UTSC’s Indian Students Association (ISA) has faced criticism following an Instagram post celebrating India’s Republic Day without addressing ongoing farmers’ protests in India.
The protests — which have been happening since November, with some large ones happening on Indian Republic Day — are challenging new laws that, by minimizing the government’s role in the agriculture industry, could drive farmers further into poverty.
Critics have said that the omission of any mention of the protests ignores the struggles of the farmers, and some feel that the post and subsequent statements imply support for the Indian government, rather than the farmers, from the ISA executives.
The protests mostly consist of Sikh farmers, a minoritized ethnoreligious group in India, who demand that Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeal the laws. Modi leads the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
The ISA later released a statement acknowledging the protests and expressing solidarity with the farmers. In an email to The Varsity, ISA co-presidents Divya Dey and Bhrugu Patel wrote, “While we wished to remain neutral in this (to maintain inclusivity), as a matter that has violated basic human rights (such as the right to freely protest) we could no longer remain silent therefore we released a story followed by a formal statement.”
The image, posted on Instagram on January 26, featured an illustration of three Indian landmarks. Underneath the illustration were the messages “Happy Republic Day” and “26 January.”
The post’s caption read: “Republic Day signifies the spirit of an independent India, however we still continue to deal with tension within our land and it is important that we are aware of and understand the struggles taking place back home.”
“With that being said, let’s take this day to reflect and further educate ourselves with credible sources. We, as a nation, are here because of the sacrifices made by people of all faiths and today is the day we respect them and honour their legacy.” The statement concluded, “Jay Hind,” which means “victory to India.”
After the post was published, students voiced concerns in the comment section about the absence of any mention of the farmers’ protests.
Some have interpreted the use of “Jay Hind” in the original post to be a show of support for the Indian government rather than the farmers. Similarly, criticisms have risen that the ISA is not supporting all Indian students, as the protests consist mostly of Sikh Indian farmers.
In an email to The Varsity, an Indian UTSC student who wished to remain anonymous because they plan to bring the ISA’s actions to the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) and Department of Student Life, expressed their concerns about the posts.
“As a cultural club, I would hope that the [ISA] represent the Indian nationality as a whole, irrespective of religious identities within that nation,” the student wrote. “But their tone-deaf caption and cryptic messaging very clearly implied which narrative the executive team was believing.”
“I, and many other students, were appalled by the caption and also offended that a cultural club failed to recognize the minority group under attack to push a Hindu nationalist agenda.”
However, other Indian students disagree with this sentiment. Third-year UTSC environmental science student Avee Gandhi wrote to The Varsity, “[The ISA] decided to share a post on the Indian republic day and state and [sic] unbiased open-ended statement on the current events and wished for a peaceful end to the recent events and wished everyone a happy republic day.”
He added that the phrase “Jay Hind” — victory to India — “was used for its non-religious stand meaning and hence was accepted across India.” Gandhi also wrote that the protests are not divided by religious lines.
ISA, SCSU responses
On Tuesday, the ISA removed the post’s comment section. Hours after, it posted an Instagram story addressing the situation.
“We share our national holidays as means to celebrate our history and how far we have come as a nation,” the ISA wrote. “We support the rights of the farmers to peacefully protest and we do not support the abuse of power by the government to shut down the internet whenever they please.”
The ISA also clarified that it removed the comments section because of “bullying and harassment” happening in it.
On February 4, the ISA posted an additional statement addressing the protests in India, which reads: “As an association which represents Indians across UTSC, it is upsetting to see that India is currently divided. We hope that all human rights are reinstated so that we can prosper and thrive to be a unified, diverse and beautiful country.”
In its statement’s caption, the ISA encouraged students to sign the Change.org petition linked in its Instagram bio. The petition, titled “Save the Sikh farmers in India, save their land and save their lives,” intends to bring awareness to the issue.
In response to allegations that the comment in the ISA’s original post about using credible sources was being critical of current information about the protests, the ISA wrote: “It is important to use news sources that are accurate and provide a whole overview of the topic being investigated. We were by no means saying which sources are right or wrong.”
The SCSU released a statement on February 4 expressing solidarity with protesting farmers in India. In the statement, the executives wrote that they “denounce any acts of injustice placed by the current government of India.”
The SCSU continued: “Farmers deserve dignity, justice, and their rights to be met and addressed. Farmers globally are integral to the survival of people and communities, and their livelihoods must be defended and honoured.”
“We also recognize that these events impact the lives of the diasporic community and we send our love.”
Editor’s note (February 8): This article has been updated to include comment from the co-presidents of the ISA.