Joti Kaur Rekhi: White House Stance On Indian Farmers Protest Has Sikhs Expecting More

U.S. President Joe Biden shared his stance on “democratic norms” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first call since inauguration

Joti Kaur Rekhi
February 9, 2021 | 3 min. read

U.S. President Joe Biden shared his stance on “democratic norms” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first call since inauguration.

The discussion comes as thousands of farmers continue to protest outside of India’s capital in response to three hastily passed agricultural reforms, which they argue would adversely impact them. More than a hundred demonstrators have died while encamped in makeshift communities for months alongside Delhi’s borders, braving both the elements and state sponsored violence.

Activists and journalists have been arrested and had their social media accounts suspended. There have been serious allegations of violence and sexual abuse against dissidents while in custody. The internet has also been shut down in parts of Haryana and Delhi.

While there was no reference specifically regarding the Farmers’ Protest, a readout of the February 8 call between Modi and Biden provided by the White House briefing room asserts:

“The President underscored his desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world and noted that a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the U.S.-India relationship.”

Sikhs from Punjab have been the face of the agitation, however Muslims, Hindus and others from across India have joined the demonstration since it began last Fall.

New York based Sikh Coalition wrote to Biden twice, urging him to condemn the violence, monitor retaliation against protestors and journalists, and hold government officials accountable for widespread human rights violations.

The first-ever turban wearing Sikh Mayor of a United States city, Ravi Bhalla, also wrote to the President, echoing the same sentiment.

“I thought it was really important for me in my capacity as a Sikh elected official to make my voice heard directly to the state department and the Biden administration”, Bhalla said speaking to Baaz.

Bhalla wrote his letter to the Biden Administration on February 3 and remains hopeful that he will hear back.

He specifically asks the White House to issue a statement that “does not condone the anti-democratic response of India’s government against peaceful protests…. Just as a statement was recently issued in connection with Russia.”

President Biden spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin just days after taking office on January 26. Then on February 4, Biden addressed the poisoning of dissident Aleksey Navalny and the arrests of thousands of protestors in Russia demanding his release in a speech at the State Department.

Biden said, “Mr. Navalny, like all Russian citizens, is entitled to his rights under the Russian constitution.  He’s been targeted for exposing corruption. He should be released immediately and without condition.”

Activists and influencers, including Vice President Kamala Harris’ niece Meena have expressed grave concern over the arrests of protestors in India including 23-year-old Nodeep Kaur, a female labor rights demonstrator who has been in police custody since January. According to a Change.org petition created for Kaur, the activist has suffered sexual assault.

In a recent conversation with Baaz, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh declined to comment on Meena Harris’ tweets. But she said, “It’s not like the Administration has been silent, the State Department did put out a statement and that statement stands for the Administration and the position the Administration is taking.”

The State Department statement reads: “We recognize that peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy and not that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same. We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue.”

Singh added, “I think there are still things that will continue to be worked through in India and here, but right now I don’t have anything more to add other than pointing you to the statement that was put out through the State Department specifically on those protests.”

The Sikh Coalition released a statement with regard to the State Department saying, “While there is an assertion of the right to peaceful protest in a democracy, the statement fails to acknowledge paramilitary and police brutality or the government’s other tactics of intimidation, including issuing legal notices, arresting protestors on souped-up charges, and going as far as to cut off access to water and supplies at protest sites.”

As far as the policies are concerned, the State Department statement asserted: "In general, the United States welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India's markets and attract greater private sector investment.”

Although farmers are demanding the repeal of the new laws, Mayor Bhalla said, “I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the place for the US to debate the merits of underlying domestic legislation in a foreign country, but that’s not what is being asked,” he continues to add, “I think what’s being asked is people have the right to speak freely. People have the right to have internet access. Journalists should not be unlawfully detained. Protestors should not be unlawfully detained. People should be given the right to peaceful protest without retaliation or punishment.”

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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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