For the first time since the farmers’ protests began late last year, top US Congress members in the India Caucus have asked the Indian government to ensure that norms of democracy are maintained and the protesters are allowed to demonstrate peacefully with access to the Internet.
US Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman, Co-Chair of the Congressional India Caucus, said that he convened a meeting with his Republican Co-Chair, Congressman Steve Chabot, and Vice-Chair Congressman Ro Khanna to speak with India’s Ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, regarding farmers’ demonstrations in India.
This was the first meeting of the India Caucus, the largest country-specific caucus in the US House of Representatives, on the issue.
“I urged the Indian government to make sure that the norms of democracy are maintained and that protesters are allowed to protest peaceably and to have access to the Internet, and to journalists. All friends of India hope that the parties can reach an agreement,” Sherman said.
Sandhu tweeted, “Detailed discussions on varied issues with the leadership of the House Caucus on India and Indian Americans for the 117th Congress. Look forward to working closely with them to further strengthening India-US ties.”
On internet restrictions at the protest sites, the US administration had said on February 4 that it recognises that “unhindered access to information, including the Internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy”.
Washington’s remarks about internet restrictions is not new to India. The previous administration under Trump had raised the issue of internet shutdowns in the context of Jammu and Kashmir after the revocation of Art 370.
While Sandhu has met many US Congressmen and women in the last few months, this is his first interaction with a group of Congress members on the farmers’ protests.
Earlier, US Congressman Steve Cohen had said that India is the largest democracy in the world and free speech is one of the finest hallmarks of democracy.
“I am closely watching the #FarmersProtests with concern about potential attacks on freedom of speech including cuts to internet service and state-sponsored violence,” he tweeted.
Another Congressman, Eric Swalwell of the Democratic Party, had tweeted, “The USA and India were built by small farmers, diversity, and democracy. We cannot stray from our shared values… India must commit to peace, negotiate with small farmers, restore internet access, and reject discrimination.”
Earlier, the Ministry of External Affairs had, in a statement issued on February 3 slamming “celebrities and others” for their comments in support of farmer protests, said that any protests must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos and polity, and the ongoing efforts of the government and the farmer groups concerned to resolve the impasse.
On internet access, the statement said, “The temporary measures with regard to internet access in certain parts of the NCR region were …understandably undertaken to prevent further violence.”
In December 2019, Democratic Congressmen and women had been critical of India’s positions on J&K and the CAA-NRC. That had led to an unusual step that had raised a few eyebrows in Washington, when Union External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar cancelled his scheduled meeting in December last year with the influential Congressional committee on foreign affairs because it had Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who introduced the resolution urging India to lift all restrictions imposed in J&K after revoking Article 370.
This had prompted Kamala Harris, who is now Vice President, to also support Jayapal.