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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:30 am on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:30 am, 12th January 2021

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is a point that I will echo later in my speech. However, several hon. Members in Westminster Hall today have been recipients of emails from members of the Indian diaspora, the High Commission of India, and even a Member of the House of Lords, all getting their excuses in early and suggesting that the issues raised in today’s debate are overblown or misplaced. Only this morning, a number of us received an email with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards copied in, complaining that by taking part in this debate we were in breach of the MPs’ code of conduct—which is frankly nonsense, and I expect the Commissioner will clarify that.

As a Scottish nationalist MP, I understand the optics of India’s former colonial rulers being seen to lecture them on human rights and democracy; that is an irony that will not be lost on many people. However, as I said earlier, foreign affairs is still very much a matter reserved to this Parliament, and it is therefore right that we comment, whether on India or on other parts of the world. I have no problem whatsoever with other Parliaments commenting on our situation as well.

In an email that we received from the noble Lord Ranger, we were reminded—if not rebuked—that India is the largest working democracy globally. I have to say, being reminded by an unelected peer about India being a democracy was certainly a novel experience, but Lord Ranger went on to say that

“a free trade agreement is on the cards in the not too distant future.”

He is right: it is precisely because India is the world’s largest democracy, and a country with which the UK seeks a free trade agreement, that we are having this debate today and bringing into sharp focus violations of FORB and persecution of minority groups.

Religious persecution in India is a topic that I have been following for several years now, but I want to draw the attention of the House to a report from Open Doors UK, entitled “We’re Indians Too”. That report provided a sobering analysis of the escalating human rights violations against religious minority communities in India. Although religion-based violence has existed for years, analysis of instances since 2014 demonstrate that Hindu extremists have created an environment of hate and intolerance towards India’s religious minorities, primarily its Christian and Muslim communities. This in turn has led to an escalation of violence, social ostracism, property destruction, hate speech, disruption of peaceful non-Hindu religious activities, and false accusations of conversion activities. This has all been compounded yet further by the emergence of covid-19. We have heard alarming testimony of Christians from different states walking hundreds of miles to Madhya Pradesh state, being denied rations and informed that they would not have access to assistance. Indeed, the hon. Member for Strangford has said already that Muslims continue to be targeted as a perceived source of coronavirus and in many cases have been denied medical treatment as a result of that rhetoric.

Just as I have paid tribute to the work of Open Doors, I also want to thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide for all of its advocacy in respect of India. With your forbearance, Mr Robertson, I want to single out Joanne Moore who has been instrumental in briefing me on FORB issues over the years, specifically on but not limited to India. Joanne leaves CSW this month and will be enormously missed by all of us in the House who have appreciated her diligence, passion and expertise.

The South Asia state of minorities report of 2020, published just last month, paints a picture of spiting, oppressive and minority politics, the criminalisation of dissent and a deteriorating humanitarian situation within India. Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, wrote, and I quote:

“In India, human rights defenders and religious minorities protesting discriminatory laws and practices have faced restrictions, violence, criminal defamation, detention and harassment.”

She went on to say:

“Other recent legislation limits freedom of opinion and expression, in the guise of preventing disharmony and disaffection.”

The situation is grave, and the UK has a role to play, I would argue. It is imperative that the Prime Minister’s upcoming trip to India in the first half of 2021 is used to send a signal that an enhanced trade partnership between the UK and India will not be signed until real change is realised. The British Government often comment that the UK has very constructive relations with India. It is precisely for that reason, Mr Robertson, that we should be acting as a critical friend when it comes to advocating for minority groups facing persecution. As with any negotiation there are trade-offs, but turning a blind eye to the persecution of religious minorities should not be one of them. It must be the case that that remains a priority for the British Government and this matter should be a red line in any future trade agreement.

Last night the House had an excellent debate on the concept of global Britain. I made it clear then and I do so again today that global Britain is not the SNP’s project. We wish it well, but we do not wish Scotland to be a part of it for obvious reasons. However, an early first test for global Britain is in confronting the increasingly thuggish Modi regime, which has seen the oppression of religious minorities for far, far too long. The Minister knows this particular caucus of MPs well enough to understand that we always put party and constitutional politics aside to advocate for international freedom of religion and belief. In doing so, though, we will hold the Government’s feet to the fire as the Prime Minister departs for India on his trip this year. The success of the trade mission will not just be measured in the size or scope of a free trade agreement. For me, the real measure will be whether or not Members of this House are still raising concerns about religious persecution later in the year, and I very much hope that we will not be.