Stephen Kinnock: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I thank the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for opening this debate. I pay tribute to the many tens of thousands who secured the debate through the petition process—what a great example of democracy in action.
We have heard many memorable and passionate contributions. I look forward to the Minister setting out what actions the Government will be taking. I particularly thank the other contributors to the debate, not least my 11 hon. Friends who made some truly compelling arguments. The fact that the overwhelming majority of contributions to the debate have come from the Labour Benches shows how hugely important this issue is to our party.
The farmers’ protests taking place in Delhi relate to three new agricultural laws that affect farmers. Taken together, they loosen the rules relating to the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce, allow private buyers to stockpile essential commodities for future sale, and set out rules for contract farming. The legislation is deeply controversial, and Opposition figures and the protesting farmers have complained that there was insufficient consultation. The ongoing protests on the outskirts of Delhi illustrate the strength of feeling and the level of anger that so many members of the farming community feel. Prime Minister Modi will by now be acutely aware of the backlash against his policies, but India is a sovereign, democratic nation, and its agricultural laws are a domestic matter.
In a democracy, there will always be different views on the right course of action to take. We acknowledge and fully respect that those views are held passionately by many British Indians and those who retain close ties to India, but as it is a domestic issue it would not be appropriate for the UK Labour party to comment on the specifics of the legislation itself, so I will not do so today. However, since the first worrying evidence of escalating violence emerged, the Opposition have been urging the Indian authorities to protect and defend the universal human rights of all those protesting in India. I assure hon. Members present that we shall continue to do so without fear or favour.
The Labour party’s foreign policy puts the rule of law, democracy and universal human rights and freedoms at the very heart of our global agenda, and we call for those principles to be upheld consistently in every country across the world. Let me stress in absolute terms that the Labour Front Bench stands firmly behind the rights of Indian farmers to exercise their right to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest.
That is why on 1 February I issued a statement in which I drew attention to the escalating violence and the clashes between the farmers and police, and the threat to essential democratic rights. I called on both sides to show restraint, but made it clear that the onus is on the Indian authorities to protect the farmers’ right to peaceful protest, to respect their right of freedom of assembly and expression, and to respond to any incidents of civil disobedience in a proportionate and appropriate manner. For instance, we are deeply concerned about reports of live ammunition being used by the police. We of course call on demonstrators to keep their protests peaceful and within the constraints of the law. The Red Fort incident on 26 January is an example of where both sides must understand the limits of what is acceptable, and that certain actions are likely to provoke outrage and escalation.
In recent weeks, campaigners have been particularly concerned about the Indian authorities’ disregard for freedom of expression, and specifically for media freedoms. Human Rights Watch has stated that during the protests the authorities have introduced politically motivated charges against activists, and charged journalists and Opposition politicians with sedition simply for reporting on claims made by the family of a dead protester.
Following the Red Fort clashes between protesters and police, the Indian Government shut off the internet as a way of curbing the protest, suspending 4G mobile internet services in three areas around Delhi, where tens of thousands of protesting farmers are camping. Services were restored, but it is clear that bans of that sort violate basic freedoms. The Labour party therefore calls on the Indian authorities to recognise the vital role that independent journalism plays within a democracy, and to protect its journalists from reprisals.
Mr Dhesi: In terms of independence, and the link between the Government and certain celebrities, the farcical manner in which some Indian actors and cricketers copy-pasted the official Government line simultaneously on to their social media accounts not only exposed to a global audience the 2019 Cobrapost cash for tweets sting operation, but severely dented their credibility of conscience. Does my hon. Friend agree that if our Government had issued such an edict, they would have been laughed out of our country, and subsequently celebrities with a conscience would have tweeted out the exact opposite in defiance?
Stephen Kinnock: I agree that the media and social media should never be manipulated for such political purposes, speaking through others in such a way that it is not clear where the originator of the message is coming from. It is important that the media is used as a neutral source of information rather than one that is loaded with a particular agenda.
Another universal human right is that of religious freedom. Prime Minister Modi will be aware of the deep concern about how protests by farmers on economic issues, which is what this is about, have resulted in a significant backlash against Sikhs. He will have seen Government supporters holding rallies outside Sikh places of worship and the fear that that will have engendered. Mr Modi must recognise his responsibility in line with international law to keep—
Seema Malhotra: My hon. Friend will be aware of the car rallies that targeted Southall, Leicester and Birmingham two weeks ago. They caused great concern, and I pay tribute to the Home Office and the police. Does he agree that this is why it is so important that inter-faith communities such as Southall Faiths Forum and Hounslow Friends of Faith come together, as they did at that time, to say that they stand firm against right-wing groups that want to harm our community? It is vital that across the world we defend our democracies and freedoms and protect our communities from attempts at division.
Stephen Kinnock: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. Let us be clear that this issue must be seen be as an economic and political one. It must never be allowed to tip into prejudice around people’s faith or ethnicity. It is vital that we keep focused on the issue that the protesters are protesting about. Mr Modi needs to recognise that the world is watching and that what happens in India resonates here in our country. He must recognise his responsibility, in line with international law, to keep the Sikh community safe and confident in India’s law enforcement. Such recognition is important for the individuals and families affected, and also for those of us who are keen to see India flourish as the great, successful, multicultural nation that we know it to be.
The UK Government naturally and rightly value their trade relationship with India, which stands at more than £18 billion annually, but the UK-India relationship must be broader and deeper than just trade. It should be based on working in partnership on issues of security and climate change. Critically, it must be about the joint promotion of democracy, human rights and upholding international law.
On 1 February, I asked the Foreign Secretary to raise the issue of human rights with the Indian Government, and today I urge the UK Government to engage more actively and more urgently with New Delhi. What steps has the Minister taken to engage proactively with his counterparts in New Delhi to ensure that the right to peaceful protest is upheld? Secondly, what representations has he made to his Indian counterpart about the need to resolve the situation peacefully by working with all parts of Indian society, including trade unions, and the need to advance the negotiations that have stalled? Thirdly, will he publish a broader strategy to defend internet and media freedom, not only in India, but in other places such as Belarus, Hong Kong and Uganda? Fourthly, what steps have the UK Government taken to support the rights of Amnesty International, which was recently forced to discontinue its operations in India?
Finally, the invitation to join the G7 in Cornwall represents a significant development in India’s role as a leading nation in global politics. Will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister will take this opportunity to stress to Mr Modi the need for India to adhere to the high standards that are expected within the international community, particularly with regard to universal human rights and the rule of law?