Internal Issue vs. External Dissent


By Haris Rashid

CANADIAN Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, became the first foreign leader to make a statement on the ongoing Indian farmers’ protests, setting off a debate among the Indian diplomatic community whether the statement constituted foreign interference in the “internal affairs” of India. Speaking on the occasion of Gurupurab to his Canadian-Punjabi constituents, Trudeau expressed concern over farmers’ protests in India, saying that he would be remiss if he did not start by recognising the news coming from India about the protest by farmers. He further informed that Canada has reached out through multiple means to the Indian authorities to highlight their concerns regarding the protests.

The statement does not seem to have gone well with the Indian government as Ministry of External Affairs served a demarche to Canadian Higher Commissioner to India, protesting that the “comments by the Canadian Prime Minister, some Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament on issues relating to Indian farmers constitute an unacceptable interference in our internal affairs” and that “such actions, if continued, would have a seriously damaging impact on ties between India and Canada.”

The reaction by India has however stoked debate over what constitutes foreign interference in India’s internal affairs according to India’s own standards. Trudeau was speaking to his domestic audience about something going on in a foreign country that affected his audience. There is a parallel to this where India can be blamed to interfere in Canada’s internal affairs. India repeatedly accuses Canada of providing safe space to Khalistani Movement and blames it for harbouring Khalistani terrorists. For instance, reacting to Justin Trudeau’s presence at Khalsa Day in April 2017, the then MEA spokesperson Gopal Baglay had informed that they had taken up such issues in the past with the government of Canada and in this particular case also the practice had not been discontinued. If the same yardstick that India has applied to Trudeau’s statement on farmers’ protest was applied to India’s statements related to Khalistani Movement, it would be safe to say that it is an interference in the internal affairs of Canada. It might be that Khalistani Movement affects India’s Punjab and is one of India’s national security concern but then India’s farmers’ issue affects Canada’s domestic audience because there is a large Indian diaspora in Canada coming from Punjab whose families and friends have been affected by the recently passed farm laws against which the present protests are taking place.

There is also a concern that by making the statement, Trudeau is putting his political interests over the national interest of his country. There is no doubt that Trudeau made the statement for his own political gains because Punjabi Sikhs in Canada form a huge voting bloc whose support is crucial to any win in elections. By expressing his concern, Trudeau might be able to leverage the Sikh electorate for his political gains but on the other hand, it hurts the national interests of Canada as it affects the relationship with a foreign country. This is however trivial as India-Canada relations are already at worse.

During his visit to India in 2018, Trudeau was cold-shouldered by the Indian government. Contrary to Modi’s hugplomacy at that time, Modi did not even receive the leader himself. The then minister of state for agriculture Gajendra Singh Shekhawat had received the guest during a low-key ceremony. While that tour itself was a foreign policy disaster for Canada as it made the bilateral relations only worse, Trudeau and his family later indulged in activities, targeting their domestic constituents and hence ended up being benefitted politically from the tour.

Additionally, the statement by Trudeau was essentially meant to satisfy his domestic constituents and it did not seek to alter or manipulate Indian opinion or policies. It was not backed by any state machinery to alter the outcome of some process. Moreover, the prime minister was only talking about the citizen’s right to peaceful protest, not the economic policies or the new farm laws of India. It is rather a concern that a foreign leader’s statement on right to peaceful protests and human rights in another country should have evoked such a harsh response and labelled as foreign interference.

How does showing concern for another country’s citizens’ right to peaceful protest or human rights become interference in “internal affairs” of that particular country? It seems India is either growing intolerant to foreign criticism of its policies and human rights in the same way as it is growing intolerant to the internal dissent of its citizens. It could also be that India now considers itself a powerful actor in global politics that should no more tolerate any criticism from smaller countries like Canada to avoid setting any precedent. In both these cases, India is disincentivising and curbing external dissent.

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