Images of farmers marching into New Delhi reminiscent of the tractors flooding Washington, DC, in the 1970s and 1980s.
The United States has urged the Indian government to resolve its differences with the farmers over agriculture laws through dialogue, saying that peaceful protests and unhindered access to internet are a “hallmark of any thriving democracy”.
Tens of thousands of farmers have been hunkering down at the Indian capital’s fringes to demand the repeal of laws they say will leave them poorer and at the mercy of corporations.
The protests that began in late November pose a considerable challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has billed the laws as necessary to modernise Indian farming.
The largely peaceful protests turned violent on January 26, India’s Republic Day, when a section of the tens of thousands of farmers riding tractors veered from the protest route earlier decided with police and stormed the historic Red Fort in a dramatic escalation.
Hundreds of police officers were injured and a protester died. Dozens of farmers were also injured but officials have not given their numbers.
Farmer leaders condemned the violence but said they would not call off the protest.
Since then, authorities have heavily increased security at protest sites outside New Delhi’s border, adding iron spikes and steel barricades to stop demonstrating farmers from entering the capital.
The government also restricted access to mobile internet at protest sites.
“We recognise that unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy,” a US State Department spokesperson said late on Wednesday, according to Indian media reports.
NEW: State Department urges "dialogue" on #FarmersProtests in India, signals concern over blocked Internet access: "We recognize that unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy." pic.twitter.com/qtCONfG1GX
— Sabrina Siddiqui (@SabrinaSiddiqui) February 3, 2021
“In general, the United States welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment,” the spokesperson said, adding that the US “encourages that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue”.
“We recognise that peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy and note that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same.”
Earlier this week, a tweet by pop superstar Rihanna put a global spotlight on Indian farmer protests, angering the Indian government which was forced to issue a rare statement.
“Why aren’t we talking about this?!” Rihanna tweeted to her more than 101 million Twitter followers, referring to the internet outage at protest sites.
Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and the niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, Meena Harris, also tweeted their support and a social media storm followed.
Soon, senior Indian government ministers, celebrities and even the foreign ministry urged people to come together and denounce outsiders who try to break the country.
“It is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them,” the foreign ministry said, without naming Rihanna and others who followed her suit.
The ministry statement accused “foreign individuals” and celebrities of “sensationalism”.
Bollywood entertainers and sports stars, many of whom have long been silent on the farmer protests and are known to toe the government’s line, tweeted in one voice.
They used hashtags #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether, echoing the government’s stand on the agriculture laws and asked people outside India not to meddle with their country’s affairs.
The main opposition Congress party’s Shashi Tharoor said the damage done to India’s global image by the government’s “undemocratic behaviour” could not be restored by making celebrities tweet.
The government getting “Indian celebrities to react to Western ones is embarrassing,” Tharoor said in a tweet.
Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram took a swipe at India’s foreign ministry and called its statement “puerile reaction”.
“When will you realise that people concerned with issues of human rights and livelihoods do not recognise national boundaries?” Chidambaram tweeted.