The Indian High Commission in London on Monday sharply criticised a debate held at the British Parliament on the safety of protesting farmers and press freedom in India, calling it a “distinctly one-sided discussion”, PTI reported.

Several MPs from the Liberal Democrats, Labour Party and the Scottish National Party had expressed concern about the safety of farmers protesting against the agricultural laws on Delhi’s borders and the targeting of journalists covering the agitation. The House of Commons had assigned 90 minutes for a debate on the matters on Monday.

Responding to the debate, the Indian High Commission said: “We deeply regret that rather than a balanced debate, false assertions without substantiation or facts were made, casting aspersions on the largest functioning democracy in the world and its institutions.”

India said that it would usually not comment on a discussion in the UK Parliament involving a small group of MPs, but there was a need to issue a clarification now. “However, when aspersions are cast on India by anyone, irrespective of their claims of friendship and love for India or domestic political compulsions, there is a need to set the record straight,” Indian High Commission in London said, according to PTI.

The Indian mission also dismissed concerns about press freedom in the country. “Foreign media, including the British media, are present in India and have witnessed the events under discussion first-hand,’ it said, according to NDTV. “The question of lack of freedom of the media in India does not arise”.

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The debate in the UK Parliament took place after a petition was started by Liberal Democrat Councillor Gurch Singh, PTI reported. It was signed by more than 1 lakh people.

Speaking about the petition in the Parliament, Liberal Democrat MP and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Layla Moran said: “We have only been able to hold the government to account today [Monday] thanks to the power of democracy. A petition started by Liberal Democrat Councillor, Gurch Singh, and signed by over 100,000 people, has forced the government to stop hiding on this important issue.”

Scottish National Party MP Martin Day said the UK government will not debate on the agricultural reforms as they were India’s internal matter, NDTV reported. “We are debating for the safety of the protestors,” he was quoted as saying by the news channel. “Water canons and tear gas and repeated clashes between police and farmers and interruption in internet connectivity have been matters of concern. Several farmers have reportedly committed suicide.”

UK minister Nigel Adams, who was deputed by the government to respond to the debate, said the country’s close relationship with India did not hinder it from discussing difficult matters. However, he repeated the UK government’s stand that the farm laws were India’s domestic matter.

Adams added that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will hold candid discussions with Indian leaders on various matters during his visit to the country in the next few months.

International support for Indian farmers

Earlier in February, pop icon Rihanna tweeted in support of Indian farmers who have been protesting against three new agricultural laws. Rihanna’s tweet drew global attention to the protests as prominent Western personalities then echoed her support for the farmers’ movement.

Following international condemnation, the Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement calling the tweets a “sensationalist” attempt by “vested groups” to intervene in India’s internal matters.

Shortly after, a host of Indian actors, celebrities and sports stars, many of whom have long been silent on the farmer protests, began tweeting in one voice. Among them were cricketing stars Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble and Ravi Shastri. They used hashtags #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether – coined by the foreign ministry – and wrote identical messages in support of the new agricultural laws.

A study showed that Indian celebrities had engaged in collusive tweeting of the two hashtags framed by the external affairs ministry. Many of their tweets had similar wording and phrases.

The study titled “Rihanna versus Bollywood: Twitter Influencers and the Indian Farmers’ Protest” said that the tweets by the Indian celebrities came in three batches – actors tweeting in the morning, cricketers in the afternoon and mixed group in the evening. The study was conducted by researchers Dibyendu Mishra, Syeda Zainab Akbar, Arshia Arya, Saloni Dash, Rynaa Grover and Joyojeet Pal.

The farmers’ protest

Tens of thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have been camping at Delhi’s border points for over 100 days, seeking the withdrawal of the agricultural laws passed in September. Farmers’ unions have also been organising “mahapanchayats” or farmers’ conclaves to mobilise support for the protest.

The farmers’ protests had largely been peaceful but violence erupted on January 26, when a tractor rally planned to coincide with Republic Day celebrations turned chaotic. More than 100 protestors were arrested in connection with the violence and several went missing.

The farmers believe that the new laws undermine their livelihood and open the path for the corporate sector to dominate agricultural. The government, on the other hand, maintains that the new laws will give farmers more options in selling their produce, lead to better pricing, and free them from unfair monopolies. The laws are meant to overhaul antiquated procurement procedures and open up the market, the government has claimed.