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UK Govt's Argument of 'Free Speech' on Farmers Debate is Just a Smokescreen

File photo of British flag. (Reuters)

File photo of British flag. (Reuters)

Indian officials are concerned over UK government's “full weight” behind the petition, not democratic expression through free debate.

At first glance – and only at first glance – the UK government’s position over the parliamentary debate on India’s farm laws would appear sound — that this was a debate in parliament and not the British government’s doing, and that in a democracy elected members, and everyone else, has a right to free speech.

So, on the face of it, if a dozen or so MPs gather in a room adjacent to the parliament building, joined by some others online to air their views, the UK government could not possibly be held answerable. But the argument over parliamentary procedures and democratic principles may be only a smokescreen over positions of the UK government, and not just some MPs, on the farmers protests in India.

It is the quick endorsement of the petition by a government spokesperson, and the less than supportive position taken by UK’s minister for South Asia Nigel Adams that has caused concern, and consternation, among Indian officials. For that the UK government is responsible and not just a handful of MPs offering their views in three-minute time capsules.

The UK government spoke in support of the petition even before the debate could begin. “Media freedom is vital for the protection of human rights and journalists all around the world must be free to do their job and to hold authorities to account without fear of arrest or violence,” a spokesperson announced before the petition could be debated.

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“Free press plays a crucial role in our democracies and the government are putting their full weight behind this including through our membership of the Media Freedom Coalition,” the spokesperson said.

Indian officials are concerned over UK government’s “full weight” behind the petition, not democratic expression through free debate. It endorsed the allegations the petition made without taking on board any counter-argument from the Indian government, or any that any MP participating in the debate may make. And one MP certainly did.

There could be concerns, questions certainly, over the alacrity with which this debate was held in the first place. Established democratic procedure requires a parliamentary debate over any petition that crosses 100,000 signatures. But there is an older petition on child poverty that has crossed a million signatures, not just 100,000, that has not yet been debated. This one was listed with extraordinary speed, and the UK government promptly used it as springboard to condemn the Indian government in line with the petition.

Minister’s admomnishment

Replying to the debate Minister Nigel Adams stopped far short of offering legitimate support for the Indian government position on several counts.

The petition had been drafted, more than a bit deviously, in support of safety of protesters and the right to report freely, not on the farm laws themselves. That distinction the minister acknowledged. But he did not quite acknowledge just how many farmers had joined demonstrations and for just how long. And that they had done so safely; deaths through the course of the protests were not the consequence of any actions by the government or the police force.

It’s evidently not been the case that the farmers protests were not reported in India; at the time the petition was listed, the protests were being reported daily to the exclusion of most other issues at the time. And yet, Nigel Adams issued only admonishment to the Indian government.

The UK government believes that freedom of speech, internet freedom and the right to peaceful protest are vital to any democracy, he said. “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.” In effect telling India it had better do as it says, and as it is committed to. Such concerns had been raised with Indian authorities, and will continue to be, he told MPs. The Indian government was not going to take kindly to such a scolding tone.

And if the Indian media may have reported freely, Nigel Adams thought it the result to some extent of British influence. India has a “vibrant media scene” that the UK government has worked to support through the Chevening scholarships, he said. Last year “we supported the Thomson Reuters Foundation to run workshops for Indian journalists to help them report on human rights issues.” So where media failed, the Indian government had restrained it; where it worked, the British helped it.

Some support for the Indian government was offered by Conservative MP Theresa Villiers. When thousands are involved in demonstrations and encampments lasting months, “no policing response can altogether avoid controversial episodes,” she said. “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.”

That is the kind of supportive language the Indian government would have liked to hear from the UK government. It heard far less that that.

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first published:March 11, 2021, 14:54 IST