London: On 8 March 2021 a “debate” took place in Westminster Hall on the farmers’ protest in India. Around 36 MPs took part. I thought a debate would have representations from two sides of an argument. In this case there was only one side. The Indian government was accused of heavy-handed policing of the farmers. MP Layla Moran of the Liberal Party said many in the UK had relations in India and were rightly concerned by the treatment of peaceful protesters. Pat Mcfaddon, shadow treasury minister, said that the peaceful conduct of the protesters was a rejection of the idea that those engaged in the protests were somehow not loyal to India. SNP MP Martin Day said that the use of water cannon and tear gas as well as repeated clashes between the police and farmers were a concern. Stephen Kinnock, Labour’s shadow minister for Asia said, “We are deeply concerned about reports of live ammunition being used by the police. Modi needs to realise the world is watching.”

While the MPs accepted that the farm reforms were a matter concerning the Indian government, the previous leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn said that farmers were protesting because they were predominantly small farmers with less than five acres of land, and many of them very poor. The new farm laws are meant to assist exactly such people, but then Corbyn does not have the will or the inclination to hear the other side. He went on to say that 22,000 farmers had committed suicide since the protests began. One wonders where he got his number from. He might as well have said 50,000. According to reports there has been one suicide.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership the Labour party got accused of being openly anti-Semitic. It is amazing how Labour MPs taking part in the farmers’ debate did not utter a word of dissent regarding the anti-Semitism directed towards Jewish Labour politicians or Jewish Labour supporters under Jeremy Corbyn.

Nigel Adams, the Conservative government minister for Asia at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said, “We look to the Indian government to uphold the freedoms guaranteed by its Constitution and international instruments to which India is a party. Whilst this is an exciting time for the UK-India partnership it does not hinder us from raising difficult issues.”

As I write this, news is coming of extremely heavy handed policing at a vigil held in Clapham by the women’s “Reclaim the Streets” movement. The media and the government are outraged. How would it look if Indian Parliament discussed this and reminded the British government of the rights of citizens to protest?

In an unprecedented move the Indian government summoned Alex Harris, Britain’s High Commissioner to India. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla described the British parliamentary debate as a gross interference and added that British MPs should refrain from practising vote bank politics by misrepresenting events, especially in relation to a fellow democracy. The Indian High Commission in London in a press release said that “When aspersions are cast on India by anyone, irrespective of their claims of friendship and love for India or domestic compulsions, there is a need to set the record straight.” It is clear that India is casting away its image as a soft target by any number of countries, international bodies with biased agenda and biased press and social media handles.

WHAT CAN UK DO TO INDIA?

The question that hangs in the air is what exactly the British government or the MPs can do to India. I am reminded of Robert Mugabe’s government, which had any number of sanctions imposed on it and yet he continued unscathed. In Hong Kong, there is a massive crisis between pro-democracy protests and the Chinese regime, not to mention the problems in the rest of China. The UK has a special responsibility towards the people of Hong Kong and yet Nigel Adams weighed this against the massive trade between the two countries. Apart from sympathetic words, the UK has not been able to do much.

In India’s case, it is the world’s largest democracy. It is one of the leading economies of the world and a market of 1.3 billion people. Boris Johnson is talking of a £100 billion trade deal with India. So a trade embargo on India will be damaging for the UK. India is no longer a pushover. Both the US and UK as well as many nations of Asia need India to stand up to Chinese expansionism.

India can also point out that it is surrounded by countries which have had civil wars and no democracy. Myanmar at present is going through a mini civil war.

Britain itself is facing a huge economic crisis. According to the Social Market Foundation think tank almost 2 million children in the UK went hungry during the economic turmoil of 2020. The Evidence Network said on “UK Household Food Security” that 10% of UK adults live marginally in food insecurity. Another 10% live with moderate to severe food insecurity, meaning people often go hungry. According to UNICEF, in 2017, 19% of UK children under the age of 15 lived with someone who faced moderate or severe food insecurity. The Joseph Rowntree foundation claims that 3 million children are locked in poverty. Covid 19 has put the whole nation in a crisis and the UK government has borrowed billions of pounds to prop up the economy. The National Audit Office predicts 94% of Councils will have to cut their expenditure. This situation will spark unrest and create massive unemployment. So Britain is facing all this and many more serious issues.

Given the situation, it is surprising that British MPs would spend time condemning India on unsubstantiated allegations. These words will not have any impact on India, but have dampened the huge potential that both countries have to forge a great political and economic bond. The farmers’ protest will be resolved sooner rather than later. When that happens many Indians overseas will feel abandoned by the side they thought they were championing.

Nitin Mehta

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