Joti Kaur Rekhi: U.S. Foreign Relations Chairman Triples Down For Farmers as Def. Sec. Visits Delhi

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) spoke out for the third time about undemocratic actions taken against demonstrators peacefully protesting India’s new farm bills

Joti Kaur Rekhi
March 19, 2021 | 5 min. read

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) spoke out for the third time about undemocratic actions taken against demonstrators peacefully protesting India’s three new agriculture laws. His most recent comments were made as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin travels to India during the last leg of his trip to the Indo-Pacific region.

The New Jersey senior Senator wrote a letter on March 18 in collaboration with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), to Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on the Sec. to “raise the importance of freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest with your Indian counterparts.” Sec. Blinken accompanied Def. Sec. Austin in Japan and South Korea earlier in the week. It is expected that they will visit India together as well.

In an earlier public letter, Sen. Menendez urged Def. Sec. Austin on March 17 to address human rights violations and democratic values during his first overseas trip to the region. 

A Pentagon Official told Baaz that the Def. Sec., who was confirmed with overwhelming support just days after President Biden’s Inauguration, will be in India from March 19 to 21. He will be meeting with Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh and senior national security leaders. The two Cabinet members are the first to visit India under the new Administration.

According to the Dept. of Defense, the goal of the trip is to build Indo-Pacific relationships as concerns with China and North Korea continue to grow. Conversations in New Delhi will be about defense cooperation, including “enhanced information sharing, regional security cooperation, defense trade and the effects of new domains.”

In his letter to Def. Sec. Austin, Sen. Menendez wrote that he “would like to see the U.S.-India partnership grow, but we must acknowledge that the partnership is strongest when based on shared democratic values and the Indian government has been trending away from those values.”

A spokesperson for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said, “As Chairman of the committee Senator Menendez tracks issues closely across the subcontinent and raised concerns about human rights during his visit to India in 2019.” 

The Senator also wrote about Freedom House recently downgrading India from a “Free” state to “Partly Free,” due in part to the persecution of Muslims and harassment of journalists and dissidents under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime.

Senator Menendez reiterated his concerns about farmers who have been demonstrating for more than 100 days against the new farm laws. He initially addressed his shock in a letter to Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu late last December after hearing from constituents about the issue.

In the March 17 letter, Sen. Menendez wrote, “The Indian government’s ongoing crackdown on farmers peacefully protesting new farming laws and corresponding intimidation of journalists and government critics only underscores the deteriorating situation of democracy in India.”

In their joint letter, Sens. Menendez and Schumer note that they are not taking a position on “internal Indian policy matters;” perhaps a nod to the Ministry of External Affairs Feb. 3 statement and social media campaign to attempt to quell “vested interest groups [trying] to mobilize international support against India.”

They referred to the events at Lal Kila (Red Fort) on Jan. 26, through the condemnation of the violence, and acknowledged protest leaders did so as well. The senior Senators from New York and New Jersey pointed out that “Indian authorities at different levels of government have used that day’s events as a pretext to undertake a broader and sustained crackdown on peaceful protesters, journalists, and government critics.” 

They question the internet, water, and electricity shutdowns as well as the arrest of 22-year-old Disha Ravi. They also cite concerns about the treatment of journalists, at least 10 of whom have been charged with sedition.   

The two Senators went on to specifically reference President Biden’s words during a Feb. 4 speech at the State Department. 

Standing with Sec. Blinken that day, the President, who has remained relatively silent on the ongoing Farmers’ Protest despite two calls with PM Modi, began his Feb. 4 speech saying “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”

Sens. Menendez and Schumer call on the Administration to stay true to their words and “reinforce the importance of addressing challenges to democracies abroad as well.” 

They referenced words later on in Pres. Biden’s Feb. 4 speech when he stated, “we must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” They call on Sec. Blinken to consider the words spoken by his boss in that speech when meeting with Indian government officials.

In his Dec. 11 letter, Sen. Menendez shared words about strengthening the relationship between the U.S. and India but suggested that it would be a challenge if democratic values were not shared.  The Sen. then too urged the Indian government to allow “demonstrators to peacefully make their voices heard.” He was “shocked” to learn that protestors were met with water cannons and tear gas.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and New Jersey’s junior Senator, addressed the violence against protestors in a letter he sent to Ambassador Sandhu in mid-Feb. as well. He urged the Indian Ambassador to work with leadership to uphold democratic values, not limited to human rights and equality. 

Sen. Booker wrote, “Sikh farmers from Punjab, a state that will be disproportionately impacted by the laws, have been maligned as religious extremists and separatists, and are at a heightened risk of violence due to longstanding mistrust and animosities between India’s Hindu and Sikh communities.” 

The Sikh Coalition has been lobbying the Senate Foreign Relation Committee as well as President Biden, the Dept. of State, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the American Sikh Congressional Caucus on the issue since early December. 

The organization, which is based out of New York, created a tool months ago for community members to write to their representatives about the ongoing plight of the farmers. It has also written to several elected officials and committees about the issue.

It welcomed both letters written to Sec. Lloyd and Sec. Blinken in a statement which reads:

"We are grateful to Senators Menendez and Schumer for exhibiting leadership and recognizing that it is critical to hold our allies accountable to shared democratic values. The farmers' protest is arguably the largest protest in modern history and we cannot ignore the Indian government's anti-democratic response to this movement. For months, elected officials at the local and federal levels have been raising critical U.S. awareness of the treatment of protestors, and we will continue engaging the Biden Administration to follow in the same and prioritize human rights in India." 

Baaz is planning on following up on Def. Sec. Austin’s meetings once more details become available.

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Joti Kaur recently obtained her MSc in International Public Policy from UCL in London. Her research focused on the disappearances and extrajudicial executions that occurred in Punjab following the Sikh Genocide of 1984. Prior to returning to school, she worked as a local television reporter for five years. Advocating for others has always been at the core of her work. She remains a voice for the voiceless. You can find Joti on Twitter at @ThisIsJoti.


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