Skip to main content

India: Orissa

Volume 705: debated on Monday 17 November 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will make representations to the Government of India to provide adequate protection for religious minorities, with particular reference to the violence against Christians in Orissa.

The United Kingdom unequivocally condemns the recent violent attacks against Christians that have led to deaths, injuries and widespread displacements in Orissa. We have expressed our concerns to the appropriate Indian authorities in Delhi and London. The UK will continue to urge the Government of India to uphold the right to freedom of religion. Our High Commission in Delhi, along with European and other partners, continues to monitor the situation in Orissa.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that supportive and encouraging reply. Is he aware that, since the violence, 50,000 people have had to flee to camps? I visited those camps recently and witnessed appalling conditions of overcrowding with a lack of medical care, food and adequate sanitation. The people there told us that they dare not go back to their homes because those who perpetrated the violence have still not been apprehended. Will Her Majesty’s Government urge the Government of India, a country which is widely respected as a democratic nation and a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to put pressure on the Government of the state of Orissa to ensure that the security of all their citizens is adequate to enable them to return to their homes as soon as possible?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness. She and others who recently visited Orissa have prepared the report of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, and anyone who has read it will know how moving and depressing the story is. As I said, we have expressed our concerns about this. Our High Commission in Delhi continues to make representations to the central Indian Government on this matter and will continue to press them to resolve the situation. The noble Baroness will know that an EU delegation is visiting that state in early December to see for itself the extent of the problems, and a UK representative will be part of that delegation. We hope that the next EU-India human rights dialogue will be held before the end of the year, and of course Orissa will be on the agenda.

My Lords, a militant Hindu nationalist movement, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, is said to have incited much of the violence and intimidation in Orissa. The VHP is a registered charity with branches in several parts of this country, and the UK branch has made a number of inflammatory statements. Will my noble friend consider referring the VHP UK to the Charities Commission to examine its status?

My Lords, the UK Government do not consider the VHP to be a terrorist organisation under our law. The organisation is proscribed neither here nor in India, nor do the Indian Government classify it as a terrorist organisation. Obviously, decisions on proscription must be proportionate and based on evidence that a group is involved in terrorism as defined in the Terrorism Act 2000. I am sorry that I must disappoint my noble friend on this occasion.

My Lords, although India has experienced enormous economic growth over the past few years, this has clearly not reached every community. Does the Minister think that this is a factor in the violence in Orissa? Following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, will there at least be election monitors in Orissa in the run-up to the elections next year?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. She will know that Orissa is one of the poorest states in what is of course already a poor country. Of Orissa’s 40 million population, 45 per cent are below the Indian poverty line. It would be hard to think that poverty had nothing to do with the shocking events of both last December and more recently. I hope that there will be monitors for the Orissa state elections when they take place.

My Lords, is not a major contribution to the violence in Orissa the introduction of anti-conversion laws which require that anyone considering conversion gives 30 days’ notice to the appropriate authorities and seeks police clearance before doing so? Does the Minister agree that such legislation should have no place on the statute books of the largest democracy in the world?

My Lords, anti-conversion laws are ultimately an internal matter for the Indian authorities. The noble Lord will know that they came in under the Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, and Orissa was the first state in India to enact it, although it was not implemented for 22 years. It bars conversion by means of inducement, allurement or the use of force. It is considered by many to be at the root of some of what has recently happened in Orissa, but this is a matter for the Indian Government. As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, India is at heart a great democratic country. We should be very proud of it.

My Lords, as it is now some weeks since the federal Government of India invoked Article 335 of the constitution, which allows them to intervene in the affairs of a constituent state where there is a serious breakdown of law and order, can the Minister say whether there have been any discernable beneficial effects of that decision?

My Lords, I must be careful what I say. The noble Lord will know better than me of India’s federal structure, allowing states a large amount of power over law and order. The central Government were concerned enough to invoke that constitutional article.

I do not want to place much emphasis on this, but there is some suggestion that some of those who have been displaced may be moving back to where they lived. Frankly, however, there is currently not much evidence that I can put before the House.

My Lords, in their representations to the Indian Government, will our Government ensure that the compensation offered by the Indian Government for those who have lost their homes and businesses is adequate? I understand that what is currently offered is not even enough to cover the cost of homes, let alone compensate those who have lost their businesses.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes a very important point. The state Government of Orissa have promised compensation, but my information suggests that that has not yet been put into action.