There is increasing evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the shrinking of civic space around the world. Several leaders responded to the health crisis and reduced civic freedoms, clamped down on dissent, and made politically motivated arrests. At first glance, it looks like State-society relations have shifted with States taking more power, particularly in more authoritarian States. However, societies across the world have also witnessed the rise of mass protests during the pandemic which suggests that civil society has sought to hold States accountable despite restrictions.
One example is the farmers’ protest in India in response to the government’s hasty enactment of three laws relating to the deregulation of agriculture and were strongly opposed by opposition parties and farmer unions. The protestors demanded the withdrawal of these laws which removed the guaranteed Minimum Support Price for crops. It illustrates how the pandemic has helped the authorities use the health crisis to hastily pass laws and impose further crackdown on any dissent from protestors.
One of the largest protests in world history
Farmers in India began the protests soon after the enactment but it became significantly larger when an estimated 250 million Indians participated in the Dilli Chalo (‘let’s go to Delhi) march on 26th November 2020, making it one of the largest protests in world history. The very next day, police forces and paramilitary set up barricades, dug up trenches on the highway, threw tear gas and used water cannons against the protestors. They arrested a protestor who stopped the water cannon with a charge for rioting and attempt to murder. The central government asked the protestors not to enter the city citing public health concerns with media reports suggesting the protests might become a ‘super spreader’ event.
To some extent, media has been complicit in underplaying the concerns of the farmers by linking the protests to secessionist movements, terrorist groups and opposition parties. This case in India illustrates some of the larger changes in civic space observed in other countries – increased centralization, reduced freedom of association, use of public health concerns to suppress dissent, rising police brutality, antagonizing of minorities, among others.
Not limited to India
These patterns of governments using the pandemic to strengthen themselves at the cost of civil society is not limited to India. Through my work on the Navigating Civic Space (NCS) work stream of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability programme, I realized that there are similarities in how civic space has changed during the pandemic in India and in the three countries where NCS has focused its work – Pakistan, Mozambique, and Nigeria. Starting from the appraisal of pre-Covid trends, the project monitors the strategies adopted by different actors to respond to the pandemic, and the implication of these trends and strategies on civic space in these countries. The changes in civic space during the pandemic while not the same in each country, reflect certain common trends in the government’s response to Covid-19.
- Antagonizing minorities- During the pandemic, several governments have continued their marginalization of minorities. In India several protestors in the farmers protest were from the Sikh community. During the protests, several newspapers and public personalities including a minister suggested that the protestors were linked to the Khalistani movement. Additionally, in the initial months of Covid-19, a religious procession by Muslims became known as ‘super spreaders’ and ‘terrorists’ without proof in the media. Over this period, several states in India have introduced ‘Love Jihad’ laws which prevent inter-faith marriages citing theories of Muslim men converting Hindu women through marriage. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws have been used against minorities repeatedly over the last few months, including against critics.
- Police brutality- Government responses to the pandemic often involved giving more powers to the police and military or giving more space for possible abuse of their power during this period. Indian police attacked peaceful protestors during the farmers’ protests. India witnessed mass social media outcry against the violent custodial death of a father-son duo who were arrested for flouting lockdown rules. Similarly, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Nigeria faced huge backlash for its police brutality and police forces. Reports have suggested brutality by military forces in the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique during this period.
- Attacks on press and critics- Governments have used the pandemic to crack down on dissent and free press. Journalists have been arrested for covering the mishandling of the pandemic and for criticizing the government in India. A media house in Kashmir was evicted from its office, Huffington Post India shut down allegedly due to new rules and Amnesty International shut its Indian office alleging a government witch-hunt. The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in India has been used to arrest several critics of the government. Pakistani journalists were arrested and sexually harassed for critical coverage of the pandemic. Nigerian journalists have been attacked for their coverage of protests and arrested for reporting poor governance.
These trends are not entirely new to India or other NCS countries. But what is new and significant is how governments have used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to further reduce civic space. This has pushed civil society to adapt to these circumstances and survive under challenging circumstances of poor resources, inaccessibility of government, channeling of funds away from organized civil society and towards non-transparent and non-accountable emergency funds, etc. Civil society has been critical in filling gaps left by governments in its Covid-19 response while governments have actively reduced the scope of their own accountability in reducing civic space.
To many in India, as in other countries, the pandemic though dangerous, is still less concerning than poverty and hunger. As a farmer said during the protest, “We may even survive corona, but how will we survive this cruel law that will take away our bread and butter”. This illustrates what civil society has on its hands, the need to perform a juggling act between balancing relief work, continuing advocacy efforts, and holding increasingly autocratic governments accountable while facing an existential risk due to shrinking civic space.