Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the human rights situation in India; and in particular, of the impact it is having on (1) academics, (2) non-governmental organisations, (3) Muslims, (4) Christians, and (5) marginalised groups, such as the Dalits.
My Lords, I have enormous admiration for the people of India, especially for the resilience and sheer joy shown by so many of them even when living in dire poverty. I recognise the early birth of its culture 4,500 years ago in the Indus valley, and note the brilliant contribution of Indians in the fields of mathematics and astronomy over many centuries. I appreciate the long tradition of public debate and intellectual pluralism in India, as illustrated by Amartya Sen in his wonderful book, The Argumentative Indian. I marvel at the way in which a country of 1.4 billion people can hold democratic elections in which nearly 70% of the people vote. I also believe that many aspects of British policy and behaviour during the imperial period are deeply shaming. As Gandhi responded when asked what he thought of western civilisation, “It would be nice”.
So it is with real sadness that I have to bring this Question before the Committee this afternoon, sadness that, over the past few years, India has joined the growing list of countries that have combined an increasingly autocratic rule, an appeal to a narrow nationalism and a denial of fundamental human rights.
Fundamental to human rights and the long tradition of Indian public debate and intellectual pluralism is academic freedom. There are now numerous reports showing how this in increasingly under threat, with academics who hold views that the Indian Government do not like being put under pressure to resign, and with permission from the Government now being required to hold an international webinar if it relates to certain sensitive subjects. A recent headline in an Indian newspaper asked, “Is academic freedom any longer viable?” Another cited what can happen even in a privately funded Ivy League-equivalent university such as Ashoka. When Pratap Bhanu Mehta was pressured to resign, he said:
“After a meeting with founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability. My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university.”
I should also mention journalists. Between 2010 and 2020, 150 were arrested, detained and interrogated, 67 in 2020 alone.
NGOs—in India, they are called civil society organisations—are another group being put under great pressure. Even before Covid, they were finding it difficult to obtain visas. Since Covid, they have been harassed by new laws against protesters, and some have had their bank accounts frozen. So serious is this that Amnesty International, for example, has had to stop its work in India.
A no less serious cause for concern is the position of Muslims. There are some 200 million Muslims in India—about 14% of the population. One recent survey revealed that 35% of Muslims in north-east India said that they had experienced discrimination over the past year and were now adopting a survival strategy in the realisation that an anti-Muslim Hindutva policy was now the dominant narrative.
Christianity in India is not a western import. Christians have been there for 2,000 years, and were certainly well established in Kerala by the sixth century. There are 28 million Christians in India—about 2.3% of the population. They, too, are suffering from the present Hindutva policies. Their stigma is increased not only by the fact that they are not Hindu but because they are sometimes regarded—quite wrongly—as a legacy of western imperialism and because many of them are Dalits who converted to Christianity, as others converted to Buddhism, partly to escape the stigma of being treated as untouchable.
So I come to the Dalits and other marginalised groups, such as the tribal peoples. It must be emphasised that the Indian constitution is in many ways admirable, in particular its emphasis on equality for all India’s diverse peoples. Its architect was the polymath, scholar and jurist Dr Ambedkar, who was recently honoured by having a new portrait unveiled at Gray’s Inn, where he studied. He was born into a family of what were then referred to as untouchables in 1891, and wrote:
“Untouchability is far worse than slavery, for the latter may be abolished by statute. It will take more than a law to remove the stigma from the people of India. Nothing less than the aroused opinion of the world can do it.”
His constitution was a step towards achieving that but, despite that constitution, Dalits continue to suffer disproportionately by every indicator. The policies and practices of the present reveal that the stigma is still there and being reinforced.
When it comes to access to clean water and sanitation, Dalits lag far behind; when it comes to access to education and health, again they are disproportionately failed. The conscience of India can rightly be aroused when a student on a bus in Delhi is abducted, raped and murdered—as happened not long ago—but rapes of young Dalit girls in isolated villages happen frequently and get very little publicity. A high proportion of Dalits are bonded or day labourers—groups who are particularly vulnerable to violence. It is particularly distressing when Dalits try to get justice for some outrage and, again and again, fail to achieve it. A Dalit Christian village might be burned, as has happened, and the perpetrators known, but justice is delayed and delayed.
At the moment, more than 24 Dalit rights activists are in jail on unproven charges, including 80 year-old poet Varavara Rao and, until he died on 5 July, 83 year- old Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy. Father Swamy spent nine months in jail under the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, was denied bail and medical care and was transferred to a hospital only when his condition became critical. At the time of his arrest, Stan Swamy was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease, significant loss of hearing in both ears and other serious underlying health issues. His death in custody and the continued incarceration of other defenders is a tragic indictment of India’s human rights record and the global community’s human rights commitments. India sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council and the United Nations Security Council, which carry specific human rights commitments.
As I said at the beginning, it is a real sadness to note what is happening in India today. I believe that all true friends of India should protest about this and make it clear to the Mr Modi that this is a denial of what is best in Indian culture and is totally unacceptable. I know the Minister very much shares this concern about human rights, and I look forward to hearing from him about the action that Her Majesty’s Government are taking. I beg to move.
I call the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. I regret we cannot hear you, Lord Parekh. If you are on mute, could you unmute yourself? I call the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, again. We can hear you now.
I am happy to participate in the debate initiated by my good friend, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, on the human rights situation in India, especially as it relates to academics, Muslims, Christians and Dalits. I will take these four groups in the order in which I mentioned them.
I need hardly remind the Committee that human rights have long been an integral part of the Indian constitution and inform every Indian citizen’s political inheritance. The Supreme Court of India has acted as the custodian of those rights and been vigorous in enforcing them. Religious minorities enjoy far better rights in India than elsewhere. They enjoy religious freedom and the right to set up educational and constitutional institutions, and are governed by their own personal laws.
However, this is the formal side of it only; at a more substantive level, Hinduism, Islam and other religions have interacted and created a composite culture, to which they all have contributed and in which they all participate. For example, the law of karma, which is supposed to be a Hindu doctrine, is shared by 77% of Muslims. As a result, it has become ridiculous to talk about Muslims or Christians “in India”; they are Muslims or Christians of India because India has shaped them.
Obviously, in a country with a population of 1.3 billion, incidents are bound to occur when minorities—and even majorities—feel oppressed or treated unjustly. The task is not to exaggerate those incidents but to ask whether the system has the robustness to deal with such situations. The Indian institutions—the Supreme Court and others—have robust capacity to deal with these situations.
I come to Dalits, who for centuries have been subjected to high caste oppression. Independent India devised a host of policies for their uplift, including positive discrimination in government jobs and university admissions. Dalits have occupied positions of power and influence, and have fought for their rights with determination. Obviously, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, pointed out, India still has a long way to go in this direction and could do with a greater sense of urgency, but public opinion will not be silenced. It is beginning to mount and put pressure on the Government. It is also worth bearing in mind that even after 200 years the Americans are still struggling with the legacy of racism, as witnessed by the Black Lives Matter movement.
I turn to academics. There have been cases of government agencies leaning on university authorities to harass or get rid of inconvenient academics. My good friend Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who had to step down as vice-chancellor of Ashoka University, is a good example of this. Some professors have suffered in this way. But although I regret all this, it is worth bearing in mind that these cases have been very few in number. Many academics have freely criticised the Administration of Mr Modi, but none has come to grief. My own family foundation has given 3 million rupees to Jawaharlal Nehru University and we have not come to any grief, nor have we done so for giving 1 crore rupees to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. We must also remember how much Edward Said had to suffer—or how much my good friend Henry Louis Gates has to suffer now—at the hands of Harvard University for supporting the Palestinian cause.
All I say to my good friend, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, by way of ending is that we are not on opposite wavelengths. How can we be? We are on the same wavelength. We all feel grieved and pained when things happen in India that should not happen, but it is a society with a great civilisational depth, a great heritage in the shape of Gandhi, Nehru and others, and shaped by certain values. That kind of society cannot be swept off its feet so easily or be dominated by a single, simplistic ideology. That kind of situation was shown recently when the Prime Minister, who is immensely popular, could not carry the state of West Bengal in the recent elections. He was defeated by Mamata Banerjee.
India welcomes critical advice—if not, it should welcome critical advice—provided that advice is accompanied by humility, is not condescending or patronising, and is based on a sympathetic understanding of India’s problems and predicament. It is very important that India should remain true to its democratic and pluralistic legacy, which can happen only if the watchful eye of Indians abroad and their good friends remains critically focused.
I too thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for introducing the debate. India’s current human rights record paints a very dark picture in many areas. According to a June 2021 report by a Christian advocacy group called Open Doors, daily life for many Christian and Muslim communities in India has become an unbearable struggle to earn a living and practise their faith while remaining alive and under the radar of the far-right Hindutva organisations that now dominate the Indian public and political sphere.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which provides citizenship to religious minorities, excludes Muslims, the largest religious minority in India. Furthermore, millions of people, most of them Muslims, are being put at risk of becoming stateless by the enforcement of the most controversial National Register of Citizens. This could potentially create another Rohingya-like situation.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described the CAA as “fundamentally discriminatory in nature”. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said that it was “deeply troubled” by the Act. Violence against the Dalit community never ends. An Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report of April 2021 said that the Dalits are
“born into a life of discrimination and stigma”,
highlighting the plight of the Dalit community in India.
Kashmir continues to remain an open prison, under the siege of an army with extraordinary powers granted to it by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Regular cordon and search operations of the Indian army, detaining and torturing young people, blowing up residential properties, injuring and killing civilians and assaulting men, women and children, have become the norm in Kashmir. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights have reported extensively on the human rights abuses in Kashmir.
On 5 August 2019, the BJP Government unilaterally revoked Articles 370 and 35A, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian constitution. This was done by totally locking down the state, cutting off all external communication systems—including telephones and the internet—and imposing a curfew. During the course of this, thousands of political workers and leaders, including Shabir Shah, Yasin Malik, Asiya Andrabi and others, have been detained on trumped-up charges.
Shabir Shah has spent most of the last 33 years in detention. In 1992, he was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Mr Yasin Malik, who visited the UK, the United States and many other countries after his release in 2006, after many years of detention, has been arrested again since 2019 and is kept in the high-security Tihar Jail in New Delhi. Both leaders have millions of followers at home and abroad, and they believe in the democratic right of their people to decide about the future of their state, according to UN resolutions. Both suffer from serious health conditions and have cardiac issues, which make them more vulnerable to Covid-19.
Asiya Andrabi is a middle-aged lady suffering from hypertension and asthma. She has been held in Tihar Jail in New Delhi since 2018, charged under various sections of the Indian penal code. Evidently, the Indian Government are violating the UN charter, the Geneva convention and the values and principles of the Commonwealth.
I ask the Minister why, despite all that, India is not even mentioned in the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s latest annual report on human rights. Will he ask the Indian Government to, first, withdraw the most controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens to prevent another human catastrophe? Secondly, will he ask them to release all Kashmiri political prisoners, including the popular leaders I mentioned? Thirdly, will he ask them to demilitarise Kashmiri cities, towns and villages? Finally, will he kindly share the response of the Indian Government with the Members of this House by putting a copy in the Library?
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for this debate. It is always a great pleasure to listen to my dear friend the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and the wise way that he lays out India and its citizens.
Over the last seven or eight years, the current Indian Government have visibly gone to great lengths to remove deep-bedded cultural beliefs and traditions that prevent all people from progressing. Ensuring access to education, particularly for girls, has been at the centre of this Government’s mission through their first and second terms. The fact that they have pushed hard to enable women from the Muslim faith to get protections in the triple talaq legislation is a testament to ensuring that, regardless of their faith, women have access to their rights. This is a Government who, in the past eight years, have pushed hard for pensions and for the poorest in India’s communities to have access to bank accounts so that they can have pensions directly put into their accounts.
Of course, India is a huge country of 1.3 billion to 1.4 billion people. The birth rate is at a pace that is not keeping up with the needs of the people of India and it is right and proper that while we question the injustices and discrimination that people face, we need to do it in the context of the economy, social progress and economic progress, and of making sure that the barriers that prevent people being able to access and fulfil their potential are removed. We sit on the outside lobbing charges into India without contextualising all the progress that has taken place over the past eight or nine years.
I am one of those people who are incredibly critical of discriminatory policies of any kind, whether in India or here. I am a proud person who was born in India but has spent her whole life in the UK fighting discriminatory policies and barriers. We need to be incredibly mindful that, when we start pointing fingers, we first and foremost look at our own institutional discriminatory barriers.
When the Minister responds, will he remind us all that we have long-embedded relationships with India and other countries in the region and that all countries in the region are facing challenges? I am not going to start another debate today, but I ask the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, to look at minority communities in other countries in the region and see how they are faring and what is happening to them, so that we can have a wider debate on barriers to all communities and see how we as British parliamentarians and good friends of all those in the region can help cement cohesive internal growth.
I have often listened to some of the commentary that comes from your Lordships’ House and I ask one thing—that when comments are made, they are made on the basis of proper evidenced reporting because we do not want to add to the inflammatory discussions that take place across the waters where we have no say.
Citizenship legislation has been alluded to. If a country is to know the needs of its citizens, it needs to know who they are, where they are and what the population looks like to be able to service them properly. I have run out of time. This is a much bigger debate. I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for raising it.
My Lords, any friend of India must be sad about the direction of the BJP Government in the past few years. There is plenty to be sad about, as my noble and right reverend friend said, especially the continuing discrimination against so many minorities, including the Dalits, and the attacks on the media. Journalists covering protests now get arrested alongside the protestors, just as if they were in Belarus, even during the pandemic. I am sorry about the feebleness of the opposition—Congress and the smaller parties—which ought to be able to stand up to the Prime Minister, but I am sad above all about the treatment of Muslims.
During the year my wife and I lived in India, mainly in Mumbai and Delhi, we made many Muslim friends. I regret having to state the obvious—that they are people of great honesty and integrity. I have to say it because there is an almost universal, mainly unspoken, prejudice against Muslims among many Hindus in India and here in the UK, and in France, hidden under the thin veil of anti-terrorism. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 led to violent communal riots in Delhi, costing many lives. It specifically excluded Muslim refugees from Indian citizenship and was condemned by the UN and human rights groups, as well as Indian Muslim leaders, as discriminatory.
In such a climate of fear, it should be up to that Government to face up to their own constitution, reassure Muslims and counter prejudice. But that would not fit in with the history of Prime Minister Modi, a member of the RSS who left a trail of persecution when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat back in 2002. He was widely accused of condoning the violence in Ahmedabad which left over 1,000 dead, on a conservative estimate, although he was personally acquitted by India’s Supreme Court.
We know that the Minister has dropped polite hints to South Block—Whitehall’s opposite number in New Delhi—about the virtues of human rights and democracy, and rightly so. We have a long, shared history, and we should be able to speak out much more bravely and frequently than we do. The high commission has done well in putting on programmes such as the interfaith leadership programme and cultural events promoting minority rights, and that is absolutely right.
A free trade agreement is in the offing and our expensive visa regime still presents Indian students and businessmen with an enormous obstacle. But we need more action, specifically to condemn the injustice and discrimination against Muslims, now being encouraged at a very high level.
The Indian Government should also amend their invidious Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, the FCRA, which regulates foreign donations in India. As my noble friend said, it restricts all international NGOs and has a damaging effect on local civil society. Amnesty has had to suspend its operations; even the Commonwealth human rights initiative, based in Delhi, had its FCRA certificate suspended and its bank account frozen. The Minister will be well aware of this; I expect he has mentioned it during his human rights dialogue. I would be grateful to hear whether that still continues.
Finally, I expect that the Minister has already perused the study by the Ethical Trading Initiative of India’s business and human rights framework. It is just the kind of quality academic work which can bring together all stakeholders, UK and Indian, including those benefiting from the new FTA. With that, I wish the Minister a restful summer holiday.
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing this timely debate. I share his admiration for India but also his sadness. The criticisms that I offer in this short contribution, I offer as a friend of India. But it is true to say that in India civil society organisations, international institutions, multilateral organisations, human rights groups and others have publicly voiced their concerns that the situation has not improved on human rights. The Indian Government have ignored calls from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for states to release persons detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and those detained for critical, dissenting views, to prevent the growing rates of infection everywhere, especially in closed facilities such as prisons and detention centres.
The BJP-led Government have increasingly harassed, intimidated and arrested human rights defenders—as has already been outlined—journalists, peaceful protesters and other critics, including under draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws. Civil society organisations that have questioned or criticised the Government’s policies have faced similar challenges under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. This Act was envisaged in 2010 as a means to regulate foreign donations in India, but has now become an effective tool to silence Indian civil society.
As has been mentioned, in September 2020 Amnesty International India was also forced to halt its work in the country. Last week, it was announced that the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, based in Delhi, had its FCRA certificate suspended and its bank account frozen, effectively suspending the payment of all staff salaries and thereby the organisation’s ability to carry out its important work. The Indian authorities have also, sadly, enacted discriminatory laws and policies, referred to earlier, against Muslims, Dalits and other minorities. The appalling treatment of the Dalits has already been documented by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries.
Yet despite the deterioration of the country’s human rights record under Prime Minister Modi, the Indian Government have so far shielded themselves from international criticism. It has been able to shield itself from widespread international condemnation is because some countries are desperate to strengthen trade and economic ties with India. Therefore, I seek the Minister’s specific reassurance that the United Kingdom Government, when negotiating a free trade agreement or strengthening economic ties with India, will ensure that there is a specific human rights clause within any such agreement, as is the case in EU free trade agreements. Such human rights clauses enable the parties to effectively raise human rights concerns and respect the international standards on human rights, and ensure that we never negotiate away the rights of those most in need and most at risk. Human rights clauses in any of our trade agreements say as much about our own country as they do those we partner with.
I remain deeply concerned about deteriorating human rights not only in India but around the world, and the accompanying demonisation and misrepresentation of minorities. As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, said, we are witnessing such misrepresentations here in the United Kingdom where, sadly, some government Ministers and elements in our media pit one minority against another, misrepresent NGOs and deride those who take a stand against discrimination. This stoking of cultural wars must end. It harms individuals, puts lives at risk, diminishes all concerned and lays us open to charges of double standards when we raise human rights abuses in other parts of the world. There must be no double standards on human rights, in particular the rights of all minorities, wherever they may be.
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing this important debate. Partition of the subcontinent on the fallacy of irreconcilable religious difference gave a green light to religious bigots in India and Pakistan. In 1984, Indira Gandhi’s mass appeal to bigotry led to the killing of hundreds of thousands of Sikhs, in what former PM David Cameron described as the greatest blot on post-partition history.
In 2001, Narendra Modi, a member of the RSS, a paramilitary Hindu fascist group, was elected Chief Minister of Gujarat. He was considered to be implicated in the killing of thousands of Muslims throughout the state and for some years barred from entry to the UK and the USA. Years earlier, the paramilitary RSS, modelled on the Hitler Youth, had demolished the centuries-old Muslim Babri Masjid. A compliant Supreme Court has now given permission for a Hindu temple to be built on the site.
Narendra Modi went on to become Prime Minister in 2014 and was re-elected in 2019. Backed by the growing power of the paramilitary RSS, he has never made any secret of his desire to turn India into a Hindu state—a view echoed by other Hindu leaders. The Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, openly refers to Muslims as “termites”. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 denies citizenship to thousands of Muslims. Christian worship is under constant threat in a supposedly secular state. Dalits, the lowest of the low in the Hindu caste system, are treated with brutality and contempt, and their women frequently raped.
Attempts are made by threat and flattery to absorb Sikhs into the Hindu fold, despite clear Sikh teachings repudiating the caste system, idol worship and discrimination against women. Some years back, I wrote to the Foreign Office about a young Sikh from Glasgow who was arrested and tortured by the Indian police for supposedly questioning the government line. He is still incarcerated.
Religious minorities are not the only targets of India’s arrogant new rulers. For more than a year, farmers from across India have been camped on the outskirts of New Delhi in the largest and longest mass demonstration ever seen, to protest against the Government’s unconstitutional rigging of the market to enrich their supporters. Water and power are routinely cut off, and demonstrating farmers savagely beaten by the RSS, under the watchful eyes of the police. Effigies of human rights activists, such as singer Rihanna, have been burnt by mobs for interfering. Amnesty International has been barred from India.
Judges who dare to call out this criminal behaviour are routinely moved. University lecturers and students who protest against India’s growing intolerance are subjected to police brutality. Such brave people are India’s best hope for the future. They deserve our support. They deserve more than the usual Foreign Office response—either “India is the world’s largest democracy”, or “We take these matters extremely seriously, and are in touch with our counterparts in India”.
My Lords, I thank my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries of Pentregarth for initiating this important debate. As he said, India is a truly great country; it is one for which I too have great affection and admiration.
One of the greatest Indians was Dr BR Ambedkar, the Dalit who became a lawyer—an alumnus of Gray’s Inn—a parliamentarian and a social reformer, and who crafted India’s constitution. Last month I was honoured to take part in the unveiling of a new portrait and the opening of a room at Gray’s Inn, dedicated to the only Indian ever to be awarded such an honour. Dr Ambedkar’s great-grandson, Sujat Ambedkar, was present. Santosh Dass, Ali Malek QC, the Master Treasurer of Gray’s Inn, and the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK, all deserve our congratulations for bringing this project to fruition.
For all Indian citizens, the story of Dr Ambedkar and his constitution is an inspiring route out of enforced misery, a pathway out of servitude, and a road map to emancipation, justice and equality. It signposts the way to social, economic and political justice, to liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship, to equality of status and of opportunity, and above all, to the fraternity and dignity of India’s citizens.
However, as Dr Ambedkar once said,
“If I find the constitution being misused, I shall be the first to burn it”.
He would surely be greatly disturbed that millions of Dalit and tribal people still remain excluded from their rights, as guaranteed in that constitution, and that the BJP Government have presided over the steady erosion of those hard-won gains. Take the incarceration of human rights defenders, academics and lawyers, referred to earlier, who are in jail, without bail or prospect of an early trial. Dr Anand Teltumbde, Dr Ambedkar’s grandson-in-law, is one of those incarcerated without bail. He is 71.
Those jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case have consistently and robustly denied the charges against them. Yet some have been in jail for years, without bail, under dubious sedition laws—bequeathed, regrettably, by the British—on trumped-up charges and flawed evidence. Many are elderly and have medical health conditions. Along with Dr Teltumbde, there are the 80 year-old human rights activist and poet Varavara Rao and the 60 year-old trade unionist, activist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj. All of them are languishing in jail; all are in extreme danger of catching the Covid virus there, and all have been denied bail.
Think of Father Stan Swamy, who has been referred to before, and about whom I was in regular touch, and correspondence, with the Minister, who tried incredibly hard to be helpful in this case. Father Swamy spent his life defending the rights of tribal people in India. He was a frail 84 year-old man with Parkinson’s yet despite applications on health grounds, the authorities denied him bail. His death was unjust and it needs to be investigated impartially.
Following Father Swamy’s death in custody, Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, said:
“There is no excuse, ever, for a human rights defender to be smeared as a terrorist, and no reason they should ever die the way Father Swamy died, accused and detained, and denied his rights.”
I echo those remarks.
The rape and punishment of Dalit and tribal women and girls also must be of the gravest concern to us. I welcome the reply that the Minister gave me on 19 July about the British high commission’s project to provide legal training for Dalit women to combat violence against them. I really hope that this will make a tangible difference that can be measured in due course.
Finally, like other countries, India has suffered grievously under Covid. We have all seen the heartbreaking reports. The long-term health and economic effects on Dalits and tribal peoples, who would frequently be the daily labourers or bonded labourers, should surely be examined and researched. The human rights that Dr Ambedkar championed all his life must be protected.
I will end with this. In his book, Annihilation of Caste, Dr Ambedkar said:
“A just society is that society in which ascending sense of reverence and descending sense of contempt is dissolved into the creation of a compassionate society.”
My Lords, I too thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for securing this debate and for his sensitive though probing introduction.
India is a close ally, an important member of the Commonwealth and a rising economic and political power. Its path to development and prosperity, as cited by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, is indeed remarkable. Nevertheless, there are concerns about actions that the current Government have taken. Just as human rights are judged to be universal and the UN adopts the responsibility to protect, we cannot close our eyes—wherever in the world human rights are under threat.
The amendment to the Citizenship Act in India provides fast-track citizenship for certain religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan yet, as others have noted, the change does not extend to Muslims. The Minister, whom I believe is now listening and will respond at the end of the debate, said in February 2020 that he had raised this with the Indian high commission and that the Government would continue to monitor the situation. Can he update us on that? Can he also update us on the situation for Amnesty International, which, as others have mentioned, had its funds frozen, severely impacting its ability to work in India?
In August 2019, the Indian Government revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, removing constitutional autonomy from Jammu and Kashmir. This was followed by considerable unrest, as my noble friend Lord Hussain mentioned. Indian troops were deployed and there were worrying reports of human rights abuses. Transparency was hampered because phone and internet services were shut down. Politicians and others were arrested.
This followed the 2018 reports from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which were updated in 2019. They recommended that human rights abuses should be investigated. What action are the Government urging? Can the Minister assure us that seeking a potential trade deal with India now that we have left the EU is not standing in the way of our flagging potential human rights abuses? Surely the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, is right to insist that we must have human rights clauses in any trade deals.
I commend the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, on his long commitment to the Dalits. It is partly what led to the International Development (Gender Equality) Act. India has passed legislation to improve Dalit status, but I certainly saw that there was a very long way to go when I visited DfID projects supporting Dalits, particularly women. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that Dr Ambedkar was remarkable in achieving what he did, given all that was against him. That is surely right. We now hear that Dalits have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Is the FCDO adhering to the gender equality Act I just referred to in its ODA funding?
We hear, too, of an increase in hate crimes against Christians as far-right Hindu groups persecute them. I too was very sorry to hear of the death in custody of 83 year-old Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy. Indeed, his death should be investigated. As we hear, the pressure on academics, NGOs and others is clear.
We know, too, of huge concern when agricultural laws were passed. Some 400 protestors were reported to have died and a number of journalists were arrested, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, noted. Those laws were subsequently suspended following a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court. As the noble Lord, Lord Singh, said, discontent must not be stoked against the judiciary, as has happened in the UK. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, that I agree that we need to hold the UK Government to account as well.
Freedom House has this year downgraded India’s status as a democracy and free society to “partly free”, noting that the Indian Government
“appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader”.
Given the importance of India globally, that must give us all cause for concern. We need India’s leaders to be playing a full part globally in pursuit of human rights, countering climate change and supporting the rules-based international order. I hope that the United Kingdom is assisting in that aim, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I too thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for initiating this debate and for his welcome opening remarks. He is right to point out the rich and varied traditions of India. As noble Lords have pointed out, India is the world’s largest democracy and will soon become the world’s third-largest economy. I am sure the whole Committee recognises the value of the long-standing relationship we have with it, but our relationship must be deeper and reflect our values of democracy, human rights and the primacy of international law. We need to work with India on issues such as security and climate change but also to recognise that, as part of any trusting and respectful relationship, we have the confidence to raise issues around human rights and religious freedoms.
Any functioning democracy must include a free civil society, and that is why India’s recent clampdown on NGOs is so concerning. When Governments fail in their most important task of providing safety, security and freedom for their people, it is always civil society which leaps first to their defence. Last year, Amnesty International ended its operations due to reprisals following the freezing of its bank accounts. Amnesty had previously warned that other human rights advocates in India had been subjected to counterterror raids. My noble friend Lord Cashman was absolutely right to raise this and its context. I hope the Minister will tell us exactly what steps the Government are taking to protect civic space in India.
It is equally important that the UK uses our relationship with India to support the principle of free religion. Free religion is not about just the right to practise a religion; it is also about the right not to practise a religion. Human Rights Watch has presented repeated evidence of mob attacks on religious minority groups, and police in Delhi have been accused of ignoring attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods. The noble Baronesses, Lady Northover and Lady Verma, mentioned the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what assessment the Government have made of the application of the Act, given that it has now been in place for 18 months.
It is also right that we should call on the Indian Government to stamp out caste discrimination, to which noble Lords throughout the debate have referred. It includes violent attacks against the Dalit population and, in particular, Dalit women. The UK has a very strong priority policy on violence against women, and I hope the Minister will particularly address this issue. According to the BBC, 54% of Dalit women have been physically assaulted, 46% have been sexually harassed and 43% have faced domestic violence. In the light of the Government’s strategy, I hope the Minister can give us some more detail about what we are doing to ensure that violence against Dalit women, in particular, ends.
My Lords, I begin my apologising to your Lordships for my delays and technical faults. The joys of virtual participation meant that, for some reason, I had been linked into a rather interesting debate in the Chamber, as opposed to the Committee. Nevertheless, I am delighted to join noble Lords and I heard a major part of the debate. I start, as have others, by acknowledging and recognising the role of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion and belief, inter-faith relations and human rights. In his opening remarks, he again reflected on the importance of these principles in the wider context of human rights.
I also welcome, as ever, a robust, open and challenging debate, which I am accustomed to on the broader issue of human rights. Today, we have heard various insights presented and questions rightly asked about our relationship with a standing partner and friend, the Republic of India. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and my noble friend Lady Verma, among others, on the importance of our strong relationship with India—bilaterally, as a Commonwealth partner and in the multilateral sphere. As the Minister responsible for our relations with India, as well as human rights, I assure noble Lords that our relationship is strong, which allows for a candid and measured exchange on important issues. That relationship with India goes both ways: for India in asking the United Kingdom, which my noble friend Lady Verma alluded to, and equally for us to raise important issues of human rights, as we continue to do.
As was pointed out by a number of noble Lords, Indian citizens are rightly proud of their history of inclusive government. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about the history of inclusive government. Let us not forget the secular constitution, which protects the rights of all communities, including minority communities, within India. It guarantees equality before the law, which we are proud of in our own democracy in the UK.
Our shared values and vibrant democracy sit at the heart of the transformational relationship between the United Kingdom and India and the comprehensive strategic partnership we work towards, launched at the virtual summit between Prime Minister Johnson and Prime Minister Modi in May. In June, at the G7 summit and in the 2021 Open Societies Statement, both Prime Ministers again highlighted our countries’ shared belief in the importance of human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law. They recognised the role of human rights defenders in promoting fundamental freedoms and our rejection of discrimination. We all recognise—and, again, my noble friend Lady Verma alluded to this—that human rights is never a job done. We have to be constantly vigilant, both at home and abroad, about this important agenda. I assure noble Lords that this remains a central priority of my work within the FCDO.
Along with G7 partners, we committed to co-operation to strengthen open societies globally, including by tackling all forms of discrimination. Media freedom was a key component of the statement and communiqué issued by the G7. As the integrated review made clear, open societies and human rights remain a priority for the UK. This month, as was acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, among others, we published the Human Rights & Democracy report.
It has been a challenging year. As several noble Lords mentioned, Covid-19 remains a challenge in its erosion of human rights and democracy and has amplified existing hardships and inequalities. In response, I assure noble Lords that the UK stepped up its efforts as a force for good in the world, championing those core values we hold so dear. We very much stepped up in our close collaboration with India, when it came to Covid-19, in supporting the supply of oxygen mini-factories to places such as those in Rajasthan to ensure that, in its time of need, we stood with India, as India stood with us during the early Covid-19 challenges.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, specifically asked about the human rights report. Just because a country is not mentioned within that report—and specific criteria go behind the inclusion of a particular country—it does not mean that we do not raise human rights issues with countries across the world.
I turn to human rights in India specifically. The UK Government engage on a range of human rights matters. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned Kashmir; I assure him that we continue to raise issues, including the detention of leaders in Kashmir. We were heartened by the fact that Prime Minister Modi invited some leaders from the state to join him in Delhi. We believe it is very much a first step towards progress in Kashmir. Whether it was the internet being suspended or the release of those held in political detention, we continue to monitor and work with the Government of India in ensuring early resolutions. Through our high commission and network of deputy high commissions, we work with the union Government and, importantly, state Governments and NGOs to build capacity and share expertise.
I have visited India twice since my appointment as the Minister for India, and I assure noble Lords that human rights have formed a regular part of my direct engagement with Indian counterparts in Delhi. We look towards the Indian Government to continue to uphold the freedoms and rights guaranteed by India’s constitution and the international instruments to which it is a signatory.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned human rights defenders and Father Swamy. I assure noble Lords that his passing is a point of deep regret for us all; I mentioned it in a statement I put out at that time. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we raised this matter directly with the Indian authorities.
It is thanks to our deepening relationship that we have been able to engage on such sensitive matters with Indian counterparts on a regular basis and as sovereign equals. The Government of India also raise direct concerns with us. To give noble Lords some insight, in December the Foreign Secretary discussed a number of human rights issues, including those relating to Kashmir, with Indian Minister of External Affairs Dr Jaishankar, on 5 January our acting high commissioner in New Delhi spoke with officials from India’s Ministry of External Affairs about minority communities in India and on 15 March, while I was visiting India, I discussed the situation for different religious communities, including Christians and Muslims, as well as the situation in Kashmir, with India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kishan Reddy. These were both productive and constructive engagements.
In October and December last year I raised concerns with the high commission about NGOs. The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, rightly raised Amnesty International and the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. I have requested that all Amnesty International accounts be unfrozen while the investigation is ongoing and have stressed the important role that organisations such as Amnesty International play in any democracy. I meet quite regularly with representatives of Amnesty International here at the FCDO.
In my capacity as Minister for South Asia and Minister for Human Rights, I regularly have frank discussions on the topic with the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and the Indian high commission in London. Most recently, this month we also had discussions about this during my visit to New York with the Indian Permanent Representative to the UN in New York.
As noble Lords will be aware, in our human rights work key priorities for the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and me are freedom of religion or belief and promoting respect between different religious communities. The British high commission regularly meets representatives of all faiths to understand their perspectives. The excellent team on the ground undertakes a variety of projects to promote interfaith dialogue. For example, in 2020 we hosted a virtual round table with leaders from faith communities.
This year, the British high commission hosted a multifaith virtual iftar during Ramadan. I was very pleased to speak at that event, which included leaders from across India’s Muslim community and the wider religious tapestry that makes up modern India today. We continue to support interfaith leadership programmes for a cohort of emerging Indian faith leaders, creating a dialogue—I know the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, will appreciate this—to tackle shared challenges and promote not just tolerance but respect.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lords, Lord Singh and Lord Alton, raised the situation with the Dalit community. Our recent project work with the Dalits has included the provision of legal training for over 2,000 Dalit women to combat domestic violence and the creation of the first ever network of Dalit women human rights defenders trained as paralegals. We will continue our support in this respect. The British high commission also held an event on empowering Muslim youth, which saw over 100 educational institutions participating in six three-day workshops.
I turn to academic and journalists’ freedom, raised by my noble friend Lady Verma, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that academia and a free media are two further elements of a successful democratic society. Here again, India and the United Kingdom share fundamental values. We regularly engage with the Indian media, which promotes lively debate—[Inaudible]—directly during my visit by members of the Indian media fraternity.
The annual South Asia Journalism Fellowship programme, under our flagship Chevening brand, is central to our activity in this regard and has been since 2012. We also engage with India’s academic community, as expanding academic co-operation is among the principal aims of the 2030 road map, which was agreed between the two Prime Ministers. I regularly speak at universities; indeed, on one of my earlier visits to India, I spoke at a Muslim university.
To conclude this debate, I assure noble Lords that we will continue to engage with India across a series of areas, including on issues of trade. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and others have said about the issue of human rights within the context of our future trade agreements. I assure them that human rights remain central to our thinking, as we negotiate trade agreements around the world.
We will also continue to work with the Government of India to ensure that the rights of all minorities, as according to their constitution, continue to be upheld in the rich tradition of religious inclusivity, which I know full well from my family’s experiences remains alive and well. Indeed, during my last visit to India, I convened a round table of religious leaders in Punjab.
I give noble Lords the further assurance that was sought: we will continue to monitor human rights directly though our high commission in New Delhi. We have a strong relationship with India and a relationship of being partners and friends with it. When we have concerns, I assure noble Lords that we will continue to raise them. On occasion, as I have said before, we do so privately because we believe that that is the right thing to do. Where there are more general issues of concern we will continue to raise them, not just in the context of our relationship with India but further afield.
When it comes to human rights, our principle is clear. It is central to our thinking and we remain steadfast in our opposition to any form of discrimination, for it is our common values, shared by India, and our common belief in international rules and norms that will continue to govern our growing and strengthening partnership with India.
My Lords, the Grand Committee stands adjourned to enable the technicians to make arrangements for the next debate. I remind Members to wipe their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.