To US comments on farmers’ protest, India mentions Capitol Hill violence
The US on Thursday called for dialogue to address the farmers’ protest in India and backed peaceful demonstrations and freedom of expression, prompting New Delhi to compare the January 26 violence at the Red Fort with the storming of the US Capitol earlier this month.
The US described peaceful protests and unhindered access to information and the internet as indicators of a “thriving democracy”, while offering support for reforms that improve and open up India’s markets to attract private investments.
The remarks by a US embassy spokesperson were the first public comments by the Biden administration on the farmers’ protest that began last November. Hours later, the ministry of external affairs said the protest must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos, and compared violence at a farmers’ rally on January 26 to the chaos during the siege of the US Capitol on January 6.
“We recognise that peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy, and note that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same,” the US embassy spokesperson said on the farmers’ protest that has increasingly attracted attention worldwide. “We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue,” the spokesperson added.
On internet restrictions at sites on the outskirts of Delhi where farmers are protesting, the spokesperson said: “We recognise that unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy.”
At the same time, the US backed reforms to open up India’s markets. “In general, the United States welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India's markets and attract greater private sector investment,” the spokesperson said.
Asked about the US position at a regular news briefing, the external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said: “Any protests must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos and polity, and the ongoing efforts of the government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse.”
Describing India and the US as vibrant democracies with shared values, Srivastava added: “The incidents of violence and vandalism at the historic Red Fort on January 26 have evoked similar sentiments and reactions in India as did the incidents on the Capitol Hill on January 6 and are being addressed as per our respective local laws.”
He said “temporary measures” on internet access in parts of the National Capital Region were “undertaken to prevent further violence”.
Despite the external affairs ministry pushing back against support for the farmers’ protest by foreign celebrities on Wednesday and describing the agitation as an internal matter, activists and entertainment personalities reiterated their backing for the farmers, mainly on social media. They were joined by lawmakers from the UK, the US and other countries.
Asked if the government believes a “motivated campaign” or an entity is behind the protest, Srivastava evaded a direct answer and said the matter is best handled within the country. “What I will say broadly is that the debate on reforming the agricultural sector is an issue best addressed by the Indian democratic polity. Those following it should have an informed and objective view,” he said.
Environmental activist Greta Thunberg tweeted early on Thursday what she said was a “toolkit by people on the ground in India” to help farmers, including backing the protest on social media, contacting foreign government representatives to ask them to act on the issue, signing online petitions, and organising “on-ground action near the closest Indian Embassy, Media House or your local Govt. office on 13th/14th February”.
The National Farmers Union of the US, founded in 1902, extended support to the protest in a tweet. “In India, farmers are protesting against policies that will cut into their income, give corporations more power, + erode rural communities,” the tweet said. “These issues resonate strongly w/farmers in the US, who have seen similar changes over the last several decades,” it added.
Valerie Vaz, a senior MP of Britain’s Labour Party and sister of former lawmaker Keith Vaz, wrote a letter to foreign minister Dominic Raab to reiterate concerns of her constituents regarding the farmers’ protest. The Indian-origin MP was among 35 British lawmakers who had taken up the farmers’ protest with Raab before he visited India in December.
“My constituents and I are horrified by widespread reports of police brutality against the farmers protesting these laws, who are asserting their right to peaceful protest...In several instances police have fired tear gas shells, used water cannons and ordered the suspension of internet connection for long periods of time,” she wrote in her letter.
Vaz asked Raab to contact the Indian government “as a matter of urgency regarding these concerning events”.
Happymon Jacob, columnist and associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, emphasised the need for nuance in India’s stance on global reactions to the protest. “New Delhi's sharp reactions to external criticism about its handling of the farmers' protest in the country are both ill-advised and don't befit the country's democratic traditions. In a globalised world, established democracies such as India cannot afford to push back criticism using the ‘internal matter’ argument,” he said.
The farmers’ protest against three laws – Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020, and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 – began on November 26 last year.
The government has defended the laws as necessary for long overdue reforms in the agricultural sector. After several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations with the government, the unions backing the protest decided to intensify their agitation and organised a tractor rally in the capital on Republic Day that descended into violence and chaos.