India — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:57 am on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench 11:57 am, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I thank every noble Lord who will be speaking in this debate, as the topic is a daunting challenge, given the vastness and complexity of the great nation of India. I am therefore grateful that noble Lords with longer and wider experience of India will make their distinctive contributions to remedy the limitations and omissions of my own.

I must naturally begin by expressing the profound sorrow that we all felt at the recent terrorist attack in Mumbai and by extending our deep sympathy to all who are still suffering in the aftermath of those terrible days. I will then raise three issues of concern in a spirit of respect for India as a long-established friend of this country and as the world's largest democracy. It is characteristic of friendship that one can share concerns openly and constructively and it is in that spirit that I will raise the outbreaks of violence against religious minorities, including the Muslims in Gujarat and the Christians recently in Orissa and Karnataka; the restrictions on religious freedom posed by the imposition of anti-conversion laws in seven states; and, finally, the plight of dalits.

With regard to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, there has been a wide range of responses to those horrific events, which have been usefully summarised in the excellent briefing paper prepared by the House of Lords Library. One result of such wide-ranging public discussion and speculation has been summarised by Dr Paul Cornish of Chatham House, who argues that the saturation coverage has played into the hands of the terrorists, providing them with a gratuitous plethora of justification and rationales.

"The terrorists might have assumed, quite correctly as it happens, that the world's media and the terrorism analysis industry would very quickly fill in any gaps for them".

I am therefore not going to play into their hands with further speculation about their ideological justifications and rationales. However, will the Minister say what continuing support Her Majesty's Government are giving to India in the aftermath of this massive tragedy?

The recurring problem of violence, perpetrated by Hindu fundamentalists against religious minorities, is a product of the ideology called Hindutva, which conceives of India as one nation, one culture, one religion. It is an ideology that denigrates religious minorities and rejects the right to change one's religion, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and groups that espouse this ideology, including the VHP, are widely implicated in anti-minority violence. Such extremist political movements are rejected by Hindus committed to the idea of a secular India, but they pose very serious challenges.

In 2002, about 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were massacred in Gujarat. Christians have been repeatedly targeted in recent years. The attacks are especially widespread in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh states, and although a recent outbreak of violence in Karnataka was relatively rapidly contained by the authorities, impunity for these sorts of attacks is cause for concern. In Orissa state, an outbreak of violence against Christians over Christmas in 2007 prefigured an onslaught on a much larger scale this autumn.

On 23 August this year, following the assassination of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, widespread violence against Christians erupted. The atrocities were committed despite the claim by Maoists that they had carried out the killing. After the assassination, despite pleas for caution by church and secular leaders, including representatives of political parties, the VHP arranged for his body to be taken on a 200-kilometre circuit. Violence followed in the wake of this funeral procession, fanned by media disinformation and the chanting of Hindu nationalist and anti-Christian slogans, targeting Christians and church buildings. It is widely believed that the violence erupted so quickly because it was pre-planned.

We are now approaching the first anniversary of the previous outbreak of violence and radical groups are aggressively pushing for a state-wide shutdown on 25 December, which would make life very difficult for beleaguered Christians wishing to celebrate Christmas, and could easily lead to another eruption of violence. Although it is encouraging to know that a delegation representing the EU, including a British representative, recently visited Orissa to assess the violence, it would be reassuring if the Minister could indicate that our high commission will monitor the situation very carefully this Christmas.

HART, the NGO with which I work, visited Kandhamal district, the epicentre of the violence, in October, and we saw what had been taking place. The toll of violence includes 69 people identified as having been killed and approximately 50 still unaccounted for and presumed dead. Among those killed were one man who was buried alive, several people who were burned to death and others who were cut to pieces. At least 160 churches of all Christian denominations, approximately 5,000 homes and an unspecified number of Christian businesses have been destroyed, and 54,000 people have been displaced from their homes and forced to take shelter in 14 state-sponsored relief camps in Kandhamal district, together with many hundreds who are living in non-state camps, including in two very overcrowded buildings in Cuttack town. It was also estimated that about 20,000 people were still living in the jungle or had fled to big cities.

In addition to the violence in Kandhamal district, 13 other districts had experienced similar atrocities, including killings and the looting and burning of churches and homes, and two other relief camps had to be established for approximately 2,700 more people who had had to flee from their homes.

In our report, we concluded that the Orissa state government had failed to provide protection for the Christian minority population, allowing widespread violations of human rights—including killings, rape, looting and the destruction and desecration of places of worship, homes and other property—and that the forced conversion of some Christians to Hinduism constitutes a serious violation of the right to religious freedom enshrined in the UDHR, to which the Indian Government are a signatory. It is noteworthy that Hinduism and the caste system have only relatively recently, in the past 50 years, been introduced into this region. It is characteristic of Hindutva ideology that those forced conversions to Hinduism are propagated by the same groups that denounce conversions to other religions. There was also deep concern that the Orissa state government have failed to bring many of the perpetrators of crimes and violence to account, and that failure to bring to justice those who are allegedly guilty of these atrocities was making it impossible for victims to return to their homes because they feared that impunity would encourage further attacks.

Taken together, the violence inflicted on Christian communities, the reports of forced conversion and the threats of more to come, and the failure to provide enough security to encourage the Christians to return home appeared to constitute a policy of attempted religious cleansing of the region. Moreover, the viciousness and the scale of the attacks would have been impossible without a sustained hate campaign over many years. That still continues in the Oriya and Hindu media, targeting both Muslims and Christians.

In our report, we offered a number of recommendations for consideration. As the Orissa state government have insufficient resources for policing and judicial functions, police should be brought in from other states to receive and process complaints, including women police to register and investigate gender crimes. It was also suggested to us that the Central Bureau of Investigation, the CBI, should initiate an inquiry into the official dereliction of duty by the authorities in Orissa state for failing to prevent and control the violence. The Roman Catholic nun, Sister M, who suffered gang rape and torture, has added her voice to this request. There is also a widely expressed demand for adequate compensation for and the return of looted property.

Resources are urgently needed to improve conditions in the camps for the displaced. The conditions are horrific with massive overcrowding. We estimate that in the tents of the outdoor camps every individual has 12 inches to sleep alongside the next person. Priorities for provision include better healthcare, especially for women needing obstetric and gynaecological treatment, and paediatric provision for children and infants. There is also an urgent need for baby food and for access to education for children. As the fear of renewed attacks is preventing people from returning to their homes, they are pleading for the retention of the Central Reserve Police Force on location for as long as necessary to ensure their safety. Finally, an inquiry is needed into the regional Oriya language press for complicity in fomenting hatred and misrepresentation of facts. The state government should insist on that and it is incumbent on the Press Council to do so.

Will Her Majesty's Government raise with the Indian Government their concern over the failure of the state and central governments to ensure the safety of their citizens and their right to practise the religion of their choice? There is concern that the ad hoc annual EU-India human rights dialogue might be seen as the main mechanism for doing this. That would seem to be insufficient as it is seen as insubstantial and non-transparent. Has DfID been able to help with resources for relief for those who are currently living in the camps for the displaced? They are suffering in appalling conditions from overcrowding and an acute shortage of basic facilities, with many related illnesses. Further, will DfID consider supporting the longer-term rebuilding and rehabilitation effort?

I turn briefly to widespread concern at the anti-conversion legislation now in place in seven states. This applies to those who wish to convert from Hinduism to another faith: in practice, it does not prohibit conversion to Hinduism from other faiths. The legislation requires anyone wishing to convert from Hinduism to give advance notice to the district authorities, rendering them vulnerable to pressures of many kinds. In the case of Gujarat, the person who converts another must obtain prior permission of the authorities.

These requirements obviously hinder the freedom to choose and change religion, in violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which India is a signatory. These laws also threaten charitable activities, since the conditions under which conversions are banned include, for example, "allurement" by the "grant of any material benefit". The problem of restrictions on religious freedom is not unique to India: such violations of this fundamental freedom must be seen as cause for concern in any country where a majority religion denies its citizens the freedom to choose and change religion. Sadly, there are many in the world today. Her Majesty's Government have previously given assurances in Parliament that they have raised concerns about proposed anti-conversion legislation in Sri Lanka, which is modelled on Indian state-level laws, yet often refer to these Indian laws as an internal matter. Can the Minister tell us whether Her Majesty's Government have raised, and/or will raise, this cause for concern with the Indian Government in the same way as has been done with the Sri Lankan Government?

The final topic to which I wish to refer raises the plight of the dalits, those deemed to be outside the caste system and therefore treated as inherently untouchable. Their predicament is unenviable. Unable to take work or to come into contact with members of the caste system, many are doomed to undertake the most humiliating and unsanitary tasks, such as the 700,000 or more manual scavengers dealing with human excrement. Others are so poor that they become involved in bonded labour from which they cannot escape, so that this form of servitude is passed from one generation to the next. Dalits are susceptible to any form of exploitation and there is widespread caste-based violence against them. In an attempt to escape from their outcast status, many dalits are converting from Hinduism to another faith—Buddhism, Islam or Christianity. This disruption of the traditional caste system is causing tensions and attracting opposition, especially from proponents of the Hindutva, some of which may be reflected in violence against religious minorities.

I have witnessed the human dimension of the plight of the dalits when visiting a clinic we in HART are supporting in Tamil Nadu for dalits with HIV/AIDS. These unfortunate people are doubly untouchable, as HIV/AIDS adds its own stigma of untouchability to their outcast status. It is a privilege to embrace such vulnerable people, but the joy they express when we touch them or eat the food they have prepared brings home the appalling suffering they endure as the ultimately marginalised and dehumanised members of Indian society. This is also a challenge to the EU-India Strategic Partnership joint action plan's description of India as,

"a paradigm of Asia's syncretic culture and how various religions can flourish in a plural, democratic and open society".

It is impossible in one speech to begin to do justice to the vast nation of India with its indescribably rich tapestry of ethnic groups, cultures, traditions, achievements and problems. I greatly look forward to the speeches of other noble Lords who will bring information and insights from their own knowledge and experience to create a constructive and comprehensive debate worthy of the issues confronting this great nation which we are proud to call a friend. I beg to move.