UK Parliament Hansard 12 January 2021 Westminster Hall India: Persecution of Minority Groups
This debate is sourced from the uncorrected (rolling) version of Hansard and is subject to correction.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of persecution of Muslims, Christians and minority groups in India.
The right hon. Members for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), for East Ham (Stephen Timms), the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), and my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and I applied to the Backbench Business Committee to have this debate almost eight months ago, so we are very pleased that it has now arrived. I note that debates in Westminster Hall will be suspended for a period of time, so this will be one of the last debates in here until we get to the other side of the pandemic.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have come here today to discuss the important issue of the persecution of Muslims, Christians and other minority groups in India. The issue has been in my heart for a long time. Given the correspondence that we have had, there is a need for this debate, so I am pleased to be here to promote it. I am my party’s spokesperson for human rights issues and I register an interest as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. I remind this House that the Republic of India is the world’s largest democracy. These facts are not in dispute. India has a freely elected Government and is not run by a nightmarish authoritarian regime such as China’s, which arbitrarily imprisons millions from religious minorities and sponsors forced organ harvesting on an industrial scale, as we all know. Today in the main Chamber there will be a statement by the Minister in relation to the Uyghur Muslims.
India has a rich and unparalleled history of religious plurality and co-existence. The United Kingdom has always had a good relationship with India. Even today, hundreds of millions of people from different religions and backgrounds live together peacefully in modern-day India. However, the reason for this debate is clear. India is not perfect in terms of freedom of religion or belief, and there has been a concerning trend when it comes to FORB violations over the past several years. Of course, this is not unique to India. Even in the UK we have recently seen record highs for incidents of antisemitism, Islamophobia and discrimination against Sikhs and other minority groups. Still, the scale and trajectory of the persecution currently being experienced in India by non-Hindus is very worrying and disturbing.
I talked beforehand to my friend and colleague from the Scots Nats party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East, and I said that those from India have to be able to take constructive criticism that is made in a friendly way but none the less highlights the issues that are the reason for this debate. Our debate will be in the spirit of that. I hope that through this debate and the Minister’s, shadow Minister’s and others’ contributions we will be able to highlight the issues that we need India to address.
Despite Prime Minister Modi’s pledge to commit to “complete freedom of faith”, since his election in 2014 there has been a significant increase in anti-minority rhetoric—the complete opposite of what was said in 2014—from Bharatiya Janata party politicians, and I will quote some of the comments. India has also seen the rise of religious nationalist vigilante groups, growing mob violence, the spread of anti-conversion laws, worsening social discrimination, the stripping of citizenship rights and—increasingly—many other actions against religious or belief minorities. That is totally unreal and unacceptable, which is why we have to highlight it here in Westminster Hall today.
According to IndiaSpend’s analysis of Indian Home Ministry data, there was a 28% rise in communal violence between 2014 and 2017, with 822 “incidents” being reported in 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 111 people and wounding of 2,384 people. A recent Pew Research Center report claimed that India had the highest level of social hostility and violence based on religion or belief of any country in the world. That is quite a statement to make, but when we look at the facts of the case, which is why this debate is being held, we see that India does rank as highly as that; the social hostility and violence based on religion or belief is the worst of any country in the world.
The covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated problems for religious minorities in India. Through the APPG, I obviously receive comments and information, but I also receive them from religious groups, such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International, the Barnabus Fund and Open Doors; I think that the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet will tomorrow launch the Open Doors strategy after what has happened in the last year. We very much look forward to that, because I believe that it will highlight not just India but other parts of the world where these problems exist.
At the beginning of the covid-19 outbreak, two dozen Muslim missionaries tested positive for the virus after an international event in Delhi. This led to accusations that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus and to a campaign of Islamophobia in which Muslims were labelled as “bio-terrorists” and “corona-jihadists”, and discriminated against. This scapegoating of Muslims was picked up and supported by political leaders such as the Minister for Minority Affairs of the BJP, who accused the event organisers of a “Talibani crime”. What a play on words that is. In no way had those missionaries ever done such a thing; they went to the event to follow their religious beliefs and worship their God. But they were made a target for doing so. And another BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh told citizens:
“Do not buy from Muslims.”
I mean, where does it all stop? That is my concern about the whole thing.
Furthermore, over 3,000 Muslims were forcibly detained by Government authorities for more than 40 days under the guise of protecting public health. Well, public health is for everyone and we cannot blame one person or one group for it, and those Muslims certainly did not set out to do anything wrong. Nevertheless, as a result of this stigmatisation, countless more instances of violence against Muslims in India have been recorded. So, those 20 or so Muslim missionaries, who were worshipping in a careful way, were then focused on and made the targets of verbal violence, which has now spread to other parts of India.
One attack that was caught on video showed a Muslim being beaten with a bamboo stick by a man asking him about his conspiracy to spread the virus. Really? Because they are a Muslim, they are spreading the virus? No, they are not, and to make such an accusation is completely wrong.
Other minority groups in India have also suffered such violence. For example, on 3 February 2019, a 40-strong mob attacked the church in Karkeli village, near Raipur. Fifteen worshippers were hospitalised after church members were beaten with sticks. Where is religious tolerance in India, when it was said in 2014 that there would be such tolerance? The facts are that it is not happening.
Similarly, on 25 November 2020, an estimated 100 Christians from Singavaram village in India’s Chhattisgarh state were also attacked. Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s sources reported that a mob of around 50 people armed with home-made weapons attacked the Christians during the night while they slept. The mob burnt their Bibles and accused their victims of destroying the local culture by following a foreign religion. Again, I find that greatly disturbing—indeed, I find the whole thing very hard to understand.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
I congratulate my hon. Friend and colleagues on their campaigning—we have all campaigned—on matters such as this. As he outlines some of these issues, does he agree that one of the ways we can address this is not just in debates such as this, which are exceptionally worthwhile, but by encouraging others who have influence in the Indian sub-continent also to take these issues seriously; to lobby the Indian Government and campaign to ensure that the progress that the Indian people and Governments have made in recent decades is stepped up and increased and the sort of items that the hon. Gentleman has outlined are clamped down on, so that we do not see them in the future?
I wholeheartedly accept my hon. Friend’s intervention. The spokesperson for the Scots Nats Party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), will also be doing something similar. I hope to meet the Indian High Commissioner next week, with others from Northern Ireland who have asked to speak to me. When it comes to making changes, we should do so in a constructive fashion. I hope that next week we can reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and try to influence those in positions of power to make the changes.
When attacks happen in villages across India, they are sanctioned, at least verbally or by non-action, by the police and Army. That sometimes encourages people to go ahead with what they are doing. The 50 people armed with homemade weapons who attacked Christians during the night when they slept and burned their bibles might be able to burn the Holy Bible and the word of God, but they did not in any way stop its teaching of how we should love others and follow its truths. Unfortunately, much of the violence against minorities is not appropriately investigated by Government authorities. It happens all the time and it is so frustrating whenever the police or Army stand back and do not act. When they are told what has happened, they do not investigate to the full extent, catch those involved and have them taken before the courts and imprisoned. Basically, they encourage perpetrators. In 2018, the Indian Supreme Court went so far as to urge the central and state Governments to bring back lynching restrictor laws and had to do so again in 2019, after no substantial action was taken.
In all these debates, we have a verbal commitment to change, but no physical action to prove it. That is what I find incredibly frustrating. In addition, Christian organisations have noted worsening patterns of discrimination against our communities in India. There have been reports of Christians who will not participate in Hindu rituals being denied employment. How often have we seen that, because they do not conform to what the Government want them to do, they are cut off from the water supply and prevented from even burying their dead? These are cruel actions by those in power.
Moreover, 80 year-old Father Stan Swamy, who has been an advocate for the rights of the poor and marginalised in India for 50 years has been unjustly held captive by the National Investigation Agency of India for alleged Maoist links. I hope that the Minister will reply to this point—if not today in the Chamber—and tell all those here who are interested how we can help that gentleman get out of prison.
Another issue is the spread of anti-conversion laws in India, which make me very angry. They are ostensibly designed to protect people, but often restrict the freedom of individuals to freely convert and deny their right to freedom of religion or belief. If you want to be a Christian, you have a right to be a Christian; if you want to be a Muslim, that is your choice; if you want to be a Hindu, that is your choice; if you want to be a Jehovah’s Witness or a Baha’i or a Coptic Christian, it is your right to do that. The anti-conversion laws in India that prevent you from doing that are despicable.
According to the US Commission on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, authorities predominantly arrest Muslims and Christians for conversion activities, whereas mass conversions to Hinduism often take place without any interference from the authorities. They have double standards, powered by the anti-conversion laws and often with the police’s complicity, right-wing groups conduct campaigns of harassment, social exclusion and violence against Christians, Muslims and other religious minorities across the whole country. Worryingly, this law seems to be strengthening. Four more Indian States are planning to introduce anti-conversion laws in 2021, in this year—more stringent laws to deliberately persecute and disenfranchise Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups. If that happens, Muslims as well, arguably the most persecuted minority group in that country.
The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have experienced ethnic cleansing and potential genocide at the hands of the Burmese military. How many of us have not been absolutely cut to the heart by what has happened to them? The Indian Government have deported Rohingya refugees rather than seeking to offer them a means to citizenship; a means to better themselves; a means of helping them.
The CAA is particularly concerning when it is considered in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens, the NRC. The NRC requires Indians to prove in court that they came to the state by 24 March 1971, or they will be declared illegal migrants. When the Assam state NRC was released in August 2019, 1.9 million residents were excluded. Why? Because they did not suit the form, the type of people India wanted. Those affected live in fear of statelessness, deportation or prolonged detention. They need protection. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some indication of what is happening in relation to that.
The Indian Government have plans to introduce a nationwide NRC, under which the citizenship of millions would be placed in question. However, with the CAA in place, non-Muslims will have a path to restore their citizenship and avoid detention or deportation, whereas Muslims would have to bear the consequences of potential statelessness. It just cannot be right to have a two-tier focus on those who are Christians, those who are Muslims, and those who are Hindus.
This move bears worrying similarities to the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, who, in 1982, also had their citizenship removed and were labelled illegal immigrants before being demonised and then eventually attacked by the Burmese military. The stories that we heard of the Rohingyas and what they had to go through were outrageous. I think they worried every one of us and probably brought tears to our eyes. People were killed and butchered or abused, their homes burnt, just because they were Rohingyas.
If this sounds like an extreme comparison, I point hon. Members to the words of Amit Shah, the Indian Home Minister, who, in 2019, described people considered to be illegal immigrants as “termites”, and said that,
“A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.”
If that is not inflamed rhetoric, if that does not inflame the situation, if that is not a hate crime in the very words of a person in power, I don’t know what is. I feel greatly disturbed, greatly annoyed, angered even, that any person in a position of power, but especially the Indian Home Minister, should say anything like that.
To conclude, I reiterate that India is a great ally of the UK, but it must be possible to have constructive criticism among allies and friends. We must come to Westminster Hall and this House and say the things that are factual on behalf of those who have no voice. Great Britain, our Government and our Minister work extremely hard to put forward the case on behalf of those across the world who do not have someone to speak for them: those who, in their own country, where they have lived for many years, do not have the rights that we have—and they do not have those rights as immigrants, either. It is our responsibility to raise those concerns not just on behalf of the minorities who are persecuted but for the benefit of all Indian and British people.
The large majority of people in India believe in fair play and the right to religious belief, but there are those—some in positions of power—who are not prepared to allow that. Violations of freedom of religious belief lead to domestic conflict, which is good neither for India’s economic prosperity, nor for the chances of a stable, long-term trading relationship between India and the UK. We want to have that relationship, but we also want human rights to be protected. Those of different religions should have the opportunity to worship their God and to work, have houses and businesses and live a normal life without being persecuted because they happen to be of a different religion.
I urge the Minister to support his Indian counterparts to realise the political, strategic and economic benefits of guaranteeing the rule of law and human rights. I also call on him—I believe he is a Minister who wants to help, and his response will reflect that—to ensure that robust human rights provisions are included in any future trade and investment agreements with India. If we are to have a relationship with India—we do want that relationship—it is important that that is reflected. We in this country have high regard for human rights, the right to worship a God and the religious freedom that we have, and that should be had in India, too. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for coming; I have left them plenty of time to participate.
Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
We should congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on ensuring that we had the debate and on the comprehensive way in which he moved it. I suppose we started having such debates—some instituted by him and others by me—20 years ago, and I think we have made progress in ensuring that the Government take a more active role in such matters. When we started off, Governments were, frankly, careful to be equidistant: they said, “On the one hand, there is persecution of Christians, but on the other hand, that.” The truth is that, although in India the victims of persecution are overwhelmingly Muslims, the victims of persecution worldwide are overwhelmingly Christian. Actually, in recent years the Government have had the courage to stand up more and more for human rights, the right of Christians to profess their faith and the rights of people of other faiths to convert to Christianity. These Westminster Hall debates may not seem important in the great scheme of things, but they are all part of a pressure on the Government, and our Government has a moral duty to speak out as for centuries—certainly for the last century—Governments have spoken out in favour of human rights throughout the world.
I hesitated to take part in the debate because India is an incredibly complex country with an amazing history. Hinduism is integral to India—80% of the population are Hindus—and it is the most wonderful religion. Those who go to India, as I have, realise that it is part of the country’s DNA. I do not condone Hindu nationalism in any way, but we need to understand how Hindus feel that theirs is the religion of India. That said, there have been Muslims in India for many hundreds of years, so presumably they were living there when they originally converted to Islam. The same applies to Christianity. Christianity is also integral to India. There have been Christians in India for the best part of 2,000 years. It is the third largest religion. There are 200 million Muslims, but there are still 30 million Christians—a huge number—in the country. According to legend and, undoubtedly, in fact, India was one of the first lands reached by early Christians. In Kerala, they date their Christianity back to the Apostle Thomas himself. And parts of north-eastern India even have a Christian majority.
Despite the electoral success of Modi and the BJP, it has to be said that although Hindus are still the overwhelming part of the population, their proportion of the population has been declining. No doubt that engenders a feeling of threat, but, dare I say it—I am not here to lecture anybody else’s country—nobody needs to feel under threat from Islam or Christianity in India. Hinduism will always be an absolutely integral part of the nation and overwhelmingly the majority religion.
Despite that and perhaps for political reasons—this is where nationalism is extremely dangerous—politicians around the world feel that they can use religion quite wrongly to promote themselves, get into office and stir up their followers. We just have to accept this, and our Government, in their dealings with the Modi Government, have to accept that the BJP has sharpened its tone against India’s religious minorities. There is absolutely no doubt about that; it is on the record.
Between 1967 and 2020, six states introduced laws or ordinances aiming to stop conversions. It is a dangerous thing to convert to Christianity in India, but there has to be some equivalence drawn, too. Let us make it absolutely clear that it is even more dangerous to convert to Christianity in Pakistan. We have to condemn absolutely this feeling in many countries of the world that it is wrong to convert or change religion, in any direction. Those ordinances and laws are often made, perversely, in the guise of protecting freedom of religion. In 2015, Rajnath Singh, India’s then Minister of Home Affairs, called for a national debate on anti-conversion laws and said that one was needed at national level. However, although the Indian Government undoubtedly set an antichristian and anti-Muslim tone, I am afraid—well, I am not afraid; it is just a fact—that the fact is that violent intimidation at street level does the most harm, and much more harm than the Government or what they say.
As reported by Aid to the Church in Need—by the way, I am closely connected with Aid to the Church in Need; it does wonderful work throughout the world and should be congratulated on its very detailed reports—there was
“no sign of anti-Christian violence abating during India’s COVID-19 lockdown. In the first six months of 2020 one Indian NGO recorded 293 cases of persecution.”
Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur says:
“It is a cause of concern with the Church because Christians are being killed and beaten…There are much more attacks than ten years ago. Fundamentalism is a real problem.”
The Indian Government’s own figures, released in 2018, show an upward trend in inter-religious violence, and one has to ask why there is an upward trend. Is the tone being set by Government themselves? In 2016, 86 people were killed in sectarian violence and 2,321 were injured in 703 incidents. The following year, that rose to 111 people killed and 2,384 injured; there were 822 incidents in 2017. Between 2017 and the end of March 2019, there were more than 1,000 individual attacks on Christians.
The attacks are also widespread. In recent years, they have taken place in 24 out of India’s 29 states. In Odisha state in May 2019, local officials sent a team of 50 workers to demolish a Christian school and children’s hostel near Lichapeta. The school’s application for recognition of land tenure was suspiciously lost. Hindutva nationalism is pervading the actions of many officials in the Indian Government, from the Ministers at the top to local government bureaucrats.
Before I sit down, it would be quite wrong not to mention—as I think I have already said once, but I now emphasise—that the overwhelming victims of violence and discrimination in India are Muslims, and this follows decades of discrimination. Riots in north-east Delhi last year resulted in Muslim homes and businesses being destroyed; of the 53 dead from six days of violence, two thirds were Muslims—who had been shot, slashed or set on fire.
India is the world’s largest functioning democracy, and we should be proud of that. We are inextricably linked to India through our shared history, not all of which has been happy or peaceful. With more than 1 billion people, it is the largest Commonwealth country by a huge margin. On a number of fronts, India is a friend of Britain and a country we want to trade with more, deal with more, and visit. However, true friendship requires not turning a blind eye to each other’s faults, and we must protest the violence and persecution in India today. I hope that this debate is a small step in the right direction.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab)
Before I begin, I want to say that I resent having to come here this morning. I also resent the fact that this will be one of the last debates that we are able to have in Westminster Hall. Scrutiny is very important, and the scrutiny we do in this Chamber is important, but we should be able to do it remotely and observe the guidance that the Government have given to others.
Imagine when the Windrush scandal broke in the UK if there had been a debate in the Indian Parliament about the persecution of black people in Britain. Or, in 2011, when the London riots broke out after the police shooting of Mark Duggan, that there had been questions asked in the Indian Parliament about the impartiality of the Metropolitan police, and how it was that they stood by and did not use force to stop the rioters for four days before those riots were brought under control. Imagine that there had been debates in the Indian Parliament all through the troubles in Northern Ireland, accusing the British Government of persecuting the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.
I say this, not to minimise the subject that hon. Members have brought for debate in this Chamber today—injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere—but to give ourselves a sense of humility and a little perspective about how we might feel, as parliamentarians, if legislators in India were to pronounce on our institutions from afar, putting us under the microscope in the same way that colleagues are doing for their Indian counterparts today.
Add to that the fact that the UK is the former colonial power, whose influence in what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh was not entirely beneficent, and certainly not above pitting one religious or ethnic group against the other. In this light, it is not beyond ordinary powers of imagination to conceive that people in India might not regard our intervention as either wholly welcome or appropriate.
Many of my own constituents—British citizens whose families were originally from India—have written to me, outraged by the very fact that we are holding this debate at all. One of my constituents’ letters says:
“It is a very difficult time in the UK due to the severe impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It is surprising to know that elected British Members of Parliament are debating subjects attacking the Government of India, rather than focusing on UK priorities.”
There is of course a debate on covid in the Commons Chamber today, and I do not think that we must confine our debates only to immediate to domestic priorities, so perhaps I should have begun my remarks by declaring my interests. I am a Christian and I therefore have an interest to prevent the persecution of my fellow Christians; but, then, I am also a human being and I have never understood how anyone can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation, let alone the persecution, of a fellow being. I am also the founding chair of Labour Friends of India, and as one of India’s longest-standing friends in the UK Parliament, I am keen to see that the true nature of Indian democracy is properly represented and not distorted.
Sir Edward Leigh
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me?
I shall refer to the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks later, but at this point I will continue to make some progress. I represent the constituency of Brent North, which only Newham, which includes the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), might be able to rival for diversity of ethnicity and religious faith. Perhaps 40% of the families in my constituency are originally from the Indian subcontinent. Many are Hindu and many are Muslim and I am equally at home visiting the mosque or the mandir.
As a Christian, I remember the appalling murder of the Christian missionary Graham Staines in Odisha. He was burned to death with his two little boys, aged 10 and six, when Dara Singh led a group of Hindu militants who set light to the van that they were sleeping in. I think I was the first person in this Parliament to raise the matter with the then high commissioner, my good friend Lalit Mansingh. As a human being, I also remember that Dara Singh murdered the Muslim trader Sheikh Rehman, chopping off his hands before setting him alight too. Psychopaths and murderers exist in all countries, but when talking of persecution it is important to examine how the authorities in those countries respond to such atrocities. The Indian constitution is, importantly, a secular constitution and it provides for protections of minority communities including Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Christians. Though different political parties have formed the Government since its independence, all have respected the constitution and worked within its boundaries, so it is important to say that 21 years later, Dara Singh is still serving a life sentence for his crimes. It is also important that he was convicted in the year 2000 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, at the head of a Hindu nationalist BJP Government.
In June 2017, in response to the growing violence of Hindu mobs known as cow vigilantes, it was the current Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who spoke out against that violence and proclaimed that killing people in the name of protecting cows was criminal, illogical and unacceptable. When the Muslim trader Alimuddin Ansari was later lynched by a Hindu mob for allegedly transporting beef, 11 people were sentenced to life imprisonment, including one local BJP worker. That justice was meted out by a fast-track court and was the first case ever successfully prosecuted against such religious extremists in India. The state acted. It did not sanction the atrocities. Are there atrocities in India? Yes, there are. Are they often perpetrated against religious minorities? Yes, they are. Do they represent persecution by the state? No, they do not. Islam is the second largest religion in India. There are 40 million Muslims in Uttar Pradesh alone. As the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, there are 1.4 billion people in India and the second largest population is Muslim. He spoke of 1,000 attacks on minorities.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but what has unfortunately not come across yet—I ask him to reflect on this—is the fact that, in the legal system in India, four more Indian states are to introduce anti-conversion laws. That means that 1.3 billion people will be under specific state law and state changes that disadvantage them, and 1.9 million Rohingyas do not have the right of citizenship. I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I have to say this: we are here to speak on behalf of those who have no voice. We should be their voice in this Chamber.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his points so clearly. Let me try to address them. He spoke of Muslims being stripped of their citizenship rights—no. Actually, they are not stripped of rights that they ever had. They were not citizens; they were classed as illegal migrants into the country.
It is very important when talking about India and religious persecution to consider the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. India is one of the world’s top destinations for illegal migrants. Most are Muslims who come from the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Pew Research Center estimates that they number 3.2 million and 1.1 million from Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively. The Act provided a pathway for illegal migrants to become citizens of India where they had been victims of religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan. It established the important legal principle of non-refoulement by offering shelter to refugees who fled those countries due to discrimination based on religion. It gave that right to Christians, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists.
The Act was passed in both the Lok Sabha, where the BJP Government hold a majority, and the upper Rajya Sabha, where they do not. It sparked riots and outrage because the pathway was not open to Muslims. The argument applied by the Indian Government is that those are Muslim countries, and therefore Muslims coming to India as migrants could not be persecuted religious minorities.
The right hon. Member for Gainsborough spoke about Ahmadiyya Muslims, and I entirely agree with him. The Indian Government say that the legislation discriminates not against Muslims per se, but only against illegal immigrants who do not have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin. There is a basic logic to that argument, and I disagree with it. It is clear to me that if someone is an Ahmadiyya Muslim or a gay Muslim, it is perfectly possible—indeed, highly probable—that they have suffered religious persecution in one of those countries. It is also possible that Christians or Parsis have come without actually having a well-founded fear of being persecuted. They may simply be an illegal migrant, rather than a genuine refugee. Better, in my view, that the law should seek not to treat illegal immigrants on the basis of broad religious categories at all, but to consider each individual case on its merit. However, India is a sovereign country with an established democracy, and I respect its right to enact legislation whether or not I think it clumsy or ill-framed.
As people criticise India for legislation that is giving citizenship to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants, perhaps we should recall that just in December, a British Home Office Minister complained to the Home Affairs Committee that we had been unable to get the French to agree to a policy of turning back migrant boats in the channel. As India enacts the principle of non-refoulement, we are busy trying to do the opposite. Sometimes, as a Christian, I think we would do better to cast out the beam from our own eye, and then we might see clearly to case out the mote from our neighbour’s.
Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Robertson. India is a vibrant, pluralist and secular democracy. Its constitution declares clearly that freedom of religion is a fundamental right. Article 15 outlaws discrimination on the grounds of religion, and a series of other articles provide further protections, including in relation to schools. Those rights are safeguarded by respect for the rule of law and an independent judiciary, supported by bodies such as the National Commission for Minorities and the National Human Rights Commission. An enduring goal of the Indian state has been diversity and inclusion, and a national minorities rights day is observed on 18 December every year.
The size of India’s minority populations has been growing in recent years, and India is, for example, home to 16% of the world’s Muslim population. Members of minority faiths have played a prominent part in India’s history and they continue to hold leading roles in Indian politics and public life, in science and universities, in the law and other professions, in business and culture, and across the Indian economy. Let us just take one, symbolic example. In 2004, a Catholic, Sonia Gandhi, facilitated the handover of power to a Sikh, Manmohan Singh, enabling him to become Prime Minister, with his oath of office overseen by a Muslim President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam.
As Members present will know, I take seriously matters related to freedom of religion, whether it is Islam or Christianity. I have raised those matters in this House many times and will continue to do so. Sadly, in a country as huge as India, there will be lawbreakers who attack others, including members of minority communities and faiths. Sadly, no state can prevent all such crimes and tragedies, no matter how seriously they take policing and justice. Of course, there are hard-line individuals in India who promote hate speech and division, just as there are in this country. Again, no democracy that allows freedom of speech can shut that down either.
However, I argue that India’s record on minority faiths stands up to scrutiny. I do not accept that there is evidence of systemic or state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities. When it comes to protection of freedom of religion and belief, the more important focus of this House should be on places such as Pakistan, where forced marriage and forced conversion of young Hindu and Christian women is a serious problem, and from where Asia Bibi had to flee for her life after years of imprisonment, and China, where incarceration and oppression of Uyghur Muslims is, quite frankly, a disgrace.
Mr Modi’s Government has embarked on a huge reform agenda, tackling issues that his predecessors ducked because they were just too difficult. Change on this scale inevitably causes controversy and conflict in India, just as it would elsewhere. All such crimes must be fully investigated to bring anyone responsible to justice. In any democracy, there is further work to be done to safeguard and protect human rights, and bring to justice those who commit crimes of violence against others, including religious minorities. It will be important for some of the serious matters raised in this debate to be considered in India. No doubt, they debate similar matters in their Parliament, in the same way that we do, and the concerns raised by Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide must be carefully considered. In a country as vast as India, with so many different communities, ethnicities and faiths, there are some unavoidable tensions and it is a matter of massive regret that, sometimes, that can spill over into conflict and violence. However, the principles of unity and diversity have been a core aspiration and value of the Indian state ever since its creation.
India is a stable and increasingly prosperous home to around 200 million Muslims and 32 million Christians. While, like any country, its record on law and order and security cannot always be 100% perfect, it is still a huge democratic success story. Rapid economic development and Government action are also starting to bring many millions of people out of poverty. If we are considering some worrying points raised in this debate, let us also at the same time remember the hugely positive progress in India, which is benefiting so many of its citizens, including millions from India’s minority and minority faith communities.
Naz Shah (Bradford West) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate.
“It’s time the Modi government learned they cannot promote ‘Make in India’ abroad while condoning the propagation of ‘Hate in India’ at home.”
Those are not my words but those of Shashi Tharoor, an author and Indian politician, highlighting the reality of India under a BJP Government.
With the rise of nationalist politics all over the world, we have seen the threat to minority rights. With Trump 2.0 in charge in India, in the form of Narendra Modi, we are witnessing before our eyes the scaling down of the secular, liberal rights for which Indian democracy once hailed itself. Power politics has an interesting link with the legitimacy of an individual, especially in the case of Narendra Modi, a man once barred from the US because of his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat massacre, which saw more than 2,000 Muslims murdered and some newspapers giving him the title, “the butcher of Gujarat”. Today he is invited on to red carpets across the globe, including in Britain.
Narendra Modi does not just attract a nationalist crowd with his populist rhetoric; he is directly involved. He is a life member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is inspired by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini and the ideas of an Aryan race. The RSS is built on an ideology of the superiority of Hindus, and the group’s mission statement calls for change to the policy of
“endless appeasement of the Muslim population”.
In reality, what they see as the ending of appeasement towards Muslims is seen by the world as the ending of equality towards Muslims in India. Over the years, mob attacks on Muslim communities in India have risen. Only last year, five Muslim men, severely beaten by police officers, were forced to sing the national anthem. Two days later, one of the men, a 23-year-old Muslim, was murdered. Later, we witnessed a nationalist mob launch riots in New Delhi. More than 52 people were killed, hundreds injured, places of worship and property destroyed, with the majority of victims being Muslims.
It is not just extremist mobs that are changing the landscape in India. It is directly ingrained in the policies pursued by the BJP Government. The controversial citizenship law and the national registration of citizenship directly discriminate against Muslims. The citizenship law ensures that Hindus and people of other faiths who live in India have an automatic right to citizenship, whereas Muslims do not. In 2019, the Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah said,
“I today want to assure Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees, that you will not be forced to leave India”.
That outrightly left out Muslims.
A New York Times investigation in Assam province found Muslims, who have lived their entire lives in India with voter ID, birth certificates and marriage certificates, being sent to foreigners tribunals to prove their citizenship. One man, Asbahar Ali, due to a spelling error by the authorities on his documentation, was sent to prison for four years. His family sold the house to pay for legal costs and his wife committed suicide. The same investigation found five officials of the foreigners tribunals, such as Mamoni Rajkumari, claimed they were dismissed from their posts because they accepted the citizenship of too many Muslims.
If one believed that the discrimination against Muslims is India is just hearsay, consider the words of an MP and BJP leader, Dr Swamy. In defence of controversial citizenship laws in an interview, he stated,
“We know where the Muslim population is large and there’s always trouble…If Muslims become more than 30%, that country is in danger.”
When challenged for his hateful comments, he asserted he was being kind to Muslims by not letting them into India, because equality does not apply to them, as they fit into a completely different category.
The Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary in 2019 found rising levels of hate and attacks on Christians in India. The report mentions 750 reported cases of Christian persecution in India in 2017 alone. Recently, we have witnessed the use of brute force with water cannon on Indian farmers, who are mainly Sikhs. Other marginalised groups such as Dalits, those of lower caste or even non-religious groups such as humanists have often been at the forefront of hate and discrimination in India.
India is at a pivotal point. While its economic advance is set to lead it to become the third biggest economy by 2035, its political advance is set to eradicate the legacy of Gandhism based on a pluralist India. The world is also at a pivotal point because nations likes ours need to make a choice between turning a blind eye to the Nazi-inspired ideology taking charge in the ruling party of India in favour of economic trade, or standing by persecuted minorities and the very values of Gandhism.
If our words fall on deaf ears, then the world should not be shocked if minorities in India push towards a path of ethnic cleansing in the future. India has a choice to make, but so does the rest of the world.
Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
There is an indivisible historic bond that we have been reminded of between the UK and India. India is rightly admired as the world’s biggest democracy, and its economic achievements have been staggering. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) rightly paid tribute to the constitution of India drawn up under the leadership of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, which says
“all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”
It is a model for such a vast and richly diverse nation. However, India is seeing growing violence against religious minorities.
As the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said, the latest Open Doors’ World Watch List will be launched tomorrow. For the last two years, India has been in 10th place on that list of the worst countries for the persecution of Christians, and the position is not going to improve, as I understand it, in the list being published tomorrow. Now that would once have been unconceivable; 10 years ago it was down at number 32. The current Indian Government was elected in 2014 and in 2016, Open Doors put India for the first time among the world’s worst 20 countries and the report that year referred to
“a surge of militant Hindu pressure on religious minorities, most frequently Muslims and Christians.”
In 2019, India entered the worst 10 countries. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that year that India be designated a country of particular concern. Human Rights Watch reported in 2019:
“The government failed to properly enforce Supreme Court directives to prevent and investigate mob attacks”.
India remained in the top 10 last year. Open Doors reports four religiously-motivated murders of Christians in the first half of 2020 and eight just in the third quarter.
We have been reminded that Christians and Muslims account for 20% of India’s population. I paid a wonderful visit to Kerala in 2017 where the location of churches established by the Apostle Thomas were pointed out to me. Islam arrived between the 12th and 16th centuries. Both religions have been very significant in India’s development. The problem is, and this point has rightly been made, that it is not that the state is perpetrating violence against minority religions but, to quote Christian Solidarity Worldwide:
“Right-wing groups are emboldened by a culture of impunity due to state negligence or complicity.”
Government inaction has meant that mob lynching against Muslims and Dalits and violence against Christians and humanists are increasing. The Government are not always negligent, but they have often been negligent.
A report from the London School of Economics published at the end of 2019 entitled “WhatsApp vigilantes” refers to more than a hundred lynchings since 2015, many against Dalits, Muslims, Christians and Adivasis, carried out by
“mobs of vigilantes who use peer-to-peer messaging applications such as WhatsApp to spread lies about the victims, and use misinformation to mobilise, defend, and in some cases to document and circulate images of their violence.”
We have been reminded that covid-19 seems to have increased the problems. When our Prime Minister visits India, he must raise this issue.
When Ministers such as the one who is with us this morning visit India, I hope they will meet religious minorities. That will be a huge source of encouragement.
Meeting in the USA and in India, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi have heaped praise on each other. At the moment, we are seeing where America-first politics leads playing out in the US. Every community needs to feel protected; it is not enough to protect only the majority, and the authorities in India need to act against those who perpetrate violence towards Muslims, Christians, Dalits, humanists and other religious minorities.
David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for leading today’s debate on behalf of the APPG for freedom of religion or belief. In paying tribute to fellow APPG members, I also congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on her appointment as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I know that she has a personal passion for this subject, and I do not doubt at all that she will be an outstanding envoy for the Government, so I wish her well on behalf of my party.
In the run-up to this morning’s debate, I have to say that I have been fascinated—indeed, quite perplexed—by the knee-jerk reaction to the debate. That extends to the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner): if I followed the logic of his remarks that we should not be interfering in the domestic politics of other countries, particularly countries that the UK once ruled over, surely the same would be true of the United States of America, but I recall that fairly recently he had lots to say about George Floyd. The reality is that foreign affairs is a reserved matter for this Parliament, and it is entirely right for Members of this House to comment on it.
I do not doubt for a moment that we should be engaged in foreign affairs, and we have the right to debate what we wish in this House. I did not suggest otherwise; what I did say was that we should always do so with a sense of humility and appropriateness, and in this particular case, remembering that we were a colonial power that was engaged in pitting one section of the community against the other for over 200 years.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is a point that I will echo later in my speech. However, several hon. Members in Westminster Hall today have been recipients of emails from members of the Indian diaspora, the High Commission of India, and even a Member of the House of Lords, all getting their excuses in early and suggesting that the issues raised in today’s debate are overblown or misplaced. Only this morning, a number of us received an email with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards copied in, complaining that by taking part in this debate we were in breach of the MPs’ code of conduct—which is frankly nonsense, and I expect the Commissioner will clarify that.
As a Scottish nationalist MP, I understand the optics of India’s former colonial rulers being seen to lecture them on human rights and democracy; that is an irony that will not be lost on many people. However, as I said earlier, foreign affairs is still very much a matter reserved to this Parliament, and it is therefore right that we comment, whether on India or on other parts of the world. I have no problem whatsoever with other Parliaments commenting on our situation as well.
In an email that we received from the noble Lord Ranger, we were reminded—if not rebuked—that India is the largest working democracy globally. I have to say, being reminded by an unelected peer about India being a democracy was certainly a novel experience, but Lord Ranger went on to say that
“a free trade agreement is on the cards in the not too distant future.”
He is right: it is precisely because India is the world’s largest democracy, and a country with which the UK seeks a free trade agreement, that we are having this debate today and bringing into sharp focus violations of FORB and persecution of minority groups.
Religious persecution in India is a topic that I have been following for several years now, but I want to draw the attention of the House to a report from Open Doors UK, entitled “We’re Indians Too”. That report provided a sobering analysis of the escalating human rights violations against religious minority communities in India. Although religion-based violence has existed for years, analysis of instances since 2014 demonstrate that Hindu extremists have created an environment of hate and intolerance towards India’s religious minorities, primarily its Christian and Muslim communities. This in turn has led to an escalation of violence, social ostracism, property destruction, hate speech, disruption of peaceful non-Hindu religious activities, and false accusations of conversion activities. This has all been compounded yet further by the emergence of covid-19. We have heard alarming testimony of Christians from different states walking hundreds of miles to Madhya Pradesh state, being denied rations and informed that they would not have access to assistance. Indeed, the hon. Member for Strangford has said already that Muslims continue to be targeted as a perceived source of coronavirus and in many cases have been denied medical treatment as a result of that rhetoric.
Just as I have paid tribute to the work of Open Doors, I also want to thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide for all of its advocacy in respect of India. With your forbearance, Mr Robertson, I want to single out Joanne Moore who has been instrumental in briefing me on FORB issues over the years, specifically on but not limited to India. Joanne leaves CSW this month and will be enormously missed by all of us in the House who have appreciated her diligence, passion and expertise.
The South Asia state of minorities report of 2020, published just last month, paints a picture of spiting, oppressive and minority politics, the criminalisation of dissent and a deteriorating humanitarian situation within India. Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, wrote, and I quote:
“In India, human rights defenders and religious minorities protesting discriminatory laws and practices have faced restrictions, violence, criminal defamation, detention and harassment.”
She went on to say:
“Other recent legislation limits freedom of opinion and expression, in the guise of preventing disharmony and disaffection.”
The situation is grave, and the UK has a role to play, I would argue. It is imperative that the Prime Minister’s upcoming trip to India in the first half of 2021 is used to send a signal that an enhanced trade partnership between the UK and India will not be signed until real change is realised. The British Government often comment that the UK has very constructive relations with India. It is precisely for that reason, Mr Robertson, that we should be acting as a critical friend when it comes to advocating for minority groups facing persecution. As with any negotiation there are trade-offs, but turning a blind eye to the persecution of religious minorities should not be one of them. It must be the case that that remains a priority for the British Government and this matter should be a red line in any future trade agreement.
Last night the House had an excellent debate on the concept of global Britain. I made it clear then and I do so again today that global Britain is not the SNP’s project. We wish it well, but we do not wish Scotland to be a part of it for obvious reasons. However, an early first test for global Britain is in confronting the increasingly thuggish Modi regime, which has seen the oppression of religious minorities for far, far too long. The Minister knows this particular caucus of MPs well enough to understand that we always put party and constitutional politics aside to advocate for international freedom of religion and belief. In doing so, though, we will hold the Government’s feet to the fire as the Prime Minister departs for India on his trip this year. The success of the trade mission will not just be measured in the size or scope of a free trade agreement. For me, the real measure will be whether or not Members of this House are still raising concerns about religious persecution later in the year, and I very much hope that we will not be.
Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I would like to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who I thought gave a passionate account of his views on this matter, along with other Members who secured this debate, including the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). I would like to thank hon. Members on these Benches for their contributions. I thought my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) gave a particularly compelling and balanced account of the issues we are facing. Other contributors, not least my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), made a number of very important points.
I want to stress that those on the Labour Front Bench stand firmly behind the rights of minorities to religious freedom, both in India and across the world. The Labour party’s new foreign policy puts the rule of law, democracy and human rights at the very heart of our agenda, and we are absolutely clear that religious freedom is a critical right that must be universally upheld. However, the wider picture is that, according to recent research by the V-Dem Institute, for the first time since 2001 authoritarian regimes outnumber the world’s democracies, and the number of such regimes is growing. That is why it is essential for democracies, of which India is of course the world’s largest, to stand firm together in defence of universal human rights. We must lead by example in standing up for freedom of expression and freedom of religion. They are the cornerstones of the values that we in the United Kingdom, and particularly the Labour party, hold dear. They should be the values that democrats across the world cherish.
We have consistently stood up for religious freedoms throughout Asia. We have called on the UK Government to take action against the Chinese Government for their persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang by deploying Magnitsky sanctions against senior officials. We also consistently urge Ministers to defend the rights of minorities in Sri Lanka, and to act far more robustly on to the appalling treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
The Labour party has stood up for human rights in India, including by standing by Amnesty International in India, which was recently forced to discontinue its operations due to what it described as “persistent harassment” by the Indian Government. I also recently expressed our strong belief that the farmers protesting in India must have the right to peaceful protest, and that the Indian authorities must commit to upholding that right. Again, UK Ministers should be engaging far more actively and effectively with their counterparts in New Delhi to convey that message clearly.
The religious rights of minority groups in India are a hugely important issue. In the three years to June 2019, India’s national human rights commission registered 2,008 cases of minorities being harassed. Every one of those events is heartbreaking for those affected, who in some instances lost their lives, for their families and for all of us who wish to see India thrive as a nation.
Religious minorities constitute one fifth of India’s population. Articles 29 and 30 of the constitution protect the rights of those communities, including the right to use their own language and to form their own educational institutions. Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, caste, sex or place of birth. In spite of those constitutional protections, however, in late 2019, the Indian Government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act caused concern because it failed to state that it would offer a path to fast-track citizenship for Muslim immigrants, while explicitly committing to fast-tracking Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
More recently, in late February 2020, New Delhi experienced terrible communal violence. The initial attacks were predominantly by members of the majority Hindu population against Muslim minority groups. The death toll reached 53. The majority of those who died were Muslims, but many Hindus also lost their lives and parts of north-east Delhi were put under lockdown. Every section of the population is profoundly damaged by such violence and strife.
Later in 2020, the persecution of Muslims continued as they were blamed for the spread of covid-19, as many hon. Members have mentioned. Hon. Members have also eloquently pointed out that Christians have suffered some persecution. According to Persecution Relief, between January 2016 and January 2020, there were 2,067 crimes inspired by religious intolerance against Christians in India.
India is the world’s largest democracy. As such, it can and should take its place as a leader in global affairs and a shaper of the global agenda. It is also a hugely diverse rainbow nation. As such, it has an opportunity to be one of the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multicultural societies. The vast majority of the Indian population, whatever their ethnicity or religion, are rightly proud of their country’s vibrant diversity and are committed to the principles of religious freedom that are important in any healthy democracy. The Indian Government have, of course, made some effort to support minorities through their multi-sector development programme, with the majority of the spend going on education. We are confident that those interventions will yield positive results.
In the light of the above, we call on Ministers to engage actively with their counterparts in New Delhi; to set out the role of the new special envoy on freedom of religion and belief, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and what she will do to encourage tolerance and inclusion; to explain the Government’s plan to compensate for the abolition of the Department for International Development, which did some outstanding work promoting religious freedoms across the globe; and to explain the decision to renege on the Government’s manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on development. Can the Minister tell us which DFID programmes for freedom of religion and belief will survive these swingeing cuts?
It is vital that the Government take a serious and strategic approach to defending religious freedoms, and we look forward to the Minister’s answers on these vital issues.
The Minister for Asia (Nigel Adams)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate and the role he plays on this issue in this House. I pay tribute to all his work as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions. My right hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and the hon. Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) all made very thoughtful and insightful speeches. Like the hon. Member for Brent North, I am a little surprised to be here. Nevertheless, we are and have the opportunity to recognise and share the feeling in the House on these vital issues. Later in my speech, I will respond to the points hon. Members raised.
The UK is committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all. It is one of our human rights priorities. Nobody should be excluded because of their religion or belief. Discrimination, as we all know, does terrible damage to societies. Importantly, it holds back economies. A country cannot fully develop or thrive while members of minority communities are oppressed. It is a core message of our diplomacy that communities are stronger, more stable and more prosperous when they embrace their diversity rather than fear it.
In November, my ministerial colleague who is responsible for human rights, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, underlined our commitment to freedom of religion or belief, speaking at the ministerial meeting to advance freedom of religion or belief and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance Ministers’ forum. All hon. Members present will know that in 2019, the previous Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), commissioned the Bishop of Truro to undertake a review into the Government’s support for persecuted Christians. I want to confirm yet again that this Government remain fully committed to implementing all the Bishop’s recommendation and promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.
I am delighted, as I am sure everyone here will be, that we have confirmed that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) will continue that implementation, as the Prime Minister’s new special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) was absolutely right to raise that point, as well as the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who, in a previous debate, pushed on when that appointment would be made. I am thrilled that it was made before the Christmas break. I am sure that my hon. Friend will do a fantastic job.
Those of us who have had the pleasure of visiting India know that it is a magnificent country. It is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. It boasts over 20 official languages, over 1,500 registered dialects—it is very similar to Yorkshire in that regard—and a rich tapestry of religious minorities, alongside its sizable Hindu majority. It is also the birthplace of the other great religions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
Most notably in the context of this debate, it is also home to the world’s third largest Muslim population—over 195 million people—and approximately 28 million Christians.
Shortly after partition, India’s first Prime Minister, Nehru, said:
“Whatever our religion or creed, we are all one people.”
This is the foundation stone of India. Regardless of religious differences, all citizens can consider themselves Indians.
Indians are rightly proud of their history of inclusive government, and their secular constitution, which hon. Members have referred to. This guarantees citizens equality before the law. We are proud of our diversity and religious pluralism in the UK, and those are shared values, central to the governance of both our countries. They lie at the heart of our partnership, which is further strengthened by the UK’s 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora—the living bridge between us.
However, as hon. Members have noted, India faces challenges in enforcing its constitutional protections for freedom of religion or belief. The situation for religious minorities across India varies depending on where they live, their socioeconomic background and how their numbers compare to other communities. Some have suggested that the UK turns a blind eye to these challenges, because we do not want to criticise an important partner. I can assure the House that this is not the case. On the contrary, thanks to our close relationship, we are able to discuss the most difficult issues with the Government of India and make clear our concerns, as they do with us, and as one would expect from close partners and friends.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and have a huge amount of respect for him, but can he put on record that when the Prime Minister sits down with Prime Minister Modi, he will raise this with him in person?
Absolutely. The hon. Member is right to raise this. There is a real opportunity, when that trip goes ahead, not just to talk about what is incredibly important in our trading relationship with India, but to put on the table our concerns around these issues. In that vein, I can confirm that during the Foreign Secretary’s visit to India in December, he raised a number of these human rights issues with his Indian counterpart, including the situation in Kashmir and our concern around many consular cases.
Most recently, our acting high commissioner in New Delhi discussed the UK’s parliamentary interest in minorities in India with officials from India’s Ministry of External Affairs on 4 January. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials here in London discussed the situation for India’s religious minorities with the Indian high commissioner on 29 December. Our Minister responsible for human rights and our relations with India, Lord Ahmad, speaks regularly to his opposite number in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and with the Indian high commissioner here in the UK. Where we have concerns, he raises them directly with the Indian authorities.
Over the last three years, our high commission has worked with local non-governmental organisations to bring together hundreds of young people of diverse faiths in three cities in India to work together on social action projects in their local communities, thereby promoting a culture of interfaith dialogue. Our diplomatic network across India also regularly meets religious representatives from all faiths to understand their perspectives. We use important milestones such as Inter Faith Week to reach out to these communities. In May, our high commission hosted a virtual Iftar, engaging over 100 Muslim and other faith and civil society contracts across India. There was positive media coverage, reaching around 7 million people.
In September, our high commission hosted a virtual roundtable with faith leaders from the Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian communities to understand how faith groups in India have responded to the pandemic, to celebrate their important contribution to supporting local communities, and to promote joint working between faith leaders. This year, our high commission will support an interfaith leadership programme for a cohort of emerging Indian faith leaders, including Christians and Muslims. Hopefully, this will create an opportunity for: UK-India interfaith dialogue on tackling shared global challenges such as climate change; exchanging expertise on leading modern, inclusive faith communities; and promoting values of tolerance and multiculturalism.
The hon. Member for Strangford raised the case of Father Stan Swamy. Human rights defenders make an essential contribution to the promotion of the rights of their fellow citizens. We acknowledge that they face growing threats, and the UK works with many international partners to support them through our networks of high commissions and embassies. We have directly raised the case of Father Stan Swamy with the Indian authorities, most recently on 12 November. We will continue to monitor such cases and raise them directly with Ministers where appropriate.
With regard to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, Lord Ahmad has previously raised our concerns about the impact of recent legislative and judicial measures on India’s minorities directly with Ministers. We have not yet received any confirmation from the Government of India on whether an India-wide national register of citizens will be implemented. We keenly await details of any next steps that they take following the NRC in Assam.
I end by saying that we look to the Government of India to address these concerns and protect the rights of people of all religions. That is in keeping with India’s constitution and a proud and inclusive tradition. Our high commission in New Delhi and our network of deputy high commissioners across India will continue to monitor the situation closely. Where we have concerns, we do not hesitate to raise them directly with the Indian authorities.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their heartfelt contributions, some of which I would not be entirely supportive of, but all were contributions in the right sense of the word, which is the important thing.
It was said that every community needs to be protected; that is so important. Our role in this House and in this debate is to speak up for those who have no voice. We are speaking up for the 1.9 million Rohingya Muslims who have no citizen rights, and for the 1.3 billion citizens in India living under new anti-conversion laws. We speak up on behalf of the Christians, the Muslims, the Shi’as, the Sikhs, and all people who do not conform or do not follow the Hindu religion.
I thank the Minister for his response. He has confirmed what we all wanted to hear: the Government raise the issues with India whenever the opportunity arises. In replying to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), the Minister gave the answer that we hoped for, and it was said in a constructive and positive way. The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East will know that I like to end these debates with a scriptural text. This is from Peter 5, verses 7 to 10.
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you…the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore
Today, this House, in Westminster Hall, has spoken up for those who have no voice, and for those who have no one to speak for them. We look forward to the Government and the Minister doing just that for each and every one of us.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of persecution of Muslims, Christians and minority groups in India.
© UK Parliament 2021