India — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:40 pm on 18th December 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 12:40 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for initiating this debate at such an opportune time. Like other noble Lords, I express my sympathy for the bereaved and injured as a result of the recent atrocity in Mumbai, and encourage the Indian Government in their measured response to it.

It is important to note at some point during this debate that the Indian constitution is in principle a very sound one, which ought to be followed by a number of other countries in the world where there is no religious freedom, even in theory. The distinguished scholar Amartya Sen has argued that India allows for a secular society in the very best sense of that term: one in which it is recognised that religion has an important role to play, but in which all religions are treated on an equal basis. The relationship of the state to religion may be close or distant, he says, but the point is that in a secular state they will all be treated in the same way.

Against that background, the first issue I raise is the same one raised by the noble Baroness and other speakers, but with a particular slant. That is, why have the Indian Government not taken action in relation to the State of Orissa? The constitution, as I understand it, specifically says that, in the case of internal unrest in a state, the national Government have the right to intervene. We know that there are still something like 50,000 displaced dalit Christians there who are fearful of returning to their homes, because the perpetrators of the recent religiously inspired violence regard themselves as immune from prosecution. It was this very sense of immunity, arising from a failure to bring charges after the previous attack in Orissa in December 2007, that gave rise to the even worse one this year. So I ask Her Majesty's Government to urge the Indian Government to exercise what I understand is their proper constitutional role in Orissa, to ensure that proper justice is carried out within that state.

My second point has already been made, but it is worth reiterating. Although, like other speakers, I have a particular concern for dalits and dalit Christians, other minorities—not least Muslims—need to be reassured that both the state and national Governments will act to preserve India's constitutional position of every religion being treated on an equal basis. In Gujarat in 2002, over 1,000 people—perhaps as many as 2,000—were killed, most of them Muslims. Since then, many Muslims in that state have felt fearful. Human rights, including the right to practise one's religion are universal; they exist on the basis of our very humanity, and a Christian would rightly be just as concerned with the protection of those rights for members of other religions as for members of their own.

I come to my third point. Dalits in general, but dalit Christians in particular, are being disgracefully discriminated against in a number of different ways. The Indian caste system has rightly been described by none other than the Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, as a terrible "blot on humanity" and it is no less—sad to say—a blot on India itself. Although some steps have been taken to redress this, at the moment it is working in such a way as to disadvantage dalit Christians even more than other dalits. For whereas there is a reservation system in public sector education and employment for scheduled caste dalits, dalits who convert to Christianity lose that status, and therefore their eligibility for a reserved place. So although the state has made some legislative efforts to overcome the discrimination that dalits in general suffer, dalit Christians do not benefit. The result is that dalit Christians are doubly disadvantaged: they are discriminated against as dalits, and because they are dalit Christians. Although the linking between scheduled caste and religious identity has been challenged in the courts since 2004, there is still no satisfactory outcome. The national Government and state governments need urgently to recognize this gross injustice and rectify it.

In speaking of the dalits, we are not just speaking about a few people—although even if it were only a few, it would still be an outrage. There are well over 250 million dalits, perhaps 270 million, in India. The extraordinary thing is that, as I understand it, they represent one in 25 of the world's population. They suffer multiple degradations, not only segregation and discrimination but bonded labour, child labour, violence done to them and an inability to have the violence done to them properly investigated by the police, and so on. Within that category, the women are particularly degraded and humiliated, with temple prostitution, trafficking, rape and violence all too prevalent.

Take just one area, which has not yet been mentioned—education. The economic development of India in recent years has indeed been remarkable—almost miraculous. But something even more remarkable and miraculous is the extraordinary way in which the millions of poor in India somehow survive against all the odds and, as I have experienced, with extraordinary personal, spiritual dignity and sometimes even joy. That is deeply moving, and such a contrast to people who are degraded in some other western capitalist societies. To focus on the development, they produce more than 2 million graduates a year, and something like half of the world's software engineers come from India. But this extraordinary development among the middle classes, as already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, in his wonderful speech, simply highlights the growing gap with the poor, and in particular the poorest of the poor, the dalit women.

The Indian constitution says that every Indian citizen must receive an education, but something like 50 per cent of women generally in India are still illiterate, despite the staggering economic growth, and among dalits it is higher still. Among dalit women, illiteracy is still terrible, with only 28.5 per cent literate. All this highlights the fact that the most demeaning jobs are given to dalit women—in particular the manual scavenging of dry toilets, a dirty and demeaning task performed with only the most primitive implements. Something like 1.3 million dalits are employed in this way, most of them women.

I hope the Indian authorities will give their full support to the growing campaign to phase out this system of dry sewage scavenging, carried out by dalits for a few pence a day. I note the Early Day Motion on this, now signed by many Members of the other place. It is rightly the focus of an international campaign, to which the Indian Government need to respond as a matter of urgency.

I end where I began, by emphasising that India has a wonderful constitution in which freedom of religion and equality for all are clearly set out. However, in reality, the brutal facts deny this. Hindu extremists—not Hindus—are getting away with what should have been stopped and prevented a very long time ago. Discrimination against dalits still exists in multiple forms. The Indian Government must take a significant share of the responsibility for this. It is a cultural phenomenon, but laws are not being properly applied and there are practices that the Government could change. I urge Her Majesty's Government, with our European partners, to continue to do all they can to help India, not only in the struggle against terrorism but also to end what has rightly been termed as this terrible blot on humanity.