My Lords, there is a certain irony in debating religious intolerance and prejudice in the UK on a day when the Prime Minister is ensconced in Brussels, thrashing out this country’s future relationship with Europe. A large period of our continent’s history has been blighted by wars based on religious conflict, including in Ireland, which is proving such a Gordian knot to untangle in the Brexit negotiations. It serves to remind us that, for all the positive virtues that emanate from various faith traditions—particularly in the fields of education, healthcare and the alleviation of poverty—there is a darker legacy which cannot be ignored. That is why collaboration between European countries is something we should positively welcome and which must continue, regardless of Brexit.
This evening, I will add a Hindu voice to this debate and, in doing so, I welcome the opportunity to speak alongside noble friends across all Benches, many of whom I would call kindred spirits in their outlook and ethos on this topic. There are around 1 million Hindus living in Britain today. The distinguishing feature of Hinduism is that it is not a religion in the traditional sense. We are not a faith with a codified belief system or a defined set of scriptures that proselytise an unchallengeable truth. We are seekers, not believers, on a quest for truth and meaning taking us wherever the evidence and experience leads. In finding truth, there are many and varied paths. That is why Hinduism is the ultimate big tent. It is as much a civilisation, with its origins in the Indus Valley, as a religion. Its contours, therefore, encompass philosophy, spirituality and a whole way of life, including practices such as yoga and meditation. As a consequence, being open to new ideas, respect for difference and embracing global influences are inbuilt in Hindu thought, stretching all the way back to the Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedic scriptures, which dates back to around 1500 BC. It includes a Sanskrit phrase, which I am fond of quoting:
“Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah”.
Translated, this means, “Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions”. Another often-quoted phrase is, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”. This means, “The whole world is one family”, and it is etched in the entrance hall of the Indian Parliament. A similar sentiment was expressed 125 years ago, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, by Swami Vivekananda, representing Hindus in India. He was widely acclaimed as the star speaker of this conference for advocating not just religious tolerance but universal acceptance.
In Britain, Hindus provide a role model for how a community can integrate successfully and embrace British values, while retaining its cultural heritage and identity. As we speak, thousands of Hindus up and down the country are packed into school and community halls, participating in a colourful, nine-day festival called Navaratri. At the same time, they will be thinking of others less fortunate, and have organised initiatives such as the Navaratri food bank, providing meals to those of all faiths and none throughout the country. This is a live illustration of what the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, describes as The Dignity of Difference in his powerful book, which argues that we must do more than search for common human values; we must learn to make a space for difference. With that important background, I want to make the following four observations relevant for our present times.
I will comment first on anti-Semitism, as many noble Lords have. As somebody who lives in north London and has grown up side by side and in harmony with the Jewish community, who respects and admires its achievements and shares many of the same intrinsic values, it is deeply distressing to witness its anguish at current events—so powerfully articulated by my noble friend Lord Kestenbaum. It is fair to say that British Indians often look to Jewish organisations such as the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council or the Community Security Trust as role models for unity of purpose and effective participation in national life. If the British Jewish community is going through such an ordeal, we all need to take heed. It is even more distressing that individuals who have spoken out on this issue, such as my noble friend Lord Popat, who led an excellent debate in this House on
Secondly, Islamophobia is as unacceptable as anti-Semitism or any other form of religious intolerance. Although others are more knowledgeable about Islamophobia and have more first-hand experience of it than me—especially my noble friend Lady Warsi, who spoke so eloquently—I will share one observation from the Hindu experience of integration in the spirit of speaking for, and helping, the other. It is evident from the work of the Casey review that the Muslim community requires greater support in various aspects of integration, and that sections of the British Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities have struggled on this front and too often lead a segregated existence. It must be the case that elements of Islamophobia have their roots in ignorance about Islam, which better integration could address. The experience of British Hindus demonstrates that it is possible to integrate and still preserve your traditions, values and identity. A diverse society does not mean a divided society. It is therefore welcome to see the Government’s Green Paper on integrated communities offer remedies such as a new community-based English language programme and an integration innovation fund to bring people together in shared activities and community spaces. We must work in collaboration with Muslim communities to break down barriers and thus reduce the frequency with which they are subjected to unacceptable prejudice.
My third point is an issue of significant concern to large sections of the Hindu community: so-called caste legislation. This refers to the attempt to make caste a separately defined aspect of race discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. The concern from Hindus is not about standing up to discrimination—discrimination is totally unacceptable in any form—but about creating caste consciousness where it does not exist and unleashing unintended consequences, when the overwhelming majority of British Hindus have no truck with any historic notions of caste. This is especially true for the current generation, which is blissfully ignorant of it even as an issue. Proceeding with dormant legislation would be totally disproportionate to the evidence of such cases and would serve to stigmatise Hindus. The Government’s consultation on the subject was published in July, with more than 16,000 responses. Based on the evidence, the Government have concluded that established case law provides sufficient, appropriate and proportionate legal protection against caste discrimination. The Government therefore intend to legislate to repeal the duty for a specific reference to caste to be included in the Equality Act.
I urge the Labour, Liberal and other Benches, including the Lords spiritual, to consider this matter very carefully and to meet Hindu leaders directly to understand their concerns. We do not know when and in what format the proposed legislation will be brought to Parliament but it would send a powerful signal to the Hindu community if all sides of your Lordships’ House were able to support the Government’s position. Caste legislation is to Hindus what the anti-Semitism definition is to Jews. It has totemic significance. I make a plea, particularly to the Labour Front Bench, not to repeat the same mistakes which were made in handling anti-Semitism when dealing with this sensitive matter for the Hindu community.
Fourthly and finally, I will make a broader point about the growing prevalence of hatred in both public life and private behaviour in Britain. Only yesterday we saw the release of the latest Home Office data on recorded hate incidents for the year to March 2018, covering all types of hostility or prejudice towards someone based on personal characteristics. As noble Lords have already said, it showed a rise of 17% to more than 94,000 incidents, with hate crime having doubled over the past five years. Within this figure, religious hate crime represents 9% of incidents but it has been growing at the fastest rate, rising by 40% in the past year and more than fivefold over five years. This trend reflects a souring of our national discourse, with the growing propensity towards abusive behaviour given new oxygen by social media. The Prime Minister spoke assertively on this issue in her conference speech earlier this month, highlighting,
“the bitterness and bile which is poisoning our politics”,
and calling out the fact that the first black woman ever to be elected to the House of Commons receives more racist and misogynist messages today than when she first stood more than 30 years ago.
Mahatma Gandhi said that,
“it is impossible to end hatred with hatred”.
We need to find a circuit-breaker to end the growing climate of hate and rediscover the British reputation for politeness and civility. It must be possible to express dissent with respect. There needs to be an acceptance of diversity of opinion, whether in politics or religion. It therefore feels appropriate to conclude with the inspiring words of Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, which I referred to earlier. He said that the parliament of religions had proved to the world that,
“holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance: ‘Help and not fight’, ‘Assimilation and not Destruction’, ‘Harmony and Peace and not Dissension’”.
Those sentiments remain as relevant today as they were 125 years ago and could indeed have been written for today’s debate. Like Swami Vivekananda, we must all remain hopeful for a better world, free of hate and prejudice, and one which accepts, respects and perhaps even celebrates difference.