India — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:12 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour 12:12 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, it is my pleasure to acknowledge the first act of our Deputy Speaker in his new role and to recognise, as the noble Baroness has reflected so well in her remarks, the sheer size, exuberance and commitment to the pluralistic democracy of India. Amartya Sen states at the beginning of his book The Argumentative Indian that:

"India is an immensely diverse country with many distinct pursuits, vastly disparate convictions, widely divergent customs and a veritable feast of viewpoints".

That serves as a caution against generalisations.

I recall at conferences of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association gazing across at the Indian delegation, marvelling at the range of races and wondering how such a disparity coheres, but it does, even if there is always a crisis somewhere in the 28 states with 22 official languages and 2,000 different ethnic groups of India. Even if the economy looks somewhat vulnerable today; even if like all other countries India is guilty of double standards in its foreign policy, thinking of Burma and Iran; and even if there are vast disparities of wealth—all interesting points for another debate—the core of India remains sound and in good health. India also remains a good friend of this country in the Commonwealth with a vibrant, entrepreneurial community in the United Kingdom, of which my noble friend Lord Paul is a sterling representative, contributing much to our national life. We have a remarkable bilateral exchange in areas such as science and technology.

That must be the starting point; the context within which we should place recent events, for, as the noble Baroness has shown and as recent tragic events well illustrate, India is not immune from the scourges of our age such as international terrorism and religious extremism.

Before turning to the Mumbai tragedy and to the atrocities in Orissa, let me say a word about the noble Baroness. I pay tribute today to her indefatigable pursuit of justice and human rights worldwide. I sometimes muse that she was born out of her age—she should have been a Gladys Aylward or a Mary Slessor, perhaps with an admixture of Lady Hester Stanhope. She travels to crisis areas, stands alongside the victims and returns with first-hand accounts of suffering and ready to offer remedies to your Lordships' House. I do not follow her in respect of the dalits today nor on the anti-conversion laws, save to say in respect of the latter that the opposition BJP has threatened that if it were to win next year's general election it would legislate against mass conversions.

What lies behind the atrocity in Mumbai? I note that Misha Glenny, whom I respect, states in the Guardian that it is essentially local and regional factors, as does William Dalrymple in the Observer, who, in a typical western breast-beating mea culpa way, also blames western policy in the region. Others look to al-Qaeda and call Mumbai India's 9/11. Although it is true that the Kashmir issue played a part, as did a desire to harm Indian-Pakistan relations, the latter view is probably nearer the truth because the targets in the area were westerners and Jews, which suggests that the jihadist message from the madrassahs played a significant part.

This was part of a series of attacks elsewhere in India—Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Jaipur, Guwahati and Malegaon. The response of the Indian Prime Minister and the Minister of External Affairs, Mr Mukherjee, has been a model—cautious and statesmanlike—as was the journey to the subcontinent of Condoleezza Rice, seeking to cool the temperature in both relevant capitals and trying to prevent the incipient peace process being derailed. We must understand the peculiar internal problems of Pakistan and not push it in the direction of a failed state, yet it is also right for the international community to continue to press Pakistan to take responsibility for the terrorist groups which operate on its territory, to reform its army and the ISI and to examine the role of the madrassahs. President Zardari has spoken brave words and should be held to them.

For ourselves in the United Kingdom, clearly we should seek to encourage confidence-building measures between these two great countries, to recognise that the problems of terrorism in India and Pakistan are indeed our own problems, as the Prime Minister has stated, and to increase co-operation with them both.

I turn now to Orissa and then shall give one or two further thoughts. Christians are not the only victims of violence by Hindu extremists. I refer, as the noble Baroness said, to the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and dalits are regularly the targets. I commend the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide on this issue. August saw the worst spate of communal violence against Christians in India since independence in 1947. Such a bloodbath needs the righteous indignation of a Milton:

"Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints", from On the Late Massacre in Piedmont in the 17th century. The horrors have been well described by Christian Solidarity Worldwide and by the Maranatha Community, in three submissions to the FCO. I make only two points, because those horrors are well illustrated.

First, there is the role of the VHP—the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a militant Hindu nationalist movement—in inciting violence. According to the Maranatha Community, that movement seeks to drive Christians out of India; my concern is more about its activities in the United Kingdom, about which I asked a Question in your Lordships' House on 17 November. The VHP is a registered charity here, with branches around the country. It seems wrong, in principle, for a body widely perceived to be associated with inciting violence abroad and to have at least some links with terrorism—certainly, with the inflammatory language of the extremists—to enjoy charitable status. I hope that the Government will refer its position in this country to the relevant authorities.

Secondly, on Orissa, I stress only the urgency of the situation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, did. Last Christmas, as she has said, there was an upsurge of violence against Christians in Orissa, with over 500 Christian homes burnt, 100 Christian shops looted and over 50 churches destroyed by militant Hindu extremists, who declared a bandh—a stay-away or closedown—on Christmas Day to prevent celebrations. Of course, the widespread atrocities in August were well documented, but the problem of a further bandh is a new and urgent situation. The closedown that the militants have declared on Christmas Day has put Christians awaiting Christmas into great fear.

This morning, I spoke to Bishop D.K. Sahu, the general-secretary of the National Council of Churches in India. He was in Delhi today but will shortly visit Orissa again. He mentioned that representatives of the British high commission, along with other EU diplomatic representatives, visited the state on 5 December and expressed their concern about the declaration of the bandh. He mentioned, however, rather more promising signs; two days ago, in the Orissa state assembly, the opposition called for the Christmas Day bandh to be declared illegal, and the state's Chief Minister gave certain assurances about ensuring that the bandh will not take place. Yesterday, 3,000 primary school teachers in Kandhamal district apparently held a successful peace rally, and the district magistrate has called a meeting this Saturday. I hope that is to prepare for the possible outbreak of the bandh on Christmas Day. There appears, at least, to be a response to the national and international pressure that Christians should be allowed to celebrate on Christmas Day. I should mention that Bishop Sahu also expressed his concern about conditions in the relief camps, which the noble Baroness alluded to.

Finally on this situation, the Indian Prime Minister, who has acted in great, statesmanlike ways on this matter, called the August massacre "a national shame" after meeting with President Sarkozy, who was acting on behalf of the EU presidency. He is clearly well aware of the damage to India's reputation abroad, which these actions are tarnishing. He must be equally well aware that the Christian community is law-abiding, and well known for helping the poor in the area. The Government of India must also be well aware of the threat to public order and should, with the state government, take immediate steps to protect the Christian community. I pray that the warnings of what might well happen on Christmas Day—as happened last Christmas, and again in August—will be heeded. At least there are, as I learned this morning from the bishop, some signs of hope.