayers kept struggling to understand the system, billed as "completely paperless."
The GST regime led to several protests across the country with grain traders shutting shop and taking to the streets to protest.
Traders organised bandhs across cities like Bhopal while others disrupted trains in Uttar Pradesh. "GST effigies" were burnt in Agra and Varasnasi.
(Anti-GST protests in Varanasi n 2017 | Credit: PTI)
Student unions also organised protests with photos of women protesting against 12 per cent GST on sanitary napkins going viral on social media.
Four years on, several analysts have criticised the GST tax model from multiple viewpoints. One of the major criticisms has been that the collection of revenue from GST has not been as high as expected. Others have slammed that very structure of the GST, claiming that while GST is a flat tax, India's GST regime is not designed as one.
(Students demanding GST exemption for sanitary products, 2017 | Credit: PTI)
The four-year journey of GST may be a success story in the government notes and tax regime but for the small and medium Indian businesses, it’s a casualty whose price is being paid by them either through debts, loans or suicides in extreme cases.
5. Abrogation of Article 370 (2019)
On August 6, the government of India announced the abrogation of Article 370, taking away the constitutionally given special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcating the region into two Union territories. The Centre had snapped 4G internet services in Jammu and Kashmir on August 4, 2019, a day before it. It took 18 months for full internet services to be restored across parts of the valley.
(PDP MPs demand the restoration of statehood for J&K in Parliament, 2019 | Credit: PTI)
With the state being under President's rule since 2018 after the BJP-PDP alliance fell through, the sudden abrogation of article 370 and the subsequent lockdown froze life in J&K, with essential services reportedly being disrupted. Even as the strict lockdown imposed in the valley prevented protests from breaking out, demonstrations took place across the rest of the country. Students, especially Kashmiri students studying in other states, took part in rallies and demanded the restoration of phone and internet services.
The move divided opinions across the country sections of the media as well as supporters of Modi government hailing the move as a step toward national integration while critics slammed the lack of Centre's transparency and the hardships faced by people on account of the sudden lockdown. The valley itself responded with quiet defiance by keeping shops closed - an exit from the previous years' strategy of mass protest. Scroll reported in 2019 how markets in Kashmir became the centre of a new sort of "civil disobedience" with shops remaining shut for months after the abrogation.
(Armed soldiers guard a deserted road in Kashmir on first anniversary of abrogation of Articles 370 and 35(A) on August 5 2020 | Credit: AP | On the same day, BJP leaders celebrate the anniversary with tricolour and sweets in Srinagar | Credi: PTI)
Two years on, the situation in J&K remains tense with civilian killings once again on the rise. A Delimitation Commission has been tasked with redrawing assembly constituencies and carving out new ones in the Union Territory. The government has meanwhile said that J&K's statehood status will soon be restored and has also promised elections in J&K.
Kolkata activists and residents protest against the forced lockdown in Kashmir | Credit: PTI)
While the constitutional validity and legality of the move to dismiss Articles 370 and 35(A) remain sub-judice, many have since objected to the lack of public discourse and discussion with all stakeholders before the centre soldiered on with the move. Arresting political leaders in J&K and increasing army presence along with the abrogation raised many questions about the government's apparent attempts to muffle dissent in the valley.
6. Anti-CAA-NRC Protests (2019-2020)
Perhaps one of the toughest oppositions that any of the present government's proposed bills and reforms faced was against the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) and NRC.
The controversial CAA facilitates granting of Indian citizenship to persecuted non-Muslim minorities of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. and was passed by Parliament in December 2019. It followed the government's decision to prepare a National Population Register (NPR) by September 2020 to lay the foundation for rolling out a National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country.
(Anti-CAA protests in Assam, 2019 | Credit: PTI)
The CAA since its passing has been opposed by the people from minority communities, and other sections of civil society, alleging that the Act, coupled with NRC, is discriminatory in nature. While protests against the NRC had already been simmering, the passing of CAA brought things to the boil with thousand across all walks of life taking to the streets in December to protest against CAA-NRC.
According to a report in The Hindu, protests against CAA and NRC occurred in 98 districts of 14 states in December 2019 after the passage of CAA and violence was reported from multiple such protests. The state of Uttar Pradesh reported 22 anti-CAA protest-related deaths in the month of December.
(Anti-CAA protesters clash with security forces in Uttar Pradesh, 2019 | Credit: PTI)
The protests were distinctive from others since they saw large scale participation from students and women.The women's participation eventually culminated into the Shaheen Bagh protests which went down in history as one of the first times when women from minority communities took centre stage against a Bill passed by the state in India.
(The 'Dadis of Shaheen Bagh' where women led sit-in Anti-CAA/NRC protests for days until Covid-19 lockdown forced them to vacate | Credit: PTI)
Slogans like 'Kagaz Nahin Dikhaenge' became warcries and sites of protests turned into centres of art, poetry and performance.
(Poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz's famous lines 'Hum Dekhnge' (We Will See) etched on a road around the Shaheen Bagh protest site | Credit: PTI)
While protests against CAA and NRC continued for months in places like Delhi, the northeast Delhi riots of February 2019, followed by the Covid-19 lockdown put a dampener on the anti-CAA-NRC movement.
Amid the course of the past year, Delhi Police have arrested several persons in connection with cases of violence during the anti-CAA and NRC protests. Attempts have also been made to establish links between the anti-CAA protests after clashes between pro and anti-CAA groups spiralled into communal riots in Northeast Delhi that left at least 53 people dead and around 200 injured.
(An artist's viral adaptation of an image of a woman standing up to police violence in Delhi during the anti-CAA protests in December 2019 that led to several clashes between police and protesting students | Credit: Facebook)
Union Home Minister Amit Shah has previously dismissed the protests against the CAA as "mostly political". He had asserted that no Indian will lose citizenship due to the Act.
7. Lockdown (2020)
On the evening of March 24 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic had begun to spread in India in the first phase, PM Modi announced a nationwide 21-day lockdown to curb the pandemic. While the initial reaction of the nation was to go into panic buying mode, the larger ramifications of the decision - taken once again without any public discourse, spelt disaster for millions of Indians, especially migrant workers who lost their jobs and means of livelihood in an evening.
(Thousands of migrant workers were forced to undertake arduous journeys on foot after the government announced a total lockdown on March 24 last year, cutting off all modes of communication | Credit: PTI)
The sudden lockdown and its poor execution caused nightmarish experiences for many across the country and severely set the country's economy back. Visuals of thousands of starving migrants and their families walking for miles to return home filled the nation with rage.
(Photos and videos of a sleeping migrant child being carried on a trolley as the family walks on foot from Punjab caused outrage across the nation | Credit: Twitter)
While the lockdown kept physical protests at bay, critics used their voices online and media coverage by international organisations led to global criticism of the government initiating a lockdown. Addressing a Mann Ki Baat address later in March 2020, PM Modi apologised to the 1.3 billion people in India for implementing the lockdown which caused hunger and hardships to many. He also said that at the time, there was no other way as the fight was against the pandemic.
(Stranded villagers in Maharashtra beg the government to send them to their native homes in the absence of work or transport, 2020 | Credit: PTI)
In an interview with The Wire, bureaucrat and TMC Rajya Sabha MP Jawhar Sircar had said that the crisis arising from the movement of migrants could have been avoided through some simple planning and efforts at the local administrative level to ease the burden of the migrants. Stating that in times like these, the government needed "discussion, first within the cabinet, then with bureaucrats". As per reports, no such consultations took place.
(With inputs from Agencies)