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 wholeheartedly accept my hon. Friend’s intervention. The spokesperson for the Scots Nats Party, David Linden, will also be doing something similar. I hope to meet the Indian High Commissioner next week, with others from Northern Ireland who have asked to speak to me. When it comes to making changes, we should do so in a constructive fashion. I hope that next week we can reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend Mr Campbell and try to influence those in positions of power to make the changes.

When attacks happen in villages across India, they are sanctioned, at least verbally or by non-action, by the police and Army. That sometimes encourages people to go ahead with what they are doing. The 50 people armed with homemade weapons who attacked Christians during the night when they slept and burned their bibles might be able to burn the Holy Bible and the word of God, but they did not in any way stop its teaching of how we should love others and follow its truths. Unfortunately, much of the violence against minorities is not appropriately investigated by Government authorities. It happens all the time and it is so frustrating whenever the police or Army stand back and do not act. When they are told what has happened, they do not investigate to the full extent, catch those involved and have them taken before the courts and imprisoned. Basically, they encourage perpetrators. In 2018, the Indian Supreme Court went so far as to urge the central and state Governments to bring back lynching restrictor laws and had to do so again in 2019, after no substantial action was taken.

In all these debates, we have a verbal commitment to change, but no physical action to prove it. That is what I find incredibly frustrating. In addition, Christian organisations have noted worsening patterns of discrimination against our communities in India. There have been reports of Christians who will not participate in Hindu rituals being denied employment. How often have we seen that, because they do not conform to what the Government want them to do, they are cut off from the water supply and prevented from even burying their dead? These are cruel actions by those in power.

Moreover, 80 year-old Father Stan Swamy, who has been an advocate for the rights of the poor and marginalised in India for 50 years has been unjustly held captive by the National Investigation Agency of India for alleged Maoist links. I hope that the Minister will reply to this point—if not today in the Chamber—and tell all those here who are interested how we can help that gentleman get out of prison.

Another issue is the spread of anti-conversion laws in India, which make me very angry. They are ostensibly designed to protect people, but often restrict the freedom of individuals to freely convert and deny their right to freedom of religion or belief. If you want to be a Christian, you have a right to be a Christian; if you want to be a Muslim, that is your choice; if you want to be a Hindu, that is your choice; if you want to be a Jehovah’s Witness or a Baha’i or a Coptic Christian, it is your right to do that. The anti-conversion laws in India that prevent you from doing that are despicable.

According to the US Commission on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, authorities predominantly arrest Muslims and Christians for conversion activities, whereas mass conversions to Hinduism often take place without any interference from the authorities. They have double standards, powered by the anti-conversion laws and often with the police’s complicity, right-wing groups conduct campaigns of harassment, social exclusion and violence against Christians, Muslims and other religious minorities across the whole country. Worryingly, this law seems to be strengthening. Four more Indian States are planning to introduce anti-conversion laws in 2021, in this year—more stringent laws to deliberately persecute and disenfranchise Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups. If that happens, close to two thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people will be under some anti-conversion law. That is how far this goes, Mr Chairman, and that is why it is so important to highlight it today.

Before I finish—I have a couple of pages to go—I feel obliged to mention the Citizenship Amendment Act, or the CAA as it is known, which was passed into law in India in 2019 and provides a fast-track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from certain neighbouring countries. The CAA is very concerning because making faith a condition for citizenship flies in the face of both Article 18 of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights and the Indian constitution. To decide that and pass it into law is wrong. Its defenders say that it prohibits religious discrimination; that it is designed to protect minorities who have been persecuted in neighbouring states.

You leave a neighbouring state where you are facing persecution and you end up in India and the persecution continues, just by a different person, or a different Government, or a different rule. This can never be acceptable. It is difficult to accept, given that the Act does not include the Ahmadiyya Muslims from Pakistan, and I want to make a plea for them today as well. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has been a spokesperson for that cause on many occasions. I know that she would ask me and others to speak up for the Ahmadiyya Muslims as well, arguably the most persecuted minority group in that country.

The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have experienced ethnic cleansing and potential genocide at the hands of the Burmese military. How many of us have not been absolutely cut to the heart by what has happened to them? The Indian Government have deported Rohingya refugees rather than seeking to offer them a means to citizenship; a means to better themselves; a means of helping them.

The CAA is particularly concerning when it is considered in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens, the NRC. The NRC requires Indians to prove in court that they came to the state by 24 March 1971, or they will be declared illegal migrants. When the Assam state NRC was released in August 2019, 1.9 million residents were excluded. Why? Because they did not suit the form, the type of people India wanted. Those affected live in fear of statelessness, deportation or prolonged detention. They need protection. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some indication of what is happening in relation to that.

The Indian Government have plans to introduce a nationwide NRC, under which the citizenship of millions would be placed in question. However, with the CAA in place, non-Muslims will have a path to restore their citizenship and avoid detention or deportation, whereas Muslims would have to bear the consequences of potential statelessness. It just cannot be right to have a two-tier focus on those who are Christians, those who are Muslims, and those who are Hindus.

This move bears worrying similarities to the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, who, in 1982, also had their citizenship removed and were labelled illegal immigrants before being demonised and then eventually attacked by the Burmese military. The stories that we heard of the Rohingyas and what they had to go through were outrageous. I think they worried every one of us and probably brought tears to our eyes. People were killed and butchered or abused, their homes burnt, just because they were Rohingyas.

If this sounds like an extreme comparison, I point hon. Members to the words of Amit Shah, the Indian Home Minister, who, in 2019, described people considered to be illegal immigrants as “termites”, and said that,

“A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.”

If that is not inflamed rhetoric, if that does not inflame the situation, if that is not a hate crime in the very words of a person in power, I don’t know what is. I feel greatly disturbed, greatly annoyed, angered even, that any person in a position of power, but especially the Indian Home Minister, should say anything like that.

To conclude, I reiterate that India is a great ally of the UK, but it must be possible to have constructive criticism among allies and friends. We must come to Westminster Hall and this House and say the things that are factual on behalf of those who have no voice. Great Britain, our Government and our Minister work extremely hard to put forward the case on behalf of those across the world who do not have someone to speak for them: those who, in their own country, where they have lived for many years, do not have the rights that we have—and they do not have those rights as immigrants, either. It is our responsibility to raise those concerns not just on behalf of the minorities who are persecuted but for the benefit of all Indian and British people.

The large majority of people in India believe in fair play and the right to religious belief, but there are those—some in positions of power—who are not prepared to allow that. Violations of freedom of religious belief lead to domestic conflict, which is good neither for India’s economic prosperity, nor for the chances of a stable, long-term trading relationship between India and the UK. We want to have that relationship, but we also want human rights to be protected. Those of different religions should have the opportunity to worship their God and to work, have houses and businesses and live a normal life without being persecuted because they happen to be of a different religion.

I urge the Minister to support his Indian counterparts to realise the political, strategic and economic benefits of guaranteeing the rule of law and human rights. I also call on him—I believe he is a Minister who wants to help, and his response will reflect that—to ensure that robust human rights provisions are included in any future trade and investment agreements with India. If we are to have a relationship with India—we do want that relationship—it is important that that is reflected. We in this country have high regard for human rights, the right to worship a God and the religious freedom that we have, and that should be had in India, too. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for coming; I have left them plenty of time to participate.