NEW DELHI: India’s handling of the ongoing farmers protests, including the arrest of activist Disha Ravi and the temporary internet clampdown, was sharply attacked in the British Parliament on Monday, as it took up an e-petition on freedom of press and safety of the agitators for debate.
The petition was introduced by Scottish National Party MP Martyn Day, who in his opening remarks, said that the merits of the three new farm laws were not up for debate as India as a sovereign state had the right to enforce legislations.
“However, reports of usage of tear gas on protesters and suspension of internet has been seen and this is against international human rights,” he said.
The e-petition, which was launched by Liberal Democratic Councillor Gurcharan Singh, saw over 1.15 lakh signatures. UK law mandates that petitions that draw over one lakh signatures must be debated in Parliament.
The lone MP who spoke in support of the Indian government was Teresa Villiers from the Conservative Party. She hailed the Indian government’s decision to enforce the farm laws as a democratic success story.
Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that the actions of Indian government were giving the impression that globalisation was being forced upon on them.
“The nature in which the protesters have been attacked has been unprecedented. Internet has been suspended and journalists have been prevented from reporting,” he said.
Almost every MP who spoke against the Indian government’s actions cited the arrests of climate activist Disha Ravi, Dalit activist Nodeep Kaur and also mentioned how celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg had received backlash for their support of the farmers.
Indian and Pakistani origin MPs too lashed out at the BJP government for its handling of the protests. One of the most vocal critics of the Indian government and British MP Tamanjit Singh Dhesi said, “I have received many correspondences from my constituents of Indian origin and otherwise expressing a deep sense of anguish at the way that the Indian government has handled the protests,” he said.
Another British-Pakistani MP Khalid Mahmood who said, “Democratic values should not be suspended in face of provocation. The Indian government has blocked internet. The excuse of national security is being used.”
India and the UK together work as a force for good in the UN Security Council and bilateral cooperation between the two countries helps fix many global problems, the British government said on Monday during a passionate debate in Parliament complex on the issue of peaceful protests and press freedoms in India.
As the minister deputed to respond to the debate held in response to an e-petition which had crossed the 100,000-signature threshold required for it to be approved by the House of Commons Petitions Committee, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) minister Nigel Adams said the close bilateral relationship and excitement of even closer ties in the near future did not hinder the UK in any way from raising "difficult issues" with India.
He also said that "candid discussions" on a range of issues will form part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's planned visit to India.
Adams reiterated the government line that agricultural reforms are a "domestic matter" for India and that British ministers and officials have been in regular contact with Indian counterparts as they continue to monitor the situation "incredibly closely".
"This is a time of great ambition for the UK's relationship with India. Both governments are working to advance shared priorities across trade and investment, health, sustainability and climate change and defence and security," said Adams.
"We are also working with India as a force for good in the UN Security Council and as one of the (UK) Prime Minister's guest countries at the G7 summit later this year in June.
This cooperation will help us fix global problems and it will strengthen prosperity and wellbeing in India and the UK," he said.
"However, whilst this is an exciting time for the UK-India partnership, it does not hinder us from raising difficult issues," the minister said, adding that "candid discussions" on a range of issues will form part of Prime Minister Johnson's planned visit to India in the coming month.
This minister acknowledged the "alarm and uncertainty" the farmers' protests and their coverage in India had caused among British communities with family ties in India and expressed hope that the ongoing dialogue between the Indian government and farmers' unions will have positive results.
India has emphasised that the protests by farmers must be seen in the context of India's democratic ethos and polity and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said that some vested interest groups have tried to mobilise international support against the country.
"Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken," the MEA said in a statement last month.
Around a dozen cross-party MPs participated in the debate, including Indian-origin Labour MPs Virendra Sharma, Seema Malhotra, Tan Dhesi and Nadia Whittome.
The majority theme from most of the participating MPs centred around concerns over the "use of force" against protesters and curtailment of the freedom of some journalists covering the protests.
"The right to peaceful protest is the cornerstone of a democracy, a right thousands of Indian farmers are using today and have used for months now. Both sides need to step back and recognise the need to come to an agreement," said Sharma, MP for Ealing Southall in west London with a large Punjabi diaspora.
Many of his fellow Labour MPs, including former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, dubbed the matter as the "biggest industrial dispute in history and Liberal Democrat MPs pointed to a letter it issued last week calling on Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to "work together with India to ensure that democratic values are upheld and fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association are respected.
From the ruling Conservative Party backbenches, Theresa Villiers highlighted that agricultural reform is an issue that has proved difficult across the world over the years and pointed to the postponement of the new agricultural laws in India to allow for greater "consultation and discussion".
She said that the International bodies like the IMF have welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's attempt to take action on agricultural reforms, which so many of his predecessors have backed away from.
"I understand that protesting farmers feel insecure about their future, but Prime Minister Modi's government has repeatedly said that a core purpose of the reforms is to make farming more profitable, to raise the incomes of people who work in farming and to promote investment in agriculture to increase yields," she said.
Farmers, mostly from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, have been camping at several Delhi border points since November 28, demanding a complete repeal of the three farm laws and a legal guarantee on the minimum support price (MSP) for their crops.
The government has denied allegations that it was trying to put an end to the MSP and the mandi system.
Prime Minister Modi has sought to assure farmers that the MSP would continue.
(With PTI Inputs)