Prime Minister Narendra Modi sets a lot of store by his popularity among the Indian diaspora across the world. But now, some in the same diaspora have become a huge embarrassment for him as they chant ‘Modi murdabad’ on the streets of foreign cities in support of the farmers demanding the repeal of new farm laws.
Thousands of Sikhs and Punjabis laid siege on the Indian High Commission in London on Sunday (December 6), bringing traffic to a standstill all along the Strand right down to Trafalgar Square. The ‘Kisaan Support Protest’ was organised by the Sikh Federation UK, who had expected no more than 300 protesters to assemble, but instead thousands of men and women of all ages from all across the UK descended on the High Commission ready to brave the freezing temperatures.
Having paid the hefty congestion charge imposed on vehicles entering the capital, they came in cars, coaches, motorbikes and even bicycles. Holding up banners denouncing the Modi government and demanding ‘justice for farmers’, they warned Modi not to make the mistake of taking them for granted. “Sadda haq, aithe rakh (our right, leave it there),” they chanted in Punjabi. This was the largest protest by British Indian Sikhs outside the Indian High Commission since the historic protest held here when Indian troops had entered the Golden Temple. Smaller meetings were held in other parts of the UK too.
The demonstration came in the wake of a letter written by 36 MPs to British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, asking him to take note of the “deteriorating situation in the Punjab and its relationship with the Centre” and to speak to his Indian counterpart about the impact of the three new farm laws on “British Sikhs and Punjabis with longstanding links to land and farming in India.”
The letter initiated by Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Britain’s first turban-wearing Sikh MP, has been signed by MPs across political lines. While the majority belong to the Labour Party, including former leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, it has also been signed by some MPs from the ruling Conservative Party and the Scottish Nationalist Party.
The pro-government media in India has already tried to discredit these MPs as Khalistanis or pro-Pakistan parliamentarians. Of the 36 signatories, only nine MPs are of South Asian heritage with five of them tracing their roots back to India. These five include both Sikh and Hindu Punjabis. The other 27 MPs are white with not even a tangential connection to Khalistan or Pakistan, but some have British-lndian constituents who have asked them to express solidarity with the peacefully protesting farmers. They have underscored that 92% of UK Sikhs have ties to agricultural lands in India and 84% are personally concerned about the impact of the new laws. British Sikhs seem to have got the measure of the Modi government as another 93% feel human rights violations will increase following the mass protests by farmers.
The UK parliamentarians’ demands go beyond their Canadian counterparts who had got Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to publicly defend the right to protest peacefully but he had not mentioned the contents of the farm laws. The Modi government had bristled after Trudeau’s comments and handed over a demarche to Nadir Patel, the Canadian High Commissioner in New Delhi warning that bilateral ties would be seriously damaged if lawmakers in Canada continued to comment on the farmers’ protests.
However, India cannot afford to mete out similar treatment to the British as Modi has requested Prime Minister Boris Johnson to be chief guest at the Republic Day parade next month. Modi may be hoping that British Home Minister Priti Patel, a fellow Gujarati and a Boris favourite, may help swing a ‘yes’ to his Republic Day invitation, but he is not prepared to queer the pitch with any strong words or actions.
Modi who flaunts his ‘close friendship’ with international leaders to boost his domestic image, is fast losing friends particularly in western democracies which matter the most to him. He desperately needs Boris to come to India in January and it will be a terrible blow to his image if Boris declines the invitation. Boris, on his part, is making such a complete hash of Brexit that a feel good visit to India is just what the doctor ordered. Boris could showcase the visit to his domestic audience as a massive trade-coup after hurtling out of the European Single Market on 31 December.
As of now, India’s farmers are far from Boris’s mind, as was keenly evident from his reply to Dhesi’s question during Wednesday (December 9)’s Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament. When Dhesi directly asked Boris to convey to the Indian prime minister “our heartfelt anxieties… hopes for a speedy resolution to the current deadlock,” Boris confused the farmers’ protests with the protracted conflict between India and Pakistan. He replied with a bewildering “we have serious concerns about what is happening between India and Pakistan, but these are pre-eminently matters for those two governments to settle.” The feisty Dhesi was stunned by Boris’s response and correctly called the prime minister “absolutely clueless”. However, if the farmers’ protests are not called off soon, domestic compulsions will make it impossible for Boris to accept the invitation.
Following in the footsteps of their Canadian and British counterparts, American lawmakers have also spoken up for farmers’ right to protest peacefully and urged the Modi government to hold ‘productive’ dialogue with them. With ‘good friend’ Trump on his way out of the White House, he is no longer in a position to help. Here too, the lawmakers cut across the political divide. Moreover, they have articulated their distress at the “actions by the Indian governments that have restricted these (democratic) rights for many Indians; not only for farmers, but also for religious minorities, and human rights organizations.”
With the world watching and lakhs of people protesting globally it is not enough for the Modi government to keep trumpeting that this is India’s internal matter. New Delhi regularly comments on internal matters of other countries, especially on basic human rights, the two most recent examples being the constitution-making process in Nepal where India has sought seven amendments, and the Citizenship Amendment Act to fast-track citizenship for select religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Modi’s beloved diaspora is now making its power felt. So far, the UK and US governments have not yet thrown their weight behind the views of their legislators, but they too will be forced to say something soon. For how long will Modi be able to stave off international pressure – only time will tell.
(Sajeda Momin has held senior positions in Indian newspapers and now divides her time between Kolkata and London) (The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)