17 March 2016 India: Freedom of Religion
Question for Short Debate asked by Lord Singh of Wimbledon
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the extent to which Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, relating to freedom of religion, is being upheld in India.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB):
My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to highlight concerns over the plight of minority faiths in India. Narendra Modi, leader of the nationalist BJP, won a landslide victory in the May 2015 Indian election, mainly on ostensibly economic issues, but after his election he has given increasing support to the Hindu extremist agenda of those who helped propel him to power. He refers increasingly to restoring dignity and power to the Hindu community. His own credentials were questioned by many in India and abroad. As Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, he failed to stop widespread violence against the Muslim community and for some years was banned from entering the UK or the USA.
Narendra Modi’s election was seen, sadly, as a green light by some Hindu extremists to make India more Hindu and to put India’s large Muslim minority, as well as Christians and Sikhs, firmly in their place. Reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and other human rights organisations all tell the same story of forced conversions of Muslims and Christians, with brutal rape and killing and the destruction or seizure of property. This has been paralleled, sadly, by a more general crackdown on the right to free speech.
I do not want to take up too much time reciting detailed examples of an increasing disregard of Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some of these are detailed in the excellent briefing notes prepared by the Library. I will give just a few examples to explain the fear now felt, particularly by Christians and Muslims in India. The highly respected US Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed concern in its 2015 report over the biased application of state anti-discrimination conversion laws, under which Christian preachers have been harassed and arrested, while no action has been taken against those who, by inducement or otherwise, force people to convert to Hinduism. Its report also drew attention to the increasing harassment of Muslims and Christians, particularly those who have converted to Christianity, with physical violence, arson and the desecration of churches and bibles. Although this highly respected US Commission on International Religious Freedom is allowed to function in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China, it is now banned from entering India.
Muslims in particular are targets of Hindu extremists and are routinely accused of spying for Pakistan, of being terrorists, of forcibly kidnapping and marrying Hindu women and of slaughtering cows. Muslim villages in remote areas, particularly in Bihar, are routinely attacked. Sadly, the police, as with the mass killing of Sikhs in 1984, are either silent spectators or active participants. Discrimination against religious minorities was prevalent, as Sikhs know too well, under successive Congress Governments. Under the BJP Government of Narendra Modi the increasing attacks on minority faiths have become more blatant and are accompanied by a disturbing silence of those in power.
Under Congress, discrimination against Sikhs was direct and brutal. In the run-up to the election that put him in power, Narendra Modi himself pointed out that the Congress Government were responsible for the mass killing of thousands of Sikh men, women, children and infants in 1984. A leaked American embassy document from 1984 revealed that more Sikhs were killed in just three days than the number of people killed in the 13 years of General Pinochet’s despotic rule in Chile. More recently, Prime Minister David Cameron, described the organised killing of Sikhs as,
“a stain on the post-independence history of India”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/3/14; col. 348.]
Today, the pressure on Sikhs is more subtle but perhaps even more serious. It is nothing less than an attempt to dilute Sikh identity and absorb the community into the Hindu fold. Independent and forward-looking Sikh teachings on human rights and respect for other faiths were described by the writer George Bruce as a bridge between Hinduism and the Abrahamic faiths.
In India, a continuing attempt to erode Sikh identity began with the writing of India’s constitution in which Sikhs are—without their consent—described as a subset of Hinduism. There are other ways in which independent Sikh identity is under constant attack. In India today, people with Sikh names are increasingly shown in Bollywood films and TV soaps as villains wearing the distinctive Sikh kara—a bracelet of commitment to Sikh ideals. Sikhs are also frequently shown participating in Hindu religious ceremonies involving idol worship, contrary to Sikh teachings. In many ways, this subtle erosion of Sikh identity is more dangerous than the direct discrimination of Congress Governments.
Governments with large majorities have a tendency to develop a degree of arrogance that is dismissive of the views and concerns of others. This has become a real concern in India, with the Government becoming less tolerant of dissent of any sort. This was illustrated by government reaction to students at a New Delhi university who were stopped from demonstrating against the imposition of the death penalty on a Muslim convicted of terrorism. The Union Home Minister’s intolerance of dissent was evident in his comment that:
“If anyone shouts anti-India slogan and challenges nation’s sovereignty and integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared”.
He added, “I have instructed”—the police—
“to take strong action against the anti-India elements”.
The growing assault on freedom of speech has alarmed many in India from all walks of life. Recently, a number of prominent Indians honoured for their work in arts, science and business returned their awards as a protest against curbs on free speech.
Despite my concerns, I believe that India is a wonderful country that has a lot going for it. It is a country rich in talent with a vast pool of highly educated and qualified people in business, science and the arts. But to achieve its real potential, those in positions of authority should heed the words of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who declared that the care of minorities was more than a duty, it was a sacred trust. India has a lofty constitution with grandiose pledges of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. It is a country that is home to many different faiths, but it cannot fulfil its full potential unless it takes its religious minorities with it. Sadly, there is no sign of this happening. What can, or should, Britain do about the deteriorating attitude to human rights and religious freedom in India?
Recent pronouncements by UK Ministers on human rights are not encouraging. To my disbelief, the Government Minister Michael Fallon, in the context of trade with China, actually declared that we should put human rights to one side when discussing trade. Our country rightly pushed for an international, independent inquiry into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, a small trading country, but when I asked if the Government would press for a similar inquiry into the mass killing of Sikhs in India, a larger trading partner, I received the brusque reply that it was a matter for the Indian Government.
I have, as the Minister knows, asked the same question on half a dozen occasions, and got the same unhelpful response. Do the Government agree with the words of the great human rights activist, Dr Andrei Sakharov, that there can be no real peace in the world unless we are even-handed in our attitude to human rights? Britain has led the world in many enlightened ways. Today I appeal to our Government to move from the usual anodyne comment that we take human rights very seriously and be true to Dr Sakharov’s noble sentiment in giving a more robust condemnation to attacks on freedom of worship and human rights abuse, regardless of the country in which it occurs.
Baroness Berridge (Con):
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for securing today’s important debate. I declare an interest as a director of the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion or Belief at the University of Birmingham, which works with Commonwealth parliamentarians to promote this vital freedom.
Most religions or beliefs of the Commonwealth are present in vast numbers in India. It has the potential to be a beacon within the Commonwealth, and across the world, for religious diversity and freedom. The predominant religion of the Commonwealth is Hinduism, a fact which derives directly from India’s membership. The Commonwealth’s second most widespread religion, Islam, is also well represented in India with 172 million people—the world’s third largest Muslim population. By 2050 India is predicted to have the largest Muslim population in the world. India currently has the world’s largest populations of Sikhs, Jains, and Zoroastrians, as well as substantial numbers of Christians and Buddhists and people of no religion at all. India has more people who are not Hindus—a quarter of a billion—than most countries have people. India’s religious diversity has always been part of its national identity and history.
The third century BCE Buddhist king Ashoka, who ruled most of the Indian subcontinent, is remembered for his edicts that did not seek to impose his Buddhist religion, but instead emphasised religious tolerance. Ashoka’s “Lion Capital”, with its four lions sitting back to back, is the state emblem of modern India. It is easy to trace the tolerant ideals of Ashoka to the secular ones of Gandhi, Nehru and the drafters of the modern Indian constitution. As Gandhi said:
“Free India will be no Hindu raj, it will be Indian raj based not on the majority of any religious sect or community but on the representatives of the whole people without distinction of religion”.
Articles 25 and 15 of the Indian constitution prohibit discrimination on grounds of religion and give the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion. These articles reflect Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. India played a key role in drafting the universal declaration and is a party to the core international human rights conventions. India plays a vital role in promoting human rights across the Commonwealth, not least in its membership of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group.
This is not to pretend that religious tensions and violence do not exist in India today: there have been well-publicised incidents of religiously motivated violence and communal attacks. In January 2015 more than 5,000 people attacked the Muslim-majority village Azizpur in Bihar, setting 25 houses on fire and burning three Muslims alive, following the murder of a young Hindu man. Catholic communities have documented a number of serious incidents, including an arson attack on St Sebastian Catholic church in Delhi, Christmas carollers in Hyderabad being beaten badly by a mob, and a Catholic shopkeeper in Delhi being brutally attacked for displaying images of Jesus in the window of his store. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Singh, in his opening speech, about threats to the religious freedom of Indian Sikhs. However, India possesses the institutional resources to deal with such matters and must do so swiftly.
Article 18 explicitly states that freedom of religion or belief includes the freedom of everyone,
“to change his religion or belief”
It is concerning that a number of state Governments in India seek to enforce anti-conversion laws. As the noble Lord, Lord Singh, mentioned, coerced conversions or reconversions—of which there have been a number of allegations—are incompatible with Article 18, but so is a refusal to recognise a freely-chosen conversion to one religion from another. It is extremely encouraging, however, that the new High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr Navtej Sarna, is the first Sikh to hold such a post. I would be grateful if the Minister would consider discussions on Article 18 with His Excellency and others from among the 1.5 million members of the British Indian diaspora who are concerned about the future of India.
India looks like being one of the 21st century’s success stories, with the fastest-growing large economy in the world, which is lifting of millions of people out of poverty. Yet if it is to continue it must ensure that all of its citizens, from any and every religion and from no religion, have a stake in its prosperity. This requires upholding Article 18 and celebrating the religious pluralism and diversity that has characterised India throughout its history.
Lord Hussain (LD):
My Lords, India is the largest democracy, has a strong civil society, rigorous media and an independent judiciary, but also serious human rights concerns. I was reading the Human Rights Watch report 2016, which states that the Government did little in 2015 to implement promises by the newly-elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to improve respect for religious freedom, to protect the rights of women and children and to end abuse against marginalised communities. Even as the Prime Minister celebrated Indian democracy abroad, back home civil society groups faced increased harassment and government critics faced intimidation and law suits. Officials warned media against making what they called unsubstantiated allegations against the Government, saying that it weakened democracy. In several cases, courts reprimanded the Government for restricting free expression. According to the report, religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, accused the authorities of not doing enough to protect their rights. Some leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party made inflammatory remarks against minorities, and right-wing Hindu fringe groups threatened and harassed them and in some cases even attacked them.
It has been widely reported throughout the past many years that Hindu extremism in India is growing and the human rights and freedoms of Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Dalits are hugely being victimised through its activities and attacks. I read two news articles in the past two days relating to India; one of them stated that four Kashmiri Muslim students were attacked and charged for eating beef in Rajasthan. That is the kind of environment that people are having to live in. For eating something they like, they are not only attacked and beaten up but then charged. At the same time, I read that an American watchdog had been refused a visa to look into the freedoms and rights of religious communities in India. That shows the intention of the Indian Government. If they have nothing to hide, why would they not allow such independent organisations to look at what kind of religious freedom people are enjoying? India claims all the time that people from every religion come to live in peace in India and enjoy themselves. However, you only have to be either a Christian, a Muslim, a Sikh or a Dalit to find that out for yourself.
In particular, Muslims, who form the largest minority in India, are facing enormous pressure because of various laws. For example, Kashmir is the only Muslim majority state in India, where, as we all know, Indian forces have been since 1947. However, since 1990, they have continuously enjoyed immunity via the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, through which they are being given licence to kill. I bring this up in the debate on religious minorities’ rights because 99.9% of the victims suffering at the hands of the armed forces with immunity under that Act are Muslims. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the last 20 years by the armed forces. I know that there have been reports lately that some soldiers have been charged for wrongdoings in Kashmir, but that is only a token prosecution. When the Foreign Secretary next sees his counterpart in India, will he raise the issue of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the immunity given to its forces in Kashmir? When will India take that away from them? When will it take the army back out of the cities and heavily populated areas?
Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB):
My Lords, I have the greatest possible respect for the sheer resilience and joy of the Indian people, and the fact that the country sustains such a vast and complex democracy. However, at the moment—as the noble Lord, Lord Singh, so eloquently argued—there are some real worries about the observance of basic human rights, especially the right to practise one’s religion.
On paper, India has an excellent secular constitution. As Amartya Sen has argued, “secular” here does not mean the banishment of religion from public life but the fact that all religions are treated, in theory, with equal respect and concern by the state and its institutions. However, in practice, because of certain Hindu extremist groups, there is sustained violence against Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. Human rights are indivisible, and my concern is with the freedom of all religions in India—Muslims and Sikhs as much as Christians, although I wish to focus on Christians for a few moments.
A new report from the Evangelical Fellowship of India documented 177 recorded attacks on Christians last year. Church services were stormed and Christian leaders harassed and assaulted. There were beatings and violence, including the rape of a 71 year-old nun. There were even reports of 18 church pastors being arrested. This, the report stressed, is a drop in the ocean because most cases are simply not recorded by the police or local government. These attacks on Christianity must also be understood in relation to the caste system, because many Christians are Dalits—the former untouchables. As is well known, Dalits suffer disproportionately by every possible criteria: the number of rapes, lack of clean water and sanitation, poverty, and inability to obtain justice from the police and judiciary. It should also be noted that Christian Dalits do not qualify for the positive discrimination measures that other Dalits enjoy, so they suffer twice—both as Dalits and as Christian Dalits. A full list of these gross injustices is being set out this month at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Not surprisingly, a good number of Dalit Hindus in the past sought to convert to Christianity or Buddhism. However, it should be noted—to the shame of the church—that caste has now also heavily infiltrated the church. The point here is that Christians are the object of attack by Hindu extremist groups, because these groups believe that they seek to attract converts from Hinduism by the promise of escape from the caste system. Whether this is true or not, it is very difficult for people to convert should they want to because of the threat of violence. Yet freedom to convert from one religion to another is fundamental to Article 18.
Mr Modi, in his younger days, was a member of the RSS, the main Hindu extremist group. He has not disowned that past, nor, as far as I am aware has there been a ringing condemnation of Hindu-inflicted violence against other religions. At the moment, there seems to be a culture of impunity, which can only poison the atmosphere further and lead to an increased number of attacks. Will the Minister, in our dealings with the Indian Government, call on Mr Modi to be clear, forceful and unequivocal in condemning these Hindu extremist groups, and firm in ensuring that perpetrators of religious violence are brought to justice? On too many occasions, there has been little or no action against criminals when the victims have been Christian Dalits or simply Christians.
There is one final aspect of this I wish to mention. I learn from people who know India well that NGOs are now being intimidated and are fearful of speaking out on this and other issues. Personnel who have links with foreign countries are having difficulty getting their visas renewed. In short, there is a growing climate of fear in which free speech is muffled and silenced. I hope that our Government will make it quite clear to the Indian Government that this is totally unacceptable.
Lord Sheikh (Con):
My Lords, I was born and raised in east Africa, but my father originated from the Punjab region of India. I am proud of my Indian roots. I have traced my family history back to 1812 and found out that one of my forefathers was a Minister in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Government. I have just finished a book on the life of the Maharaja that will be published shortly. I mention this for a reason, as the Maharaja treated all his subjects equally and, irrespective of their racial or religious beliefs, they were treated very well. India has one of the oldest civilisations in the world and throughout its long history there has been an influx of different classes of people. As a result, India is a rich and diverse nation.
When India attained its independence, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad and other leaders made it very clear that India would be a secular state. As a Muslim, I would like to say that Maulana Azad was a man of vision and a very able First Minister of Education when India gained its independence. India is home to 1.3 billion people, who belong to all the major religions of the world. More than 780 languages are spoken there. We must recognise and appreciate the institutions that have developed within the country to support the rights of all citizens. It must be remembered that India has no state religion and that the state does not discriminate between religions. Additionally, the state cannot impose any tax to promote a religion or to maintain a religious institution.
The Indian constitution ensures that every citizen of India has the freedom to profess, practice and propagate his own religion. Therefore, citizens can follow their own religions and beliefs. We should all remember that India took an active role and was originally instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that we are discussing here today. India is fully committed to the rights laid out in the Universal Declaration, being a party to the six core human rights conventions. In India, every citizen has a right to invoke the highest court of the land directly where violation of fundamental rights is concerned, under Article 32 of the constitution. Furthermore, discrimination in public employment on grounds of religion is prohibited under the constitution.
India has its own National Commission for Minorities, which is mandated to recommend effective implementation to protect the interests of minorities by the central and state Governments. Since 1993, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians have been noted as minority communities. I stand here as a Muslim of Indian origin. Approximately 15% of the country is Muslim, totalling about 180 million people. I stress that recent terrorist attacks that have taken place within India, such as the Mumbai attacks, were not perpetrated by Indian Muslims.
Yesterday, I attended a function at the residence of his Excellency, the High Commissioner for India, to celebrate the presentation of his credentials to Her Majesty the Queen. The present High Commissioner of India, his Excellency Mr Navtej Sarna, is a Sikh. In a country such as India, it must be appreciated that in recent years there was at one time an Italian lady who was leader of the Congress Party, a Sikh Prime Minister, a Muslim President and a Hindu Vice-President. We must all appreciate that anyone can reach the top in India irrespective of their religious beliefs. However, we must also accept that there have been some aberrations on human rights, which we all abhor. I am sure that, with the will of the majority of Indians and the Government, these undesirable blips will be ironed out. I am confident of this. India is a great country and I am sure that it will overcome the occasional prejudicial and undesirable practices.
Lord Ahmed (Non-Afl):
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for securing this debate and providing us with the opportunity of discussing this alarming situation in the so-called largest democracy in the world. Democracy without human rights, equality, fairness, rule of law and minority rights does not impress me. President Putin was democratically elected; Donald Trump is leading the race for the Republican Party presidential nomination in the US; Hitler was also democratically elected; and so were many others in history who had a terrible record in the treatment of religious minorities. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, with all due respect, that I disagree with him: India’s record on the treatment of religious minorities has been problematic for decades.
We are seeing, as many had predicted, disturbing new levels of threat emerging since the formation of the openly Hindu nationalist BJP Government led by Prime Minister Modi. There are almost daily reports of attacks, intimidation and marginalisation of religious minorities. In 2015, President Obama identified the risk of religious intolerance as a possible cause of India failing as a state The noble Lord, Lord Singh, mentioned the tens of thousands of victims of mass violence, against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, where mobs widely believed to have official backing massacred, raped and looted with impunity.
In the past year Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made numerous international trips in the hope of boosting trade and India’s engagement in global affairs. However, this did not go as planned as India continued to vote poorly when it came to human rights issues at the United Nations. I accept India being involved with the UN declaration, but India abstained from the Human Rights Council’s resolution on Syria, North Korea and Ukraine and voted against resolutions on Iran and Belarus. India’s long-term determination to play a larger role in global affairs and Prime Minister Modi’s aspirations have been shot down because of India’s weak record on human rights, both at home and abroad.
Christian communities in India have faced discrimination, as we have heard, and religious violence over a period of time. For example, on 17 June 2014 in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, over 50 village councils adopted a resolution which banned all non-Hindu religious propaganda, prayers and speeches. In those communities this effectively criminalised the practice of Christianity for approximately 300 Christian families in the region. Many were also injured in the violence following that. Numerous incidents of violence have recently taken place in India over the consumption of beef, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, and many have been killed.
Lack of recognition of Sikhism as a distinct religion has gone on for too long. Article 25 of India’s constitution deems them to be Hindus for the purposes of religion and personal law. Sikhs’ efforts to amend that incredible, offensive and divisive article have been thwarted for decades. This has resulted in the prevention of members of the Sikh communities from accessing employment, social services and education, preferences available to other religious communities.
Sikh community members are reportedly harassed and pressured to reject religious practices and beliefs distinct to Sikhism. In October 2015, security forces in Punjab killed two Sikhs and injured scores more who were protesting peacefully against the desecration of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, which is the holy Sikh scripture. No action has been taken against those who committed this sacrilege or the security personnel who killed those innocent Sikhs.
The Indian Government has recently refused visas to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; this denial of impartial international access proves that there is still a veil that the Government of India and Mr Modi do not want the world to lift. I think it is clear that India has been and remains in breach of its duty towards minority religions. Prime Minister Modi and his allies in hard-line Hindu groups, such as Vishva Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, present a challenge to the international community. Do we confront this overt threat to tens of millions Christians, Muslims and Sikhs in India, or do we appease these extremist forces in the name of trade and profit? I urge the UK Government to make wiser choices and tailor its India policy towards the protection of internationally accepted religious freedoms. Backing India’s claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, for example, is folly under present circumstances. Surely we should demand compliance with international law as a bare minimum price for such a prize.
Lord Popat (Con):
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for initiating this debate. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, outlined, India is a secular nation. India has a long and rich history of religious tolerance and its secularism is enshrined in its constitution. For millennia, India has been home to vast diversities, cultures and traditions. In the rich tapestry of Indian society, we see 780 languages and seven major religions. India’s commitment to the rule of law, democracy and human rights is as old as the nation itself.
Yet India also has a depressingly long list of incidents in which religious tensions have risen. Today’s debate could realistically have happened at any point in the past few decades and still reached worrying conclusions. While India’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths, it so often leads to moments of weakness. We should not pretend that religious tensions in India have come to the fore only recently, or under the BJP. Some, if not most, of the worst riots, including the Sikh massacre of 1984, which the noble Lord, Lord Singh, mentioned, were committed under the regime of the Congress Party.
“My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence. My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly”.
Those were the words of Prime Minister Modi last year at an event honouring Catholic saints. A lot of what precedes this debate is a suspicion, held by some, that Prime Minister Modi may not be sound, that his past associations hint at a darker character. This suspicion has existed since before he was elected Prime Minister, often by the people who did not see eye to eye with him politically. Yet Modi could not have been clearer about where he stands. It is worth reminding ourselves that, when he was elected in 2014, he received considerable support from religious minority communities across India, including Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir, because of his vision for India: to develop the nation economically, to build a cleaner India, and to help India emerge on the global scene.
In a young nation of 1.3 billion people, tensions will always arise. The best way in the long run for those tensions to be negated is to ensure that every person in India has access to a good education, that there are jobs for all people and that prosperity is available to all. Last year, for the first time since 1999, India overtook China on economic growth, helped by a reorientation of government spending towards needed public infrastructure, which helps all citizens. In the same way, we should condemn any acts of religious intolerance. As a Hindu, I absolutely condemn illegal actions taken in the name of my faith. We should also praise the Indian Government for the work they are doing to build a better India for all.
As an aside, we in Britain have to be very careful about how we, and other foreign nations, approach this topic. It is also not uncommon for us to have our own religiously motivated problems in the western world. We should also not lose sight of how these incidents are so often restricted to very small percentages of the population; nor should we forget India’s strong record of protecting small minority communities, such as the Jews and the Parsis. We must not be intolerant of the tolerance demonstrated by so many.
India is, relatively speaking, still a young nation, which is taking great strides to become an economically and socially developed nation welcome to all. I believe that, rather than see the glass as half-empty and focus only on the negatives, we must acknowledge that there is a tremendous amount of good happening in India, a lot of which is being led by the Indian Government. I believe Britain should be India’s—and Prime Minister Modi’s—partner. In the short term, we should take Modi at his word and support him in the desire to clamp down on religious intolerance, but we should also support him in the wider vision to build a prosperous and developed India.
Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab):
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for initiating this important debate. Countries that do not respect religious freedom invariably do not respect other basic human rights. Last weekend I listened to BBC Radio 4’s “Sunday” programme—I am a regular listener despite being a Humanist—during which a representative from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom was interviewed about being denied the opportunity to visit India to examine reports of religious discrimination and abuse.
In the commission’s recent annual report, it was suggested that incidents of religiously motivated and communal violence in India had increased for three consecutive years. NGOs and religious leaders, including leaders from the Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities, attributed the initial increase to religiously divisive campaigning in advance of the country’s general election.
However, as we have heard, despite election promises, Prime Minister Modi appears to have done little since the election to improve respect for religious freedom. As the noble Lord, Lord Singh, highlighted, religious minority communities have been subject to derogatory comments by politicians linked to the ruling BJP and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions.
The UK Government has placed a considerable importance on Prime Minister Modi’s promise of economic reform within India, but will the Minister say what representations have been made on the reportedly increasing levels of censorship in India? Has the High Commission in New Delhi paid any attention to human rights within India, especially with regard to freedom of speech and what media outlets in India claim are rising levels of state-backed attempts to curb dissent?
It is a regret that the penal codes legislated during British colonial rule still govern important parts of Indian life. One that I have raised in previous debates is Section 377, which criminalises homosexuality. Happily, India’s Supreme Court agreed last month to reconsider its stance on this. Another section, often overlooked and loosely defined, is Section 295A, under which a person can be threatened with a jail sentence for hurting the religious sentiments of another, however personal and bizarrely delicate that portrayed sentiment might be.
As we have heard in this debate, the Indian Constitution does not have any such imposition. This was confirmed in a 2014 judgment by the Supreme Court, which gave priority to the fundamental right of the people to express themselves as enshrined in the constitution. Again, as we have heard, some states still rely on that colonial penal code to impose penalties on religious minorities. Bearing in mind Britain’s responsibility for these laws, can I ask the Minister whether the Government have any plan to support and encourage training on human rights and religious freedom for the police and for the judiciary in India? Do the Government ensure that the issue of religious freedom is integrated into regular dialogue between India and the UK?
Once again, as we have heard, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office seems focused on what it called prosperity interventions in India, but what is being done on human rights since Prime Minister Modi came to power? The prosperity agenda and the lives and fundamental freedoms of people must never be part of a cynical trade-off. You cannot trade human rights with economic trade.
I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, on religious freedom in the Commonwealth. At last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting the Commonwealth reaffirmed its commitment to promoting and protecting all human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to support the empowerment of women and girls. The leaders’ statement recognised the economic potential that can be unlocked by tackling discrimination and exclusion. What steps have the Government taken to raise with the Indian authorities the concerns highlighted in today’s debate about holding to the ideals of the Commonwealth, which, as we have heard, they were instrumental in setting? Despite the importance of the relationship with India, which I strongly respect, we must not shirk from raising human-rights issues if the country fails to adhere to domestic and international law.
The Earl of Courtown (Con):
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for his thought-provoking question and for the debate this evening.
The noble Lord’s commitment to building interfaith understanding reflects a key part of the deep ties between the United Kingdom and India. As other noble Lords remind us, this is the world’s biggest and oldest democracy, reinforcing their co-operation based on common traditions of tolerance and diversity. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, is a representative of a community that embodies the best of both countries, one that has made an impact in business, the professions and government, and which has much to teach the rest of us about our service and social obligations to help others. All noble Lords emphasise the point of wishing that this debate was drawn to the attention of a wider audience in the department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I will ensure that it is made available to the relevant Minister in the department.
The noble Lord’s Question asked about the extent to which freedom of religious expression is being upheld. Article 25 of India’s constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion. Last November, when they discussed the importance of fostering tolerance, Prime Minister Modi reassured my right honourable friend the Prime Minister that he governed for all Indians. At their joint press conference, Mr Modi made a point of saying that he upheld India’s traditions of tolerance and freedom. He repeated this message in his address to Parliament, which some noble Lords were able to attend.
We must, therefore, take note of the passionate views held on this subject, not least those of the 1.5 million British citizens of Indian origin. We all deplore—as have many in India—the desecration of the sacred text of any religion and acts of violence against any human being on grounds of their faith. It is also natural that many will have worried about the effect on their own families of recent events in Haryana, Punjab and at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Many—again both here and in India—are rightly horrified at the crimes inflicted upon innocent women and girls going about their daily lives.
Let us also remember that India provides great examples of tolerance and a celebration of diversity. The Indian Government are acutely aware of the challenges they face, as was noted by my noble friend Lord Popat. We should acknowledge their efforts to address violence against women and girls and their reaffirmation of religious freedoms, while encouraging further steps.
India is not short of robust independent institutions. Many have rightly praised the freedoms and safeguards set out in India’s constitution. The police and judiciary in India are independent and they do investigate abuses. The courts have upheld complaints by NGOs against the Executive. India’s Electoral Commission has successfully upheld the fundamental rights of the world’s largest electorate for nearly seven decades. Recent state election results are a reminder that political pluralism is still very much alive. India’s vibrant media help to maintain accountability and ensure that concerns and abuses are reported in India and beyond. Social media have given millions of Indians a voice. They are increasingly important tools for maintaining freedom of expression and preserving the right to critical debate, which is such a rich part of India’s culture.
The United Kingdom’s relationship with India is deep and wide-ranging. It is right that we seek to strengthen that relationship further. This is why we invited Prime Minister Modi to visit the United Kingdom last autumn. We see India as a key partner in many areas. We face common challenges in combating terrorism and countering violent extremism—India’s people and Government have been the victims of some of the most notorious terrorist acts. Our defence ties are mutually beneficial and growing. There is no denying that trade and investment are important too. The United Kingdom is the largest G20 investor in India, helping to create jobs for the estimated 1 million young Indians entering India’s job market every month. Indian companies invest more in the United Kingdom than in the rest of the European Union put together; the largest private sector employer in this country is an Indian company.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, and other noble Lords drew attention to our own human rights policy. Much has been made of the perceived changes in British foreign policy, of a greater emphasis on trade and investment supposedly at the expense of upholding human rights. It is simply not true, either globally or within our relationships with India. I have referred to this on many occasions in the Chamber at the Dispatch Box. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary noted in the Independent last December:
“Quiet and continued engagement behind the scenes, nurturing a relationship and not being afraid to raise testing issues in private can sometimes achieve surprising results”.
Lecturing people in public does not always work and can sometimes prove counterproductive.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, drew attention to Kashmir, as did other noble Lords. We recognise that there are human rights concerns in Kashmir. Any allegations of human rights abuses should be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. We are also aware that in Indian-administered Kashmir the Public Safety Act and the Armed Forces Act provide for detention and house arrest without trial for up to two years. We are also aware of the concerns regarding allegations of immunity from prosecution for Indian Armed Forces personnel in Indian-administered Kashmir. There is also a mechanism which allows people to request that the Government of India investigate such concerns. We expect all states to ensure that their domestic laws are in line with international standards. Any allegations of human rights abuses must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently.
The noble Lord, Lord Singh, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and my noble friend Lady Berridge drew attention to both attacks on Christians and human rights violations on Muslims. As I have said before, India’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion and belief. The attacks on churches in Delhi in 2015 have been investigated by Indian authorities. After the arson attacks, Prime Minister Modi stressed support for Article 25 of India’s constitution safeguarding freedom of expression.
As for the human rights attacks on Muslims recounted by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, the United Kingdom engages on human rights matters with India, including religious freedom, both bilaterally and through EU-India human rights dialogue. The Indian authorities have investigated the murder of a Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh for allegedly eating beef in October 2015, and I understand that a number of arrests have been made.
The noble Lords, Lord Hussain and Lord Collins, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, also drew attention to NGOs. We are aware of the concerns that some Indian and international NGOs have about the use of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act by the Indian Government and are monitoring the situation closely. Greenpeace India has successfully challenged action taken against them under the FCRA in the Indian courts. This is the best way to address their concerns.
Returning to the issue of Kashmir, a number of noble Lords commented on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. We are aware of those concerns and, as I said before, they were raised in the EU-India human rights dialogue.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and others mentioned the harassment of civil society. The courts have upheld cases brought by NGOs against government, and it is important to remember India’s independent judiciary and free press, as I mentioned before.
The relationship between the United Kingdom and India is a partnership of equals. As I emphasised earlier, I will ensure that I pass on the comments made by noble Lords to my colleagues in the Foreign Office. The ties between our Governments, our Parliaments and our people are rich and wide-ranging. These ties between the oldest and largest democracies are the best way in which to help each other reinforce the common values that bind us together.