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Christians and Religious Minorities: India

Volume 709: debated on Thursday 24 February 2022

I beg to move,

That this has considered the matter of the persecution of Christians and religious minorities in India.

It has been a while since we had a debate on this issue, although a few days ago we were fortunate enough to have a debate on India-UK trade negotiations, introduced by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I commented on the issue of the persecution of Christians and other ethnic groups in India during that debate, ever mindful that this debate was coming up. I am pleased to see the hon. Gentleman here; in fact, I am pleased to see everyone here. I wanted to mention that debate, because perhaps it was a warm-up for this debate. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. Looking around this hall, I see that most of the people here are members of it. Indeed, some are officers of the APPG.

I am always an optimist, and always have been; I live my life along those lines. I always look to better things. This debate looks to better things in India, ever mindful that we have a special relationship. It is my hope that things in life will get better. I prefer the glass half full to the glass half empty, and think we should try to build the world a better future. That is at the crux of this debate. With prayer and perseverance, crises may resolve, relationships will heal, and collectively we inch towards a better world. I believe we can achieve that if we all have the same motivation, and try to achieve the same goal.

I am pleased to see the Minister for Levelling Up Communities in her place—I look forward to her response—and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) on the Opposition Front Bench. I am also glad to see my good friend from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson)—there is not a debate that she is at that I am not at alongside her, and vice versa. I am very pleased to see the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), who has just joined the all-party parliamentary group, here to support the debate. I thank the Library for the background information it has given us.

Freedom of religion or belief is always my hope, but looking back on the past year in India, it cannot be said to have been there for Christians and other religious or belief minorities. Back in 2016, in his address to the United States Congress, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said that

“For my Government, the Constitution is its real holy book. And in that holy book, freedom of faith, speech and franchise, and equality of all citizens, regardless of background, are enshrined as fundamental rights.”

To be fair to President Modi, he has the motivation to do that, but the reality is very different. Some of the examples I will refer to are evidence of where that is not happening. That is what the debate is about. President Modi also said, referring to some extremely violent clashes, that a new law would have

“ no effect on citizens of India, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Buddhists.”

Well, if only. In fact, it has an effect on all the religious minorities. They no longer have the freedom they once had. They can no longer follow their beliefs and express their religious views. Today’s debate offers time to stop and reflect on the situation regarding freedom of religion or belief in India and the problems that persist today.

In January 2021, this same topic was discussed by this House. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Harrow East and everyone else here was present for that debate. Some might wonder why we are raising the subject again. Well, I will tell the House: we are raising it quite simply because, looking back at developments in India over the last 12 months, we find a string of human rights abuses and the suffering of Christians. More than ever, Her Majesty’s Government need to take additional steps to encourage full and rigorous defence of freedom of religion or belief for all. The steps they have taken so far are clearly not enough. Christians and other minorities continue to be failed by efforts in this regard.

In the previous debate, I commented on the lack of representation of Christians and other groups in the political sphere, but looking through the Library background briefing, I see it shows that at least one of India’s states is taking steps to ensure that there is political representation of all groups.

Many minority communities have played prominent roles in Indian politics and public life since the country’s foundation in 1948, and that continues today.

The right hon. Lady is right that there are examples in the past, but in many Indian states, representation for minority groups is not in place. Previously, there was a free country where freedom to practise one’s religion was in place, as President Modi said in 2016, but today, in 2022, the same cannot be said. I note that the right hon. Lady is a sponsor of the annual Open Doors event. I gently remind her that in the past year, India has seen grave violations of freedom or belief. A report by the United Christian Forum highlighted that 2021 was one of the worst years for attacks on Christians in India, with ongoing impunity for the perpetrators of violence. In 2013, Open Doors’ world watch list ranked India 31st of the 50 countries where Christians face the highest levels of persecution; and last month, in its latest list, India was ranked 10th. In short, there can be little doubt that the situation is getting worse at an alarmingly fast rate.

The research sounds the alarm on the escalation of freedom or belief violations in India—not just against Christians, but against those of other faiths and beliefs. In many cases, freedom of religion or belief is a litmus test for the full realisation of other human rights. When citizens cannot freely exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief, it is depressingly inevitable that other human rights are being compromised.

At the heart of all freedom of religion or belief is the ability freely to change one’s religion or belief, free from fear. In other words, a Hindu should be able to become Muslim or Christian. Unfortunately, that is practically impossible in about a third of India’s states. There is some flexibility in some states, but there are certainly states where there is no flexibility at all. A third of India’s 28 states prohibit or limit religious conversion to protect the dominant religion, Hinduism, from perceived threats from religious minorities. That is entirely unnecessary; it stems from prejudice against non-Hindu religions and support for Hindutva, an ideology that does not count Indians who are Christian or from other religious minorities as true Indians because they have allegiances that lie outside India. They might believe in something other than Hinduism, but their allegiance to the Indian state is not in doubt. The Indian Government must look at where they are on that, discuss those issues, and make sure that there is opportunity for all.

Speaking of opportunity, the background information given to us for this debate says:

“Christians and Muslims…do not qualify for the officially reserved jobs or school placements available”

to Hindus,

“putting these groups at a significant economic and social disadvantage.”

These things need to be fair. If a country’s constitution mentions freedom and equality, the country should ensure those things, not draw away from them.

This is not an easy debate. I am well aware of our countries’ close relationship and I welcome it. Indeed, the other day, the hon. Member for Harrow East and I mentioned how important that closeness was, particularly when it comes to trade between the UK and India.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the close relationship between India and the UK. Does he agree that that relationship puts the UK in a unique position to be a positive force for change, and to encourage and pressure India to respect religious minorities?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I hope, as I think we all do, that we can achieve that through this debate. That is why I look forward to the Minister’s response. She is always fair and always gives a calculated response. We are conveying our feelings and thoughts to her, and ultimately, I am sure, to India, so that it takes the opportunity to address these issues.

It is not my wish to alienate a close ally, but these caveats must not prevent us from speaking up when we see the mistreatment of minorities and mistreatment on grounds of religion or belief. Indeed, it is the close relationship between the UK and India that necessitates our raising the alarm, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran says. The UK is the third biggest investor in India, and in 2020, India became the second largest investor in the UK, so trade is clearly an important issue. To be frank, people including my constituents—and me; I am no different—care where their taxpayers’ money goes. Customers increasingly care about corporate responsibility and social impact; our country should not think that it is above such standards. We are not. The majority of people think that if the United Kingdom were to trade with a country that violates and abuses the human rights of its citizens, the UK would be somewhat complicit in that abuse.

In various debates this week, most of them to do with Russia, we have highlighted human rights abuses and persecution. We have also talked about China and where it has done wrong. In the main Chamber and Westminster Hall, and through our Government officials and the steps that the Government are taking, we are highlighting these issues, and today, we are doing the same. One thing is clear: our nation cares about human rights abuses in India. A majority of people think that the amount of foreign aid that the UK provides to a country should be tied to its performance on certain human rights standards. It is undeniable that one human right currently being violated in India is freedom of religion or belief. A range of religious and belief minorities, not the least of whom are Christians, are suffering infringements of this right. I will go through some of these violations.

Attacks against Christians have been refuelled in recent years and months by the impact of online disinformation and hate speech. How easy it is to hide behind a screen and destroy people, or fill people’s head with things that turn them against others. On 6 December last year, a mob armed with stones and iron rods attacked St Joseph’s school in Ganj Basoda, days after a video was circulated on social media that falsely claimed that the school was forcibly converting Hindus to Christianity. The video was not filmed at the school; it was not even filmed near the school, and none of the students were present, yet the misinformation was peddled through that video. The language and disinformation in the video were deliberately provocative and sought to target the local Christian minority community.

The video succeeded in its aim, which was the attack organised for the following day. When the school’s principal was warned of the imminent attack, he immediately requested police protection, but—alarmingly—no such protection was provided. That is a terrible stain on the police. Although the police assured him that the protests would be peaceful and that they would send officers to guard the school, on the day itself the police failed to show up; they arrived only after the crowd had dispersed, having already caused distress and destruction. As this tragic event shows all too well, online misinformation and hate speech accelerate violent attacks, and the relevant authorities often do not do enough to prevent the brutality. There is no doubt that online misinformation can lead to violence, which happens on a frighteningly regular basis, and indeed today.

Another example of the horror that Christians face can be found in countless reports issued over the last year. Ours is a country of freedom of religion and belief, free from persecution and intimidation, and we know that Christmas is a very important date in the calendar for Christians—indeed, for many people, but especially Christians. In the run-up to Christmas in India, many churches in Karnataka state were forced to cancel their Christmas celebrations following threats from radical groups. More than 150 churches did not open over Christmas due to the fear of attacks, and many other churches opted to limit their Christmas celebrations. Their caution was not without cause. On 24 and 25 December, Christmas eve and Christmas day, dozens of churches were attacked across the states of Assam, Haryana, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. Services were stopped short, Bibles were set on fire, a statue of Jesus was torn down and the crowds shouted, “Death to missionaries!” Is that what their religion tells them—“Death to missionaries”? It is not what my religion or my beliefs tell me, and it should not be what any other religion or belief tells anyone else either.

Father Anand, a priest at one of the targeted churches and therefore on the frontline, said that the protests were indicative of the increased attacks that Christians in India have been facing in recent months. He said:

“This is a symbol of what is happening because these people have impunity, and it creates tension…Every Sunday is a day of terror and trauma for Christians, especially those belonging to those small churches”,

which feel under threat. I go to church every Sunday, Mr Stringer, as I suspect others in this place do. We are free to do so and we enjoy it in peace, but for those Christians in India every Sunday is a day of terror and trauma. Let the devastation of that phrase just sink in; think about what that means. When we go to church on Sunday, we do so in peace, and we thank God for it. If we had to go through a crowd to get to church, and if we came out to be stoned or potentially face attacks against our property or damage to our cars, it would put things into perspective.

Christians are not the only ones who suffer. In recent years, there have been several high-profile murders of well-known rationalist leaders. I am not sure my Ulster Scots accent will aptly render this gentleman’s name, but in 2015, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, a 77-year-old scholar and university professor, was killed after receiving death threats following criticism of idol worship during a seminar. In 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, a member organisation of Humanists International, was murdered in Maharashtra state. Despite both cases being high profile, to this day there has been inaction and a failure to prosecute suspects for either crime.

Muslims suffer challenges and attacks too. At a conference of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha political party on 31 December, delegates were encouraged to attack Muslims with the words,

“If 100 of us become soldiers and are prepared to kill 2 million”


“then we will win. We will protect India, and make it a Hindu nation.”

That is not what should be said by any religion, and it certainly should not be said by the Hindu political party. My God tells me that he is a God of love. He is also a God of judgment, but he is a God of love. I suspect that everybody else’s religion tells them something similar, so why turn it into a campaign? Despite immediate international condemnation, Pooja Shakun Pandey, who made the remarks, was only arrested weeks later after sustained pressure from the international community.

The double vulnerability faced by female Muslims was also highlighted this year when Karnataka state introduced a ban on Muslim schoolgirls wearing a headscarf. Malala Yousafzai has since responded by saying that the move is forcing Muslim girls

“to choose between studies and the hijab.”

The choice between an education and one’s religion should never be a dichotomy that anyone, let alone a child, should ever have to face. In addition to the attacks, Muslims have faced increased discrimination during the covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, Indian Government Ministers accused the Muslim Tablighi Jamaat minority of spreading covid-19. It was an absolute fallacy, but people were geed up and fired up by it, and they took action against Muslims.

I thank the hon. Member for securing the debate. I would like to speak briefly on behalf of my constituents in Bolton North East. I have one of the largest Indian Gujarati Muslim communities in the United Kingdom—it numbers somewhere around 14,000. What are the hon. Gentleman’s views on how important it is that, as we increasingly develop our bilateral relationship with India, we bring all the opportunities and things that could be better to the table in those sorts of discussions?

That is one of the objective of today’s debate, and we hope that we can reach a better understanding. The views that I had when I was 20 are very different from the views that I have now, in my 60s. I see things very differently today from when I was younger. I feel responsible for the words that I use, which is why I try to be very careful with my terminology and what I say. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is important that we pick our words and try to understand someone else’s point of view. We may not agree with it, but we should certainly understand it and appreciate that they have a point of view. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest there is a duty on us all to do so, and I make that point on behalf of Muslims, because it is important.

As I mentioned earlier, freedom of religion or belief is a gateway right and a strong indicator of the future trajectory of the human rights landscape in a country. Often religious or belief minorities are the first groups to be targeted before other rights are eroded. Sadly, we are now seeing warning signs that attacks on fundamental human rights are targeted not only on religion or belief minorities, but on journalists and critics of the Government. Human rights apply to religious minorities and ethnic groups, but they also apply to journalists who are critical of President Modi and who often find themselves being denounced as anti-Indian. Earlier I said that they are not anti-Indian, but they want to have freedom. They are as proudly pro-Indian as any other citizens. Two UN special rapporteurs recently highlighted the treatment of journalist Rana Ayyub, who is a victim of intensifying attacks and threats made online by far-right Hindu nationalist groups due to her critical reporting on Prime Minister Modi and issues affecting the Muslim community—the very people to whom the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan) referred a few moments ago.

What is happening in India cannot be overlooked and deserves greater attention from the international community and Her Majesty’s Government. There is broad consensus among academics and civil society that there are increased attacks against India’s religious and belief minorities. The evidential base is there and cannot be ignored. When a country’s constitution calls for freedom for all religious and ethnic groups, it has to mean more than just words. There has to be action as well.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Amnesty International, Genocide Watch, the London School of Economics, the Institute for Development Studies, Humanists International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Hindus for Human Rights and Open Doors—the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) is a great promoter of that organisation, and we never miss the event that she hosts every year—all agree that the situation for religious and belief minorities in India is dire. The hon. Member for Bolton North East, whose accent gives him away, knows that we use that word often and regularly, because it describes the issues very well.

This is the question we are asking: when will our Government gently remind President Modi and his Government that they have to do more to address the issues? Important though trade is, that is a key question in the debate and from me to the Minister, to my Minister in my Government. Earlier this week, in the debate led by the hon. Member for Harrow East, I encouraged the Government to raise the human rights violations as a new trade deal is negotiated with India. Since the 1990s, it has been the norm to include human rights provisions in international trade deals, and such provisions have the overwhelming support of the British public when they are asked if the UK should take into consideration human rights standards in a country with which we are negotiating and signing a trade deal.

As a country, we must use our new trade agreements to pursue broader international objectives and defend human rights across the world, in particular the right of freedom of religion or belief—I believe passionately in that, as the chair of the APPG. I believe in standing up for those with Christian beliefs, those who have other beliefs and those who have no belief, on the grounds that that is the right thing to do. That is what the debate is about today. This is just one of many things on which more can and must be done.

To conclude, India shares a very close relationship with the UK—we all know that well, and the Minister knows it in particular. My hope is that the debate is not seen to be disrespecting that relationship. Always, my hope and prayer is to strive to improve it, as I believe we can. Just as we are judged by the company we keep, so too are states by the allies and trade partners they keep. In the interests of accountability and of ensuring full freedom of religion or belief for all, the Government of this country—my Government and my Minister—must strive to hold all allies and friends to higher standards when it comes to freedom of religion or belief. No longer can we turn a blind eye—that cannot be the default.

Four Back Benchers have applied to speak and are standing. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 4 o’clock. I will not put a time limit on, but hon. Members can do the arithmetic.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

Freedom of religion is a fundamental right that must be defended and should be a high priority in our foreign policy. I have spoken out many times on the plight of Christians facing discrimination and oppression around the world, but it is vital that we base debates on such crucial issues on the facts. I am concerned that India is not getting a fair hearing in this Parliament.

Diversity, inclusion and respect for minority faiths has been a core principle of the state of India since its inception. In any country, there will be wrongdoers and extremists who commit crimes and incite hatred against minorities. Think of the vile abuse shouted from the so-called “convoy for Palestine” on the Finchley Road—just one of a record number of disgraceful antisemitic incidents recorded in this country last year alone. What is important is to look at is how a state responds to such criminal and unacceptable activities.

It is clear that India’s respect for the rule of law, its independent judiciary, its Human Rights Commission, its vibrant free press and its thriving democracy ensure that the greatest efforts are made to protect minorities from attack and from unfair treatment. Equality before the law and religious freedom are constitutionally protected in India. Not only that, the right of minorities to promote their identities and cultures is also constitutionally protected.

Institutions such as the National Commission for Minorities and the Ministry of Minority Affairs work actively to safeguard the rights of minority faiths. There are extensive government assistance programmes dedicated to minorities, including the Nai Roshni project to support leadership development among women. India’s phenomenal economic success in recent years is bringing millions of people of all faiths out of poverty across India.

Any person in India who has been attacked or treated unfairly because of their religion has my sympathy—especially Christians, whose faith I share. All such cases must be taken seriously by law enforcement authorities. However, we need to view them in the context of a minority population that could be as high as 200 million people. Among such a massive group, it is sadly inevitable that some will be victims of crime and disorder.

I find it disturbing when hon. Members assert that law enforcement authorities are somehow complicit in such attacks. If there is evidence, it should be brought to the attention of the appropriate authorities in India; if there is not, claims of complicity by the authorities should not be repeated. I would make a comparison with the allegations routinely made against the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Just as it is wrong to stigmatise the RUC with allegations of collusive behaviours without solid evidence, it is wrong to make those allegations about organisations in India.

I would also say that before trying to pass judgment on other countries, we should reflect on where the UK has failed minority groups. Most notoriously, the Windrush scandal caused deep hurt and suffering, and systemic problems at the Home Office clearly contributed to what happened.

In conclusion, India’s record on minority faiths is infinitely better than that of almost all its regional neighbours—especially Pakistan and China, where there are grave concerns about the treatment of religious minorities. In contrast, members of Christian, Muslim and other minority communities in India play a hugely successful, visible and positive role in business, politics, public life, media and culture. It is something we should all celebrate. It reflects the Government of India’s vision of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas”: together, for everyone’s growth, with everyone’s trust.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate and on his work in support of religious freedoms.

As a member of the APPG, I stand firmly behind the rights of minorities to religious freedom, both India and across the world. With the rise of nationalist and populist politics all over the world, we are witnessing increased threats to minority rights. According to recent research by the V-Dem Institute, authoritarian regimes outnumber the world’s democracies for the first time since 2001, and the number of such regimes is growing. It is therefore 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 and stand up for the freedoms of expression and religious belief. They are the cornerstones of the values that we in the United Kingdom, and particularly in the Labour party, hold dear; they are values that democrats across the world should defend. That is why, on behalf of my Sikh constituents—many of whom have families living in India—I would like to call attention to and condemn in the strongest possible terms the persecution of Sikhs and other religious minorities in India. We saw that persecution during last year’s farmers’ protests in India, where Sikh men and women faced the most appalling violence. I reiterate that the farmers in India must have the right to protest peacefully, and that the Indian authorities must commit to upholding that right.

We have seen a recent legacy of persecuting other religious minorities in India as well. In 2019, India passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which offers amnesty to non-Muslim illegal immigrants and expedites the path to Indian citizenship for members of six non-Muslim faiths. Both measures explicitly exclude migrants who are Muslim. Amnesty International has said that this Act

“legitimises discrimination on the basis of religion”.

The situation has been compounded by recent mob violence against Muslims—often working class men—in what Human Rights Watch has called “mob attacks against vulnerable communities.”

Equally as grave, we have heard reports of gruesome violence perpetrated against Christians across the country. Open Doors recently published a report based on research from the London School of Economics in which they refer to the case of Sunita, a Christian woman who was eight months pregnant. She was brutally assaulted by a group of men and suffered the death of her unborn baby as a result. The report also detailed the case of a Christian teenager in Odisha who was lynched and murdered by a vigilante mob.

These harrowing stories speak for themselves. We must use our platforms to shout down the appalling persecution of religious minorities in India. British foreign policy must place the rule of law, democracy and human rights at the heart of its agenda, and we must be clear that religious freedom is a critical right that must be universally upheld. I call on the Government to do just that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on leading the debate, and on setting the tone for it and the other contributions that have been made. May I gently but firmly correct him? Shri Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India and not the President. The hon. Gentleman referred to him as that in his speech, and I am sure he will want to correct that when he sums up at the end of the debate.

We have to be cautious when we come to lecture India on protecting religious freedom when in this country, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) alluded to, antisemitism is at its peak, anti-Muslim hatred has been launched and anti-Hindu feeling is strong. When so many people feel threatened, it ill befits us to lecture India. Equally, the history of the United Kingdom in India is not completely blame free, particularly in Punjab; the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) referred to her Sikh constituents.

We have to be cautious and to remember that India’s constitution directly protects and safeguards religious minorities. Minority community status for Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains is not only protected by law, but they are encouraged to promote their individual identities. That is in the constitution.

I am always cautious about talking about somewhere I have never been, and I declare my interest as the co-chair of the Indo-British all-party parliamentary group who has had the opportunity to visit India on seven occasions. I have been to 14 states in India, which is about half the states, and seen at first hand what protection of religious minorities is available, and I will come on to that later. I have spoken to many parliamentarians in India, and I assure hon. Members that they like nothing more than to debate their constitution. The constitution is very important to all the representatives of the Indian Government and the Members of Parliament.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet said, the Indian Government have enabled many programmes to protect religious minorities and to promote the opportunities that they should have. In many Indian states minority religions are practiced by the majority of people in those states.

I am honoured to represent one of the largest Goan populations outside India. Of course, they are devout Catholics. Would my hon. Friend agree with the observation that the largest non-agricultural landowner in India is the Roman Catholic church? That underpins the important differentiation we need to make between atrocities against religious minorities and wilful acts or omissions by the state of India. The two things are different, and we should remember that in this debate.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his intervention. He rightly refers to investments that have been made, not only by the UK but by the various different religious groups across India.

We should also remember that India has state government as well as federal government, and therefore the state government should make decisions as well as the national Government. Indeed, independent democratic institutions, such as the National Commission for Minorities, the National Human Rights Commission of India and the Ministry of Minority Affairs, safeguard those rights. National Minorities Rights Day is observed in India every year on 18 December. Given that we are talking about what should happen in India, perhaps we might think about having a national rights day in this country. India has one already, so let us learn the lesson from India and give minorities that opportunity.

We should equally look at the growth of the different minority religions’ populations. India is an incredibly diverse country; there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan and Bangladesh combined. We should remember that minority religion is growing demographically, up from 15% in 1947 to around 20% in 2011. That is completely unlike the trend in our country. With over 207 million followers of Islam, India has the second largest population of Muslims in the world. Indeed, that is 10% of the world’s Muslim population. Not only is that number growing, but it is expected that by 2050 India will have the largest Muslim population in the world, overtaking Indonesia.

Of the 28 states, four—Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland—have a Christian majority. I hope that they have enlightened policies and enable other minority religions to prosper and grow. Kerala and Tamil Nadu have the largest section of Christian population anywhere in India. I know the hon. Member for Strangford has not had the opportunity to do so yet, but I invite him to come with me on a visit to India and we can see that first hand. Kerala is the state that is visited most by people from the UK, and there not only the churches but the synagogues are preserved. It was the centre of the Jewish population in India before Israel came into existence, and, after that, many of those people chose to migrate to Israel from their ancestral home. These circumstances demonstrate that clearly not only is there an opportunity but there are centres of Christianity in India.

Jammu and Kashmir has a Muslim majority and Ladakh has a Buddhist majority, so it is not fair to say that India is not a diverse country. That can only be possible when minorities feel safe, secure and nurtured. Across the board, minorities have been the torchbearers of India’s scientific and economic success and leadership. From Indian states in the north-east and regions in the north where minority religions form the majority, minorities’ visibility, success and leadership in all spheres of human activity—from the civil services to political representation and civil society, and from media to corporate houses—is a true reflection of the Indian people’s genuine commitment to their age-old tradition.

In any thriving democracy there are bound to be questions, debates and challenges from time to time. There might have been—and have been—isolated cases and reports of minorities facing discrimination. However, there are independent institutions to address them, such as the National Commission for Minorities, and others that I have mentioned, as well as an independent judiciary. Those reports and cases need to be reflected on in the context that there are 200 million religious minority members. The incidents are very rare, relative to the population size.

We should also consider the concerns that have been expressed to me by many people of Indian origin about the activities of those who seek to convert people from one religion to another. We have to be very cautious about that approach. I agree that it is the fundamental human right of an individual to choose their religion. However, it is not reasonable—it is unacceptable—for people to be forced to convert against their will, and against their family’s will as well.

Of course, if the individual is of age, he or she will be able to make their own decision about which religious viewpoint they wish to pursue or follow. May I say gently to the hon. Gentleman—we are good friends, and I am always very mindful of that fact—that Open Doors, whose event the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) chairs every year, said in its report that India was 31st on the list in 2013 and is 10th today, meaning that it went up the ladder of where religious incidents are recorded? That shows that there is more persecution, so how does the hon. Gentleman equate those facts? Whenever persecution is rising in India, the number of incidents rises, and he cannot ignore that.

Clearly there are tensions, and I would never say that any attacks on individuals because of their religion are acceptable. What I would say, however, is that when a country has a growing population with growing opportunities for employment, wealth and getting people out of poverty, there are bound to be clashes. There are often clashes in India over religious sites, and there is fault on all sides in that respect. In many cases, the clashes occur where there has historically been a temple when a mosque or a church has been erected on that site, or the other way around. That leads to fundamental clashes between religions. It is up to the Government of India and the forces of India to ensure peace and harmony between people, and it is up to the religious leaders of the religions in India to encourage and promote that harmony as well.

I say to the hon. Member for Strangford gently that, having had the opportunity to visit many of these parts of the world and to see at first hand the position in India, I would argue strongly against the position he has taken. Yes, there are problems—there will be problems all over the world—but they are very rare relative to the size of the population and the number of people who celebrate their religions in peace and harmony.

India is a robust pluralistic democracy where the aim is harmonious co-existence of people of all religions, cultures and ethnicities across the length and breadth of the country. That is a fundamental characteristic of the people—certainly in my visits, I have always experienced that. Safeguarding and celebrating India’s unity and diversity is central to the Indian Government’s social and political ethos, and is firmly embedded in the constitution of India through inviolable provisions and plays out in spirit in myriad ways. Finally, India’s unique example of protecting and nurturing religious minorities offers important insights for other countries, including this one.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate and on all the work he does as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, which I think we would all acknowledge is dedicated, committed and sincere.

Speaking in my capacity as vice-chair of the APPG, I recognise that when it comes to India, there is understandable reticence when tackling the subject of this debate, given the historical and current ties between the UK and India. To put it bluntly, the largest democracy in the world should not need or want other countries—not least the UK, given our colonial history—to criticise it about a fundamental human right and foundation of democracy, namely freedom of religion or belief. However, it is because of our close relationship with, friendship with and support for India, as well as because we want freedom of religion or belief for everyone everywhere, that we have to call out the concerns, particularly those expressed by Muslims and Christians in India, about serious violations of freedom of religion or belief in that country.

It is because India is a great country, founded historically and constitutionally upon a respect for other religions, that we take seriously the concerning reports of increasing discrimination and persecution of religious minorities in some parts of India. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said, India is a massive country. It has 1.4 billion people. It is complex, so any judgment on India will be multifaceted.

My hon. Friend also said, quite correctly, that virtually every country, including our own, has lessons to learn about freedom of religion or belief. Having said that, FORB is not just a lobby for religious minorities’ rights or indeed for one religion or another. It is for everyone, everywhere. It is the foundation of a good, functioning democracy, and it is good for a growing economy and for peace and security. It is testament to the Hindu Sanskrit verse Vasudeva Kutumbakam, meaning “The whole world is one family”, that faith communities such as Jews, Parsis and Christians have long found a home in the wonderful land of India, even before its young secular constitution came into effect in 1950.

It is worth noting that Christians have been living and flourishing in India for over 1,500 years. They were free to manifest their faith and were key contributors to modern India’s development. There are many Christians and churches flourishing across various parts of India. Some have thousands attending every Sunday, and those who are able to attend do so without any issue whatsoever. However, in recently years we have sadly seen a decline in tolerance towards the Christian faith in some—I emphasise the word “some”—of India’s states, particularly in rural areas and where churches are run independently.

Any state has the right to scrutinise Christian churches and organisations that are run illegally, but the burning of churches, desecration of altars and beating of pastors or congregation members by various radical mobs is totally unacceptable and must not be tolerated. It is not the India we have known for hundreds of years, nor does it reflect its historic principles or, as we have heard, the principles in its constitution.

It was deeply worrying to hear reports in December that the Karnataka assembly secretariat had instructed the department responsible for minorities’ welfare to submit a report on all religious conversions in the state over the past 25 years, in what appears to be groundwork for the anti-conversion law that the ruling Bharatiya Janata party has promised to announce. BJP MLA Gulihatti Shekhar, who presided over the meeting, has controversially instructed district authorities and the police intelligence wing to conduct a survey of the state’s 1,700-odd churches and prayer halls to examine their legality.

Although this may seem like a direct attack on the Christian faith, it should also be noted that Hindu temples have been and still are under security in various states for the status of their legality. After independence, the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1959 was passed, and Tamil Nadu temples are under the control of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department. That is incompatible with the fundamental rights granted to every Indian citizen in the constitution. This should matter to all in India’s 75th years of independence who seek to uphold the constitutional principles described by Prime Minister Modi as the real holy book.

As Sadhguru, the founder of Isha Foundation, wrote last year,

“If people do not have the freedom to practice their religion the way they want, what kind of freedom is that?”

India is experiencing Islamophobia and Christianophobia, which in response can lead to Hinduphobia. This is all a far cry from the founding principles of India. It is a sad stain on modern India.

People of all faiths, especially Hindus, Muslims and Christians, should stand together in solidarity, both in the UK and India, and must surely condemn some of the following incidents. Some 505 violent incidents against Christians were recorded by the United Christian Forum for Human Rights in 2021, including false accusations leading to arbitrary police detention, arrests and prosecution, forced conversion, hate campaigns, assault, death threats, illegal occupations of churches, forced displacement, acts of public humiliation, disruption of religious gatherings, and the looting and destruction of Christian homes, church buildings and other Church-owned properties. The attacks against the Chhattisgarh Christian community in January included imprisonment, injury, arson and forced conversion.

We have heard about the controversy surrounding rules to regulate conversion, but I get the very strong impression from those who understand those issues that the laws are designed to protect people from forced conversion, which is a very real risk—it is also a problem in Pakistan. It is very often young Christian women who are vulnerable to the pressure of forced conversion, forced marriage and forced conversion to Islam. That is what the laws are trying to prevent.

The concern, of course, is the misuse of such laws.

Pastor Rakesh Babu and his family were brutally beaten at their home in Chandauli, Uttar Pradesh, by unidentified men armed with wooden logs as they gathered to pray in their parsonage, a tiny room attached to the church where Pastor Babu had served for 15 years. A week earlier, he had been threatened with jail if he continued to encourage others to join him in prayer. Worryingly, after the attack, the pastor struggled to get local police to properly register his report. Mervyn Thomas, the founder-president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, told me that police often refuse to register first information reports and that over a number of years, perpetrators of communal violence in a number of areas have not been penalised. More information about that can be found in the CSW reports.

The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) made the important point about referring things to the police. A number of incidents against Christians—particularly the desecration of churches, the beating up of people, the burning of bibles, and the injuring of people going in and out of churches—have been reported to the police, but there have been instances of the police not turning up as requested. There is an evidential base that cannot be ignored.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As I said, more details about such reports can be found in the Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports on India.

I will mention two further reports. On 20 May, Pastor Alok Rajhans was attacked at his church by Hindu nationalists. Most worryingly, we learnt about the death in judicial custody of Father Stan Swamy, one of 16 humans rights defenders, on 5 July. We should applaud Indian civil society for last week launching a popular petition opposing the anti-conversion Bill, which was approved in the Karnataka state Parliament on February 14.

Ram Puniyani, the co-ordinator of the National Solidarity Forum—a consortium of more than 70 organisations and civil society groups of different origins and inspirations—said:

“Wherever the anti-conversion law, ironically called the ‘Religious Freedom Law’, has been passed, it has become a justification for the persecution of religious minorities and other marginalized groups. Attacks on minorities have increased significantly in recent years since this law has been used as a weapon against Christians and Muslims, especially Adivasis, Dalits and women”.

To those who criticise us for calling out those incidents in India, and who ask what it has to do with us, I say that we are all in this together and we must all join together, as demonstrated by this cross-party debate, to unite around the universal human right of freedom of religion or belief. I look forward to working as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for FORB—across party lines and across all faiths and none—to continue upholding that fundamental human right.

I am delighted to participate in this afternoon’s debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing it. I also pay tribute to him and to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for all the work they do on these matters.

As we have heard today, India’s minorities face increasing intolerance under the Modi Government. The principle of freedom of religion is inviolable. The freedom to practise one’s faith freely and without persecution is a basic human right. I have listened very carefully to all the viewpoints in this debate, but the reality is that Prime Minister Modi’s Government have presided over discriminatory policies and delivered the persecution of religious minorities, so much so that in April last year the US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that India be designated as a country of particular concern for egregious religious freedom violations and placed on a religious freedoms blacklist alongside countries such as Syria, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea.

According to the South Asia State of Minorities report 2021, human rights defenders and religious minorities in India who dare to protest against discriminatory laws and practices have faced restrictions, violence, criminal defamation, detention and harassment, while recent legislation has limited freedom of opinion and expression under the guise of preventing disharmony and disaffection. More and more of India’s states have adopted controversial and radical anti-conversion laws, which we have heard a lot about today. These laws are used by militant Hindu groups to prosecute members of religious minorities and make false allegations against them. It seems that these laws often provide justification for attacks on Christian leaders, which are carried out with impunity.

In 2021, Open Doors—a very important charity that supports the freedom of Christians to practise their faith in the face of persecution around the world, and one to which I pay tribute for its excellent work—ranked India as the world’s 10th most dangerous place to be a Christian. The Open Doors report concluded that since the current ruling party took power in 2014, Hindu extremists have fuelled a crackdown on Christian house-churches and attacked believers with impunity, believing that to be Indian is to be Hindu. In rural areas, Christians were told that one church would be closed down every week, because they have been destroying local tradition and culture by luring non-Christians to convert to Christianity. It is also common for Christians to be cut off from local water supplies and denied access to Government-subsidised groceries.

International Christian Concern has told The New York Times that Christians are being suppressed, discriminated against and persecuted at rising levels in India, like never before. Indeed, last year was branded the most violent year in recorded history for India’s Christians, with the United Christian Forum recording 486 violent incidents of Christian persecution, which exceeded the previous record of 328 violent incidents in 2019.

The evidence seems pretty clear. Of profound concern is the growing number of arrests in India of human rights defenders, student leaders, feminist activists, Dalit and Adivasi rights campaigners, trade unionists, opposition politicians and writers, artists, lawyers, academics and journalists who are critical of the Modi regime.

The UK has a considerably interlinked and close relationship with India, as we have heard today, and every diplomatic tool at the UK’s disposal must be used to effect change in India, in order to ensure that religious minorities are protected and flagrant abuses of human rights, of which religious freedom is only one, will not be tolerated.

During the UK-India free trade agreement negotiations, the UK Government have a clear opportunity to send a clear message that a trade partnership between the UK and India will not be ratified unless there is real and meaningful change on human rights and religious freedom in India. The UK has a very positive relationship with India, so it is in an excellent position to exert such influence. The UK must demand more from its friends, and human rights and religious freedoms in India must be at the forefront of our conversations and trade negotiations with India.

The human rights text in the clauses of any free trade deal with India must have policy teeth and must be enforceable. Will the Foreign Office, with help from the Department for International Trade, undertake human rights impact assessments before any trade and investment agreements are finalised with India? Will the UK Government work towards an integrated framework of atrocity prevention in the UK’s India strategy to ensure that at the very least UK officials can monitor risk and communicate the risks internally and externally? Will the UK Government ensure that human rights and environmental specialists are included in trade delegations?

India has ratified only six out of the eight international labour organisations’ core conventions. Will the UK Government make access to UK markets conditional on the Indian Government ratifying and effectively implementing key human rights conventions?

In 1995, it was agreed that every new EU trade deal would make human rights an essential criterion, allowing a treaty to be suspended if human rights commitments were broken. It is deeply concerning that the Foreign Secretary appears to have edged away from that principle in trade deals with Turkey, Singapore and Vietnam. Will the current Secretary of State for International Trade, or indeed the whole UK Government, go down the same path?

It is abhorrent that people can be prosecuted simply for practising their faith and worshipping their God. The constructive relationship between the UK and India gives the UK influence, perhaps uniquely among all the international actors, to effect change and exert influence—to pressure, encourage, cajole and do whatever it takes to ensure that India is governed by tolerance, understanding and equality, and that that is shown to Indians who are a part of a religious minority.

The ongoing trade negotiations with India represent a very important moment to focus minds on this matter. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that that is exactly what will happen, and that the UK will stand up to India as a critical friend to make it clear that basic human freedoms are inviolable, and we expect our friends and allies to recognise, practise and respect that principle.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who as ever has secured a debate to continue to champion his interest in religious freedoms across the world. He, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and others in this House are assiduous members of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. They stand up also for people with no faith, and that is a very positive part of their group.

As we know, India is a proudly diverse and multifaith democracy with a secular constitution that places freedom of religion or belief at its heart. That is welcome statutory backing for equality and protection of minority rights. India’s diverse communities and its proud record of religious freedom with rights for religious minorities is unthinkable in many other countries of Asia. It is also noteworthy that in India there is political representation for minorities in Parliament and in the Cabinet. There is still some disproportionality relative to other countries in the region, but the attempt to diversify and provide role models from different communities in leadership positions should be recognised and placed on the record.

We have heard Members in today’s debate express multifaceted and broad-ranging concerns about increasing numbers of attacks on minority groups. As Members have highlighted, there is a raft of anti-conversion laws that have targeted Christians in some Indian states. Although the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has reported that very few arrests have been made under those laws, it cannot be right that people face sentences of up to four years for violating anti-conversion laws. I urge the Minister to address that question in her concluding remarks.

There are also numerous concerns relating to the treatment of Muslims in India, which is what I want to press the Minister on. Research by the House of Commons Library indicates that some 4,000 people have been arrested in Uttar Pradesh alone under its contentious anti-cow-slaughter legislation. NGOs have criticised the police for their inadequacy in responding to complaints of violence against Muslims in that dispute. I hope that the Minister will mention that in her concluding remarks.

Arguably more worrying, and a point made so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West, is the general direction of travel being witnessed in pockets of Indian society, with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act seen by many as anti-Muslim. Human Rights Watch, among others, has highlighted that “mobs” have been reported assaulting Muslim men with impunity, and that deserves to be looked at closely and to be part of the ongoing dialogue the FCDO is having with India on trade. It is right that these issues are highlighted and addressed by the Indian Government.

I know that many in India have added their voices to the condemnation arising across the world at this trend. Islamophobia, anti-Sikh hate, anti-Christian actions and general persecution of minorities are not something that most Indians believe in. Indeed, the majority would be repulsed by the association of their proud country with these actions.

The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and the hon. Member for Congleton are correct in expressing caution, given the traumatic past relationship between India and the UK, with many painful memories associated with the colonisation period in India. Criticism from this Chamber can be difficult to hear. I hear the exhortation from the hon. Member for Harrow East to visit India, and during the forthcoming Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit to Delhi in April, MPs will seek to develop a deeper understanding of the complexity and diversity of India on the part of the UK Parliament.

In the light of that mutual understanding, does the hon. Lady regret that during the Batley and Spen by-election, Labour circulated a leaflet showing our Prime Minister and Mr Modi together, with the title:

“Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side.”

That was very divisive and it upset many in the Hindu community.

I thank the right hon. Member for her reminder of what was a mistake. I understand that, at the time, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) clarified that that was a moment in the heat of the by-election. I know she is a fierce campaigner and understands the sentiment that this was not the right thing to put out and that it does not contribute to community cohesion.

I urge the Minister to outline what steps the British Government are taking to support freedom of religion or belief in India, and indeed whether it has been raised in discussions with the Indian Government. India is, and will always be, a country that is held in the highest regard by Members of this House and in this country, not least with the large diaspora of British Indians who live in all our constituencies. I think of the community hub in my own constituency, providing such crucial community-based services locally. Those involved are great champions of human rights and have written to me regarding their concerns about today’s debate.

We must redouble our efforts to understand more fully the complexity of today’s India, and we must continue to develop our shared understanding of the promotion of human rights, as enshrined in the constitution of India, without fear or favour and to cherish religious freedom of expression.

Before the Minister responds, let me say that we have plenty of time, but please could she leave two minutes for the mover of the motion to reply?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate. I commend him for his tireless work in supporting freedom of religion or belief, including as chair of the all-party group. I thank him and his colleagues for their 2021 annual “Commentary on the Current State of International Freedom of Religion or Belief”, published in March last year, which provides valuable insight into the state of freedom of religion or belief around the world. I look forward to the 2022 edition.

I am grateful to the Opposition Front Benchers, the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton North East (Mark Logan) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for their contributions.

We heard many passionate views on all sides, and I hope hon. Members will understand that due to the situation in Ukraine and the debates happening in the main Chamber, I am providing cover for my Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office colleagues, so any topics that I have not been able to address fully will of course be followed up by letter.

The hon. Member for Strangford gave a passionate speech in support of religious minorities. He mentioned Rana Ayyub, and that is a case that the UN is looking into. I want to reassure him that the Government are committed to working for freedom of religion or belief for all and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. I want to put on record the fact that we condemn all threats, discrimination and violence perpetrated on the grounds of religion, belief or faith.

Although this debate focuses on Christians, we must not forget those who have been persecuted around the world for belonging to other religions and holding other beliefs, or for having no religious belief at all. We want everyone, everywhere, to be able to live in accordance with their own conscience and exercise their faith or beliefs freely. That not only is the right thing to do for individuals, but makes countries stronger. When countries protect and promote freedom of religion or belief, they tend to be more stable, more prosperous and safer from violent extremism.

The Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment to promoting that agenda globally by appointing my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton as his special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and I am very pleased to see her in the debate. She has been working closely with the Minister of State responsible for human rights, Lord Ahmad, to drive forward our work on freedom of religion or belief.

My colleagues in the FCDO wanted me to give a bit of background on India, although I fear that it might look shallow compared to the extensive briefing we received from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman)—I think he should probably be briefing the FCDO. As we have heard, India, like the UK, is a society with many different faith communities. It has a proud history of religious tolerance and is among the most religiously diverse societies in the world, with significant religious minority communities, including Christians and Muslims. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East said, it also has strong constitutional and legal protections for human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, and is home to a vibrant faith-based civil society.

We recognise that, in a country of 1.3 billon people, the situation for minorities varies, depending on the region and their social and economic status. It is up to the Government of India to uphold those freedoms and rights, which are guaranteed by its strong democratic framework and legal mechanisms.

We have an open and constructive dialogue with India. As with any issue, where we have concerns, we raise them directly with its Government. We have previously discussed the impact of legislative and judicial measures on minorities with the Indian Government at the ministerial level.

There were some questions that hon. Members raised that I think I have answers to. The hon. Member for Coventry North West talked about agricultural reform laws. I understand that India repealed the three agricultural reform laws in December 2021. We recognise the interest in the Indian Government’s agricultural reforms, particularly among the Indian diaspora in this country.

There were questions around India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act. I wanted to let hon. Members know that Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon has discussed the impact of that and other judicial measures on India’s minorities with Indian Government Ministers. As I said earlier, its strength—like that of the UK—is its diversity, and it is the Indian Government’s responsibility to address the concerns of all Indian citizens, regardless of their faith.

Several Members, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, discussed the interfaith marriage laws. My understanding is that the British high commission in New Delhi also monitors all political and societal trends in India. We have noted new interfaith marriage laws in some Indian states, but that is as far as I am able to speak on those laws. I cannot confirm some of the things that Members have said during the debate, but they have been noted, and I am sure that Foreign Office Ministers will be able to address anything required in more detail.

One of the key concerns is around abduction and forced marriage, particularly of young women, which is the prime focus of those particular laws. I am sure the Minister agrees that forcing someone to change their religion after having abducted them from their family is not only morally wrong, but reprehensible.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is morally wrong and reprehensible to carry out such actions.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green requested UK action in India. As other Members have recognised, faith leaders in India are influential figures in their local communities, so UK Ministers and diplomats regularly meet them to understand their perspectives and hold a dialogue with diverse communities across that country.

Our high commissioner has visited a number of different places of worship in India and met faith leaders there. He has met Christian communities, including visiting Sacred Heart Cathedral, where he met the Catholic Archbishop of Delhi, and the Cathedral Church of the Redemption, where he met the Moderator of the Church of North India.

Faith-based NGOs also make a positive contribution to Indian society. Over the last three years, staff across our network in India have worked with local NGOs to bring together young people of different faiths. Through our high commission, we are supporting a UK-India interfaith leadership programme, which brings together emerging Indian leaders of diverse faith backgrounds, including Christians and Muslims, to exchange UK-India perspectives and foster understanding and respect. In May last year, the high commission held a virtual iftar to celebrate the important contribution that Indian Muslims make to Indian society and to bring together different faith communities. My fellow Minister, Lord Ahmad also met with faith leaders while visiting India last March.

I know that Members are interested in the UK-India relationship. It is central to our foreign policy tilt towards the Indo-Pacific. In May 2021, the UK and Indian Governments committed to strengthening the relationship through our new comprehensive strategic partnership. Our 2030 road map, which was launched by the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Modi last year, will guide our co-operation and benefit people across both countries. It will support regional and global security and prosperity.

The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran asked a few questions to which I am afraid I do not have the answers. I think some of them are DIT questions, but our 1.6 million strong diaspora community provides a living bridge of people, commerce, ideas and culture between our countries. It is an important strategic relationship, but even within that group there are many views that we have to take into account.

Minister, in the Open Doors top 50 league India is now No. 10; it was No. 31. That is clear factual evidence of lots of persecution and attacks on people of religious minorities. I know that it is not the Minister’s responsibility, but will she ask the Minister responsible to bring this to the attention of the Indian authorities? It is important that we are constructive in our contributions, but also that we are friends who can highlight issues that people are telling us are important?

I understand that. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is something that I can ask my colleagues to do. I know that this is the sort of regular engagement that they have with their counterparts.

I can update those Members who raised the UK-India trade relationship. We recently launched negotiations for a comprehensive UK-India free trade agreement, which would particularly benefit the north of England, the west midlands, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We will work with India to support its COP26 commitments, including through a $1 billion green guarantee and British international investment partnership. Oxford University, AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India are enabling the world to navigate its way out of the pandemic with their collaboration to produce covid-19 vaccines at scale.

I now want to turn to the UK’s wider work on freedom of religion or belief. In July we will host an international ministerial conference. We will use the conference to bring Governments from across the world together with faith leaders to drive collective action in promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities around the world, so that everyone, everywhere can practise their religion or belief freely. We continue to work with organisations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the G7, and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, to bolster international action on freedom of religion or belief.

The Prime Minister’s special envoy—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton—who even now is working in this capacity by participating in the debate, is currently chairing the alliance, and I thank her for her commitment and leadership. In November, the Foreign Secretary attended the alliance ministerial forum and underlined the UK’s commitment to working with partner countries to support freedom and openness around the world. We and our alliance partners raise awareness of cases of particular concern and advocate for the rights of individuals persecuted or discriminated against on grounds of their religion or belief, as we have heard from hon. Members today.

We also continue to implement the recommendations made by the Bishop of Truro’s review of our work in support of persecuted Christians and members of all faiths and beliefs and those of no religious belief. We have implemented 13 of the recommendations. We are close to achieving a further six and we are making good progress on the remaining three.

To conclude, it is right that we reaffirm our commitment to do all we can to foster intercommunal and interfaith understanding and respect around the world. That is why we continue to discuss issues of freedom of religion or belief with the Indian authorities. This is part of our dialogue and partnership with India, a country with a long history of religious diversity. Our partnership with India is very important to us. It is a partnership that brings great benefits to communities in both our countries.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, and in particular the Minister for her summing up. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) sponsors the Open Doors event every year. We thank her for that. I am sure she will bring to the attention of the Indian Government the fact that India is now No. 10 rather than No. 31. We look forward to her using her position to do so.

I thank the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) for her contribution. She recently joined the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. We are very pleased to have her on board, and thank her for highlighting that where there is persecution we must stand up and say so. Well done to her for that.

The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) knows that he is a good friend of mine. We might agree on some things and disagree on others, but I thank him for the very balanced point of view that he put over today. He acknowledges that there are issues to be addressed. We are not here to give him a hard time, but to highlight the issues. That is our job. People do not come to us when things are all right; they come to us when things are wrong. They tell us these things, and these things have to be addressed. When there is an evidential base and the police are not providing protection, or are letting things happen, that has to be taken on board, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point.

The hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan) spoke up for Muslims in his intervention. I thank my dear friend, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for all that she does. The Government made the right decision in putting her in her post. I mean that genuinely. Forgive me, Mr Stringer, for going all gushy, but she is wonderful. She does that job well, and we are particularly pleased to have her in her post.

I am not allowed to take an intervention. The hon. Lady expressed all the concerns that we have about the issues.

The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who is also my friend, always brings passion and fire to these issues. The conversation in trade negotiations should be about human rights; they must be at the centre of all discussions.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), also highlighted the issues in her summing up. I understand that there are pockets in India where these things are happening. That is what we are here to highlight—where they are happening—not to brush over them like they do not matter, because these people have no one else to speak for them.

I know that the Minister is not responsible for this area, but she always does well and I thank her for that. I am very pleased to know that the Government have the persecution of Christians, and the freedom of religious belief for people of all religions, at the core of what they are doing across the world. As always, I thank the Government for that.

I was reminded by people who emailed or texted me during the debate that, when right-wing groups are emboldened by a culture of state negligence or complicity, such things continue to happen. We need to ensure that they do not happen in India any more, and that the future will be one in which all people, wherever they are from in India and whatever their religious viewpoint may be, have freedom of expression and belief. That is the one thing on which probably all of us present in the Chamber can agree. We believe in that, and we must see it happen. If it does not happen, we look to our Minister and our Government to ensure that they highlight that with the country of India.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of the persecution of Christians and religious minorities in India.

Sitting adjourned.