Press Freedom and Safety of Protesters: India

Monday 8th March 2021

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Welcome to the first hybrid meeting of Westminster Hall. I remind Members that there are changes to some of the rules in the new hybrid arrangements. Members present must stand when they are speaking. Interventions are allowed on Members present in the Room, but not by or on Members who are speaking virtually.

The timings of the debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between each debate. Members who have not arrived for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall will not be called, and those Members who are here are expected to remain for the entire debate.

If Members who are attending virtually have technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. Members attending physically who are in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move on to the horseshoe when seats become available. Members may speak only from the horseshoe.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP) [V]
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 563473 relating to press freedoms and safety of protestors in India.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this return to Westminster Hall debates, with virtual participation—something I know many Members are grateful for—which gives e-petitions awaiting a debate the public hearing that the petitioners deserve.

Farming protests in India may not seem to be the most obvious issue for a petitions debate, but the Petitions Committee has always accepted petitions calling on the UK Government to engage with other Governments on human rights issues. The petition focuses on the protests in Delhi and across India following the agricultural reforms agreed by the Indian Parliament. It calls on the UK Government to

“Urge the Indian Government to ensure safety of protestors & press freedom”.

It argues that

“democratic engagement and freedom of the press are fundamental rights and a positive step towards creating a India that works for all”,

and calls for “transparency & accountability” from the Indian Government.

The petition has already been signed by more than 115,000 people, and it has until 17 June to run—a fact that highlights the public interest in, and topicality of, the issue. The close ties, and many family connections, between these islands and India are another factor. The petition was created by Gurch Singh, whose family is from a farming background in the Punjab, after the distress he observed when he found his mother in tears watching the Indian news channels’ coverage of the protests. He then spoke with relatives in India about the distress they were in, and with members of his local community. It is testament to his efforts that his area is in the top 10 constituencies for signatories. Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University, has said:

“Every farmer community everywhere is discussing these farm laws. It is not just a local or regional matter.”

He is right. It has even found its way to being debated in these islands.

The farming protests are complex in their nature and origins. Indeed, even as a Member who takes a keen interest in India and has family connections there, I must admit that, prior to the scheduling of the debate, I had little knowledge of the subject, other than having seen some brief news footage of clashes between farmers and police in riot gear, from which I gleaned that it was something to do with farming laws, and that several high-profile celebrities such as Rihanna and Greta Thunberg had spoken out about it. I am grateful to those who have taken the time to speak with me over the last few days, and to those who have provided briefings. The House of Commons Library, the Indian high commission, the petitioner, and several political contacts with first-hand experience have all greatly assisted my understanding of the issue.

Today, we are not having a debate about the merits of the agricultural reform Bills passed by the Indian Parliament. The UK Government have repeatedly acknowledged that it is a sovereign matter for the Government and people of India. 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.

The Indian Government’s right to enforce law and order is also not in dispute, and again that has been repeatedly acknowledged by the UK Government in their statements on the protests. In their response to the petition, the UK Government stated:

“We also recognise that governments have the power to enforce law and order if a protest crosses the line into illegality. We look to the Indian government to uphold all freedoms and rights guaranteed in India’s strong constitution.”

However, this debate is an opportunity to note concerns raised regarding the safety of protesters and press freedoms in reporting on the protests.

To help those who may be coming to the debate with a similar knowledge base to the one that I had a week ago, I believe the background to be as follows. It can be argued that the farmers have been ripped off for generations, that the sector requires reform, and that they have suffered a huge loss of income due to the covid lockdowns. Agriculture is controlled by the state in India, and three farm laws were passed by India’s Parliament last September, resulting in opposition from farming groups. There are arguments about the constitutionality of the laws, which is an issue for India’s own legislative and judicial process.

The farm laws allow, for the first time, farm gate sales to corporations. They put an end to warehouse capacity limits for processors, and they introduce tax-free, privately owned corporate yards, or mandis. We have heard reports of water cannons and tear gas being used against protesters in the early stages of the protests, repeated clashes between police and protesters, and the suspension of mobile internet access and social media accounts in late January and early February. There are good links to reputable sources on those events in the House of Commons Library debate pack.

Sadly, several farmers have suicided in protest, and others have died from exposure during the winter conditions of the protests. Indian farmers have been occupying roads around Delhi since 26 November, and on 26 January—Republic Day—they drove more than 120,000 tractors to the capital. The vast majority of those taking part, it should be stressed, did so peacefully. I believe it was inspired by an American farmers’ “tractorcade”, which brought Washington to a standstill in 1979. It is a small world.

Across India, some 750 million people are directly engaged in agriculture. That is around half of India’s population. Land has been described as sacred, and farming seen as a religious duty or way of life. It is a very significant issue for India, and has a resonance with the Indian diaspora around the globe, and for concerned environmental and political activists. While the protests been largely peaceful, they have on occasion involved the use of direct action such as strikes and blockades, which have disrupted road and rail traffic. The most significant clash between police and protesters so far came on 26 January, when one protester died and more than 80 police officers were injured after protesters deviated from an agreed protest route, including breaching security to enter the iconic Red Fort in Delhi.

The BBC cited local media reports of police using tear gas and batons, and of police officers being targeted by protesters driving tractors. The violence was condemned by farmers’ groups and union leaders. In response to the violence, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs put out a statement on 3 February arguing that the violence on 26 January had been the result of “vested interest groups” influencing the protests. It argued:

“Indian police forces have handled these protests with utmost restraint”,

despite hundreds of police officers being attacked. The statement also noted that the Government have held multiple rounds of dialogue with protesters’ representatives and farming unions, and had offered to suspend the implementation of the laws—an offer rejected by the farmers’ unions, who want to see the laws fully repealed.

Following the violence at the end of January, the Indian Government also temporarily suspended mobile internet access in three areas around Delhi where protesters had gathered. The Indian Government claimed that the suspension was in order to maintain public safety. The UK Government have since acknowledged and welcomed the removal of those restrictions in their answer to a House of Lords written question on 22 February. However, on 9 February, Amnesty International released a statement calling on the Indian Government to stop what it referred to as an “escalating crackdown” on protesters and farming leaders, citing reports of arrests, threats and harassment of peaceful protesters. The International Press Institute took the matter up in its communication directly with Prime Minister Modi, in which it urged him

“to take immediate steps to ensure that journalists can work without harassment and fear of reprisal”

from the Government,

“and to direct the state governments to drop all charges against journalists, including those under the draconian sedition laws, that have been imposed on them for their work”.

Press freedom and the right to peaceful protest is central to any democracy, so the images emerging from India over the past few months are deeply worrying. Some 67 journalists were arrested and detained last year alone. The escalation in violence and the press crackdown, including over social media accounts, cannot simply be ignored, especially at a time when the UK Government are keen to strengthen ties with the Indian Government.

As the world’s largest democracy and a key regional player, India has a pivotal role to play on the world stage. That is why it is vital that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary impress on our Indian partners our joint convictions on free speech and the right to protest. I look forward to hearing the contributions to the debate, and I hope that the Minister will advise whether these concerns will be raised by the Prime Minister on his trip later this year.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Before I call the Back-Bench speakers, I have two points to make. I am going to put a time limit of three minutes on speeches. I also announced at the beginning that hon. Members who were not present for the start of the debate would not be allowed to speak, but this is the first time we have had these arrangements so at the end I will call two hon. Members who were not here at the start—one of whom I think I went to Westminster Hall, as opposed to the Boothroyd Room, which is understandable. I do not expect there to be that flexibility after this sitting, but it makes sense to do it this way for this first meeting.

Khalid Mahmood Portrait Mr Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab) [V]
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Thank you for your stewardship of this first hybrid meeting of Westminster Hall, Mr Stringer. We are addressing a critical issue. This is the largest trade dispute in the world at the moment, and it is not just about people having a deal to be able to survive; it is about their livelihoods.

Huge numbers of farmers have committed suicide. Those with small shareholdings of up to five acres will suffer hugely under this law change, which is not about looking after the welfare of farmers in India, who are by and large one of the most downtrodden communities across the whole of Indian culture, because of the work that they do with their hands and the fact that the whole family has to be involved. When they have sought a peaceful change to the legislation, the Indian Government have abused them and delivered lathi charges—charges by the police with batons of wood. They hit elderly people and women, not seeing who was there. By and large, the farmers have been peaceful. Some individuals from outside the movement have tried to instigate violence, but that has been condemned by the farmers’ unions.

The dispute is about livelihoods. It should not be treated in a way that disregards all of the issues that the farmers wish to raise in Parliament. The dispute could have been finished quite easily. It did not need to go on for the 100 days that it has gone on for now. The Government must listen, but they have chosen not to. They should work with these poor farmers, but they have chosen not to. They have taken a belligerent attitude towards a community that provides crops for the whole of India, a community whose livelihoods support the people to eat. Some of the most impoverished people in India can get support from agriculture and the work that the farmers do. The Indian Government—

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. I call Theresa Villiers.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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Anywhere in the world, in whatever country and on whatever continent, agricultural reform is very, very difficult. It is always accompanied by division and controversy, and in some instances there are protests and even law breaking. For example, our nearest neighbour across the channel has a farming sector often prepared to embark on civil disobedience and direct action. 

Many of the laws governing India’s system of farm support date back to the ’50s and ’60s, a time when the country was sometimes on the edge of famine. Thankfully, there has been massive change for the better in the intervening decades. Reform of farm subsidy and support has been under active and intensive discussion in India for 20 years, and international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund have welcomed Prime Minister Modi’s attempt to take action on this challenge, which many of his predecessors have backed away from. 

I accept and understand that protesting farmers feel insecure about their future, but Prime Minister Modi’s Government have repeatedly said that a core purpose of the reforms is to make farming more profitable, raise the incomes of people who work in farming and promote investment in agriculture in order to increase yields. Food security is obviously a priority for every Government around the world.

Although the three items of legislation that have sparked so much controversy will mean change, they also leave many structures, principles and rules intact, and Mr Modi was emphatic in a speech on 8 February that the commitment to a minimum support price has been retained and will not be removed by any of the new laws. Moreover, his Government have offered to postpone the implementation of the new laws for 18 months to allow for more engagement, consultation and discussion with the farming sector.

I hear the concerns expressed about the response to the protests, but when thousands and thousands of people are involved in demonstrations and encampments lasting months and months, no policing response can altogether avoid controversial episodes. After all, complaints about police officers here in the UK are frequently made after mass protests, but that is not evidence that democratic values are under threat in this country, and nor is it in India.

India is a country where respect for the rule of law and human rights is constitutionally protected and embedded in society. The authorities’ approach to the protests should not shake our faith in that central truth. Rather than denigrating India with unjustified criticism, we should celebrate it as the democratic success story that it is.

Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind) [V]
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Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing the debate, and on the excellent way in which he introduced the subject today.

The fact that over 100,000 people have signed a petition in support of Indian farmers shows the strength of feeling in the Indian diaspora, as well as in the rest of the communities all across this country. From clothing workers in Leicester to shopkeepers in London and elsewhere, many people in the diaspora have signed a petition to ensure that this debate takes place, because of the unprecedented nature of the demonstrations in Delhi and because of the unprecedented nature of the support for those taking part. For all those hundreds of thousands of protesters in Delhi, many more have joined in, and when a national call was made for a strike, 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.

They are protesting because they are predominantly small farmers on less than five acres, many of them very poor. Over 22,000 have committed suicide in the past few years as a result of the stress they are under. It is as if globalisation has been forced upon them, and they do not want it, so this debate is about the media reporting, and it is about the views that people take on this issue all over the world.

When a protest takes place, as the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) pointed out, there are often complaints. However, the nature of the way in which the protesters—the strikers—have been attacked in Delhi is unprecedented, as has been the reaction of the Indian Government to the way in which the media have responded: internet access has been closed down, media access has been prevented, and mobile phone access has been limited. The media have been prevented from getting their message out to the wider world.

Last week, a number of colleagues now participating in this debate, including my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), had a meeting with representatives of the National Union of Journalists. On behalf of their colleagues in India, they told us how concerned they were about the way in which Indian journalists have been prevented from reporting on this issue. Indeed, most of the British media have barely reported on it.

In the few seconds I have left, I would like to quote Sabina Inderjit, the general secretary of the Indian Journalists Union, who concluded:

“Our brief view of the prevailing situation: Democracy in India is in danger. Its fourth estate is badly bruised and battered. Over the past five years, the country’s independent and free press, which has aided India to gloat of being a vibrant democracy, is being systematically and ruthlessly attacked like never before.”

We should listen to Sabina Inderjit.

Paul Bristow Portrait Paul Bristow (Peterborough) (Con) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. What happens abroad affects us here. This is evident in a pandemic but true in many other ways. Peterborough is a diverse, multicultural city: we have a large diaspora from the Kashmiri region of Pakistan, and we also have many families of Indian heritage. The events on the subcontinent are of daily personal concern and, quite rightly, my inbox and postbag fill when we witness the disturbances in New Delhi and elsewhere.

We can all have our views on the rights and wrongs of the changes to the Indian agricultural law. It is not necessary to rehearse those here today, nor for the UK Government to side with one view or another. Diplomatic norms should be observed, but those norms assume others. The actions of the Indian Government in response to the farmers’ protests break accepted norms; they cross a line. It is terribly sad that we have reached this point, because India is a great country and a proud democracy. As such, it should conduct itself like a democracy and uphold its own constitution. However challenging the situation becomes, this democratic value should not be suspended, even in the face of provocation.

Instead, the Indian Government have blocked the use of the internet on mobile phones and arrested journalists, and now we read the reports of new legislation to force social media platforms to censor posts and break into encrypted messages. These are illiberal measures. The strength of feeling of protesters does not make them acceptable, and the excuse of national security does not make them any less authoritarian.

Even supporters of the agricultural reforms must have concerns about freedom of speech. The fears of my constituents are evident. One regards the response as an attack on “the minorities of India”, particularly the Sikhs. He worries equally about

“the safety of the protestors and the censorship”.

Another says:

“All we are asking for is for our voice to be heard by constitutional and right means. If you think I am just in my demand as your constituent then please do something about it.”

They doubt some of the allegations levelled at the protesters, and they reiterate the heavy-handedness of the Indian Government’s response.

My constituents with family connections to India are right to be worried. It is right that concern is expressed in this House, and I hope the Minister will convey our Government’s concern. Upholding the law should never be allowed to slide into authoritarian oppression.

Tahir Ali Portrait Tahir Ali (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab) [V]
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I offer my absolute support for, and solidarity with, the farmers protesting in India. Their protests have brought the world’s attention on India, and particularly on the abuses of the extreme far-right Government led by Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata party. The protests are for a just cause, as the farmers are fighting against significant privatisation of agriculture, which would negatively impact on their livelihoods. As we all know, however, the BJP and Modi have responded to the protests with repression. Political opponents of Modi in India are at risk of arbitrary arrest, and the civil liberties of all Indians are being eroded by an extremist, right-wing Government.

Therefore, I demand that the UK Government condemn Prime Minister Modi and the actions of his BJP Government. The Government’s history of abuses and criminality is well documented. They continue to abuse the human and civil rights not only of farmers, but of Kashmiri people through the military occupation of the region. 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. Furthermore, both Modi and the BJP Government are linked to the rise in violent religious persecution within India, including attacks on Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.

Therefore, I am calling on the UK Government to consider the imposition of sanctions—diplomatic and otherwise—on Prime Minister Modi and his Government. Those sanctions should include banning Modi and other representatives of the BJP Government from entering the UK, and they should extend to the seizure of any UK-based assets belonging to Modi or BJP Government figures until such abuses stop. The UK should work alongside international organisations to protect human and civil rights in India and Kashmir, including the release of all political prisoners and an end to the crackdown on the freedoms of press and speech.

Virendra Sharma Portrait Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I know that numerous colleagues are keen to speak and that we do not have many minutes, so I will endeavour to be brief.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (James Murray) is unable to be present today, but he asked me to make the Minister aware of his concerns and the strength of feeling among his constituents who have been in touch with him. They are deeply concerned about the Indian authorities’ use of force, and are adamant that the farmers must be able to exercise their right to peaceful protest. I am pleased that the debate has been called on the issue of safety of protesters and the continuation of press freedoms. It can never be wrong to stand up for human rights and for the right to peaceful protest in safety. The right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of democracy and a right that thousands of Indian farmers are using today, and which they have used for months now.

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. I know the farmers of India—I grew up in that same community. They worked hard to feed their families and the nation. I know that they would not be out there protesting if they could avoid it, so a solution must be within reach.

Until that is possible, I thank every constituent who signed this important petition. The continuation of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is important to everybody with a commitment to democracy. All those who are speaking today, all those who signed the petition and everybody who has written to me is part of that call. We are speaking to represent the more than 100,000 people who have signed the petition. They are British citizens, British Indians, and the Indian diaspora, who all care so very deeply about an equitable solution. I implore the Minister to use our skills in compromise to help find a solution that works for both sides.

Pat McFadden Portrait Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab)
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I represent thousands of constituents with family roots in India. Many are Sikhs with family roots in Punjab. I have received a great deal of correspondence on this issue in recent months, and many of my Wolverhampton South East constituents have signed the petition on press freedom and the defence of the right to public protest. There is a great sense of solidarity with those who are protesting, and a sense that they are fighting for their livelihoods and the right to earn a living. Punjab has long been known as the breadbasket of India. The Punjabi community in the UK have deep family ties with many of the people who are protesting.

The roots of the issue are the three farm laws that were passed last year, which those protesting fear will expose them to huge multinational forces and remove the minimum price guarantees they currently enjoy. Of course India, as a sovereign nation, has a right to debate and legislate for its own laws on that, but—and this is also the case if we look at ourselves—how many countries operate a fully free-market system when it comes to agriculture? Systems of subsidy are very common.

There is a great deal of anguish at the sight of protesters being ill-treated, the internet and social media accounts being cut off, and the arrest of activists. I would always say that protest must be peaceful, but I note the dignity of the protesters, with the provision of langar—free food—not only for each other among protesters, but often for those policing them, too. There is also a rejection of the idea that those engaged in the protests are somehow not loyal to India, or that the response to people fighting for their livelihoods should be to suggest that they are somehow externally controlled, or to place a question mark over their motivations, saying that they are against the state in a broader sense.

What unites those signing the petition, and the hon. Members present, is a defence of the right of peaceful protest and a desire to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict, so I ask the Minister to convey the concerns of the UK Parliament, to stand up for the right of peaceful protest, to defend press freedom, to explain why there are such concerns in the UK, and to urge a peaceful resolution to this long-running and very serious dispute.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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Some supporters of the governing party in India have said that this is an internal matter—“Foreigners, keep your nose out of it.” I can tell them why everyone is so concerned. It is because human rights are universal, and a world in which they are upheld in all of our interests.

Hundreds of farmers have died already because of the freezing cold and because of ill health while protesting. Imagine the collective pain for those of us whose parents and grandparents have been tilling the land in the Punjab, who have a strong connection with the land and whose family and friends are involved in the protests, when we see scenes of tear gas, water cannon and brute force being used against them, and when we see them herded into the protest sites like animals, with metal barricades, barbed wire and deadly steel spikes installed in the road, as if it were some sort of international border and not the outskirts of the capital city. The irony is that many of the protesters have served on the border, or have children or grandchildren currently serving in the army. Mercilessly, their water supply, sanitation, electricity and internet have been intermittently cut. Trade unionists, human rights activists and journalists, including young women, have been arrested, with reports of sexual assault and torture while in custody.

The millions of protesters are from across India and different faiths, yet because a significant number of them are Sikhs, they have been singled out and branded separatists and terrorists by unscrupulous elements of the mainstream Indian media. It is part of a pattern where Muslim Indians are labelled as Pakistanis, Christians as being under foreign influence, and Sikhs as Khalistani separatists—but we see you, and so does the world. Let me let Members into a little secret about the Sikhs: they are taught to feed millions of those in need for free, year in and year out, regardless of background, colour or creed. They are brought up to stand up for the rights of others, so we can bet our bottom dollar that they will go to the nth degree to stand up for their own rights.

Those of us, like me, who dare to speak up for the farmers are faced with a deluge of hundreds of fake profiles from the Twitter troll factory, and are accused by some disingenuous elements of being, among other things, racist. I do not need lectures from them about the wonders of India. I have been fortunate enough to have lived and studied in India for over four years, learned to converse in Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu, travelled the length and breadth of that beautiful country, and experienced at first hand the warmth and welcome of its lovely people.

While I am at it, let me debunk another myth used to silence anyone in Britain who offers anything but praise: that they must apparently have a colonial hang up. To those people I say that while we spend most of our time discussing national issues, the beauty of being a British parliamentarian in the mother of Parliaments is that almost every day we conduct debates about what is happening around the world. 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, so I call on the Government to request that the Indian Government speedily resolve the deadlock and ensure peace and justice for those farmers—

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. We move to Bradford West now, with Naz Shah.

Naz Shah Portrait Naz Shah (Bradford West) (Lab) [V]
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing the debate. It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who speaks very passionately about the subject.

The truth is that we should not need someone such as Rihanna to speak up on such issues as the farmers’ protests in India for the world to take notice, but that in some ways explains how the world now works. The powerful are heard with a single tweet, while the average person’s voice is often ignored. That is one of the central arguments that the Indian farmers are making.

The very argument made by the innocent farmers is that when the new laws take effect, taking away the regulated markets that allow for minimum prices for their crops and replacing them with deregulated markets that work in the favour of the big, powerful corporations, who then will listen to the average farmer? The Indian Government talk about how prices will be able to be negotiated, but as we all know, without the safety net of minimum prices, when the big, powerful corporations do the negotiating, it is the average farmer who is left worst off. That is what the debate is really about: ensuring that the voices of ordinary farmers can be heard.

Let me be clear: when we raise such issues because they are a very serious concern for our constituents, who often have families in India struggling in such circumstances, it is not about being anti-Indian. India is the fifth largest economy in the world. It is ranked second in the world in agricultural production and ninth in the world for agricultural exports. India has a rich history and culture, and is a rising economic power. However, with such increases in economic opportunity comes responsibility. It is important that we support the average farmer, especially when they are faced with large and powerful corporations.

This is not a debate between two equals. These farmers are already struggling. More than 52% of India’s farmers are living in debt, which is causing a shocking increase in the suicide rate. In 2019 alone, nearly 10,300 Indian farmers killed themselves. Such an alarming situation cannot be ignored.

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. I urge them to consider the issues of globalisation and capitalism in a serious way, and to avoid making this situation another case of nationalism and marginalising yet another minority community in India.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD) [V]
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Thank you, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I speak today as the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson proudly to support Councillor Gurch Singh, the Liberal Democrat councillor who organised this important petition, amassing more than 115,000 signatures. I hope that all hon. Members and the Minister will join me in applauding him for his hard work to galvanise greater action on this issue.

It is right for British MPs to speak about this issue, not just because of our constituents who may have family ties with India, but because wherever democracy and human rights are under threat we cannot look the other way. We all know—in this virtual Zoom room or elsewhere—that democracy does not just happen at the ballot box. People must have freedom to protest, freedom of the press and freedom to debate, which are all cornerstones of a thriving democracy.

This is no small matter: more than 250 million farmers have been protesting since August last year. We are witnessing what could be the largest organised protest in human history, yet the police brutality and arrests against peaceful protesters and journalists covering the protests are of deep concern. Tens of thousands of police have been mobilised across India to quash the protests. Barricades and roadblocks have been set up to block protesters, and more than 248 farmers have died just outside New Delhi in camps. Some have died of health issues and others from suicide. These farmers are sacrificing so much and all they want is to be listened to.

My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I have written to the Foreign Secretary, calling on him to work together with India to ensure that democratic values are upheld and that fundamental freedoms—such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly and association —are respected. I am afraid to say that so far his response has been woeful.

Of course we welcome close relations between the UK and India, but they must be based on a mutual commitment to human rights, freedom of religious belief and the rule of law and democracy. The UK must work to ensure that these principles are consistently upheld. Can the Minister please update us on what steps the Department has taken, including at the Human Rights Council, since the Foreign Secretary met his counterpart in India 12 weeks ago? Can he tell us what assessment has been made of whether the new farmers laws in India are in breach of article 9 of the international treaty on plant genetic resources on food and agriculture? Will he speak to the Food and Agriculture Organisation about this matter? The UK has a prominent position on the world stage and in UN institutions. We need to take this responsibility seriously, and I urge the Government to act without delay.

Nadia Whittome Portrait Nadia Whittome (Nottingham East) (Lab) [V]
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As the granddaughter of Punjabi farmers, I am proud to speak today in solidarity with the millions resisting Modi’s regime. Farmers from across India—of all faiths and none, of all genders and all castes—are protesting against laws that threaten livelihoods. In total, 250 million workers went on strike in solidarity. That is the largest strike in world history. In response, in order to stoke communal violence, the Indian Government-controlled media has demonised protesters as Sikh separatists. Protesters have been met with state repression and brutality.

It is timely that the debate is being held on International Women’s Day because women are leading this historic revolt. In January, the courts told women protesters to go home. They suggested that women farmers were not real farmers, but the women workers of India are refusing to be silenced, from farmers’ leaders, such as Jasbir Kaur Nat, to jailed climate activist Disha Ravi, to Dalit trade unionist Nodeep Kaur, who was wrongfully imprisoned, reportedly sexually assaulted and tortured by police.

These women could not contrast more sharply with their sexist Government and the misogynistic movement that supports it. 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.

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 Conversative Government need to decide which side they are on: the side of farmers or the side of fascists.

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab) [V]
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May I apologise to you, Mr Stringer, and to the Minister? I am also listed in the Budget debate and I might have to leave before the Minister responds. It is beyond my control; I am sorry.

I speak as the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, but, like others, also as a friend of India, not just because of my constituents who originate from India but because of my own family ties. As a firm and true friend, we have to be honest with our friends in India.

As has been said, India is the largest democracy on the planet, and democracy needs the firm foundation of a free press and media. Tragically, democracy is being undermined because there are those that seek to prevent the operation of a free press and media. It is unfortunate that it is those in government who are part of the process of undermining that free press. Regrettably, as reported by the International Federation of Journalists and others, eight journalists have been killed over the last 12 months. The Government use false arrests and legal actions to deter and intimidate. Journalists are arrested on trumped up charges of sedition, incitement or illegal demonstration. We have even seen the tax authorities in India used against media operations. As has been mentioned, there has also been suppression of the internet and access to social media.

The farmers’ protests have excited the latest round of harassment of journalists, and now it seems that simply reporting the actions of the state and the police in violently attacking protesters is somehow an illegal act. Journalists are continuously being targeted by arrests and intimidation, and falsely accused of criminal charges. Tragically, the political leadership feels it can act with impunity.

We understand that Prime Minister is seeking to visit India in due course. May I suggest that before that the Government call out the actions of the Modi Administration and what they are doing to undermine press freedom? When the Prime Minister visits India, he should meet the National Union of Journalists (India), as well as the International Federation of Journalists, to find out the exact truth of what is happening there. Through the Prime Minister, the Government should demand that the intimidation ends and that the freedom of press and media is firmly guaranteed for the future. That is what a true friend advises.

Sam Tarry Portrait Sam Tarry (Ilford South) (Lab)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) has pointed out on many occasions, it is not anti-Indian to voice concerns about the policies of the Government of the day in India, whoever that may be. I want to make it clear that I stand in complete solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers, as do tens of thousands of my constituents in Ilford South who understand that the freedom to protest, wherever it takes place, and the ability to provide food and welfare for one’s family is clearly an international human right. The issue has so galvanised the Indian diaspora community, especially those from a Punjabi or Sikh background and others who have land links or familial links to farming in India, that tens of thousands have engaged in global protests, including hundreds and hundreds in streets, towns and cities across the UK.

Many of my constituents in Ilford South have been horrified to see how Sikh farmers, many of whom are their family members, have been treated by the Indian Government. They have had water cannons hitting them, and tear gas and brute force used against them repeatedly while peacefully protesting against the so-called farmers Bill. Everyone has a fundamental human right to protest peacefully, and the actions of the Indian Government cannot go unchecked. In Ilford, we have a hugely diverse community, and they are fully in support of the Indian farmers, with support extending way beyond our large and vocal Sikh community. There are posters up in mosques and churches across Ilford about how outraged people are about what is going on in India.

I speak regularly to the members of the Singh Sabha London East Gurdwara in my constituency, and, thankfully, they have been leading the campaign and globally co-ordinating the effort to shine a light on what is going on. Like many hon. Members, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, I have signed a letter to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, urging them to engage properly over this issue. It is important that the torch of truth is shone on what is happening.

India is one of the greatest democracies in the world, but using water cannons and police to crush dissent strikes me as highly undemocratic. There are reports of elderly protesters being beaten and police even vandalising tractors owned by poor farmers who are protesting. India’s leaders are not behaving in the traditions that have made India such a great democracy, and that is of great concern to thousands of people in my community in Ilford and to millions globally. Given the urgency of this matter, I call on the Minister to ask our Prime Minister to speak to Mr Modi and seek assurances that there can be a better way forward.

The situation is bringing such damage to the reputation of India globally. It is simply not acceptable that our Prime Minister is not prepared to raise this with Prime Minister Modi. Now is not the time for the British Government to look the other way. Trade deals and crucial business with India or any other nation should not come before standing up for human rights globally. The world is watching. “Bole so nihal, sat sri akal”, as my constituents would say at our local kabaddi club.

Adam Holloway Portrait Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. A large number of my constituents have parents and grandparents from India—indeed, the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) was one of them. He will confirm, as he did in his speech, that very large numbers of them, and virtually every such family in my constituency, either have relatives working on farms or own land. This is really a huge concern and worry to many of those families. It affects not just Sikhs, but every geography and every creed in India.

I say to the Minister that I fully appreciate that we have limited leverage. The idea that the Prime Minister could tell the President of India what to do is clearly preposterous. However, I plead with the Minister and the Prime Minister to express their concern in the most powerful way possible. Looking at the TV images of some of the brutality, it really is quite extraordinary and utterly disproportionate. The other point I would urge the Minister to make is that India is a great democracy and should have the self-confidence to treat a free press properly.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer, and to speak in the debate. I thank the Petitions Committee and Gurcharn Singh, who organised the petition, which was signed by more than 3,400 people in Feltham and Heston. It is of great concern to many of my constituents and those of other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), who was unable to join the debate today. We have friends and family who are deeply affected by the situation, who understandably feel anxious that things could escalate further. Indeed, our local gurdwara in Hounslow has raised the issue with us. My family, two generations ago, worked in agriculture in Punjab. We are all friends of India, and that is another reason why the issue cuts very deep.

Men and women have been away from their families on a protest that has now gone on for more than 100 days, day after day, in incredibly tough conditions. Indeed, on the front of Time magazine this week, the week of International Women’s Day, are three generations of women, forming part of the protest. According to Oxfam India, 85% of rural women work in agriculture.

We know that the issue must be resolved through discussion and democratic means, in India alone, but in doing that, along with democracy there is a right to press freedom and safety for protesters. No one supports violence, and that has rightly been condemned. The laws in question have been suspended for 18 months by the Supreme Court, and a solution must be found. While the largest protests have been in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, there have been smaller ones across the country involving people of different faiths. It is not a religious dispute. The Indian Government have said that they will preserve the minimum support price, but there is not yet a legislative base for that. The laws have led to fear about income and livelihoods. Experience in other countries has suggested that, rather than improving farmers’ incomes, corporatisation has depressed them, and it needs to be debated.

Whatever assessment is made of the laws, today we are discussing concerns about press freedom and the safety of protesters. Those issues led to the Leader of the House saying:

“As India is our friend, it is only right that we make representations when we think that things are happening that are not in the interests of…the country of which we are a friend.”—[Official Report, 11 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 495.]

The world saw the arrest of 25-year-old Nodeep Kaur, and then of climate activist Disha Ravi. The sessions judge said, in granting bail, that

“citizens are conscience keepers of government”

and that they cannot be jailed

“simply because they choose to disagree with the State policies”.

Medical support staff have been beaten at rallies. Concerns have been raised about journalists. The Sikh Human Rights Group, an NGO with special consultative status at the UN, has received highly credible evidence, in the form of 20-plus first instance reports from the senior advocate overseeing cases, about allegations of unsustainable charges being made by the police. Those who have made any comment against the abuses have been subject to a tirade of abuse from far-right forces. Indeed, also, an approach against gurdwaras in three cities a few weeks ago—

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. We now move on to Front-Bench speeches. There is time for no more than 10 minutes from each Front-Bench spokesperson, leaving a couple of minutes at the end for the proposer to wind up. We go to Scotland and the Scottish National party spokesperson, Brendan O’Hara.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP) [V]
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It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair for this afternoon’s debate, Mr Stringer. I am sure that I speak for everyone in thanking the House staff who have worked so hard to get Westminster Hall debates back up and running this afternoon. I thank all colleagues who have contributed to the debate, and I pay tribute to the tens of thousands of people from across the UK who have signed the e-petition, asking that we in this House take the time to consider the plight of Indian farmer protesters and the difficult situation of many journalists currently working in India.

I acknowledge in particular the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), and thank him for the thoughtful way he opened the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. As he said in his opening remarks, the issues are complex. It is important that we reiterate, and make it clear, that in today’s debate in the UK Parliament we have no locus on the merits or otherwise of the agriculture reform Acts passed by the Indian Parliament last year. The future of Indian agriculture is a matter entirely for the people of India and their Government.

Likewise, it is right that the Indian Government appropriately enforce law and order, and should protests cross the line into illegality, it is not our place to say that they cannot police that appropriately. But what is undeniable is that in a democracy the Indian Government have an obligation to uphold and defend the rights and freedoms guaranteed to her citizens by the Indian constitution. That includes the right to protest and the right to a free press: one that is not subject to harassment, intimidation, violence or state censorship. Therefore, while the internal political matter of agricultural reform is not a matter for this House to discuss, I do believe that on matters concerning international human rights, people outside India can, and indeed should, make their voices heard.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said, since the start of the protests there have been numerous and widespread reports of violence being meted out against protesters by both the police and Government-supporting mobs. We have all read the reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and, indeed, other human rights organisations about the beatings, harassment, intimidation and unjustified detention of farmer protesters that have sadly escalated in recent weeks. Since the tractor rally and the violent clashes on 26 January, protest leaders have claimed that more than 100 people have gone missing as the Indian Government resorted to using laws of sedition to clamp down on protest. That move prompted the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to call on the Government to

“stop threatening, demonising, and arresting peaceful protesters and stop treating them as ‘anti-nationals’ or ‘terrorists”.

Amnesty International called for the

“immediate and unconditional release of activists and others who have been arrested for simply exercising their right to peaceful protest and for the government to stop the harassment and demonisation of protesters.”

In many ways, I am glad that the UK Government have called out the Indian Government. They have made their position clear: they will continue to champion human rights, and they regard the rights to peaceful protest, freedom of speech and a free press to be a vital part of any democracy.

As we heard from so many right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the crackdown against farmer protesters did not happen in isolation. It was coupled to a raft of draconian measures affecting the ability of the press to report freely what was happening. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) was right when he described the clashes on 26 January and how the Indian Government ordered mobile internet service to be suspended in the Delhi area where the farmer protests were ongoing, claiming that it was to maintain public safety. The move was quickly condemned by campaigners and trade unions, who pointed out that under international human rights law, Indian officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the free flow of information or to harm people’s ability to assemble freely or express their political views. A few days after the suspension of those internet services, the Government actually ordered Twitter to suspend the accounts of hundreds of users, claiming that they were inciting violence. A report in The Guardian afterwards said that those accounts belonged to

“news websites, activists and actors”.

As we have heard, at about the same time, eight journalists covering the protests were arrested on what Human Rights Watch has described as utterly baseless criminal charges.

With eight journalists facing criminal charges including sedition, promoting communal disharmony and making statements prejudicial to national integration, it is right that we as an international community speak out in condemnation. As the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) pointed out, the arrest of the journalists came just before other detentions including that of the 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, who was accused by the police of being a key conspirator, a formulator and a disseminator of a protest toolkit for farmers. Indeed, they also claimed that she shared that knowledge with Greta Thunberg.

I was struck when the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) suggested that what was happening was nothing unusual. I beg to differ. These draconian clampdowns on press freedom and individual freedom of expression have not just been condemned by international organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights watch; a whole raft of journalist groups in India have been unequivocal in their condemnation. The National Union of Journalists in India, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India, the Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Kashmiri Journalists Association, the Delhi Union of Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Boarders and the Indian Journalists Union have all released statements on the crackdown on press freedom and in support of the journalists covering it. As we heard, the International Press Institute has taken up the matter directly with the Prime Minister and has asked him to intervene.

As was said in the opening minutes of this debate, how India wants to organise its agricultural sector is entirely and exclusively a matter for the Indian Government and their people, but human rights abuses and the silencing of the press are a matter for us all. Rajat Khosla, senior director of research, advocacy and policy at Amnesty International, said:

“We have seen an alarming escalation in the Indian authorities’ targeting of anyone who dares to criticise or protest the government’s repressive laws and policies…The crushing of dissent leaves little space for people to peacefully exercise their human rights including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in the country.”

There has been an alarming escalation in the Indian authorities’ targeting of anyone who dares to criticise or protest against them. We add our voice to those in the international community and domestic organisations calling for the Indian Government immediately to stop their crackdown on the protesters, the farmers’ leaders and journalists. We want to see the immediate and unconditional release of all those who have been arrested and detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. The shutting down of the internet, the censoring of social media and the use of draconian laws against protesters and journalists who have been peacefully voicing opposition to the new laws and questioning the Government’s methods must immediately cease.

Freedom of speech, the right to protest and a free press are the hallmarks of a democratic society. A democracy cannot function if those fundamentals are under attack, suppressed or eroded. Right now, it appears that all is not well in the world’s largest democracy. It is up to the Indian Government to show their own people and the international community that they want to protect that democracy and create a country that works for all its citizens. I urge them to take heed of what has been said here this afternoon, and indeed across the world, look at their own actions and act for the benefit of all their citizens.

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I thank the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for opening this debate. I pay tribute to the many tens of thousands who secured the debate through the petition process—what a great example of democracy in action.

We have heard many memorable and passionate contributions. I look forward to the Minister setting out what actions the Government will be taking. I particularly thank the other contributors to the debate, not least my 11 hon. Friends who made some truly compelling arguments. The fact that the overwhelming majority of contributions to the debate have come from the Labour Benches shows how hugely important this issue is to our party.

The farmers’ protests taking place in Delhi relate to three new agricultural laws that affect farmers. Taken together, they loosen the rules relating to the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce, allow private buyers to stockpile essential commodities for future sale, and set out rules for contract farming. The legislation is deeply controversial, and Opposition figures and the protesting farmers have complained that there was insufficient consultation. The ongoing protests on the outskirts of Delhi illustrate the strength of feeling and the level of anger that so many members of the farming community feel. Prime Minister Modi will by now be acutely aware of the backlash against his policies, but India is a sovereign, democratic nation, and its agricultural laws are a domestic matter.

In a democracy, there will always be different views on the right course of action to take. We acknowledge and fully respect that those views are held passionately by many British Indians and those who retain close ties to India, but as it is a domestic issue it would not be appropriate for the UK Labour party to comment on the specifics of the legislation itself, so I will not do so today. However, since the first worrying evidence of escalating violence emerged, the Opposition have been urging the Indian authorities to protect and defend the universal human rights of all those protesting in India. I assure hon. Members present that we shall continue to do so without fear or favour.

The Labour party’s foreign policy puts the rule of law, democracy and universal human rights and freedoms at the very heart of our global agenda, and we call for those principles to be upheld consistently in every country across the world. Let me stress in absolute terms that the Labour Front Bench stands firmly behind the rights of Indian farmers to exercise their right to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest.

That is why on 1 February I issued a statement in which I drew attention to the escalating violence and the clashes between the farmers and police, and the threat to essential democratic rights. I called on both sides to show restraint, but made it clear that the onus is on the Indian authorities to protect the farmers’ right to peaceful protest, to respect their right of freedom of assembly and expression, and to respond to any incidents of civil disobedience in a proportionate and appropriate manner. For instance, we are deeply concerned about reports of live ammunition being used by the police. We of course call on demonstrators to keep their protests peaceful and within the constraints of the law. The Red Fort incident on 26 January is an example of where both sides must understand the limits of what is acceptable, and that certain actions are likely to provoke outrage and escalation.

In recent weeks, campaigners have been particularly concerned about the Indian authorities’ disregard for freedom of expression, and specifically for media freedoms. Human Rights Watch has stated that during the protests the authorities have introduced politically motivated charges against activists, and charged journalists and Opposition politicians with sedition simply for reporting on claims made by the family of a dead protester.

Following the Red Fort clashes between protesters and police, the Indian Government shut off the internet as a way of curbing the protest, suspending 4G mobile internet services in three areas around Delhi, where tens of thousands of protesting farmers are camping. Services were restored, but it is clear that bans of that sort violate basic freedoms. The Labour party therefore calls on the Indian authorities to recognise the vital role that independent journalism plays within a democracy, and to protect its journalists from reprisals.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
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In terms of independence, and the link between the Government and certain celebrities, the farcical manner in which some Indian actors and cricketers copy-pasted the official Government line simultaneously on to their social media accounts not only exposed to a global audience the 2019 Cobrapost cash for tweets sting operation, but severely dented their credibility of conscience. Does my hon. Friend agree that if our Government had issued such an edict, they would have been laughed out of our country, and subsequently celebrities with a conscience would have tweeted out the exact opposite in defiance?

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree that the media and social media should never be manipulated for such political purposes, speaking through others in such a way that it is not clear where the originator of the message is coming from. It is important that the media is used as a neutral source of information rather than one that is loaded with a particular agenda.

Another universal human right is that of religious freedom. Prime Minister Modi will be aware of the deep concern about how protests by farmers on economic issues, which is what this is about, have resulted in a significant backlash against Sikhs. He will have seen Government supporters holding rallies outside Sikh places of worship and the fear that that will have engendered. Mr Modi must recognise his responsibility in line with international law to keep—

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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My hon. Friend will be aware of the car rallies that targeted Southall, Leicester and Birmingham two weeks ago. They caused great concern, and I pay tribute to the Home Office and the police. Does he agree that this is why it is so important that inter-faith communities such as Southall Faiths Forum and Hounslow Friends of Faith come together, as they did at that time, to say that they stand firm against right-wing groups that want to harm our community? It is vital that across the world we defend our democracies and freedoms and protect our communities from attempts at division.

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. Let us be clear that this issue must be seen be as an economic and political one. It must never be allowed to tip into prejudice around people’s faith or ethnicity. It is vital that we keep focused on the issue that the protesters are protesting about. Mr Modi needs to recognise that the world is watching and that what happens in India resonates here in our country. He must recognise his responsibility, in line with international law, to keep the Sikh community safe and confident in India’s law enforcement. Such recognition is important for the individuals and families affected, and also for those of us who are keen to see India flourish as the great, successful, multicultural nation that we know it to be.

The UK Government naturally and rightly value their trade relationship with India, which stands at more than £18 billion annually, but the UK-India relationship must be broader and deeper than just trade. It should be based on working in partnership on issues of security and climate change. Critically, it must be about the joint promotion of democracy, human rights and upholding international law.

On 1 February, I asked the Foreign Secretary to raise the issue of human rights with the Indian Government, and today I urge the UK Government to engage more actively and more urgently with New Delhi. What steps has the Minister taken to engage proactively with his counterparts in New Delhi to ensure that the right to peaceful protest is upheld? Secondly, what representations has he made to his Indian counterpart about the need to resolve the situation peacefully by working with all parts of Indian society, including trade unions, and the need to advance the negotiations that have stalled? Thirdly, will he publish a broader strategy to defend internet and media freedom, not only in India, but in other places such as Belarus, Hong Kong and Uganda? Fourthly, what steps have the UK Government taken to support the rights of Amnesty International, which was recently forced to discontinue its operations in India?

Finally, the invitation to join the G7 in Cornwall represents a significant development in India’s role as a leading nation in global politics. Will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister will take this opportunity to stress to Mr Modi the need for India to adhere to the high standards that are expected within the international community, particularly with regard to universal human rights and the rule of law?

Nigel Adams Portrait The Minister for Asia (Nigel Adams)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, under these new arrangements. So far, so good—the technology appears to have worked very well. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing this debate in an excellent way. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the Petitions Committee. I am also grateful for the contributions from all right hon. and hon. Members, many of whom have given passionate speeches this afternoon—under-standably so, given the interest in their constituencies and their own personal connections with India.

I also want to thank Councillor Gurcharn Singh, whom the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) rightly commended for initiating the petition and ultimately this debate. There are clearly very strong feelings, both inside and outside the House, about the farmers’ protest and about press freedoms in India, as indicated by the fact that more than 100,000 people have signed the petition. May I thank every single one of them for taking such a keen interest and for bringing the subject to the House? I will try to respond to many of the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members, but I am conscious that I need to give the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk a few minutes at the end of the debate—he says hurriedly, looking at the clock to see how long we have. Perhaps you might give me a pointer, Mr Stringer.

I will begin by saying that the officials in our network of high commissions in India have monitored and reported back on the protests in response to the agricultural reform laws ever since they first flared up in September. In January, the Indian Supreme Court suspended the reforms and established an expert committee to scrutinise the laws. We understand that the committee has completed its consultations with concerned parties and will give a final report to the Supreme Court at the end of the month. We are also aware that the Indian Government have met farmers’ unions on several occasions and that those talks remain inconclusive, but are ongoing.

Understandably, those events have caused alarm and uncertainty for many British people who have family ties to farming communities in India. The Government’s written response to the petition aimed to address those concerns while making clear that agricultural policy is a domestic matter for the Indian Government, as the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), confirmed. The UK Government firmly believe, however, that freedom of speech, internet freedom, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and many others, and the right to peaceful protest, are vital to any democracy.

We also accept that if a protest crosses the line into illegality, security forces in a democracy have the right to enforce law and order in a proportionate way. We encourage all states to ensure that domestic laws and the way in which they are enforced comply with international human rights standards. In that spirit, we look to the Indian Government to uphold the freedoms and rights guaranteed to the Indian people by the constitution and by the international instruments to which India is party.

Concerns about press freedom in India were raised by right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow), the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), and the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara). Again, let me be clear that this Government believe that an independent media is essential to any robust democracy. That is why we are committed to championing media freedom around the world, as is evident from our ambitious media freedom campaign that we launched in November 2018.

India has a vibrant media scene that promotes lively debate across the political spectrum, and the UK Government have worked to support that democratic tradition. In 2019, for example, we awarded scholarships on our flagship Chevening programme to seven talented and aspiring young Indian journalists. Last year, we supported the Thomson Reuters Foundation to run workshops for Indian journalists to help them report on human rights issues.

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. Right hon. and hon. Members will recognise that this is a time of great ambition for the UK’s relationship with India. Both Governments are working to advance shared priorities across trade and investment, health, sustainability, climate change, and defence and security. We are also working with India as a force for good on the UN Security Council, and it is one of the Prime Minister’s guest countries at the G7 summit later this year in June. This co-operation will help us to fix global problems and it will strengthen prosperity and wellbeing in India and the UK.

While this is an exciting time for the UK-India partnership, it does not hinder our raising difficult issues. A number of right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and the hon. Members for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) spoke about the Prime Minister’s upcoming visit to India. This will be an opportunity to discuss a range of bilateral issues with India. Where we have serious and specific concerns, we will raise them directly with the Indian Government, as would be expected of a friend and neighbour. Candid discussions are an important part of our mature and wide-ranging relationship with the Indian Government.

The hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon and for Aberavon wanted to know what further discussions the United Kingdom has had since the Foreign Secretary discussed the farmers’ protest with his counterpart during his visit to India in December. This month alone, senior Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials have met with the Indian high commissioner and discussed this very thing—the UK parliamentary interest in the freedom of civil society groups, for example, to operate in India—and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon speaks regularly to his counterparts in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, as well as to the high commissioner here in the UK. Human rights issues are an essential part of these conversations.

The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon raised the issue of article 9. We have not made an assessment of India’s agricultural bills in relation to article 9 I will certainly consult officials on this, but I would stress again that these reforms are a domestic matter for India. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) raised the issue of sanctions. This sanctions regime, which we launched in July, enables the UK to impose sanctions on those who commit serious human rights violations or abuses. It is not appropriate to speculate on who may be designated under the regime in future, as to do so could very well reduce their impact.

The Opposition spokesman also raised the issue of Amnesty International in India. We raised this case with the high commissioner on 1 December and with officials via Lord Ahmad, and our officials have raised our concerns most recently in November, as well as in December. We have requested that Amnesty’s accounts be unfrozen while the investigation is ongoing, and in our contacts with the Government of India we have noted the important role in a democracy of organisations such as Amnesty.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. Can the Minister bring his remarks to a conclusion very quickly?

Nigel Adams Portrait Nigel Adams
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I can; thank you, Mr Stringer. Let me end by reassuring colleagues that the UK Government will continue to monitor developments relating to the protests incredibly closely. Where we have concerns, we will continue to raise them with the Indian Government, while respecting the fact that these agricultural reforms are an internal matter.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day [V]
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I thank all who took part in this debate. It is fantastic that these debates are taking place, so I also thank the House authorities for facilitating them, although we could clearly have done with a much longer debate. The spirit of today’s contributions was very much one of concern born out of friendship. The images and testimonies that we heard today are thoroughly depressing. We rightly regard India as a valuable friend and ally, which makes it imperative that we do not turn a blind eye to the events taking place. To do so would be a failure of both diplomacy and friendship.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the sitting. Please will Members participating physically leave the room promptly by the exit door on the left while observing social distancing. Thank you.

Sitting suspended.