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US backs reform, flags Internet cut; India draws Red Fort-Capitol parallel

Biden admin calls for talks; MEA points to ‘ongoing efforts to resolve the impasse’

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: February 5, 2021 7:40:33 am
UN on Farm Laws, United Nations Human Rights Office, UN Human Rights on Farmers Protest, Farmers Protest in India, Indian Chakka Jam, UN Human Rights Office on Indian Government, UN on Indian Authorities, UN Human Rights on Ministry of Indian External Affairs, UN Human Rights on Indian MEA, Farmers Protest,Farmers at Ghazipur border during the ongoing agitation over farm laws in New Delhi, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. (Express Photo: Amit Mehra)

A day after the Ministry of External Affairs slammed “celebrities and others” — in the wake of comments by pop icon Rihanna and teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg in support of farmer protests — the Biden administration, making its first diplomatic intervention with New Delhi after assuming office, waded into the issue of protests and Internet restrictions in and around the protest sites.

Stating that it “encouraged” differences between the parties to be resolved “through dialogue”, the US administration “welcomed steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment” — a reference to the three farm laws at the centre of the protest. The remarks were seen by New Delhi as an endorsement of the laws.

On Internet restrictions at the protest sites along the Delhi border, the US administration said it recognises that “unhindered access to information, including the Internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy.”

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New Delhi too did not hold back and responded to the US administration by drawing parallels between the vandalism at Red Fort on January 26 and what took place at Capitol Hill on January 6, and said how these were being “addressed as per our respective local laws”.

But what started as India’s response to private individuals has now led to a diplomatic exchange on an issue which New Delhi considers an “internal matter”.

Washington’s remarks on Internet restrictions is not new to India. The previous administration under President Trump had raised the issue of Internet shutdowns in the context of Jammu and Kashmir following the revocation of Article 370.

Responding to the remarks Thursday, the Ministry of External Affairs said it has taken “note” of the comments by the US State Department.

Underlining that India and the US are “vibrant democracies with shared values”, Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, said: “The incidents of violence and vandalism at the historic Red Fort on 26 January have evoked similar sentiments and reactions in India as did the incidents on the Capitol Hill on 6 January and are being addressed as per our respective local laws.”

Responding to questions at a briefing, Srivastava said: “It is important to see such comments in the context in which they were made and in their entirety. As you can see, the US state department has acknowledged steps being taken by India towards agricultural reforms.”

“Any protests must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos and polity, and the ongoing efforts of the Government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse,” he said.

“The temporary measures with regard to Internet access in certain parts of the NCR region were therefore understandably undertaken to prevent further violence,” the MEA spokesperson said.

Earlier in the day, the comments from the Biden administration were first made in Washington DC by the US State Department, in response to questions by The Wall Street Journal, and was later reiterated by the US embassy spokesperson in New Delhi.

“We recognize that peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy, and note that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same. We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue. In general, the United States welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment,” the US embassy spokesperson said.

Sources told The Indian Express that the government’s detailed statement Wednesday had led to the US State Department wading into the farmer protests, and New Delhi’s response followed.

Sources said the view in New Delhi is that the government will not take comments from “state actors” or “non-state actors” lying down, especially in the highly amplified social media zone.

While it was not the norm to respond to private individuals and the MEA departed from that norm by reacting to tweets from Rihanna and Thunberg, sources said the view within the government is that “diplomacy has to be dynamic” and it must take into account “social media realities, where influencers tend to shape the opinions of many”.

“Past governments did not deal with such a highly active social media zone, and it is important for the government to respond to criticism, irrespective of the source, government or non-government,” a senior government functionary said.

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