Press Freedom and Safety of Protesters: India DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Brendan O'HaraMain Page: Brendan O'Hara (Scottish National Party - Argyll and Bute)
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.
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.