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Volume 801: debated on Monday 20 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the human rights situation in Indian-administered Kashmir following the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35(A) of the Indian constitution.

My Lords, we recognise that there are human rights concerns in Indian-administered Kashmir. We encourage all states to ensure that domestic laws are in line with international standards. Any allegation of human rights violations or abuse is deeply concerning and must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. The continued use of detentions and restrictions in Indian-administered Kashmir is worrying. We are clear on the importance of rights being fully respected, and we raise our concerns directly with the Indian Government.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. On 5 August 2019, the Indian Government revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution, which gave Jammu and Kashmir a special status in the Union of India, removed the state Government and arrested and detained thousands of Kashmiris, including three former Chief Ministers. According to Human Rights Watch:

“Prior to its actions in Jammu and Kashmir, the government deployed additional troops to the province, shut down the internet and phones, and arbitrarily detained thousands of Kashmiris, including political leaders, activists, journalists, lawyers, and potential protesters, including children. Hundreds remain in detention without charge or under house arrest to prevent protests.”

On 17 September, Amnesty International said:

“The continued use of draconian laws against political dissidents, despite promises of change, signals the dishonest intent of the Indian government. Thousands of political leaders, activists and journalists continue to be silenced through … detention laws.”

In the light of this information, does the Minister not agree with me that India is violating the principles and values of the Commonwealth? What representation have the British Government made to the Indian Government in this respect?

My Lords, there was a lot in that question, but on a serious issue. As the noble Lord has heard, I have already made our position very clear. Indeed, as Minister for South Asia, I have been dealing directly with this issue, but not just me: my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have also raised the very concern the noble Lord raises.

As far as India’s membership of the Commonwealth is concerned, India is the largest democracy. It is an important and valued member of the Commonwealth and will continue to be so. As the largest democracy, India knows—we have these exchanges with India—that the importance of respecting human rights is one of the fundamental tenets of the charter, and we encourage all member states, India included, to uphold those shared commitments.

My Lords, surely a constitutional matter that is internal to a country is the issue of that country. As close friends of India, we must respect that India has a right to amend its constitution when it chooses to do so. Does my noble friend agree that this change gives equal rights to women, the LGBT community, those in minority communities and the disadvantaged?

My Lords, my noble friend refers to Article 370. In the UK, we have consistently retained our position across successive Governments, and it is important to re-emphasise that. As for the situation in Kashmir, or indeed any issue between India and Pakistan, we retain and will continue to retain the view that it needs to be resolved bilaterally by both countries, while respecting the views of those in Kashmir.

My Lords, the Minister referred just now to India as a democracy. Does he agree that the Indian action in Kashmir questions its right to be called a secular democracy? As we have heard, hundreds of Muslims are routinely rounded up, and many disappear. According to the medical journal the Lancet, hospital staff are being told to understate the number of fatalities occurring to minimise scrutiny. It is a state which even MPs cannot visit, as internet and phone connections have been cut off. This is all happening in a state that, in more peaceful conditions, could live on tourism alone.

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, as anyone who has visited Kashmir will know, it is a beautiful part of the world. On his wider point on human rights in Kashmir and detentions after India revoked Article 370, as I said in my original Answer we have raised these issues; I have consistently raised the specific issue of the detention of various representatives. The noble Lord also talked about internet access. The contractual-based internet has been reintroduced across all of Kashmir and Ladakh. Currently, there is no open mobile service, but we continue to raise these issues with the Indian Government directly. It is important that the UK lend its voice to the incredible confidence-building initiatives between India and Pakistan. In that respect, I pay tribute to both countries on the recent opening of the Kartarpur corridor, which allows Sikh pilgrims to travel without visas across to Pakistan to pay respects at a very sacred temple.

My Lords, I want to ask the Minister about the important lead this Government are taking on media freedom. It is important to note that India leads the world in the maximum number of internet shutdowns conducted, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, which have had indefinite communication blackouts. The media is one of the ways people know about their freedoms and what is happening to members of their community. We have had disappearances and the alleged use of torture. The human rights abuses have been considerable, including the shooting of people with metal pellets, which have blinded 1,500 people. Given the importance of media freedom to this Government, what are we saying to India about these media shutdowns?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s work. We will continue to work together on the important issue of the media freedom campaign. I assure noble Lords that that remains a key priority for Her Majesty’s Government. We will continue to call out media suppression around the world. On India specifically, the noble Baroness raised the internet shutdown. There are areas, such as Jammu, where the internet has been restored, but concerns remain within the Kashmir valley which we consistently raise. On our exchanges with India, the Indian Foreign Minister, Mr Jaishankar, actually attended the media freedom conference. We continue to raise these issues. India is a democracy, media freedom is a fundamental tenet of democracy, and there are many in India who support that very value.