An unusual crackdown is underway in India’s capital New Delhi after posters criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi were found plastered across walls in the city.
The posters, which have since gone viral on Indian Twitter, respectfully address the Indian prime minister and ask: “Modi ji, why did you send our kids’ vaccines abroad?” The question refers to the government’s decision to ship its locally produced vaccines to other countries, while failing to vaccinate its own people.
Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) claimed responsibility for the posters in a press conference. The AAP, which promotes itself as the politician of the common man, was dismayed that people they paid to print or put the posters up on walls were arrested.
The Indian Express reported that many of the arrested were unemployed labourers or rickshaw drivers who earn cash on the side by plastering posters on public walls. The families of the accused told the media that their loved ones had no idea about the political nature of the posters.
The AAP also alleged that the Delhi Police harassed “hundreds” of their members in connection with the posters. The Delhi Police shared a charge sheet on Twitter that suggested they intend to charge an AAP member for commissioning the posters.
The Hindustan Times found about 1,800 more posters, and a senior police official told The Indian Express that more people will be charged. It is unclear if they would continue to charge the people who were paid to create or put up the posters, or the ruling politicians behind the scheme.
Chinmoy Biswal, Public Relations Officer, Delhi Police, told VICE World News that they are currently probing the official complaints registered in various Delhi police stations. “AAP leaders or workers whose involvement has come up in the lockdown violation and defacement activity have been questioned. Many of them were absconding for days.” he said. The capital is currently under a lockdown and the police allege the posters also break lockdown rules.
Today, India’s is one of the world’s slowest vaccination drives, managing to fully inoculate only 3 percent of its 1.35 billion population.
COVID-19 vaccination in India is a touchy subject, especially as the government struggles to keep up with rising infections, deadly variants, and deaths overwhelming crematoriums and graveyards.
Reports have shown that India’s vaccine drive is deeply flawed and has put most rural Indians who don’t have internet or smartphone access at an extreme disadvantage.
Before India’s deadly second wave, Indian diplomat Ambassador K Nagaraj Naidu proudly told the UN General Assembly, “We have supplied more vaccines globally than we have vaccinated our own people.”
Between January and March 2021, India gifted 58 million vaccine doses to 65 countries, with Modi calling India the “pharmacy to the world”. Photographs of India’s vaccine diplomacy became mainstream Indian media’s favourite PR exercise.
The arrests caused outrage across Indian social media, even with politicians from the India’s National Congress, the country’s largest opposition party, who are now challenging Modi to arrest them.
A journalist tweeted a photo of the controversial poster outside a politician’s house in Delhi that said, “Modiji, answer us, why is the vaccine missing just like you are?”
The crackdown on criticism on vaccines comes as the Indian government pushes “positive news’ around its COVID-19 response.
Last week, two journalists were arrested for social media posts that made fun of Modi’s party for believing that cow poop and urine could cure COVID-19.
Indian analyst and professor Ashok Swain had previously told VICE World News that the Modi government is working hard on “brand management and image shaping” amid the COVID crisis.
This story first appeared on vice.com