Guardian (London) Thursday May 27, 1999

Indian farmers on protest tour refused entry to UK

John Vidal

More than 70 Indian peasant farmers and social activists claim to have been refused entry to Britain to demonstrate about the unfairness of the global trading system, despite being allowed into other European countries and having the backing of Labour MPs, MEPs, human rights and anti-racist organisations.

Only 37 farmers out of some 120 due to come to Britain as part of Intercontinental Caravan, a month-long tour of west and east Europe by more than 500 people from developing countries, have been given visas.

They arrive today on a converted bus and will spend three days holding public meetings, visiting the HQs of large companies and the Bank of England.

But yesterday the foreign office denied allegations that it was supressing free speech or that it was acting politically, claiming that many of the farmers had applied too late or not at all.

The farmers' version of events differs greatly from the government's. They claim that they had been treated "like untouchables" when they applied at the high commission in Madras.

"We were told to bring more and more documents, including our land deeds and titles, then our bank details. We all had letters from host organisations guaranteeing our conduct in Britain," said one farmer, who is now in Holland.

"When we protested, the embassy called the police and 19 of us were arrested. All we want to do is tell the British what is happening to the poorest in India. They still have the colonial mindset in Madras."

It was a similar story in Amsterdam, they said. Having been told to apply again when they arrived in Europe they were told yesterday to provide more papers and that "only three or four" applications could be processed. By late yesterday none had been granted.

Most of the delegation are thought to be members of the Karnataka state farmers' organisation, based in Bangalore. Claiming membership of up to 10 million peasant farmers in the state, the leaders, who also have the backing of the Gandhi organisation, have long protested in a peaceful way against multinational companies and the international trading system.

Yesterday the foreign office said that the farmers had been treated like everyone else. "They were asked to make applications and to submit evidence to show who was funding their trip. Some refused and staged a demonstration. We tried to explain what was required," said a spokesman.

But Labour MEP Stan Newens said, "I will be very sorry if this group who want to raise important global issues cannot come."