Labour MP Tan Singh Dhesi asked the prime minister if he would convey the UK’s anxieties to the Indian government about its “horrifying” crackdown on farmers’ peaceful protests over the new laws.
In reply Johnson, a former foreign secretary, said the UK has “serious concerns about what is happening between India and Pakistan” and that the protests are “matters for those two governments to settle”.
Labour MP Afzal Khan said the PM’s response was “incredible”, given “the issue has nothing to do with Pakistan”, branding it “a new low”.
Dhesi said: “It might help if our PM actually knew what he was talking about,” suggesting he had embarrassed the UK.
He tweeted: “The world is watching, issue is a huge one with hundreds of thousands protesting globally (including in London, reported on by BBC) and the usual Boris Johnson bluff and bluster heaps further embarrassment onto our nation.
“Absolutely clueless! So disappointed with his response.”
Shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry added: “It would seem our prime minister (and former foreign secretary) doesn’t know the difference between the Punjab and Kashmir.
“Why are we not surprised?”
Downing Street later refused to repeat Johnson’s comments, saying only “it’s a matter for India”.
The row was sparked by an exchange between Dhesi and Johnson at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday.
Dhesi said: “Many constituents, especially those emanating from the Punjab and other parts of India, were horrified, as I was, to see footage of water cannon, tear gas and brute force being used against peacefully protesting farmers.
“However, it was heart-warming to see those very farmers feeding the forces who had been ordered to beat or suppress them.
“What indomitable spirit, and it takes a special kind of people to do that.
“So will the prime minister convey to the Indian prime minister our heartfelt anxieties, our hopes for a speedy resolution of the current deadlock, and does he agree that everyone has a fundamental right to peaceful protest?”
Johnson replied: “Of course, and our view, that the honourable gentleman knows well, is, of course, we have serious concerns about what is happening between India and Pakistan.
“But these are pre-eminently matters for those two governments to settle and I know he appreciates that point.”
It is not the first time Johnson has sparked controversy with his ill-informed remarks about foreign affairs, having been forced to apologise for comments about British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is being held in Iran, and referring to Africa as “that country”.
What are the protests about?
Farmers have been demonstrating over new Indian agriculture law since November.
The controversial legislation relaxes rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce that had protected farmers from an unfettered free market for decades.
On Wednesday, protesters rejected the Indian government’s proposal to amend the laws and said they would step up actions asking for them to be scrapped altogether, over fears they would harm farmers’ finances while helping big food retailers.
Small growers, in particular, fear that they will be at the mercy of big business if they are no longer assured of floor prices for staples such as wheat and rice sold at government-controlled wholesale markets.