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India: Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 25 February 2020

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, passed on 11 December 2019, on United Kingdom citizens, and what representations they have made, if any, to the government of India as a result.

My Lords, I am most grateful for this opportunity and look forward to hearing from colleagues who have a close knowledge of the subject, and of course to the Minister.

Britain’s relationship with India started with the embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1615. Much has happened in 400 years, and the UK has had to live down some of the atrocities of colonial rule since then. But today, nearly 73 years into independence, this country and India share many core values and traditions. This continuing—I think I can say “special”—relationship has drawn on our common language and our many human contacts through trade, business, diplomatic, cultural and aid activities. It also reflects the contribution to this country of a large number of Indian immigrant families. Many of our senior scientists, surgeons, judges and politicians have an Indian background. Over 100 candidates in the last election to the House of Commons came originally from the countries that constituted India before 1947. In short, as one who has lived and worked in India at various times, I believe that we in the UK are privileged to be so closely tied to a country with such a long history and character, enriched by so many traditions and religions. But we must not take this relationship for granted; indeed, we should cherish it.

Today I want to discuss specifically the state of India’s minorities. It is well known that Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to the majority Hindutva tradition. In 2001, he was Chief Minister of Gujarat when hundreds, mainly Muslims, died in a series of incidents. All this was overshadowed at the time by 9/11; nevertheless, in India it was a transformative event, resulting in Mr Modi’s exclusion from visiting the United States. Yet there is no doubt that Hindu nationalism, coinciding with these events and other atrocities since, has brought confidence to the business community and given Mr Modi’s BJP two election victories.

More recently, new legislation has discriminated against Muslims. First came the division of Jammu and Kashmir into two states, and their occupation by the Indian army. Then the Government decided to register everyone in Assam state. Local politicians there had complained of infiltration by millions of Muslims from Bangladesh, but a census of its 33 million people showed that fewer than 2 million had insufficient documentation. Mr Modi now seems determined, via a National Register of Citizens, to register the entire population of India in order to root out illegal immigrants, but he is meeting considerable opposition. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, which passed through the Lok Sabha in December, granted an amnesty to illegal immigrants from three neighbouring countries—Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh—but not to Muslims from those countries. Unsurprisingly, there have been riots and protests in New Delhi, Aligarh and all over the country, and not only from the Muslim community. Five states refuse to implement the law. The UN has criticised it at a high level. Euro MPs have called it the world’s “largest statelessness crisis”, and it is bound to come up during the Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to Brussels.

This is why I am asking Her Majesty’s Government about the impact of the CAA both in India and in this country, especially regarding human rights and security. Human rights, since the days of William Hague and Jack Straw, have become a hallmark of our diplomacy, and in many countries we have established a regular dialogue. However, our relationship with India is so close that to my knowledge there has been no need for such a dialogue; India is not even on the FCO human rights list. But I will argue that there may be a need for one now.

Many years ago, the Indian writer Khushwant Singh wrote about the ancient rivalry between Hindu and Muslim as though it was endemic in Indian society, but he pointed to changing attitudes. The British, for example, favoured Hindus after the 1857 rebellion as assisting law and order under the Raj. But after independence and partition, when two new secular countries were created, the Foreign Office took a more neutral line, as in much of the Middle East, tending to uphold the stability of independent Arab states. However, the new India and Pakistan of Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Patel, like the South Africa of Nelson Mandela later on, were to be democratic, multiracial and respectful of human rights and the rule of law. In India these rights were strongly protected at that time by the Congress Party. It is doubtful that any of those leaders would be satisfied with the situation today.

As we all know, security is of paramount concern throughout the world. In Europe we are witnessing fears of refugees and migrants, and Governments have had to adjust to popular feeling. We have had some violent attacks by terrorists in the UK. In India there is a lot of sensitivity to terrorism, especially coming from Pakistan, and there have been incidents that exacerbate that. Mr Modi may think that his new Act meets fears from all sides of India and that violence justifies stronger measures.

What does the FCO advise today? More than l million UK citizens visit India every year. Visitors are warned against travel to Kashmir, the Pakistan border, Assam and anywhere where there are demonstrations against the CAA. Our shared language and culture also mean that we share these fears of terrorism. The regular migration of families between our two countries suggests that there is more sensitivity to discrimination than ever within our Asian minorities. This hits the Muslim community hardest.

In foreign policy India has always had a distinct profile, namely neutrality. Ever since the Bandung conference of 1955, it has earned an international reputation as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, which began as an alternative to the power blocs of the Cold War. Surprisingly, the NAM still exists and acts as a home for countries of the south, although India has moved on and is now not only a nuclear power but a member of the BRIC group and, of course, a major player in the Commonwealth. Many developing countries respect India’s democratic model and its example of integrity and good governance.

Inequality and discrimination have characterised Hindu society all the way back to the Vedas, but a stronger impression remains with me from my own time in India: an honesty and openness, a true sense of liberty, a fundamental belief in justice, and good humour. I am an admirer of the late cartoonist RK Laxman, who managed to show up the many wrongs, absurdities and anomalies in Indian life.

It would be wrong to see the UK and India as equals, but the two countries have reached a high point of mutual respect and understanding. There are obvious differences in the size of the economies, their balance of trade and world status, but the two countries need each other. Brexit has given the UK a new opportunity to expand its trade with the subcontinent, although in my view too little attention is given to this, especially in the education sector. India has long complained of our immigration policy.

In the context of human rights, the UK can argue that India has a long way to go in reaching the UN’s sustainable development goals. These goals are built around the phrase “leaving no one behind”, and it seems obvious that a stable economy and well-integrated, well-governed society has a greater chance of reaching these goals. Mr Modi’s Government have a range of concerns about security, but must balance those against their responsibility to their own citizens. Even President Trump’s team have made a similar point this week.

Finally, it is not widely known that India is no longer eligible for our international development programmes, but extreme poverty persists in many states. Through NGOs and the churches, the UK has continued to support the very poorest communities, including Dalits, Adivasis and others. Can the Minister confirm that our aid programme will continue to prioritise these and other minorities? This has become a legitimate FCO question as well. Having heard me out, will the Government now urge Mr Modi to carry out a review of the CAA and its effect on Indian society?

I remind noble Lords that the time for this debate is very short. Speeches are limited to six minutes, and noble Lords should keep an eye on the time on the screen.

My Lords, as India celebrated its Republic Day on 26 January, marking the 70th year since the ratification of the Indian constitution in 1950, my noble friend’s compelling speech and welcome debate are extremely well timed. However, a disturbing counterpoint to those celebrations has been in evidence on the streets of that great country —the world’s largest democracy. India’s founding fathers —Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Subhas Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel—who steered their new nation in the direction of democracy to ensure that it was not destroyed by sectarianism, casteism and authoritarianism, would surely be aghast to see people all over India protesting against a draconian law that is communal and unconstitutional in its nature: the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens.

Dr Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution, warned Indians against

“any competitive loyalty whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indians first, Indian last, and nothing else but Indians.”

He wisely said that:

“Constitution is not a mere lawyers document, it is a vehicle of Life, and its spirit is always the spirit of Age.”

Tragically, today’s Government are living by different principles and a different spirit, stoking fear among all quarters of society across the country. There have been reports of numerous arrests, excessive use of force by the police, and deaths as a result of these protests.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act is in itself discriminatory, isolating Muslims, including Rohingya, Ahmadiyya and Shias, and other minorities from participating in nation building. On Sunday 17 February, I was concerned to see a headline in the Sunday Telegraph: “Christians in the Firing Line”. This is an ancient community that dates back to 52 AD. Taken together with the National Register of Citizens, it is abundantly clear that both measures will have far-reaching implications for all sections of the community, right across the nation, in the only place that they can call home.

With the launch of these unreasonable and extreme benchmarks for citizenship, many who do not possess the necessary documents to prove their citizenship risk facing statelessness and immeasurable suffering in detention centres, and an imminent unsettled future. Right across India, this will not only burden millions who are already suffering extreme hardship but will set them aside from the rest of society—as if there are not already too many existing barriers preventing citizens from being

“Indians first, Indian last, and nothing else but Indians.”

The minority population of India comprises approximately 20% of the total, a large percentage of whom are economically poor and socially excluded. With the CAA/NRC policy in place, large swathes of Indian society will become outsiders and more vulnerable than ever.

The preamble to the Constitution of India opens with the words:

“We, the people of India”.

It does not say, in words which could have been crafted by today’s Government, “We, the documented people of India”. Ambedkar’s constitution was never intended to discriminate between Indian citizens on the basis of their religion. This law not only discriminates against Muslims but diminishes a Muslim person’s value in society, inevitably exposing the community to further prejudice.

The promotion of majoritarian communalism, based on anti-minority rhetoric, has been evident since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. Since 2019, after taking office for a second term, the party’s leadership has thrown caution and wisdom to the wind. This has emboldened others. Attacks have been perpetrated by non-state actors, such as cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS is closely connected to the ruling party, as well as commanding influence over the police in many parts of the country. That endangers public trust in the impartiality, independence and objectivity of the police, which is dangerous for any society. There have been widespread reports of attacks on the freedom of worship, religion or belief; hate speech; mob lynchings; targeted violence against the Dalit and tribal communities; assassinations and attempted assassinations of journalists and human rights defenders; and infringements of freedom of expression against those who raise their voices in dissent against such rank injustice. Anyone who questions the policies of the Government risks being labelled an “anti-national” and being subjected to harassment and brutal attack by nationalistic groups. The unprecedented attack on students at the Nehru University on 5 January by a large mob of unidentified assailants armed with stones and sticks was just one shocking example of the shrinking space for public dissent against such injustice. It gave force to Nehru’s own remark:

“The only alternative to coexistence is codestruction”.

Great Britain’s long-standing relationship with India is hugely significant and does not always reflect well on us, but it is precisely because we must all learn from the past that we should not hold back in our own times when we see human dignity and diversity at risk. Relationships between states must be woven into an explicit understanding that democratic values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, foundational ideals to nation-building, must be preserved, protected and promoted at all costs.

At a time when hate and intolerance are so much in evidence in many parts of the world, often fanned by xenophobic agendas, we must as India’s good friend urge its Government not to abandon the high ideals of its constitution.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for introducing this Question. I must declare an interest: I have a column in the Indian Express every Sunday, and I have written extensively about the matters being discussed, but I shall refer people to find that out for themselves.

The noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, have raised many issues about India. I shall follow the title of the Question before us and confine myself strictly to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. It is said that the Act is unconstitutional, but we do not know that yet because the Supreme Court of India has not yet heard on that issue. As of now, all one can say is that both Houses of the Indian Parliament have passed the legislation; the President has signed it, and it has been notified in the Gazette and is the law of the land.

It does not concern Indian citizens that the title of the legislation is somewhat misleading. After the partition of India, which led to the movement of some 18 million people one way or another—I do not remember who called the partition; I am not going to go into that—the first Citizenship Act was passed in 1955. That related to the status of refugees who had to be given citizenship in India. Although the Act that we are discussing is called the “Citizenship … Act”, it is about refugees who are not citizens and the question is which set of refugees should be given citizenship.

The first Act was in 1955; there was another in the mid-1970s, and now there is this third Act. This Act relates only to refugees who have come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the three Muslim-majority countries in the neighbourhood of India. The Act states that anybody who came into India as a refugee at any time up to 2014 and was likely to have faced prosecution will be recognised as a citizen. The position taken by the Government is that, because it was Muslim-majority countries from which they came, they will be predominantly non-Muslim—they will be Hindus, Parsis or Sikhs, but not Muslims. It is possible to say that this is not factually true, because there is a lot of persecution of Muslim minorities especially in Pakistan, where the Shias and the Ahmadis have been discriminated against, but the Government of India have chosen not to look at that and to consider only non-Muslim refugees for citizenship.

The fear about this Act, which is quite genuine and has been expressed in a number of demonstrations, arises from what has happened in Assam. It is somewhat complicated to go through it, but the Assamese position is that only people genuinely born in Assam and speaking the Assamese language can be considered Assamese, and that nobody else, Hindu or Muslim, coming from Bengal, Bihar or anywhere else, should be considered a citizen. There were major riots in the 1970s and 1980s, and in 1985 the Assam Accord was signed. As part of that the Government were supposed to consider a national citizenship register, and the Supreme Court commanded the then Government to do that. But they did not do it, and 30 years later it has come up. There was a citizenship register count earlier on, and 30 million Assamese were recognised as citizens while 2 million were thought to have dubious papers and their cases will be reconsidered. It turns out that out of the 2 million, around 1 million are Hindus and the rest are Muslims and other minorities.

This episode, and the question of what will happen to those who do not have the papers, is raising anxiety. People are saying that the CAA has been passed for no other reason than to let the Hindus with dubious papers to go through but not anyone else. This has not yet happened—it is a conjectural fear. I am not saying that it is not true: the conjectural fear exists, but so far neither the citizenship Act nor the national citizenship register have been implemented. It is important for us to have that in mind. Whatever representations Her Majesty’s Government make, they should be based on what has happened so far.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for securing this debate. It gives me an opportunity to clarify some facts about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

India amended its Citizenship Act to allow persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Farsi and Christian faiths who have illegally migrated to India over the years from three neighbouring Islamic countries—Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan—to acquire Indian citizenship. The new Act became necessary because Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Farsi and Christian minorities who had entered India over decades, fleeing persecution, discrimination, physical insecurity or threat of forcible conversion, were living precarious lives, deprived of the many benefits of Indian citizenship. Unfortunately, they did not acquire Indian citizenship.

India is the historical home of Hindus and Sikhs, and it is these minorities who have naturally migrated there. No Muslim country would either accept them or give them citizenship. Back in 1947, minorities in Pakistan—mostly Hindus and Sikhs—constituted about 23% of the population, and are now just over 6%. In 1971, Hindus in Bangladesh constituted 19% of the population, but only 8% in 2016. These figures demonstrate the large-scale exodus of minorities from Muslim-majority countries that neighbour India.

Many migrants to India who have entered illegally, such as Muslims from Bangladesh, have done so for economic reasons and better life opportunities than in their own country. Their case is different, as they can return to their country of origin without fear.

The new Act was passed after an intensive debate in both Houses of the Indian Parliament, when all the issues raised by the opposition, including the perceived anti-secular nature of the amendment, were answered by the Government. The legislation was passed through an open, transparent and fully democratic process.

The Government of India have repeatedly clarified that the CAA is to grant citizenship on a one-time basis to a group of persons with no alternative options and not to take away the citizenship of anyone, much less an Indian Muslim. The CAA has a cut-off date of 31 December 2014, after which no illegal immigrant—whether Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, Christian or Muslim—would be eligible for citizenship under the amendment. In this larger sense, the CAA is by no means anti-Muslim or discriminatory.

India demonstrates by its actions that it does not discriminate against Muslims. Muslims have occupied the highest positions in the country, not least the esteemed head of India, President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. Indeed, the Indian constitution protects the rights of all minorities, including Muslims, giving special rights in the management of their respective religious and educational institutions.

My Lords, the Indian Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, denies citizenship to Muslim refugees from Burma, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, brushing aside the Indian constitutional commitment to secularity and the equal treatment of all religions. But this discrimination against Muslims should not be looked at in isolation.

The VHP, the ideological base of the ruling BJP, was founded in the 1930s by admirers of Hitler and the Nuremberg laws that made it mandatory for German citizens to prove Aryan ancestry. The CAA, instead of segregating people by genetics, makes religion the basis for citizenship.

The VHP was initially an understandable reaction to centuries of oppression of Hindus, by Muslim invaders and then by the British. The aim was to introduce a sense of pride and self-worth, but it soon became rooted in notions of superiority over others. At first, with its members dressed in shorts and armed with sticks, drilling in parks, the VHP was seen as a bit of a joke by most Indians. Today, it is a powerful paramilitary organisation preaching hatred and promoting violence against non-Hindus.

The underlying religious bigotry also affected some in the wider community. Pandit Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, famously declared that the care of minorities is more than a responsibility, it is a sacred trust —but he himself carried out a policy of discrimination against Sikhs. His daughter Indira Gandhi went even further in her 1984 attack on the Golden Temple, killing more than 1,000 innocent pilgrims, followed by a planned massacre of thousands more Sikh men, women and children. The appeal to majority bigotry succeeded and led to a landslide victory in the general election.

Narendra Modi, a lifelong member of the VHP, understands the power of majority bigotry. He was Chief Minister in 2001 and 2002, when the Government and police allowed the massacre of thousands of Muslims, and he was for a time barred from entry to the UK and the USA. Modi has wasted no time in implementing an extremist agenda. As well as the CAA, it includes: a national register of citizens in Assam, stripping nearly 2 million Muslims of citizenship; scrapping Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and putting the Muslim-majority state under virtual military rule; and giving the green light to build a Hindu temple on the site of a demolished centuries old mosque in Ayodhya to the very people responsible for its demolition.

The Government are also set to compile a National Register of Citizens, with people having to prove their citizenship in a country where such documentation is almost impossible to obtain. Another planned measure is to require government permission to change one’s religion, criminalising freedom of belief.

These policies provide a legal route for discrimination against Muslims—and, ultimately, against all non-Hindus. Prominent politicians openly boast of making India a Hindu state. Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister, second only to Modi, has publicly referred to Muslims as termites who should be thrown into the Bay of Bengal. A government office has been set up to rewrite Indian history for teaching in schools.

But it is not all darkness. The very forces of totalitarianism are producing a widespread reaction against the Government’s discriminatory agenda, with nationwide demonstrations, often led by women. Some states have refused to implement the new legislation. I appeal to our own Government to work directly, and through the Commonwealth, to add to this positive momentum for tolerance and respect for all people, in a wonderful country.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl for securing this important debate, and for his wide-ranging and empathetic introduction, balancing India’s astonishing and democratic recent history with its challenges now. It is appalling to hear that further violence has erupted today in India, with at least 11 further deaths. There seems to be no end in sight to the emerging social conflict described by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.

Hindus make up 80% of India’s population and Muslims make up almost 15%—around 200 million people. As we have heard, in December last year the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was passed, amending India’s 64 year-old citizenship law. It expedites citizenship by naturalisation for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered India before 2015. Their eligibility criteria have been reduced from 11 years of residency to five, or work for the federal Government. Muslims are excluded from the CAA.

It has been suggested that the CAA is associated with India’s National Register of Citizens, the NRC, updated by Prime Minister Modi following his re-election in 2019.The NRC classified as foreigners those residents of Assam, on the Indian border with Bangladesh, who could not prove their residency there before Bangladesh declared independence in 1971. The August 2019 update to the NRC excluded 1.9 million inhabitants of Assam and placed them at risk of statelessness—not citizens of India and not accepted by Bangladesh. The Government are building detention camps in which those not listed on the NRC will be held before deportation. Prime Minister Modi has announced plans to extend the NRC across all of India. Those who are illiterate, or lack documentation, are likely to be disproportionately affected.

A 2016 government survey showed that 40% of Muslim children in India do not have a birth certificate. Only 66% of Indian women are literate, and many women have little documentation. They are also, of course, particularly vulnerable to abuse in detention camps.

Although there is no explicit link between the CAA and the NRC, it has been suggested that the CAA may assist members of the listed religions, who could, for example, claim to have come from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh, and therefore gain Indian citizenship. The reaction in India has been both alarming and, in some sense, encouraging, as the noble Lord, Lord Singh, said. But 30 people died in the first month that the CAA came into operation, more than 1,500 people have been arrested, and a further 4,000 have been detained. There have been reports of forced arrests and torture in custody.

Protesters argue that the amendment violates India’s secular constitution, by in effect turning faith into a condition of citizenship. The Government have apparently justified the exclusion of Muslims from the CAA by identifying Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan as Islamist countries that aim to convert or harass religious minorities. This would be irrelevant if the purpose was simply to admit refugees, given that certain sects are also persecuted, as the noble Lords, Lord Singh and Lord Alton, indicated. The Government have talked of millions of “infiltrators” entering India across the border, even though there was in fact a decline in India’s foreign-born population between 2001 and 2019. There was shock at an election rally in September 2018 when the Home Minister called Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh “termites” and promised to

“find each and every one and send them away.”

International observers have raised concerns. The executive director of Amnesty International India stated that the CAA and the NRC

“stand to create the biggest statelessness crisis of the world, causing immense human suffering.”

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights described the CAA as “fundamentally discriminatory in nature”. Human Rights Watch argues that the CAA

“violates India’s international legal obligations”.

Some respond by saying that India’s actions in regard to citizenship are simply an internal matter. However, we take seriously the UN’s responsibility to protect. That responsibility is a recognition that what happens within borders is not just the affair of the country in question.

I note that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, raised the CAA with his Indian counterpart in December, and that in January the issue was raised with the Indian High Commission. Could the noble Baroness tell us what the response was? What further action will the Government be taking? Have the Government raised this issue within the Commonwealth, given that the UK is the current chair? We should never accept that religious minorities should have fewer rights than others in a country, any more than this should be the case in the United Kingdom. Moreover, it should be clear that discrimination can never be a recipe for community cohesion. The Government have said that “Global Britain” will fight harder than ever before for human rights around the world. I therefore look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness says in this regard and what further actions the Government plan to take.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for securing this debate. The citizenship Act passed by the Indian Parliament in 2019 is a blatant attempt to further undermine persecuted Muslim minority groups, including the Ahmadiyya from Pakistan, the Rohingya from Myanmar, and the Tamils from Sri Lanka. Ultimately, it is for the Indian judiciary to determine whether the Act is constitutional, but it is important to reflect on the domestic reaction in India, as well as international criticism.

Violent demonstrations have led to deaths in Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Mangalore, with protests also in the cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. The protests escalated to such an extent that the FCO has issued travel warnings for people visiting India’s north-east region. Is the Minister able to offer any further information as to whether this travel warning is likely to be maintained, rescinded or extended in the near future?

At an international level, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights suggested that the Act may contravene the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, both of which prohibit discrimination based on racial, ethnic or religious grounds, and both of which India is a party to. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government have made any assessment of whether the Act in question is compliant with international law?

While this Act alone gives reason to question the safeguarding of human rights under the present Administration, regrettably it comes as only a further step in Prime Minister Modi’s questionable attitude to the human rights of the Muslim population, as seen with the implementation of the National Register of Citizens and the brutal crackdown on freedom of assembly and protest. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government have made any representations to the Government of India on the latter issue?

Of course, there is also the response to the situation in Kashmir to consider. The Indian Government’s decision to withdraw Kashmir’s special status served only to increase tensions in the region, while the deployment of tens of thousands of extra troops and paramilitary police has made a peaceful solution an even more distant ambition. In the light of recent calls, does the Minister believe that there is a role for the United Nations or other independent parties to monitor and report on alleged human rights abuses, to ensure that the Kashmiri people are protected?

While the question of the Indian constitution is one for the Indian judiciary, and Kashmir is one for the people of India and Pakistan, the UK must stand firm and insist that the human rights of religious minorities cannot be infringed. It is encouraging that the Government have previously stated that these issues have been raised with the Minister of State for External Affairs, in December 2019, and with India’s High Commission in London in January 2020. But it is not enough for the Government just to whisper a quiet word in private. They must make it clear that the primacy of human rights triumphs above all else, and should the Indian Government continue with their neglect of these principles, the UK must explore further avenues to press Prime Minister Modi’s Government to protect some of the region’s most vulnerable minorities.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for tabling this debate and for his long-standing commitment to humanitarian causes and international development. I am grateful to all the noble Lords who contributed today. As ever, this House is one of the best places to hear about lessons from history.

As the noble Earl said in his opening remarks, in December last year, the Government of India signed into law the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which expedites the path to citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who fled persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan and resided in India since before 2014. It does not extend the same protection to Muslims or minority sects. Ongoing protests against the Act across India leave no doubt that this legislation is divisive. I know that people in this country—including in this House, as has been made clear today—feel strongly about it. For our part, the UK Government have concerns about the impact of the legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, highlighted the diversity of India’s population. Noble Lords will know that India boasts more than 20 official languages, over 1,500 registered dialects and a rich tapestry of religious minorities alongside its sizeable Hindu majority. Most notably, in the context of this debate, it is home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population, of more than 195 million people, and to more mosques than any other country in the world—over 300,000.

India also has a proud history of inclusive government. Many noble Lords have quoted India’s first Prime Minister, Nehru. I will do the same with a quote that has not been used already. He said that

“whatever our religion or creed, we are all one people.”

That is the foundation stone of India, so that all citizens can consider themselves Indians regardless of their religion.

India’s secular constitution, which guarantees equality before the law, has been an exemplar of inclusive democracy. Indians are rightly proud of their constitution, just as we in the UK are proud of our own constitution, diversity and religious pluralism. These shared strengths and values are central to the governance of both our countries and lie at the heart of our partnership. That partnership is further strengthened—as noble Lords have pointed out—by the UK’s 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora and the 1 million visits from the UK to India every year. It is the living bridge between us, as it has been called. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that we are privileged to have this relationship with India.

In common with India’s inclusive tradition, our Government believe that societies are stronger and safer when we embrace our diversity rather than fear it. That is why the UK works closely with international partners and leaders of all faiths and none to promote interfaith respect and understanding. We welcome Prime Minister Modi’s promise following his re-election to maintain India’s tradition of inclusive government under the guiding principle of “Together with all, development for all and trust of all”. I note that earlier this month Prime Minister Modi told India’s Lok Sabha that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act would not affect any Indian citizens. We trust that the Government of India will provide further reassurances to any citizens concerned about the impact of the Act.

Noble Lords will be aware that India continues to face challenges in enforcing its constitutional protections for freedom of religion and belief, despite its strong democratic framework. The situation for religious minorities across India—as was highlighted by many noble Lords—varies according to where they live, their socioeconomic background and how their numbers compare to other communities.

I assure noble Lords that the UK is in no way turning a blind eye to these challenges because we do not want to criticise an important partner. On the contrary, thanks to our close relationship, we are able to discuss difficult issues with the Government of India and make clear our concerns, including about the rights of minorities.

Indeed, as the Minister responsible for both human rights and our relationship with India, my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon raised our concerns about the impact of the CAA, and the public response to the legislation, with India’s Minister of State for External Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs on the very day it was passed. Our former high commissioner in New Delhi, Sir Dominic Asquith, also raised the issue with the Government of India last month, as did Foreign and Commonwealth officials with the Indian High Commission in London. Most recently, on 6 February, the British High Commission in New Delhi raised our concerns about the Act with the state government of Uttar Pradesh.

More broadly, the UK engages with India at all levels, including union and state governments and NGOs, to build capacity and share expertise to tackle those implementation challenges that I mentioned earlier, and to promote human rights for all. For example, our network of deputy high commissioners runs projects promoting minority rights. We work with local NGOs to bring together young people of diverse faiths in social action projects in their local communities and promote a culture of interfaith dialogue.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about the impact the legislation has had on UK citizens. Although this legislation will not apply to them, as I mentioned earlier there is no doubt that this Act has been divisive in this country, too, including among our 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora. We listen to their concerns and value their contributions. Ministers and officials from different departments, including the FCO, regularly meet Indian diaspora groups to discuss a range of issues, including human rights, and will continue to engage with them to understand their concerns.

The noble Earl also requested an update on our international development work with India. While we no longer have a traditional aid relationship, we partner with India to promote prosperity, reduce poverty and create trade, investment and other partnership opportunities for the UK. We share our world-leading expertise and provide investment which directly benefits the still-high number of poor people in India and generates a return for the UK. We also work with India to promote trade and innovation and co-operate internationally with it on big global issues such as climate change. We also work with it on other developing countries which are important to both Britain and India.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and many others highlighted the protests and demonstrations that have been seen, and the reaction to them. The UK has long regarded protest as a key part of a democratic society. Democratic Governments must have the power to enforce law and order when a protest crosses the line into illegality but must in turn act with restraint and proportionality. We encourage all states to ensure that their domestic laws are enforced in line with international standards. Any allegations of human rights abuses are deeply concerning and must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently.

The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Desai, and many others spoke about the National Register of Citizens. We have not received any confirmation from the Government of India of whether there will be an India-wide NRC, and we await details of how the Government of India will implement the NRC in Assam while protecting the rights of individuals.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, spoke about detention centres. The state government of Assam have announced that there will be no immediate detention of those left off the NRC, and those excluded have an appeals system through the foreigners tribunal run by the state government. We have not yet received any reports of anyone being detained or arrested or sent to a detention centre, and nor has anybody yet been deprived of their citizenship.

I admit that I have not read the column in the Indian Express written by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, but I will make sure that I do so.

The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Singh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, spoke in some detail about the situation of some religious minorities in India. I mentioned our work in general, but we continue to run projects promoting minority rights. Over the past three years we have worked with local NGOs, bringing together young people on social action projects. Recent project work included Empowering Muslim Youth, which has reached many youths, teachers and educational institutions. We have also enabled training for 900 minority students on faith issues in six universities across north India.

The noble Lord, Lord Singh, spoke about the 1984 massacre, and I am grateful to him for raising this tragedy. It was undoubtedly a tragic series of events the like of which we never wish to see again.

The noble Lord, Lord Singh, also talked about the Ayodhya temple. We note the ruling of the Supreme Court on that. While we appreciate how strongly many Hindus and Muslims feel on this issue, it is a matter for the Indian judicial process.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, highlighted the protests that we have seen today. Any individual killed in a protest is one too many. We urge restraint on all parties involved and trust that the Indian Government will address the concerns of all religions.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, spoke about our position on Kashmir. It is of course for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to Kashmir, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or act as a mediator, but we consistently encourage channels of dialogue to remain open as a means of resolving differences, and encourage the pace and scope of dialogue between India and Pakistan.

If I have failed to answer any questions, I will follow up in writing. Again, I am grateful to the noble Earl for raising this debate today and to all noble Lords for their contributions.

To conclude, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act has clearly been divisive in India. Its full impact remains unclear. We hope and trust that the Government of India will address the concerns and protect the rights of people of all religions, in keeping with India’s constitution, its democratic values and its inclusive traditions. This Government, our high commission in New Delhi and our network of deputy high commissioners across India will continue to follow and monitor events closely and, where we have concerns, we will of course continue to raise them, as India would expect from a close friend and partner. I will end by quoting my noble friend Lord Ahmad, who is today in Geneva at the Human Rights Council. He said today that in 2020 and beyond, the UK will place the promotion and the protection of human rights at the top of our list of international priorities.

Sitting suspended.