It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I would like to start by congratulating Jim Shannon, who I thought gave a passionate account of his views on this matter, along with other Members who secured this debate, including the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). I would like to thank hon. Members on these Benches for their contributions. I thought my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms gave a particularly compelling and balanced account of the issues we are facing. Other contributors, not least my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), made a number of very important points.
I want to stress that those on the Labour Front Bench stand firmly behind the rights of minorities to religious freedom, both in India and across the world. The Labour party’s new foreign policy puts the rule of law, democracy and human rights at the very heart of our agenda, and we are absolutely clear that religious freedom is a critical right that must be universally upheld. However, the wider picture is that, according to recent research by the V-Dem Institute, for the first time since 2001 authoritarian regimes outnumber the world’s democracies, and the number of such regimes is growing. That is why it is essential for democracies, of which India is of course the world’s largest, to stand firm together in defence of universal human rights. We must lead by example in standing up for freedom of expression and freedom of religion. They are the cornerstones of the values that we in the United Kingdom, and particularly the Labour party, hold dear. They should be the values that democrats across the world cherish.
We have consistently stood up for religious freedoms throughout Asia. We have called on the UK Government to take action against the Chinese Government for their persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang by deploying Magnitsky sanctions against senior officials. We also consistently urge Ministers to defend the rights of minorities in Sri Lanka, and to act far more robustly on to the appalling treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
The Labour party has stood up for human rights in India, including by standing by Amnesty International in India, which was recently forced to discontinue its operations due to what it described as “persistent harassment” by the Indian Government. I also recently expressed our strong belief that the farmers protesting in India must have the right to peaceful protest, and that the Indian authorities must commit to upholding that right. Again, UK Ministers should be engaging far more actively and effectively with their counterparts in New Delhi to convey that message clearly.
The religious rights of minority groups in India are a hugely important issue. In the three years to June 2019, India’s national human rights commission registered 2,008 cases of minorities being harassed. Every one of those events is heartbreaking for those affected, who in some instances lost their lives, for their families and for all of us who wish to see India thrive as a nation.
Religious minorities constitute one fifth of India’s population. Articles 29 and 30 of the constitution protect the rights of those communities, including the right to use their own language and to form their own educational institutions. Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, caste, sex or place of birth. In spite of those constitutional protections, however, in late 2019, the Indian Government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act caused concern because it failed to state that it would offer a path to fast-track citizenship for Muslim immigrants, while explicitly committing to fast-tracking Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
More recently, in late February 2020, New Delhi experienced terrible communal violence. The initial attacks were predominantly by members of the majority Hindu population against Muslim minority groups. The death toll reached 53. The majority of those who died were Muslims, but many Hindus also lost their lives and parts of north-east Delhi were put under lockdown. Every section of the population is profoundly damaged by such violence and strife.
Later in 2020, the persecution of Muslims continued as they were blamed for the spread of covid-19, as many hon. Members have mentioned. Hon. Members have also eloquently pointed out that Christians have suffered some persecution. According to Persecution Relief, between January 2016 and January 2020, there were 2,067 crimes inspired by religious intolerance against Christians in India.
India is the world’s largest democracy. As such, it can and should take its place as a leader in global affairs and a shaper of the global agenda. It is also a hugely diverse rainbow nation. As such, it has an opportunity to be one of the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multicultural societies. The vast majority of the Indian population, whatever their ethnicity or religion, are rightly proud of their country’s vibrant diversity and are committed to the principles of religious freedom that are important in any healthy democracy. The Indian Government have, of course, made some effort to support minorities through their multi-sector development programme, with the majority of the spend going on education. We are confident that those interventions will yield positive results.
In the light of the above, we call on Ministers to engage actively with their counterparts in New Delhi; to set out the role of the new special envoy on freedom of religion and belief, Fiona Bruce, and what she will do to encourage tolerance and inclusion; to explain the Government’s plan to compensate for the abolition of the Department for International Development, which did some outstanding work promoting religious freedoms across the globe; and to explain the decision to renege on the Government’s manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on development. Can the Minister tell us which DFID programmes for freedom of religion and belief will survive these swingeing cuts?
It is vital that the Government take a serious and strategic approach to defending religious freedoms, and we look forward to the Minister’s answers on these vital issues.