Criminalization of resistance and opposition is not a new phenomenon in itself. However, it has become increasingly widespread in the context of social movements, particularly in countries of the Global South, that resist state or private-led megadevelopment projects leading to large-scale dispossession of local communities. The trend of criminalization of resistance has become so pervasive as to become the norm, and not an extreme measure taken under conditions of particularly undemocratic state systems. In other words, it has become systematic within the current development regime. Leading and articulate voices within a movement, community leaders and movement activists are repeatedly incriminated in often false cases lodged against them, placed behind bars, and detained multiple times. Protest demonstrations are violently attacked, protestors detained and even arrested for days, and protest actions deemed illegal. In this article we examine the roots, mechanisms and form of this aspect of repression of people’s movements and the silencing of opposition to the dominant development paradigm in India and Mexico.
What is at stake?
The current model of development that rules states such as India and Mexico follows a capital-intensive model, requiring large tracts of land, employing highly mechanized installations that are not labour-intensive, requiring deep seated changes in the ecology, based on extractive industries and other industries that are key to global market trends. This includes investment in transport infrastructure – roads, highways, expressways; mining of coal, uranium, bauxite and iron; real estate and tourism projects (including ‘ecotourism’ projects); energy related projects – hydropower, thermal power, fossil fuels, fracking, wind energy projects. Each of these projects requires land as its utmost essential, and acts on this land in different ways – by way of digging, submergence, pollution, deforestation or construction.
Movements against forceful dispossession are often struggles for survival and existence of agrarian rural communities, as well as working class urban communities. The land under their control is a precious resource for the dominant development model. Without access to these lands, neither can the coal or iron underneath be mined, nor can the steel factories or highways be constructed over them. As accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2004) proceeds at an ever-rapid pace today, its centrality to the growth and survival of present-day capitalism is unquestionable. What we are confronting in name of development is then a façade, meant to mask the naked march of capitalism. Without land, and more and more of it, capitalist growth is no longer possible.
The stakes, in this case, are high. Criminalization of resistance is one amongst the many strategies of silencing resistance and weakening or eliminating clear and articulate voices of opposition that have been proving a critical obstacle to the forcible accumulation process going on on a global scale. Criminalization takes place within a larger spectrum of violence and threatening tactics including defamation, illegal detention, harassment of family members, threats, and even murder, making for a highly repressive and fear-filled atmosphere within which affected communities continue to raise their voice against injustice.
Mechanisms of criminalization
In Mexico, between 2015 and 2017, seventeen official notices, orders and laws were passed at the state and federal level directed towards regulating protests. Through administrative or legal means, each of these facilitate the use of repressive state intervention when protests do not comply by certain set criteria. These laws work towards limiting spaces where protest is ‘allowed’ (naming certain streets, parks or public squares), establish the requirement of notifying authorities in advance of a demonstration, allowing for the punishment of those protests that are spontaneous, and allowing authorities to use police force in order to maintain ‘law and order’. Demonstrations are categorized as authorized or illicit; the illicit ones are ordered to be dissolved, including by the use of ‘non-lethal’ weapons . The more recent Law of Internal Security (2017) in Mexico grants impunity to police and armed forces of the state to intervene and act without restrictions with the security of being protected from action taken against them . The application of these new regulations around protests and criminalization of resistance takes place in a context marked by impunity and corruption, elements that cover up and absolve the aggressions against activists.
Example of these initiatives include the Decree on the Use of Legitimate Force by Elements of the Police (2014) of the state of Puebla in central Mexico, the Law that Regulates Meetings and Demonstrations in Public Places (2014) of the state of Jalisco in west Mexico, and the Law of Mobility (2014) of Mexico City. These measures find strong parallels in India, where every city has a designated site where protests are ‘allowed’, permission from local police stations to carry out a protest has become mandatory, and the use of sticks, batons, tear gas, and water cannons are becoming increasingly frequent to maintain ‘law and order’ against what are most often peaceful protests. Death from police firings during protests is a familiar story in every movement area.
A set of key laws are used repeatedly in India in order to place movement activists behind bars. Several of these laws defy the principle of natural justice and are formulated in ways that facilitate easy arrests, lazy charges, and difficult bail. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 (UAPA) is one such act that has repeatedly been used against members of left, progressive, and radical political organizations on charges as flimsy as holding a set of political beliefs sympathetic to Maoists  or carrying Maoist literature (including books by Mao). The Act is amongst the repertoire of national security laws that arrests on suspicion. To be arrested under the UAPA, one need not actually commit a crime. Mere determination of intent to commit that amorphous category of ‘anti-national activities’ is sufficient . How intent is determined is best left to one’s imagination. Under this same category of laws is the National Security Act 1980 as well as the Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act 1978. Each of these Acts, along with a set of anti-terrorism laws passed more recently, legalizes preventive detention – a measure used to arrest on suspicion, or before a crime is actually committed. It creates a legal justice system that justifies arrests based not on actions but on beliefs and intent. India’s anti-sedition provisions, established in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, is yet another instrument used to silence critique of the government. Added to this, laws of impunity such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 grant excessive powers to the Army with institutionalized immunity, making for trigger happy Armed Forces wherever the Act is implemented. This law has been used extensively in heavily militarized parts of the Northeast and Kashmir, not only to repress anti-India protests, but also to target anti-displacement social movements, by labelling all protestors as underground armed militants, or their sympathizers, and thereby justifying the use of violence against them. Together a lethal set of laws and directives, that combine the potent spheres of capitalism, state power and law, constitute a formidable challenge for people’s movements in their fight against dominant powers.
Who are they afraid of?
A look at some of the leading movement voices that have been repeatedly targeted and incarcerated for long durations of time lends a little more insight into the dynamics of the conflict at hand. Among those persecuted by the law are a heterogenous group of people including peasants, farmers, indigenous, adivasi , tribal or non-indigenous, lawyers, journalists, members of civil society organizations, and university students and academics, amongst others.
While instances of such cases abound, due to lack of space we mention only a couple of representative cases here. One of the most emblematic anti-dispossession struggles in Latin America, and certainly in Mexico, is the anti-dam movement led by the Council of Ejidos (communal landholdings) and Communities Opposing the La Parota Dam (CECOP) in the southern state of Guerrero. Amongst its key leaders is Marco Antonio Suástegi Muñoz, founder-member of CECOP and sharp critic of the state, police repression, corruption and interest groups within the communities where CECOP is active. In 2014, as armed aggressions from both non-state paramilitary groups and army and police forces grew and came to a head, Marco Antonio was arrested on false charges of homicide and kept in a high security prison for 14 months. As a much frailer looking Marco Antonio was released the following year, he continued to play his role within CECOP, only to be rearrested in January 2018, once again on charges of homicide, even as the police and army in a combined operation against members of CECOP killed three just minutes before his arrest. While the struggle against the proposed state-led hydroelectric power plant continues unabated, in a state that produces surplus electricity, the government is placing all its weight behind repressive measures in order to intimidate and silence. Marco Antonio continues to remain in jail as this article is being written.
An emblematic case of the persecution of one of the most formidable critics of the state’s land and development policy, as well as its fascist communal nationalist agenda in India is the case of Akhil Gogoi in the northeastern state of Assam. Leader of the mass organization Farmers’ Liberation Struggle Committee (KMSS), Akhil Gogoi was arrested for 78 days in October 2016 based on cases filed in 2011, 2012, and 2013. These cases related to the movement against the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border that has successfully stalled construction of the dam since 2011. KMSS has further been at the helm of resisting communally-targeted eviction drives of subsistence farmers in the name of ‘encroachment’ on forest lands in different parts of the state, including Kaziranga, Sipajhar and Mayang. In September 2017 Gogoi was rearrested and later charged with sedition under the NSA for making inflammatory comments at a rally to oppose a communally charged amendment to India’s Citizenship Act that proposes to grant citizenship to refugees based on their religion. This detention order was quashed in December 2017 by the Guwahati High Court. While Akhil Gogoi is out of jail on bail, his charges have all not been dropped and there remains a perpetual threat of past cases, often accusing unnamed ‘mobs’, being used to rearrest him anytime he appears as a serious threat to the government.
The stakes of this conflict are high, with peasant, farmers and working class communities struggling for survival and a life of dignity at one end, and corporate capital and state power hungry for land at the other. Even as the power imbalance between the two sides is stark to say the least, the struggle is a fierce one. That all the might of capital and state power is used to silence voices of resistance is but an indication of what those voices are telling the world. It is imperative that we listen to those voices, stand in solidarity with those voices that challenge the high and mighty and reinstate people’s sovereign right to self-determination – the right to decide for themselves their own future.
Harvey, David. (2004). ‘The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by dispossession’, Socialist Register 40: 63-87.