Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP) [V]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 563473 relating to press freedoms and safety of protestors in India.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this return to Westminster Hall debates, with virtual participation—something I know many Members are grateful for—which gives e-petitions awaiting a debate the public hearing that the petitioners deserve.
Farming protests in India may not seem to be the most obvious issue for a petitions debate, but the Petitions Committee has always accepted petitions calling on the UK Government to engage with other Governments on human rights issues. The petition focuses on the protests in Delhi and across India following the agricultural reforms agreed by the Indian Parliament. It calls on the UK Government to
“Urge the Indian Government to ensure safety of protestors & press freedom”.
It argues that
“democratic engagement and freedom of the press are fundamental rights and a positive step towards creating a India that works for all”,
and calls for “transparency & accountability” from the Indian Government.
The petition has already been signed by more than 115,000 people, and it has until 17 June to run—a fact that highlights the public interest in, and topicality of, the issue. The close ties, and many family connections, between these islands and India are another factor. The petition was created by Gurch Singh, whose family is from a farming background in the Punjab, after the distress he observed when he found his mother in tears watching the Indian news channels’ coverage of the protests. He then spoke with relatives in India about the distress they were in, and with members of his local community. It is testament to his efforts that his area is in the top 10 constituencies for signatories. Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University, has said:
“Every farmer community everywhere is discussing these farm laws. It is not just a local or regional matter.”
He is right. It has even found its way to being debated in these islands.
The farming protests are complex in their nature and origins. Indeed, even as a Member who takes a keen interest in India and has family connections there, I must admit that, prior to the scheduling of the debate, I had little knowledge of the subject, other than having seen some brief news footage of clashes between farmers and police in riot gear, from which I gleaned that it was something to do with farming laws, and that several high-profile celebrities such as Rihanna and Greta Thunberg had spoken out about it. I am grateful to those who have taken the time to speak with me over the last few days, and to those who have provided briefings. The House of Commons Library, the Indian high commission, the petitioner, and several political contacts with first-hand experience have all greatly assisted my understanding of the issue.
Today, we are not having a debate about the merits of the agricultural reform Bills passed by the Indian Parliament. The UK Government have repeatedly acknowledged that it is a sovereign matter for the Government and people of India. In their diplomatically worded response to the petition, the UK Government stated:
“We respect that agricultural reforms are a matter for India”.
That new-found support for self-determination and sovereignty from the UK Government is quite encouraging —those of us from Scotland are paying close attention.
The Indian Government’s right to enforce law and order is also not in dispute, and again that has been repeatedly acknowledged by the UK Government in their statements on the protests. In their response to the petition, the UK Government stated:
“We also recognise that governments have the power to enforce law and order if a protest crosses the line into illegality. We look to the Indian government to uphold all freedoms and rights guaranteed in India’s strong constitution.”
However, this debate is an opportunity to note concerns raised regarding the safety of protesters and press freedoms in reporting on the protests.
To help those who may be coming to the debate with a similar knowledge base to the one that I had a week ago, I believe the background to be as follows. It can be argued that the farmers have been ripped off for generations, that the sector requires reform, and that they have suffered a huge loss of income due to the covid lockdowns. Agriculture is controlled by the state in India, and three farm laws were passed by India’s Parliament last September, resulting in opposition from farming groups. There are arguments about the constitutionality of the laws, which is an issue for India’s own legislative and judicial process.
The farm laws allow, for the first time, farm gate sales to corporations. They put an end to warehouse capacity limits for processors, and they introduce tax-free, privately owned corporate yards, or mandis. We have heard reports of water cannons and tear gas being used against protesters in the early stages of the protests, repeated clashes between police and protesters, and the suspension of mobile internet access and social media accounts in late January and early February. There are good links to reputable sources on those events in the House of Commons Library debate pack.
Sadly, several farmers have suicided in protest, and others have died from exposure during the winter conditions of the protests. Indian farmers have been occupying roads around Delhi since 26 November, and on 26 January—Republic Day—they drove more than 120,000 tractors to the capital. The vast majority of those taking part, it should be stressed, did so peacefully. I believe it was inspired by an American farmers’ “tractorcade”, which brought Washington to a standstill in 1979. It is a small world.
Across India, some 750 million people are directly engaged in agriculture. That is around half of India’s population. Land has been described as sacred, and farming seen as a religious duty or way of life. It is a very significant issue for India, and has a resonance with the Indian diaspora around the globe, and for concerned environmental and political activists. While the protests been largely peaceful, they have on occasion involved the use of direct action such as strikes and blockades, which have disrupted road and rail traffic. The most significant clash between police and protesters so far came on 26 January, when one protester died and more than 80 police officers were injured after protesters deviated from an agreed protest route, including breaching security to enter the iconic Red Fort in Delhi.
The BBC cited local media reports of police using tear gas and batons, and of police officers being targeted by protesters driving tractors. The violence was condemned by farmers’ groups and union leaders. In response to the violence, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs put out a statement on 3 February arguing that the violence on 26 January had been the result of “vested interest groups” influencing the protests. It argued:
“Indian police forces have handled these protests with utmost restraint”,
despite hundreds of police officers being attacked. The statement also noted that the Government have held multiple rounds of dialogue with protesters’ representatives and farming unions, and had offered to suspend the implementation of the laws—an offer rejected by the farmers’ unions, who want to see the laws fully repealed.
Following the violence at the end of January, the Indian Government also temporarily suspended mobile internet access in three areas around Delhi where protesters had gathered. The Indian Government claimed that the suspension was in order to maintain public safety. The UK Government have since acknowledged and welcomed the removal of those restrictions in their answer to a House of Lords written question on 22 February. However, on 9 February, Amnesty International released a statement calling on the Indian Government to stop what it referred to as an “escalating crackdown” on protesters and farming leaders, citing reports of arrests, threats and harassment of peaceful protesters. The International Press Institute took the matter up in its communication directly with Prime Minister Modi, in which it urged him
“to take immediate steps to ensure that journalists can work without harassment and fear of reprisal”
from the Government,
“and to direct the state governments to drop all charges against journalists, including those under the draconian sedition laws, that have been imposed on them for their work”.
Press freedom and the right to peaceful protest is central to any democracy, so the images emerging from India over the past few months are deeply worrying. Some 67 journalists were arrested and detained last year alone. The escalation in violence and the press crackdown, including over social media accounts, cannot simply be ignored, especially at a time when the UK Government are keen to strengthen ties with the Indian Government.
As the world’s largest democracy and a key regional player, India has a pivotal role to play on the world stage. That is why it is vital that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary impress on our Indian partners our joint convictions on free speech and the right to protest. I look forward to hearing the contributions to the debate, and I hope that the Minister will advise whether these concerns will be raised by the Prime Minister on his trip later this year.