Farmers' Protest: Indian Foreign Secretary Summons UK High Commissioner Over Parliament Debate

Harsh Vardhan Shringla has conveyed, according to the MEA, that the discussion “represented a gross interference in the politics of another democratic country”.

New Delhi: In a strong reaction to the UK parliamentary debate on the farmers’ protest, India on Tuesday summoned the British high commissioner Alex Willis to lodge a protest against the “unwarranted and tendentious” discussion was a “gross interference” in India’s internal affairs.

“Foreign Secretary summoned the British High Commissioner and conveyed strong opposition to the unwarranted and tendentious discussion on agricultural reforms in India in the British Parliament,” said the Ministry of External Affairs’ press note.

On March 8, a Westminster Hall debate was held on the topic of “Press Freedom and Safety of Protesters: India”. As per rules, any petitions that get over 100,000 signatures have to be considered for debate in the UK parliament. The UK parliament’s petition committee decided last week that the petition, which had got more than 115,000 signatures, will be debated this Monday.

The MEA statement said that foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla had conveyed that the discussion “represented a gross interference in the politics of another democratic country”.

“He advised that British MPs should refrain from practising vote bank politics by misrepresenting events, especially in relation to another fellow democracy,” said the MEA press note.

Also read: While Centre-Farmer Talks Stall, UK Parliament to Hold Debate on Laws and Protests

The debate was led by Martyn Day, a member of parliament from the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), who asserted that the discussion was not about agricultural reforms or the law and right to enforce law and order. “However, this debate is an opportunity to note concerns raised regarding the safety of protesters and press freedoms in reporting on the protests,” he stated.

Day stated that “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,” said the SNP lawmaker.

After various MPs made their remarks, the UK minister of state for Asia, commonwealth and development office, Nigel Adams said that UK-India relations were at a high, but that British diplomats and ministers have been raising human rights issues with their Indian counterparts.

“While this is an exciting time for the UK-India partnership, it does not hinder our raising difficult issues,” said Adams.

The UK government, stated Adams, has discussed the farmers protests at several fora including during foreign secretary Dominic Raab’s visit in December 2020.

He asserted that this march, UK foreign office officials met with the Indian high commissioner and discussed “the UK parliamentary interest in the freedom of civil society groups, for example, to operate in India”.

Adams stated that his colleague, minister of state in charge of South Asia, Tariq Ahmad, regularly spoke to his counterparts in the external affairs ministry. “Human rights issues are an essential part of these conversations,” Adams added.

He pointed out 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,” he noted.

Also read: Farmers’ Protest: Indian High Commission Says ‘False Assertions’ Made by British MPs

The minister stated that it was understandable the 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.”

On whether the issue of the farmers protests would be discussed during the UK PM’s visit to India, Adams said that the visit would give an opportunity a range of bilateral issues to be discussed. “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 Indian high commission in UK had issued a statement after the debate, condemning the “false assertions” in the “distinctly one-sided discussion”. 

The mission said it would normally refrain from commenting on an internal discussion involving a small group of honourable parliamentarians in a limited quorum.

“However, when aspersions are cast on India by anyone, irrespective of their claims of friendship and love for India or domestic political compulsions, there is a need to set the record straight,” the statement said.