India: Persecution of Minority Groups — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:31 am on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:31 am, 12th January 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of persecution of Muslims, Christians and minority groups in India.

The right hon. Members for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), for East Ham (Stephen Timms), David Linden, and my hon. Friend Paul Girvan and I applied to the Backbench Business Committee to have this debate almost eight months ago, so we are very pleased that it has now arrived. I note that debates in Westminster Hall will be suspended for a period of time, so this will be one of the last debates in here until we get to the other side of the pandemic.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have come here today to discuss the important issue of the persecution of Muslims, Christians and other minority groups in India. The issue has been in my heart for a long time. Given the correspondence that we have had, there is a need for this debate, so I am pleased to be here to promote it. I am my party’s spokesperson for human rights issues and I register an interest as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. I remind this House that the Republic of India is the world’s largest democracy. These facts are not in dispute. India has a freely elected Government and is not run by a nightmarish authoritarian regime such as China’s, which arbitrarily imprisons millions from religious minorities and sponsors forced organ harvesting on an industrial scale, as we all know. Today in the main Chamber there will be a statement by the Minister in relation to the Uyghur Muslims.

India has a rich and unparalleled history of religious plurality and co-existence. The United Kingdom has always had a good relationship with India. Even today, hundreds of millions of people from different religions and backgrounds live together peacefully in modern-day India. However, the reason for this debate is clear. India is not perfect in terms of freedom of religion or belief, and there has been a concerning trend when it comes to FORB violations over the past several years. Of course, this is not unique to India. Even in the UK we have recently seen record highs for incidents of antisemitism, Islamophobia and discrimination against Sikhs and other minority groups. Still, the scale and trajectory of the persecution currently being experienced in India by non-Hindus is very worrying and disturbing.

I talked beforehand to my friend and colleague from the Scots Nats party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East, and I said that those from India have to be able to take constructive criticism that is made in a friendly way but none the less highlights the issues that are the reason for this debate. Our debate will be in the spirit of that. I hope that through this debate and the Minister’s, shadow Minister’s and others’ contributions we will be able to highlight the issues that we need India to address.

Despite Prime Minister Modi’s pledge to commit to “complete freedom of faith”, since his election in 2014 there has been a significant increase in anti-minority rhetoric—the complete opposite of what was said in 2014—from Bharatiya Janata party politicians, and I will quote some of the comments. India has also seen the rise of religious nationalist vigilante groups, growing mob violence, the spread of anti-conversion laws, worsening social discrimination, the stripping of citizenship rights and—increasingly—many other actions against religious or belief minorities. That is totally unreal and unacceptable, which is why we have to highlight it here in Westminster Hall today.

According to IndiaSpend’s analysis of Indian Home Ministry data, there was a 28% rise in communal violence between 2014 and 2017, with 822 “incidents” being reported in 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 111 people and wounding of 2,384 people. A recent Pew Research Center report claimed that India had the highest level of social hostility and violence based on religion or belief of any country in the world. That is quite a statement to make, but when we look at the facts of the case, which is why this debate is being held, we see that India does rank as highly as that; the social hostility and violence based on religion or belief is the worst of any country in the world.

The covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated problems for religious minorities in India. Through the APPG, I obviously receive comments and information, but I also receive them from religious groups, such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International, the Barnabus Fund and Open Doors; I think that the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet will tomorrow launch the Open Doors strategy after what has happened in the last year. We very much look forward to that, because I believe that it will highlight not just India but other parts of the world where these problems exist.

At the beginning of the covid-19 outbreak, two dozen Muslim missionaries tested positive for the virus after an international event in Delhi. This led to accusations that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus and to a campaign of Islamophobia in which Muslims were labelled as “bio-terrorists” and “corona-jihadists”, and discriminated against. This scapegoating of Muslims was picked up and supported by political leaders such as the Minister for Minority Affairs of the BJP, who accused the event organisers of a “Talibani crime”. What a play on words that is. In no way had those missionaries ever done such a thing; they went to the event to follow their religious beliefs and worship their God. But they were made a target for doing so. And another BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh told citizens:

“Do not buy from Muslims.”

I mean, where does it all stop? That is my concern about the whole thing.

Furthermore, over 3,000 Muslims were forcibly detained by Government authorities for more than 40 days under the guise of protecting public health. Well, public health is for everyone and we cannot blame one person or one group for it, and those Muslims certainly did not set out to do anything wrong. Nevertheless, as a result of this stigmatisation, countless more instances of violence against Muslims in India have been recorded. So, those 20 or so Muslim missionaries, who were worshipping in a careful way, were then focused on and made the targets of verbal violence, which has now spread to other parts of India.

One attack that was caught on video showed a Muslim being beaten with a bamboo stick by a man asking him about his conspiracy to spread the virus. Really? Because they are a Muslim, they are spreading the virus? No, they are not, and to make such an accusation is completely wrong.

Other minority groups in India have also suffered such violence. For example, on 3 February 2019, a 40-strong mob attacked the church in Karkeli village, near Raipur. Fifteen worshippers were hospitalised after church members were beaten with sticks. Where is religious tolerance in India, when it was said in 2014 that there would be such tolerance? The facts are that it is not happening.

Similarly, on 25 November 2020, an estimated 100 Christians from Singavaram village in India’s Chhattisgarh state were also attacked. Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s sources reported that a mob of around 50 people armed with home-made weapons attacked the Christians during the night while they slept. The mob burnt their Bibles and accused their victims of destroying the local culture by following a foreign religion. Again, I find that greatly disturbing—indeed, I find the whole thing very hard to understand.