Protests, access to internet ‘hallmarks of thriving democracy’, says US
The US on Thursday described peaceful protests and unhindered access to the internet as hallmarks of a “thriving democracy”, even as it backed reforms that improve and open up India’s markets to attract more 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. The US side encouraged dialogue between the stakeholders in India to resolve differences.
“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 regarding the farmers’ protest in India that has increasingly attracted the attention of lawmakers and celebrities around the world.
“We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue,” the spokesperson added.
On the internet restrictions at protest sites on the outskirts of Delhi, 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 aimed at improving and opening 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.
There was no immediate response from Indian officials to the comments by the US spokesperson.
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 negotiations with the government failed to end the impasse, the farmers unions backing the protest decided to intensify their agitation and organised a tractor rally in the national Capital on Republic Day that descended into violence and chaos.
Despite the external affairs ministry pushing back against support for the farmers’ protest by foreign celebrities on Wednesday, 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.
The external affairs ministry had accused the international celebrities of commenting on the protests without ascertaining the facts and having a proper understanding of issues. It said “vested interest groups” were trying to derail the protest and mobilising “international support against India”.
The ministry also contended that the protest had the backing of a “very small section of farmers in parts of India”.
Environmental activist Greta Thunberg tweeted early on Thursday what she said was a “toolkit by people on the ground in India” to help the 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, which was founded in 1902, extended support to the farmers’ protest in India 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 the concerns of her constituents regarding events related to 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. Many have raised human rights concerns over the way peaceful protestors are being treated. 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”.
The external affairs ministry has said police forces have handled the protests with “utmost restraint”, while hundreds of police personnel were “physically attacked, and in some cases stabbed and seriously wounded”.