United States Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Chuck Schumer on Thursday urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to engage with the Narendra Modi government about the treatment of farmers protesting against the agricultural laws in India, PTI reported.

In a letter to Blinken, the US lawmakers asked him to raise the importance of freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest in conversations with his Indian counterparts. They also asked him to ensure that State Department officials do this too at all levels.

Menendez, chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a similar letter to Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is scheduled to visit India between March 19 and March 21. He said on Wednesday that the crackdown on protesting farmers and intimidation of journalists “only underscores the deteriorating situation of democracy” in India.

“India is a long-term strategic partner with deep ties to the United States thanks to our many shared values and our large and valued Indian American community,” Menendez and Schumer wrote in their joint letter to Blinken. “In light of these shared values and strong connections, we write with serious concern regarding the response of the Indian government to the farmer protests.”

Tens of thousands of farmers have camped out on the outskirts of New Delhi in protest against the laws introduced by the Indian government in September.

The US senators said the government has given orders to cut internet access in protest areas, and disrupt water and electricity supplies for those living in camps. They also flagged the difficulties faced by journalists while reporting on the crisis.

“India’s people and government will determine the path forward on these laws, and peaceful dialogue and respect for the viewpoints of all peaceful actors should drive that decision,” they wrote. “As the US pursues a more perfect union here at home, including efforts to bolster the rule of law and our democracy, those efforts reinforce the importance of addressing challenges to democracies abroad as well.”

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.

Referring to this, the Senate leaders wrote, “Indian authorities at different levels of government have used that day’s events as a pretext to undertake a broader and sustained crackdown on peaceful protesters, journalists, and government critics.”

Menendez and Schumer said they were “alarmed” by the sedition charges against Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi in connection with the farmers protests.

“At the same time, Indian authorities have also sought to hinder the work of journalists reporting on the protests,” the letter said. “Indian authorities have filed criminal complaints against at least 10 journalists for their reporting on the protests, including charges of sedition. Reporters without Borders said the accusations represent a headlong assault on press freedom, and Indian press freedom groups have characterized them as an intimidation tactic to stifle the media.”

Blinken has spoken with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar multiple times after becoming the secretary of state. There has been no response from either Blinken or Austin if they plan to raise these matters with their Indian counterparts, especially when the Joe Biden administration seeks to deepen ties with other countries to counter the growing power of China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Farm law protests

Farmers fear the policies will make them vulnerable to corporate exploitation and would dismantle the minimum support price regime. They hunkered down with supplies that they say will last them for months, and have resolved to not leave until their demands are met.

Several rounds of talks between the government and farm leaders took place, but none of them could manage to end the deadlock. In January, the Supreme Court had suspended the implementation of the laws until further orders.

The movement poses one of the biggest challenges to Modi since he took power in 2014, as he faces criticism from all sides, including from some allies of the BJP. The Shiromani Akali Dal of Punjab quit the ruling National Democratic Alliance at the Centre in September itself.

Another sign of impact was the Congress’ spectacular performance in the urban body polls held in Punjab last month.