(Bloomberg) — The U.S. has criticized India’s moves to block internet access at protest sites around the capital and called on the government and farmers to resolve their differences through talks ahead of planned nationwide demonstrations against new agriculture laws on Saturday.
“We recognize that peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy, and note that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement. “We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialog.”
The statement comes a day after India’s foreign ministry criticized widely shared social media posts in support of the protests by pop singer Rihanna and environment activist Greta Thunberg as “vested interests” trying to “mobilize international support against India.
Farmers, who have been camped on the outskirts of the Indian capital since late November, have called for roads to be blocked across India on Saturday to demand repeal of the new legislation pushed through parliament by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which they say will allow corporates to take control of farming.
The statement signals the Biden administration may take a more proactive approach on India’s human rights record compared to former President Donald Trump, who kept his focus on trade despite street protests and violence in New Delhi during his state visit last year.
The U.S. statement said it welcomes steps “that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment” but criticized the internet restrictions at protest sites. “We recognize that unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy.”
“This is a clear indication that the Biden administration is going to become more vocal on India’s civil liberties record,” said Kashish Parpiani, fellow at the Mumbai-based Observer Research Foundation, noting internet freedom has been an important issue for Democrats since the 2019 Congressional hearing on Kashmir. “But it also indicates its intent to continue Trump’s focus on U.S.-India agriculture trade. The most curious part of the statement is the welcoming of market reforms.”
At least 122 people have so far been arrested in New Delhi ahead of the latest demonstrations and following violent clashes on Jan. 26 when thousands of protesters entered the city for a tractor rally, according to the Delhi Police. Police investigations have also been initiated against several journalists and opposition lawmaker Shashi Tharoor for tweets about the police response to that violence.
Police have erected concrete barricades, spread concertina wire and hammered long metal spikes at the key protests sites on the capital’s outskirts. Internet connections have also been suspended for prolonged periods of time on police orders.
While the government has offered to suspend the reforms for 18 months and the Supreme Court set up a mediation committee, protesters have remained firm on their demand the laws be scrapped.
(Updates with analyst comment in seventh paragraph.)
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