India — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:58 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN) 1:58 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for proposing this debate to discuss developments in India, especially in the light of the recent terrible events in Mumbai. I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Paul on taking on his role with consummate timing and occupying the Woolsack for the first time today.

Let me say at the outset that, as this debate has amply demonstrated, India remains vital to this country's interests in so many ways. It is a country close to the heart and imagination of many of us. The close ties that bind the British people and the Indian people are rooted in over three centuries of engagement, mutual respect for human values, democracy and freedom and a colourful shared history. Government Ministers have said on many occasions that we regard India as a close friend and partner of the UK and the British people, not just in the context of promoting stability and security in the south Asian region, but in tackling together a wide range of international and global challenges, including the recent global economic downturn and promoting climate security, to name just two of the issues on which we work closely together. We cannot forget the close family and cultural ties that bind over 1.3 million British citizens to India, the world's largest and most diverse democracy and home to over 1 billion people.

This debate comes only weeks after the terrible events we saw in Mumbai when a series of terrorist attacks on hotels and other public places left nearly 200 innocent people dead and many more injured. As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said at the time, the attacks reminded us of the real challenges that we face from violent extremists and terrorists who threaten our way of life. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, this was not just an attack on India; it was an attack on all of us, but especially on those of us here in the UK, in the United States and perhaps also Israel, if some of the press reports at the time are to be believed. Those attacks serve only to reinforce our shared determination to tackle extremism and violence wherever it arises. I join other noble Lords who have expressed their heartfelt sympathies with the families and friends of all those killed and injured in the attacks.

I briefly turn to the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks and their implications for India's relations with Pakistan. As noble Lords will be aware, and as several have generously commented on, the Prime Minister has just returned from the region at the weekend, when he met Prime Minister Singh in New Delhi and President Zardari in Islamabad. He used the occasion to press in both capitals the need not to allow the relationship to deteriorate, and to stress to both leaders that the way to prevent that was to ensure that justice was done and that there was no attempt to prevaricate, disguise or confuse the situation, but that those guilty were found and tried.

I also note the kind words addressed to our cricketers for their decision to go ahead with their tour. I shall not take sides about the win, except to say that from these Benches there was rather unsportsmanlike mumbling about whether it would not have been a good occasion for the Indians to have just let us win.

It is now widely acknowledged that the Mumbai attacks were perpetrated by members of a militant extremist group based in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba. During the past two weeks, we—most recently, the Prime Minister—have urged the Pakistani Government to co-operate fully with the Indian authorities' investigation of the attacks to identify those responsible and bring them to justice. It is enormously important that no one doubts the evidence—which is utterly overwhelming —that the attacks were organised by groups and individuals based in Pakistan. Equally, there is no evidence to link those groups at this stage to the authorities or any part of the government system in Pakistan. We must start from the base that I have just described and ensure that there is no effort to prevent a clear criminal investigation being allowed to arrive at conclusions and to be followed by appropriate trials and justice.

Before those events, we already had a close working relationship with the Indian Government in addressing the challenges posed by terrorism. UK security and law enforcement agencies work closely with their Indian counterparts and there is a good flow of information both ways on operational and investigation work, as well as on the disruption of terrorist networks. In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, we are looking again at ways in which UK expertise on countering terrorism can be deployed effectively to help the Indian authorities. A similar offer is there for the Pakistan authorities as well. We will help the Indian authorities in any way that they wish with the necessary security preparations for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010. We are also engaged with our Indian counterparts in trying to find ways to prevent terrorist financing and improve civil aviation security.

Before leaving the issue of Mumbai and its aftermath, I refer to the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia and Lord Bilimoria, on the number of Muslim victims of that outrage. It is critical to bear in mind just how indiscriminate it was and how, for terrorists of this kind, no life has any value. The victims are indiscriminate in that sense.

I now turn to a subject which has rightly been of some concern to so many speakers today, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in proposing the debate. That is the issue of domestic extremism within India, which manifests itself in many different ways. We recognise the noble Baroness's close interest in the issue, especially in how social cohesion in India's local areas can sometimes fracture and, for example, lead to the violence that we saw this year in Orissa and neighbouring states. While abhorring the violence resulting in Christian victims, we must recognise that it is not exclusively the preserve of one social or religious group or another in India, but often the result of various factors such as the interplay between religion and politics and other socio-economic pressures. As my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea observed, militants sometimes seek to exploit that for their own ends. However, I must say to my noble friend that the VHP is not proscribed as a terrorist organisation in India or, as he knows, here in the UK. If there is evidence that should lead to that to be changed, we shall review it.

I reassure noble Lords that we have raised our concerns about the violence in Orissa State with the Government in India and their representatives in both London and New Delhi. For example, I discussed it with Anand Sharma, India's Minister of External Affairs, when I visited New Delhi on 16 October, as well as with other officials. It was clear to me that the Indian Government recognised the strength of the international community's concerns about what is happening in Orissa. We understand, and they assured me, that they urged the relevant state authorities to take immediate steps to bring the perpetrators to justice and to improve the local security environment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and others raised the concern that there may be a renewed confrontation and threat to life over the Christmas period. I will certainly pass on that concern and warning to our high commissioner in Delhi and ensure that we are alert to any signs of that. I was also asked about the assistance that DfID has provided for those displaced. Although there is no specific programme for the displaced, the UK is the biggest bilateral aid donor to Orissa State, and we have tried to do a lot there.

Let me make the Government's position clear—although I think that no one would doubt it. All violence perpetrated against innocent people on the grounds of their faith, creed or social status is evidently completely unacceptable, but I add that we should recognise that India, with all its complexities—so eloquently described by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others today—is still at heart a democratic and open society, and one where the sanctity of the rule of law generally prevails. We also need to recognise that communal violence in India, whatever form it takes and in whatever social context, is not state-sponsored nor state-inspired, as is regrettably the case in so many other areas of the world.

In judging the balance of complex forces which lead to such conflicts, including the role of caste as well as of religion, we must bear in mind many of the insights offered today—for example, the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, about the economics of conversion—as well as the issue of the marginalisation of castes and the particular role of the dalits. I particularly noted in that regard the words of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, about the role of Christian dalits, who seem to suffer a double whammy—if one can use that word—of disadvantage. We are doing all that we can to combat caste discrimination in India. We work closely with civil society organisations through our own development programmes to raise awareness of the rights and benefits to which dalits are entitled in Indian society, and we will continue to do all that we can to encourage this work.

How does one have a dialogue with a country such as India on human rights? So many of the speakers today reflected the sensitivity that they know we must bring to bear on this. After all, this is a country that has gone through a brutal attack on Mumbai without subsequent revenge attacks on communities that might be thought to be associated with it. It has had an astonishing incidence of internal and externally supported violence of different kinds, and each time the reaction of the people of India has been in general to show enormous tolerance towards what has happened. The reaction of the Government of India has been to try to suppress any momentum towards intercommunal confrontation. It is in that context that we must talk to India about human rights.

An important EU-India dialogue is scheduled for 2009—the date has not yet been set—and the UK does all that it can on every occasion to raise the case of the dalits and other cases that concern us, such as the tragedies in Orissa, but perhaps the most important intervention that I could make was to find the chairman of the National Commission for Minorities in his very run-down and poorly functioning office, surrounded by huge paper files of the kind that one remembers and that are almost the metaphor for the old India bureaucracy. I had an astonishing discussion with him in which he reflected a profound understanding of the events in Orissa. Equally, however, one was left wondering whether he really had the authority in the Indian Government to carry through the right kind of investigation into what had happened and the right kind of redress. It seemed to me that, to help him and others to redress the balance and ensure that human rights are implemented at the state as well as the national level, the gentle touch of the partner was needed—the offer of capacity-building support and the dialogue in his office—and not necessarily the diplomatic grandstanding from abroad such as always calling in the high commissioner.

Our relationship with India has gone beyond that point. We must be firm but sensitive in the way in which we try to push forward this complex agenda. We must understand the developmental dimensions to this; I referred to the National Commission for Minorities, with its evidently limited administrative and budgetary capacity to take on the vast agenda of minority rights across the country. Behind that are the questions not only of how we help India to establish a more efficient court system and a more effective rule of law, but of how we nudge it to comply with international human rights norms on issues such as freedom of religion. How do we build up a police system? As the Minister covering India, I am constantly bombarded with consular cases where those who have run into difficulties in India feel that they cannot get quick justice out of the court system. How do we help India with its enormously difficult regional relations? After all, this is a massive country that is complex and inevitably challenged by its own diversities of religion, nationality, ethnicity and language but that must also survive in one of the world's most difficult neighbourhoods. Its challenges are enormous.

As was observed, the country is set in a context in which the India of rapid development is offset, as so many noble Lords observed, by an India that is still mired in rural poverty. It was noted that 456 million Indians are still living on less than a dollar a day, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said. That is one-third of the world's poor. Seventy million more people in India are living on less than a dollar a day than are in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. If Bihar—a state which DfID has made a priority for its own development programmes—was a country, it would be the 10th poorest country in the world. These are astonishing inequalities in a country in which the modern, urbanised, middle class whom we saw in Mumbai on our TV screens in recent weeks lives side by side with others in a country that is still mired in the worst of poverty. It is therefore critical to meet the challenge of bringing both our own development programme to bear and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said, ensuring that India, like the rest of the world, is helped through this economic crisis and that issues such as free trade, which are so important to India, are not lost as a consequence of global economic recession.

I finish on a sad pre-Christmas note. The current Doha development round is not in particularly good health, and the hoped-for ministerial meeting before Christmas could not occur because agreement was not considered to be highly likely. We go into a new year with increasing anxieties about our ability to preserve global free trade for India as much as for ourselves in an era of recession and inevitable tendencies towards protectionism.