Jasveer Singh: UK Parliament Debate Exposes India's Undemocratic Response To The Farmers' Protest

Nearly all that took part did request UK representatives to raise the topic of the Farmers' Protest with India directly, and that opportunity will arrive this summer

Jasveer Singh
March 17, 2021 | 5 min. read

A petition signed by over 100,000 people forced the UK government into finally acknowledging the Indian Farmers’ Protest in a parliamentary debate the last week.

For months, countless UK Sikhs have requested MPs to raise the issue of the Modi government’s treatment of those protesting against India’s exploitative new agricultural laws. The debate provided various MPs with a platform to speak on the historic movement, knowing the eyes of many would be on them.

The Conservative Party had two sitting MPs involved, as well as their Minister of State for Asia. The Labour Party had 12 sitting MPs contribute, while the Scottish National Party had two MPs, and the Liberal Democrats had just one. The debate was the first-ever in parliament to allow both virtual and in-person attendance.

Parliament legislation prevented some MPs from taking part due to positions they hold, including Labour Party MP Preet Kaur Gill due to her role as the Shadow Secretary of State, who has otherwise been very active on the Farmers' Protest.

Participation was also limited by an “administrative error”, something Conservative MP Nicola Richards personally experienced and expressed deep disappointment about in a tweet.

Participants shared views varying from condemning the Indian government’s treatment of the farmers and activists to celebrating India as a beacon of democracy, and everything in between. 

MPs clearly addressed the targeting of the Sikh-Punjabi community, both in India and the UK.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Slough’s Labour Party MP, mentioned being targeted with the standard separatist/terrorist accusations from Indian media and hundreds of fake profiles on Twitter for speaking about the Farmers' Protest. Dhesi, a Sikh himself, also explained that the Sikh drive to protect their and others’ rights means they cannot overlook this denial and removal of the farmers’ rights.

“It will not be lost on anybody that the UK Tory Government, in their desperation to get a trade deal, are failing spectacularly to stand up for the human rights of the protesters,” he said.

Pat McFadden, Wolverhampton South-East Labour Party MP, is a regular speaker on Sikh issues due to his closeness with the large Sikh population in his constituency. He stated, “the Punjabi community in the UK have deep family ties with many of the people who are protesting”. 

Other MPs, including the Labour Party’s Naz Shah, also spoke about the protests being dominated by Sikhs.

“In addition, because the protests have been dominated by Sikh protesters from Punjab, the Government have tried to silence their voices by marginalising the issue to one that affects a single community. The current Indian Government’s record on minority rights is not one to be proud of,” he said.

Whilst some MPs did refer to their Sikh constituents to reflect authentic feelings about the movement, others went in a whole other direction.

Virendra Sharma, the Labour Party MP from Southall, mentioned nothing about his local Sikhs, instead of raising concerns of his non-attending colleague James Murray’s constituents of neighboring Ealing North.

Sharma also engaged in bothsidesism, equating the Indian state’s condemnable actions with those of the protesting farmers.

“Both sides need to step back and recognise the need to come to an agreement. I hope that the Minister will commit to helping that cause by offering British skills in negotiation and compromise to help both sides bring the issue to a close,” he said. 

Paul Bristow, the Conservative MP of Peterborough, mentioned his constituents writing to him, worried about India’s attack on minorities like Sikhs.

“The actions of the Indian Government in response to the farmers’ protests break accepted norms,” he added.

Bristow called India a proud democracy before condemning the Indian government’s tactics for dealing with the protestors as authoritarian. 

In an example of “white-splaining”, SNP MP Martyn Day admitted “prior to the scheduling of the debate, I had little knowledge of the subject”, yet then went on to use one week’s worth of learning about the months-old Farmers' Protest to explain it all, making several mistakes in the process.

Mistakes included suggesting protesters were to blame for “clashes” with police, even quoting a source claiming “Indian police forces have handled these protests with utmost restraint despite hundreds of police officers being attacked.”

More could be highlighted about how shambolic Day’s contribution was but arguably most telling was his comment on the UK Government’s diplomatic lines on respecting India’s sovereignty.

“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.”

Khalid Mahmood, the Labour Party MP from Perry-Bar Birmingham, has been criticised in the past for suggesting Khalistan banners should not be displayed at a Sikh event, as well as maintaining that outside instigators were responsible for violence in the Farmers’ Protest. However, he still acknowledged the Indian government’s stubborn attitude.

“The Government must listen, but they have chosen not to,” he said. 

Continuing in the vein of ignorance and ill-researched comments, Theresa Villiers, Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet and vice-chair of the UK British Hindus All-Party-Parliamentary Group, defended India’s honour as a democratic country.

“Rather than denigrating India with unjustified criticism, we should celebrate it as the democratic success story that it is,” she said. Villiers has previously defended India’s treatment of minorities.

Fellow Conservative Minister of State for Asia Nigel Adams, vehemently highlighted several ways his department had raised concerns about India’s actions directly with India.

“My colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is the Minister responsible for both human rights and our relations with India. He regularly discusses media freedom, including the Media Freedom Coalition, of which the UK is a founding member, with India’s Minister of State for External Affairs,” he said.

UK Sikhs have raised concerns over Ahmad’s infrequent support for the #FreeJaggiNow campaign.

Nadia Whittome, the Labour Party MP of Nottingham East, and Tahir Ali, Labour Party MP from Birmingham Green Hall, provided the strongest positions. Whittome called Modi’s government a Hindutva regime and mentioned specific instances of human rights violations by them, such as the arrest of Nodeep Kaur

“When Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, he was banned from entering the EU, Britain and the US for his part in instigating the 2012 riots that saw more than 1,000 Muslims killed, so it should concern everyone that this Conservative Government are a close ally of the far-right Hindutva regime in India. Modi spoke alongside David Cameron when he visited the UK, our Home Secretary is an active supporter of the BJP and there are billionaire donors who bankroll both parties,” she said. 

Whittome would go on to add, “In the 2019 election, Hindu nationalists mobilised for the Tories, and the Tories are responsive to their bigoted agenda, like their opposition to banning caste discrimination. Modi and Amit Shah decried the truth as propaganda and divisive, but it is not protesting farmers, Rihanna or Greta Thunberg who are dividing India; it is the BJP. This Conservative Government needs to decide which side they are on: the side of farmers or the side of fascists.”

Ali, on the other hand, called for sanctions to be placed on Modi’s government, including a ban on members of the BJP from entering the UK. He highlighted the risk of arbitrary arrests political opponents of the BJP face. 

“They are cracking down on press freedom and political dissent, censoring critics and blocking access to the internet. A British man, Jagtar Singh Johal, remains imprisoned in India on spurious charges,” he said. 

Ali’s demand for sanctions was the only such request made during the debate.

Nearly all that took part did request UK representatives to raise the topic of the Farmers' Protest with India directly, and that opportunity will arrive this summer. But with only one request for sanctions, anyone looking for tangible outcomes from this debate will likely be left floundering.

Nevertheless, this is not to say the debate did not have an important impact. India’s panicked response to it shows their fight to win a public relations war is now impossible.

For a full transcript of the debate, visit the UK Parliament website

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Jasveer Singh hails from Southall, UK, and is the Senior Press Officer of The Sikh Press Association, a position he has held since 2015. In this role, Jasveer works across all sectors of media supporting Sikh organisations and individuals on panthic endeavours. Jasveer previously worked as a freelance journalist which included stints with Sky News, Super Fight League, and more. You can find Jasveer on Twitter at @Jazzthejourno.


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