What next for UK-India relations following the farmers’ protests?
The Indian farmer protests have been repeatedly included in international news coverage. The protests began gaining international recognition on 2nd February, when Rihanna tweeted a link to an article with the caption “why aren’t we talking about this?!”.
Following Rihanna, similar tweets were shared by other known personalities such as Meena Harris, niece of Kamala Harris, Greta Thunberg, and Mia Khalifa. A woman from Bangalore has gone to jail for sharing the links of Thunberg’s tweet.
All of these tweets did their job: they started a conversation. The resistance was strengthened with protests around the world to support the farmers in India. However, the Indian majority party, BJP, remain adamant that everyone is glorifying the protests. They say it is not as bad as what is shown.
The party goes further to say that this is all a ploy created by Congress, the opposition party, and that they wish to “bring down” the BJP. They back this by saying that it is only farmers from Punjab who are protesting, a Congress majority state. However, this claim is very controversial as many journalists, along with certain lawyers and comedians, have been receiving FIRs against them. This means that they can be detained by the police, and in many cases imprisoned under sedition acts, all because the BJP accused them of circulating “unverified facts.”
In the UK, a petition surfaced to get the Houses of Parliament to debate the protests in India and the subsequent curbs put on human rights, the internet, and freedom of speech, as well as the arrests of journalists. It gained traction as many British residents of South-Asian origin began asking people to sign the petition. Vikram Singh Barn, also known as Vikkstar from the YouTube group called the Sidemen, put up the following tweet.
By the start of March the petition reached its goal of 100,000 signatures, and hence had to be addressed by the British parliament. Prior to this, the only time that a politician in Britain had referred to the protests was back in December, when Boris Johnson called the protests a problem between India and Pakistan, a questionable statement given that Pakistan has really nothing to do with these protests.
Be that as it may, on 8th March the House of Commons discussed the Farmers protest for 90 minutes. Those 90 minutes may not seem significant on the surface; however, they have been controversial.
The Liberal Democrats, Labour Party, and the Scottish National Party all raised their concerns over the Indian Government, saying that there are too many instances of people’s voices not being listened to, which goes against the fundamentals of democracy. For instance, the imprisonment of activists is an unnecessary curb on Freedom of Speech, something considered to be a fundamental right in a country that is believed to be the largest democracy in the world.
The Indian High Commission reacted to these claims. They claimed the House of Commons do not know what they are talking about, stating that MPs were making false assertions against the Indian Government and they “had taken note of the distinctly one-sided discussion.” At the same time, the Indian Foreign Minister, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, said that the British Parliament does not have the right to talk about another government. He said this was a “gross interference” in another country’s democracy, further emphasising the claim that the Parliament had misrepresented Indian events.
Simultaneously, India sent its British ambassador to speak with MPs. In return, the British Parliament has asked the Minister of South-Asian Affairs, Lord Tariq Ahmad, along with Boris Johnson, to visit India at the end of April.
However, in the past week India seems unsatisfied with its relation with the UK, and added fuel to the fire that Meghan Markel’s interview created with the racism in the UK. On 15th March, Indian MP Ashwini Vaishnav from BJP struck up a conversation on racism in the UK, with his focal point being the case of Rashmi Samant. Samant is a 22 year-old Indian student, who was elected as the first Indian Female president of the Oxford Student Union. However, Samant reportedly faced racial abuse and was cyberbullied to the extent that she had to step down from her post. Vaishnav brought this point to the floor on 15th March, saying that the Indian government is ready to help all citizens who reside abroad and face racial abuse.
All these statements are not, however, uncharacteristic for the current Indian Government. Earlier this year, when the same topics were being discussed in the United Nations, the countries that criticised the Indian Government were told that they were falling for separatist and Pakistan’s Propaganda, for which there is no empirical proof except for the word of the Indian MPs. During the same session the UN Human Rights commissioner, Michele Bachelet, made a speech on Human Rights concerns in 50 different countries, one of which of India. The Indian diplomat reacted, saying that Bachelet lacks objectivity and impartiality, hence the Indian government is not to pay heed to these claims.
In recent times, with Brexit, Boris Johnson has been strengthening relations with India. India is truly believed to have a place in Johnson’s “Global Britain” as even the student Visa has now been extended from 3 months to 2 years after graduation, to find a job in the UK. With the fact that India has previously readily broken economic ties with countries like China, and this crisis specifically sees a rise in FIRs and arrests of people who wish to speak against the government, along with the fall of the state’s status from “free” to “partly free” on Freedom House, and from being a “democracy” to “electoral autocracy” on V-Dem, the current situation in India is questionable – which may trickle down to its ties with the UK.