By now, news of the farmer-labourer protest in India has made its way through global news cycles, with many dubbing it the largest protest in human history.
The Trudeau administration publicly addressed concerns about the treatment of peaceful protesters, much to the ire of the Indian government. Some Canadians have also expressed annoyance at Trudeau’s comments, while others have grown impatient of local rallies of solidarity. The sustained effort of protesters and supporters around the world coupled with the diminishing Canadian media coverage of the events begs the question: Why should Canadians care about the protest?
The answer, simply put, is that the protests are currently resisting a breakdown of constitutional democracy and a shift towards fascism. Both Canada and India largely operate as types of constitutional democracies modelled on British legislative supremacy. While there are some differences between the two, India and Canada feature similar governmental structures including federalism, human rights and freedoms, and constitutionality. However, India is currently disregarding these structures in an authoritarian crackdown on peaceful protesters, and is relying on the silence of states like Canada to construe it as acceptable.
A preliminary consideration of a legal dispute is often the question of jurisdiction. For example, within Canada, sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution designate provincial and federal governments the power to enact laws concerning various areas of public life. Similarly in India, territorial jurisdictions concerning the States and the Union (the federal government) are set out in Schedule VII of the Indian Constitution. In India, agriculture is the subject of Article 14 of the State List and falls exclusively within the jurisdiction of states, and for good reason. Conservative estimates report Punjab alone produces approximately a third of India’s wheat and 12 per cent of its rice, despite covering 1.5 per cent of the physical territory and holding only 13 of 543 seats in the federal legislature.
Canadians are often also embroiled in jurisdictional struggles of purported federal overreach (think Alberta oil or protecting French in Quebec). In B.C., the housing crisis and automobile insurance are often hot-button topics of a local nature. There would be strong, legitimate concerns if the federal government attempted to dictate ICBC (a provincial Crown corporation) rates or implement rent-pricing floors or caps. In India, the federal government has cast aside the Schedule VII lists and dictated the decimation of agricultural infrastructure at the cost of the stability and wellbeing of millions of farmers and labourers.
Another core component of our Constitution is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Within it are enshrined fundamental freedoms, democratic, mobility rights, legal and equality rights. The purpose of the Charter ensures an elected majority does not result in an oppressive government that infringes on the minority’s rights. Part III of the Constitution of India also lays out fundamental rights, with Article 19 specifically providing for the freedom of speech, the right to assemble peacefully, and the right to move freely throughout India.
With the federal legislature hastily passing the bills in a special session amid the pandemic, farmers across India have faced baton charges, tear gas, water cannons, barricades, and sabotaged highway routes over the last year in their effort to open dialogue with the government. On Jan. 26, when farmers conducted a tractor parade in Delhi after sleeping on highways for two months, they were again subject to batons and tear gas. As protesters were injured and at least one died, Prime Minister Modi oversaw an extravagant Republic Day parade a few kilometres away.
— Rihanna (@rihanna) February 2, 2021
So how should Canadians respond to the local support of farmers protest? Canadians should be thankful to those participating in the protest for reminding us what an active democracy looks like. While media coverage fluctuates (see Rihanna’s Feb. 2 Twitter trend), we should actively support those fighting for human rights and holding power accountable, especially since mere participation makes a difference. Protesters in India have exhausted all other avenues available to them whether they are political, legal, or appeals to empathy and humanity.
Constitutionality in Canada, India, or anywhere else is not self-evident; it must be upheld by combatting injustice. The world is inextricably bound by economic, political, and environmental ties and every action, or inaction for that matter, has tangible ramifications. India has engaged in misinformation campaigns, the abduction and assault of journalists and protesters, and has erected permanent guarded barricades across highways to halt free movement. All of this is occurring under government-imposed Internet and electricity blackouts, hoping the international community remains unaware and silent.
As Desmond Tutu stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” With each passing assault on its people, India chooses fascism. It is time for all Canadians to choose a side.
Harjote Sumbal, a Surrey resident, is a second-year law student at Thompson Rivers University.