Canada's Trudeau backs farmer protest in India

Canadian Prime Minister is criticised by New Delhi after pledging to support demonstrations against new legislation

Farmers on a tractor trolley shout slogans near a police road block stopping them from marching to New Delhi to protest against the central government's recent agricultural reforms at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border in Ghazipur on December 1, 2020.  / AFP / Sajjad HUSSAIN

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday created a diplomatic row with India after lending support to tens of thousands of farmers protesting against new legislation that liberalises the farm sector, attracting a sharp rebuke from New Delhi.

Mr Trudeau expressed concern over how the Indian government was handling the crisis.

Farmers, mainly from the Sikh-majority region of Punjab, clashed with police and occupied main roads leading to the capital, blocking access to the city.

Tens of thousands of farmers from the northern Punjab and Haryana states occupied roads at the border with Delhi for a fifth day after they were prevented from proceeding to a protest.

The laws allow farmers to sell their harvests to private companies.

Farmers' unions demanded the legislation is repealed over claims it benefits businesses and ends a decades-old policy of the government deciding the minimum prices for produce.

The legislation was passed by the government in September and farmers marched to Delhi to protest against the laws last week.

Police used tear gas, water cannons and steel barricades to thwart the marchers, leading to sporadic clashes. Protesters have been camping out near the capital since the weekend.

“The situation is concerning and we’re all very worried about family and friends,” Mr Trudeau said during a Facebook interaction to mark the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikhism.

“Let me remind you, Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest."

New Delhi issued a sharp rebuke of Mr Trudeau's comments, which it said were "ill-informed and unwarranted and internal to a democratic country".

"It is also best that diplomatic conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes," India's foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said.

There are more than 500,000 Sikhs in Canada, the second largest Sikh community outside India, which makes them an influential immigrant group.

Three members of Mr Trudeau’s Cabinet are Sikhs, including defence minister Harjit Sajjan.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a bi-weekly news conference outside Rideau cottage on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, Ontario, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)

Relations between New Delhi and Ottawa have been icy since Mr Trudeau visited India in 2018. New Delhi accused Canada of pandering to groups that want to create a sovereign Sikh state in the Punjab.

The Punjab produces about 12 per cent of India's cereals and is a key contributor to the country's gross domestic product, of which 17 per cent comes for agriculture.

About 70 per cent of India's population of 1.3 billion depend on agriculture.

But farmers across India, particularly the Punjab, face difficulties because of an increase in production costs and shrinking income. They also face water crises, erratic weather patterns and debt.

More than 3,300 farmers have died by suicide in the Punjab in the past decade. Nationally more than 10,300 farmers died by suicide in 2019, according to government figures.

Farmers say the legislation will put them at a disadvantage compared with large companies.

But the government defended the laws and Prime Minister Narendra Modi said they were a "watershed moment" in the history of the farm sector.

On Tuesday, three ministers held talks with farmer leaders to try to assuage their fears. Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said the talks would continue on Thursday.