India- Canada spat over farmer agitation

Why are the farmers protesting?

Three farm reform bills—The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill—have been passed by the Government of India in the Monsoon session, recently. Consequent to the passage of these bills, widespread protests by farmers have erupted throughout the country. It has also raised critical concerns over the direction in which agricultural reforms should go, the nature of the farmer bills and the process through which they were passed in Parliament. The farmers, who are protesting, have cause to believe that the controversial laws will leave their produce at the mercy of corporates because the Minimum Support Price (MSP) is nowhere mentioned in any of the laws.

Canadian involvement in the past

Canada along with some other developed countries has raised questions about India’s food subsidies in the WTO meetings, over the past few years. Earlier this year, Canada, EU and Japan had questioned India on exceeding the permitted limits on food subsidies, given for rice production, which resulted in India invoking the peace clause that gave protection to developing countries like India from being dragged into disputes in case they exceed the permitted levels of food subsidies.

Canada had registered 25 questions to India, in July, questioning its farm subsidy, while elucidating the implication of these types of food subsidies on global agricultural trade. Subsequently, in September, a slew of questions was posed to India by Canada and other developed nations regarding its “multiple agriculture policies and transparency issues arising from its new domestic support notifications”. Over the years, Canada has questioned India’s agricultural policies, ranging from India’s Food Stocks programme to the issue of Minimum Support Price (MSP). Jayant Dasgupta, former ambassador of India to the WTO, said, “It is not in keeping with diplomatic protocol. Canada has questioned India’s farm policies time and again, along with others like the Americans and Australians. Canadians also act at the behest of their major trade partners at the WTO. But as far as their (Canada’s) trade interest goes, they are not large exporters of farm produce, like the Americans or Australians.” 

Trudeau’s comment about the ongoing farmer protest

While addressing the members of the Sikh community, during an online event to mark the 551st anniversary of Guru Nanak Devji, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a comment on the ongoing farmers’ agitation in India over the recently passed farms bills, which he found ‘concerning’, and offered his support to defend the rights of peaceful protest—said in the context of the apparent use of physical force by the police against the protesting farmers, many of whom were Sikhs. He went on to say “We believe in the importance of dialogue and that is why we have reached out through multiple means directly to Indian authorities, to highlight our concerns.” The Canadian stance on the farmers’ agitation came as a shock to most since it was in sharp contrast with their stand against MSP at the World Trade Organisation. In other words, Canada should have supported the Central government’s new laws that liberalise agricultural produce trade and encourage market forces to decide prices of farm produce rather than government fixed MSP– a decision that has triggered the farmers’ protest currently.  

“Ill-informed” responds India

The Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said “such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country. It is also best that diplomatic conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes.” Furthermore, the MEA summoned the Canadian High Commissioner to convey its resentment over the ‘unacceptable interference’ of Canada in India’s  internal matters and also issued a demarche to the Canadian envoy. “Such actions, if continued would have a seriously damaging impact on ties between India and Canada,” said the MEA after the meeting with the Canadian Higher Commissioner.

Further developments

Trudeau reiterated his position on the farmer agitation, despite the Canadian High Commissioner being summoned by the MEA, saying that “Canada will always stand up for the right of peaceful protest anywhere around the world. We are pleased to see moves toward de-escalation and dialogue.” Resultant of the Canadian Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers’ comments over the farmer agitation, extremist activists started gathering outside the Indian High Commission and Consulates in Canada, raising concerns about the safety and security of the workers there. The MEA in its official statement said that it expected the Canadian government to ensure the security of the Indian diplomatic personnel and political leaders and wanted the Canadian leaders to refrain from further pronouncements that legitimise extreme activism. 

Vijay Chauthaiwale, BJP’s foreign affair department-in-charge, slammed Canada’s stand on the farmers’ protest in India as ‘nothing but hypocrisy’ since Canada has always been a strong critic of minimum support price (which is what the Indian farmers were protesting for) and other Indian agricultural policies at the WTO. He tweeted, “Canada also opposes import restrictions to protect India’s farmers. The questions posed by Canada to India regarding India’s Agri policies in WTO are evidence of the fact that Canada has a scarce interest in the genuine well-being of Indian farmers and agriculture producers.”

Trudeau’s comments have been seen as an act to balance domestic statecraft to appease the Sikh community since the Sikh political lobby constitutes a large share in the House of Commons. Within this population, the most affluent section, of Sikhs, in Canada is the ‘Jatts’ who also happen to be the dominant group leading the current farmer protests in India. Making these comments not only benefits Trudeau and the protesting farmers but also reflects the realities of the global world, where a country’s internal affairs may not always remain internal but there remains a high probability of them becoming international affairs.

Amisha Singh is a second-year student, pursuing her bachelors in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Ashoka University.

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