By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, December 29, 2020 – While recognizing India’s sovereign right to determine its national policy, seven US lawmakers including Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Democrat-Washington), the first ever Indian-American woman elected to the House of Representatives, have written to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing “serious concerns” about the brutal treatment meted out to farmers from Punjab peacefully protesting the country’s new agricultural laws. The lawmakers have urged him to bring up the matter with his counterpart, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and to offer counsel.
Citing reports in the international press, the legislators noted, “protesting farmers from Punjab, who were marching peacefully to Delhi, were brutally subjected to water cannon attacks, barbed wire barricades, and tear gas by Indian security personnel”.
In their missive, they wrote that the harsh treatment of protesting farmers “is an issue of particular concern to Sikh Americans linked to Punjab, although it also heavily impacts the Indian-Americans belonging to other Indian states. Many Indian-Americans are directly affected as they have family members and ancestral land in Punjab and are concerned for the well-being of their families in India”.
Indian-Americans have held protests in various US cities to support the cause of farmers in India. In Washington, DC, the event took an ugly turn when so-called protestors defaced the statue of Mahatma Gandhi situated in a public space across from the Indian Embassy. Attributing the vile deed to “Khalistani elements”, the embassy strongly condemned the “act by hooligans masquerading as protestors against the universally respected icon of peace and justice”. Indian officials lodged a complaint with US law enforcement agencies and requested the State Department to take appropriate action against the culprits.
Such acts by extremists in foreign countries mar the cause of farmers in Punjab and neighboring states who are participating in round-the-clock peaceful sit-ins to repeal reforms which they fear will erode their income.
The bone of contention are three new agricultural laws which the Indian government maintains will allow farmers more freedom to sell their produce in wider markets and to various buyers such as large traders, retailers and food processors. The aim is to link bulk buyers such as Reliance, Walmart, and Adani Enterprises directly with the growers, bypassing regulated wholesale markets.
Farmers believe the laws threaten their livelihood by lowering crop prices and have been implemented to favor large corporations at their expense. They fear that once the regulated markets are dismantled, the government may stop buying staple crops at guaranteed prices and mega companies will dominate the farm sector.
Tens of thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, have been camped on the outskirts of Delhi, braving frigid temperatures, since late November. A series of talks between the government and growers has so far failed to break the logjam.
Describing the situation as “serious”, the US lawmakers urged Pompeo to contact Jaishankar “to reinforce the United States’ commitment to the freedom of political speech abroad”.
They wrote, “As national legislators, we respect the right of the government of India to determine national policy, in compliance with existing law. We also acknowledge the rights of those in India and abroad who are currently protesting peacefully against agricultural laws that many Indian farmers see as an attack on their economic security”.
Together with Jayapal, the letter was signed by Rep. Donald Norcross (Democrat-New Jersey), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Republican-Pennsylvania), Rep. Brendan Boyle (Democrat-Pennsylvania), Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (Democrat-Pennsylvania), Rep. David Trone (Democrat-Maryland), and Rep. Debbie Dingell (Democrat-Michigan).
The lawmakers noted, “The US-India relationship is a source of pride and prosperity for both nations. We share democratic values, strive for economic equality and embrace our diversity. As a nation that is familiar with political protests we believe that the United States can offer counsel to India during their current period of social disturbance”.
In a letter to Indian Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu dated December 11, Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey) expressed shock at the actions of Indian police using force against peaceful protestors.
“Following the passage of new farming legislation, hundreds of thousands of farmers peacefully expressed their opposition to the laws”, he noted. “Unfortunately, some law enforcement officials responded to their nonviolent protests with force. These measures shocked me as well as some constituents in New Jersey whose loved ones are involved in the protests”.
The influential senator who is a Ranking Member on the Foreign Relations Committee acknowledged, “The United States government has certainly had its own challenges with use of force against peaceful protestors, including earlier this year. At the time, I spoke out strongly against these abuses”, he said. Noting that countless Americans doubled down on supporting peaceful protests, he hoped “the Indian people and government are able to do the same”.
A long-time proponent on Capitol Hill of strong bilateral relations, Menendez wrote, “Ties between the United States and India have grown significantly in recent years due to our shared values and the vibrancy of the Indian-American diaspora. I am committed to seeing US-India ties continue to grow, and in the spirit of those shared values, I hope that the Indian government supports the rights of the farmers and their supporters to peacefully express their views”.
Earlier this month, Rep. John Garamendi of California, Democratic co-chair of the American Sikh Caucus, together with Rep. Jim Costa (Democrat-California) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Democrat-Texas) dispatched a letter to Ambassador Sandhu voicing their concern about “India’s recent crackdown on protestors”, expressing solidarity with the farmers and defending their right to peacefully protest the new laws.
“We urge the Indian government to demonstrate its respect for these crucial democratic freedoms, and be a model of democratic values in the vital Indo-Pacific region”, the lawmakers said in their letter.
The Indian government has stated it “understands that farmers may have concerns as reforms are introduced and options are expanded to market their produce” and it remains committed to engaging with the farmers and addressing their concerns. Already some five rounds of talks have been held between the government and growers without any resolution. A crucial meeting is scheduled for December 30 which aims to end the deadlock over the farm laws.