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Recent Violence in India

Volume 672: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on recent violence in India and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will respond to this urgent question as the Foreign Secretary is in Turkey today.

The British high commission in New Delhi and our extensive diplomatic network of deputy high commissions across India are monitoring closely the recent violence in India and developments around the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. The events in Delhi last week were very concerning, and the situation is still tense. The death of one protester is one too many. We urge restraint from all parties and trust that the Indian Government will address the concerns of people of all religions in India. We also condemn any incidents of violence, persecution or targeting of people based on religion or belief, wherever it happens in the world.

India has a proud history of inclusive government and religious tolerance. Its secular constitution, which guarantees equality before the law, has been an exemplar of inclusive democracy. After his re-election, I note that Prime Minister Modi promised to continue this under the guiding principles of

“together with all, development for all and trust for all”.

These shared strengths and values are central to the governance of both our countries. It is a central message of our foreign policy that societies are stronger and safer when we embrace our diversity rather than fear it.

Many people have made it clear that they have concerns about the Government of India recently signing into law the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which expedites the path to citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians, but notably not Muslims or minority sects. The UK Government also have concerns about the potential impact of the legislation. It is because of our close relationship with the Government of India that we are able to discuss difficult issues with them and make clear our concerns where we have them, including on the rights of minorities.

Most recently, my ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon raised these concerns about the impact of the CAA with a senior member of India’s Ministry of External Affairs on 25 February. Officials from the British high commission in New Delhi also raised our concerns about the potential impact of the CAA and the police response to the protests with the state government of Uttar Pradesh on 7 February. Our former high commissioner in New Delhi, Sir Dominic Asquith, also raised the issue with the Government of India in January, as did Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials with the Indian high commission in London.

More broadly, the UK engages with India at all levels, including union and state governments, and with non-governmental organisations to build capacity and share expertise to promote human rights for all. We will continue to follow events closely and to raise our concerns when we have them.

I find the hon. Gentleman’s words rather facile. We have brought him to the Dispatch Box. I raised the issue with the Leader of the House on Thursday, and the Minister is here now. This urgent question concerns the sickening violence against Muslims that we have seen in India in recent weeks following the proposals in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. The CAA enables undocumented migrants from neighbouring countries to seek Indian citizenship, provided that they meet one condition: they are not Muslim. This is the first such law to have been passed in India since its independence. Next will come a national register of citizens, and undocumented Muslim migrants will automatically be excluded, held in concentration camps and identified for deportation.

Through such laws, Prime Minister Modi is turning a hateful nationalistic slogan into brutality. He recently said, “Hinduon ka Hindustan,” which is literally translated as, “India for the Hindus.” The CAA has generated nationwide protests by Muslims and secular Hindus, prompting politicians from the ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata party to demand that the sectarian hate mobs hit back. Recently in Delhi, more than 40 people were killed by mobs that attacked Muslim homes and families, but the authorities took no notice. As a result, in recent weeks, dozens of Muslims have been dragged out of their homes, burned, or beaten to death in the streets by mobs. Thousands of people have lost their livelihoods. All the while, the Indian police look on passively, and Modi cynically counts the benefits of electoral success.

For those who support India and want to see it take its rightful place as one of the global leaders of the 21st century, with a place on the United Nations Security Council, it is sickening to see such a descent into hatred and mob rule. What are the Government doing to take India off this path and to provide protection for its Muslim population? Has the Minister raised the issue with his Indian counterpart, and has he threatened to raise it at Commonwealth and UN level? If India behaves like a state with no regard for human rights, the rule of law or freedom of religion, it must urgently be made to face the consequences of its behaviour.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we deplore what we have seen over the last few weeks, and we condemn the violence that has been recorded and broadcast. We have raised, and do raise, concerns with the Indian Government, especially over such matters. As I said, we have concerns about the impact of the CAA, and my colleague, Lord Ahmad, has raised them with the Ministry of External Affairs. We continue that dialogue. As recently as mid-February, officials from the British high commission raised our concerns about the impact of the CAA, and particularly about the police response to those protests with the state government of Uttar Pradesh. I assure the hon. Gentleman that our dialogue with the Indian Government is ongoing.

I commend my hon. Friend for his responses so far, particularly his remark that one protester who is killed is one too many. He will be aware that it is not just Muslims who have been killed; Hindus have also been killed as part of the riots. Will he confirm that there have been 514 arrests following those riots, and that the police have organised 330 separate meetings with different communities to bring them together and calm the situation down? Will he commend that action to restore peace and tranquillity to Delhi?

My hon. Friend takes a keen interest in these affairs. I would commend and applaud any action that attempts to take the heat out of the severe tensions over the CAA that currently exist in parts of India.

There is a lot of agreement across the House, and I commend the Minister on his statement, with which I agreed, as far as it went—we need to be clear that we can go a lot further. The situation has been, as we have heard, occasioned by a deliberate Indian Government policy of targeting Muslims with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. In the short term, there is a real role for the UK Government—this was not mentioned in the statement—to build on the RESIST Government communication framework, as it is obvious that online disinformation is being used in India to inflame tensions. I commend the Government Communication Service and the Cabinet Office on this work. I think that the UK is in a position to undertake a real assessment of the online actors, including malign actors—this is aside from Indian Government policy, which is another issue, and I urge the Minister to step up efforts on dialogue regarding that—as there are online efforts that could be made against that sort of disinformation, as people are at risk of further violence.

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible and important point. I am pleased that he welcomes the report. Any measures, whether attempting to clamp down on online disinformation or those that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) raised, are welcome. We are in constant contact on these issues, and we know how important this is to Members of Parliament and their constituents, who may have family in the area. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. Will he confirm that he will use his high office and every power that he has to make sure that Members’ concerns are relayed to the Indian authorities, particularly given that the brutality seems to have been meted out by those who should enforce the law, as was recently shown in BBC coverage.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I alluded to our concerns about some of the police brutality that was meted out. We have long regarded protest as a key part of any democratic society. Democratic Governments must have the power to enforce law and order when a protest crosses the line into illegality, but we also encourage all states to ensure that their domestic laws are enforced in line with all international standards.

In the past five years, Narendra Modi’s BJP Government have chosen a path of systematic discrimination, whether the abrogation of article 35A in Kashmir or the citizenship law. Calling the recent violence “community clashes” seeks to normalise far more sinister events. India is now controlled by a Hindutva supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology, with strong historic links to the Nazi party. The current Prime Minister of India was a member of the RSS. What steps is our Prime Minister taking to call out that discriminatory practice at the heart of the Indian Government?

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. We are in constant contact with the Indian Government. I mentioned in my statement that we have concerns about the impact of the CAA legislation, particularly on Muslims, and she is right to raise that. Rest assured that, through our close relationship with India, we are able to raise those concerns with that Government, especially in a live situation.

The United Kingdom can be justifiably proud of being a world leader in matters relating to freedom of confession. Can the Minister confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will call for a thorough investigation of all and any abuses that have been perpetrated and use their influence to call for restraint?

My hon. Friend makes a sensible point, and it is because we have influence with the Indian Government that we are in a good position to do that. We have close contacts, and we actively promote—I think we are a world leader in this—matters relating to freedom of religion and belief. Ministers and senior officials raise individual cases and highlight practices and laws that discriminate against people on that basis.

Incited mob violence in Delhi on the basis of someone’s faith brings back painful personal memories, as a religious minority, of the 1984 genocide of Sikhs while I was studying in India. We must learn from history, not be fooled by those whose insidious aim is to divide society and are hellbent on killing people and destroying religious places in the name of religion. What message has the Minister given to his Indian counterparts that the persecution of Indian Muslims, many of whom have protested peacefully against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, is utterly intolerable; that the police cannot stand idly by or, worse still, be complicit, as is alleged by many victims and social activists; and that the perpetrators must feel the full force of the law?

The hon. Gentleman speaks very powerfully from personal experience. It is absolutely essential that we speak up when we believe that abuses have taken place. When protest crosses the line into illegality, as I mentioned, the Government need to act within all domestic and international laws to make sure that those laws are enforced. He is absolutely right to raise these issues, and we are constantly talking at ministerial and official levels with the Government of India about our concerns, particularly regarding the CAA.

I am speaking on behalf of a great number of constituents who have presented me with very grave concerns about what is happening in India. Does my hon. Friend agree that clamping down on any human rights abuses will always be a central part of UK foreign policy?

That is absolutely right. We take the lead on this issue around the world and we are well regarded. This is a core part of our foreign policy, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that in the House on behalf of his constituents.

We know that there is a pattern of behaviour and that this is just the latest example of religious intolerance in India. When Prime Minister Modi welcomed Donald Trump a couple of weeks ago, we saw the two of them embracing each other and scrambling to do a trade agreement. In the scramble for a post-Brexit trade deal, what reassurances can the Minister give that we will not be doing the same and that we will raise these cases at the highest levels of government and not ignore human rights when it comes to doing trade deals?

While trade is vital for our economy and future prosperity, this in no way compromises the United Kingdom’s commitment to holding human rights at the core of our foreign policy. I guarantee the hon. Gentleman that we will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently introduced an intervention plea in the Supreme Court of India about the CAA; she has been given a brush-off by the Indian Government. What are we doing to bolster the position of the UN commissioner?

I am aware of the intervention to which my hon. Friend refers. I assure him that we raise our concerns privately and regularly with the Government of India. We will continue to engage with them on a full range of human rights matters and we raise our concerns when we have them, particularly at the current time.

As the BBC recently reported, the latest outbreak of violence in Delhi is very worrying, as there is evidence that the police are complicit in and, indeed, encouraging violence against Muslims. What are the Government doing to make sure that they are talking to their counterparts in Delhi to ensure that Muslim’s lives there are safe?

The hon. Member raises a very good point. Any allegation of human rights abuses is deeply disturbing, and the violence that we saw was incredibly concerning. I assure the House that we have made it clear that those incidents must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently.

The fact that the Indian Government have felt able to pass this law and some of the responses that we have seen to it are deeply distressing. Will my hon. Friend not only confirm that he will continue to raise this at the highest level but make a commitment that Foreign Office staff will now start planning how we can act to raise the pressure on this issue before there is any further escalation, rather than reacting in response to it?

I know that my hon. Friend has great experience of foreign affairs, having worked in the Department, and she raises a very good and crucial point. Because we have that close relationship with India through our officials and at a ministerial level, we can have that dialogue. She makes a very sensible point about being pre-emptive rather than reactive.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the violence it has precipitated would be concerning enough if it was a single isolated act, but we all know that it is not; it comes on the heels of Modi’s Government’s actions in relation to Kashmir and the implementation in Assam of a national register of citizens. It is beginning to look like part of a course of conduct designed to marginalise the Muslim population in India. India is part of the Commonwealth. What are we doing through that forum, alongside the bilateral representations that I trust we are making?

The right hon. Gentleman rightly mentions the NRC in Assam. I know that there are concerns in that area as well. Through our network of high commissioners, we continually assess that situation. I can get back to the right hon. Gentleman in writing on action through the Commonwealth.

On the intervention application to the Indian Supreme Court by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, does the Minister believe that this is an internal sovereign issue, or does he believe that it is an international issue, given that India is a signatory to a plethora of international law obligations?

We raise these issues directly and have done so privately. I am aware of what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has filed, but the UK Government intend to pursue our policy of raising issues directly with the Government of India.

In October 1984, Delhi witnessed the genocide of Sikhs in their thousands under Congress rule. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that all ethnic and religious minorities in India can feel safe, secure and free from persecution?

All minorities in India deserve that protection, and I can assure the hon. Lady that we constantly remind our counterparts at official and ministerial levels of their responsibilities in that regard.

In my constituency, families of Indian origin have wonderful relations with each other, whether they are Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, so it is heartbreaking to see the violence in India. Is the Minister thinking about how we can use all our policies, including our aid policies, to encourage equally good relationships between communities in India itself?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the UK Government have several projects in India, though we do not provide funding directly to the Government of India. I know that this can be helpful and that our intervention is appreciated in many areas.

I echo the Minister’s tribute to the constitution of India. Since it was drafted under the leadership of Dr B. R. Ambedkar after independence, it has been admired around the world for its commitment to equality irrespective of religion. Does he share my sadness that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act is such a decisive move away from that principle because, as he has explained, for some it makes citizenship dependent on their religion?

I do share the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns. The UK Government have broad concerns about the Act, which is why we are engaging directly with the Government. He is right to raise this matter because it is a huge concern.

Those of us with significant Indian Muslim communities will have seen videos showing shocking orchestrated sectarian violence. May I encourage the Minister to invite the Indian high commissioner to his office to share with him the deep concern of many of our constituents about their families and friends in India? If there is one silver lining in this very dark cloud it is what one Gujarati Muslim said to me, which is that he and his family now value more than ever the pluralism and safety across faiths that this country provides.

My hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge and passion on all these matters and is right to raise this issue. I will speak to my ministerial colleague, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who I know has a close relationship with the high commissioner. I am sure that this matter has been raised, but on behalf of my hon. Friend and his constituents, I will ensure that Lord Ahmad has a meeting with the high commissioner shortly.

Many of my constituents have raised concerns about the ongoing situation in India and Jammu and Kashmir. There is something the Minister could do to be of assistance. There will be many people within the UK Visas and Immigration system awaiting a decision, including people who have been through religious persecution already. What advice would he give to his colleagues in the Home Office on how those cases should be dealt with and will he ensure that the advice on India and Jammu and Kashmir is updated to reflect the ongoing situation?

We regularly update our advice on Kashmir via the FCO website and we encourage people to take close notice of that. I am sure that my colleagues in the Home Office will have noted the hon. Lady’s question and will make sure she gets a follow-up.

Our close relationship with India will ensure that our concerns on this matter are heard. What representations have the Government made to the Government of India to ensure that they, their states and their agents always act in compliance with international law?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. It is because we have a close relationship with India that we can raise our concerns at all levels with the Government of India. Most recently, just over a week ago, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon raised our concerns about the CAA directly with India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

In August 2019, the Indian Government stripped Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomous status. In December, it passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which provides a path to citizenship for all migrant minorities except Muslims and creates a national register of citizens, forcing Indians to provide documents to prove their citizenship, which many poorer Indians do not have and many Muslims will not be able to get. Does the Minister accept that the recent violence in Delhi, which has been whipped up by BJP politicians and has led to dozens of deaths, is just the latest targeted assault on Muslims by the Modi Government?

The UK Government have deep concerns about the escalation that the hon. Lady refers to. She mentioned the NRC, which is currently enacted in the state of Assam. We have not received any confirmation from the Government of India that it will be expanded India-wide, but she is right to raise concerns, because millions of people could be affected and will be very concerned about this policy.

I do indeed. We actively promote the importance of freedom of religion and belief and we combat discrimination on the basis of religious identity through our diplomatic activity and through the UN and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Recently, delegates from Nottingham’s Indian diaspora came to see me and challenged me—quite legitimately—over our special connection and relationship with India, which they said gave us a responsibility to speak out against what we have seen in Kashmir and with the CAA. The Minister has talked about the contact between our Government and the Government of India, but he has not said what impact that has had. He has detailed his strategy. What evidence does he have that it is working?

As I have said numerous times, we are constantly making representations where we believe there are human rights abuses. On Kashmir, as is well known, our position is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution while taking into account the wishes of Kashmiri people. The Indian Government take notice of what the UK Government say, and that dialogue will continue.

The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is of particular concern to my constituents, many of whom have family and friends in the region. This is obviously a complex issue, but will my hon. Friend agree to put more pressure on the Indian and Pakistani Governments to take action to find a resolution that results in peace in Jammu and Kashmir?

Indeed. My ministerial colleagues talk to their colleagues in not just the Indian but the Pakistani Government. I can assure my hon. Friend and his constituents that that dialogue continues and that we consistently press for channels of dialogue to remain open. We believe that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution, and we want to encourage the pace and scope of their dialogue.

Will the Minister join me in rejecting the language of riots, clashes, protest and communal violence? This is, in fact, a continuation of sustained and systemic Hindutva violence waged on the Muslim and many minority ethnic communities in India that is sanctioned by Modi’s BJP Government.

The UK Government have long regarded protest as a legitimate means of raising issues and as part of democratic society, but any allegations of human rights abuse are very concerning, and we believe that they should be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently.

Can the Minister share with us the reason why the Indian Government have excluded Muslims from the Citizenship (Amendment) Act? Does he agree that legislation should never discriminate on the basis of faith?

I can assure the hon. Lady that such legislation does give us cause for concern, especially for the Muslim community, and we make those points very clearly when we meet our counterparts.