As a development and environmental economist with interest in India and the Punjab, I have been writing and speaking on India’s three farming laws enacted in September 2020. As a part of enriching my research on the subject, I wrote to the British Prime Minister (who is from the Conservative Party), the two Members of Parliament from Oxford (Oxford West and Abingdon represented by Liberal Democrats and Oxford East represented by Labour) to seek their views. Apart from these three major parties in the UK, the fourth political party, which despite being relatively new and small but with substantial influence in the UK’s political culture, is the Green Party. To get a full view of all the four political positions, I also wrote to the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their regional nationalist parties in addition to these four parties. I did not write to those regional nationalist parties on the assumption, which has subsequently proved to be wrong, that they may not have much interest in the subject. As it has turned out, the Scottish National Party, the ruling party in Scotland, has taken keen interest in the subject.
It is worth mentioning here that Layla Moran, the Oxford West and Abingdon MP, is the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Development, and Anneliese Dodd, the Oxford East MP, is the Shadow Chancellor. In the British parliamentary system, the main opposition party has a shadow cabinet on all departments of the government. The position of the Chancellor (who looks after the finance portfolio), is considered the second most important after the Prime Minister, and the position of the Shadow Chancellor is next to the Leader of the Opposition which is currently occupied by Keith Starmer.
I reproduce below the four replies I received. A brief analysis of the content of these letters follows.
Thank you for your email of 18 January to the Prime Minister about his planned visit to India and the farmers’ protests.
As you will be aware, it was with regret that the Prime Minister had to postpone his trip to India this January. However, the Prime Minister hopes to visit in the first half of this year – ahead of the UK-hosted G7 Summit in June.
The Government is conscious of the level of concern regarding how agriculture reforms in India might affect the livelihoods of farmers. I appreciate that there are strong feelings here in the United Kingdom towards the legislation and, as you mention, that many British citizens have family ties to farming communities in India.
The Government is following the protests in India through our High Commission in New Delhi and Deputy High Commissions across India. We understand that the Government of India (GOI) have held successive talks with farmers’ unions. On 12 January, the Supreme Court suspended implementation of the reforms and designated an expert committee to scrutinise the detail of the laws. The committee will report back to the Supreme Court in two months. It remains our view that the right to gather lawfully and demonstrate a point of view is common to all democracies. Governments also have the power to enforce law and order if a protest crosses the line into illegality. The Foreign Secretary discussed protests about agricultural reforms with his Indian counterpart during his visit to India in December, whilst making clear that the handling of protests is an internal matter for the Indian authorities.
Whilst noting your concerns and acknowledging how invested many communities in the United Kingdom are in this issue, our position remains that this is a matter for the Indian authorities.
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office”.
- “Dear Pritam,
Thank you for getting in touch about the peacefully protesting Indian Farmers.
It is horrifying to see footage of water cannons, tear gas and brute force being used against hundreds of thousands of peacefully protesting farmers. The response to the peaceful protests has caused great anxieties for those in India, the UK, and all around the world.
Although understandably, due to Coronavirus, the Prime Minister’s visit to India in December was cancelled, he must still make representations on behalf of the UK to condemn these actions, push for a speedy resolution to the current deadlock and call for the democratic human right of citizens to protest peacefully.
These calls were made in a cross-party letter to the Prime Minister led by my colleague Tan Dhesi MP which I signed. You can read the full letter here: https://twitter.com/TanDhesi/status/1347587419479142406https://twitter.com/TanDhesi/status/1347587419479142406
I will continue to stand up for people’s human rights in the UK and across the globe. In our 2019 General Election Manifesto, Liberal Democrats committed once again to protect, defend, and promote human rights for all, including those persecuted for their religion or belief. Liberalism and cooperation have a vital role to play in securing peace, promoting democracy and defending human rights across the world.
We will always champion the liberal, rules-based international order, which provides a strong basis for multilateral action to address the world’s biggest problems. The UK must use trade, aid and diplomacy to strengthen UK efforts to prevent human rights violations.
I assure you I will continue to push the Government to take action on the international stage to stand up for people’s human rights.
Layla Moran MP
Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon”.
- “I am aware of the protests that have been taking place against three new laws that would reform India’s farming system. I understand that these laws have been put on hold until further notice.
I recognise the level of concern amongst communities in the UK about these protests. I have been particularly concerned to see reports about the Indian authorities’ response to the protests, including the use of tear gas and water cannon. The Shadow Minister for Asia met with representatives of the UK Sikh community on 6 January 2020, where he listened to concerns including around the farmers’ protests in India. He has also raised in Parliament the importance of upholding the right to peaceful protest.
The UK Government has said that this is an internal matter for the Indian authorities. However, the Foreign Secretary has said he discussed the protests with India’s Minister of External Affairs during a visit to the country in December 2020.
The right to gather lawfully and demonstrate is common to all democracies. I strongly believe that the farmers protesting in India must be able to exercise their right to peacefully protest. The Indian authorities should commit to upholding this right. I believe this is a point that the UK Government should be engaging far more actively and effectively with the Indian Government on, to convey that message clearly.
The UK has a deep and long-standing relationship with India, built on trust and mutual respect. I believe this should give both countries the confidence to play the role of a critical friend and I hope the UK Government will use this to continue to raise issues around human rights in India where necessary.
Thank you once again for contacting me about this issue.
Member of Parliament for Oxford East.
4.“The Green Party of England and Wales fights for social and climate justice. We support the farmers in India who are resisting market-driven legal changes that will destroy their livelihoods. And we defend their fundamental right to peaceful protest as the cornerstone of any functioning democracy.
“The images emerging of the use of water cannons and tear gas against an unarmed group of citizens are deeply concerning. This action goes against the fundamental right to peaceful protest as enshrined in Articles 9 to 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the 1966 International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
“Farmers are the backbone of the Indian economy and are protesting peacefully against the mass privatization of the agricultural sector and unjust and damaging changes to farming laws. We urge the Indian government to return to the negotiating table and to seek peaceful measures to resolve the situation”.
“The Green Party of England and Wales stands in solidarity with the Indian farmers.”
Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion.
Comparing the four positions, one point that emerges as common to all of them is the importance attached to defending the human right to protest peacefully. However, there are significant differences too. The British Prime Minister’s reply weakens that support for human rights by stating ‘that the handling of protests is an internal matter for the Indian authorities’. Labour MP and the Shadow Chancellor mentions that though the British Government considers this as an internal matter but ‘the UK Government should be engaging far more actively and effectively with the Indian Government’ to protect human rights. The Liberal Democrat MP who is her party’s Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Development does not mention anything about this issue being an internal matter and expresses very strongly her disapproval of the Indian government’s handling of the protests and urges that ‘The UK must use trade, aid and diplomacy to strengthen UK efforts to prevent human rights violations’. The Green Party MP’s disapproval of the Indian government’s handling of the famers protest is the strongest of all because she invokes Articles 9 to 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the 1966 International Convention on Civil and Political Rights to say that the violent suppression of the farmers protest goes against these international conventions on human rights. She goes further and even comments upon the contents of the farming laws as ‘market-driven legal changes that will destroy’ the livelihoods of the famers. She calls the farmers as ‘the backbone of the Indian economy’ and applauds their protest ‘against the mass privatization of the agricultural sector’ and concludes by expressing her party’s solidarity with the farmers.
Pritam Singh, Professor Emeritus, Oxford Brookes Business School, Oxford, UK
A Punjabi version of the article is available HERE