By Arun Srivastava
The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was to travel to India in January 2021 to strengthen key strategic relationship which supports jobs and investment across the UK. Though he could not undertake the visit due to major surge of covid that time in UK, the sources nevertheless pointed out that was the raging farmers agitation near Delhi might have also been considered by the British PM.
Now Boris is scheduled to visit India in the last week of March. His visit has acquired immense importance and it is unlikely that it would be deferred this time, as UK has emerged as the hotspot for the anti Modi activities and protest. Though the diplomatic channels and personal have been quite active to salvage the situation, it does not appear that they have performed their task.
The British Parliament debate on the farmers movement has already got a wider publicity. But the diplomats did not dissuade the members of parliament to discuss it in Parliament and express disgust at the violence and torture perpetrated on them by the Modi government. Several MPs from the Liberal Democrats, Labour Party and the Scottish National Party had expressed concern about the safety of farmers protesting against the agricultural laws on Delhi’s borders and the targeting of journalists covering the agitation and status of press freedom in India.
The House of Commons had assigned 90 minutes for a debate on the matters on Monday. British parliamentarians, cutting across party lines, expressed concern about the democratic backsliding in India, which is acknowledged as the world’s largest democracy. They expressed their disgust at the Modi government stooping low and smashing democratic structure. The former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the nature in which the protesters have been dealt with in Delhi was “unprecedented”. Corbyn, who now sits as an Independent, said: “250 million people took part in it — the biggest ever industrial dispute in the history of this planet — so we should think about why those people are protesting.”
Though the Modi government and the Indian mission was hard pressed to describe the farmers movement and the three laws as India’s domestic problem, they could not come out with a plausible reply on use of large scale repression on the protesters and the people supporting them. The UK media even did not recognise the Indian argument; “We deeply regret that rather than a balanced debate, false assertions without substantiation or facts were made”.
Indian government has been trying to make out its point that the Indian diaspora does not support the western views. It is absolutely wrong. They have been taking out rallies and protesting the violence being perpetrated on the protestors. In fact only a week back the Washington-based National Farmers Union expressed solidarity with the protesting farmers in India, stating that “if our experience here in the United States is any indication, they are right to be concerned” about the three farm laws. It even said: “We have learned the hard way that fair prices and farmer sovereignty are the bedrock of flourishing rural communities and an equitable food system — in the United States and everywhere else.”
True enough a global chorus is in support of farmers. A few days back 75 organisations from the US and elsewhere brought out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times bearing a solidarity message. India’s official effort to silence condemnation from overseas of the farmers’ protests by telling critics to keep off the country’s “internal matters” does not seem to have drawn the desired result going by the continuing chorus of support for the peasants.
Significantly the US-India caucus, the largest country-specific caucus in the US House of Representatives, at its first meeting backed ‘peaceful protests’ by farmers. Norms of democracy must be maintained, says Congressional committee member Brad Sherman. The Caucus urged the Indian government to ensure that the norms of democracy are maintained and the protesters are allowed to demonstrate peacefully.
With the aim to contradict the government claims that it has legislated the laws to hasten up agri reforms, the critics have cited how Bihar’s farmers have been suffering since the abolition of the APMC Act and the mandi system in the state. The diaspora members agree with the protesters that these market yards would close down with time. Fears have also been expressed about price manipulation if big companies are allowed unlimited storage and stocking facilities.
Though the diplomatic channels are at their job, the bureaucrats nurse the impression that Modi should take up the matter at personal level with Boris and evolve some mechanism to dilute the crisis. It is believed that Boris taking a proactive stand to diffuse the situation in Britain would have a positive impact on the US and other European countries. Though scepticism prevails over how far he would prove to be effective in persuading the USA administration, particularly the US president Joe Biden to come to the help of Modi, the sources are sure Boris’s good personal relation with Biden will yield some positive result. But whether Biden would throw his weight behind Boris is uncertain /. Moreover the US policy makers and Democrat members do not support the rightist policies of Modi. Boris is expected to visit Washington to see President Joe Biden after his India tour.
This will be Boris’s first major bilateral visit since taking office, and the first since UK’s departure from the EU, and underlines his commitment to step up the UK’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific region. Boris is also likely to discuss the G 7 Leaders meet and COP 26 Summit which will take place in UK. With Modi’s well-wisher Donald Trump no more on the global circuit Boris will be entrusted with the task to smoothen India’s relation with other members. Boris has already decided to invite India to attend the UK’s G7 Summit as one of three guest nations alongside South Korea and Australia. Modi already nurses ambition to work with a group of like-minded democracies to advance shared interests and tackle common challenges.
The UK and India are significant investors and markets for each other’s economies and UK’s trade and investment relationship is worth around £24 billion a year, supporting more than half a million jobs. A Modi-Johnson meeting would be useful for both leaders that too in the backdrop of handling of the press, parliament and public opinion by Modi government has turned the global fraternity hostile to Modi.
International criticism of its management of the farmers’ agitation has posed a major challenge for the Narendra Modi government. Human rights, civil rights, democracy, climate change, protection of religious minorities and a host of other issues that constitute a broad liberal agenda have become important buzzwords in the new world order Trump’s successor Joe Biden hopes to shape. True enough the Modi government choosing aggressive posture to silence its foreign critics on the farm protests has proved to be counterproductive.
The UK parliament’s debate on the farmers’ protest has come at a time when the Modi government has been casting aspersions on protests and rallies held abroad against the farm laws by calling it an ‘anti-national’ bid led by the Congress party. On January 5, over 100 MPs from the UK sent a letter to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressing concern over the farmers’ protests in India and sought his stand. British Labour MP from Slough, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi while decrying this stance of Modi government commented; “It certainly is not anti-national, or anti-India, to be voicing concerns about the policies of the government of the day, whosoever that may be. In the UK, we consistently scrutinise the actions of our government and also foreign governments; indeed, it’s the sign of a healthy democracy.” Significantly a couple of days back the US administration said that it “encouraged” differences between the parties to be resolved “through dialogue”.