Skip to main content

India: Restrictions on Freedom

Volume 811: debated on Monday 15 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of India about reports of that government restricting the freedoms of (1) non-governmental organisations, (2) academics, and (3) other groups.

My Lords, India and the UK have proud democratic traditions, and human rights form part of our dialogue. In December and January, my noble friend Lord Ahmad raised concerns about NGOs and human rights activists with the Indian high commissioner. In February, British high commission officials discussed university restrictions with the Ministry of External Affairs. On 3 March, senior FCDO officials discussed UK parliamentary interest in restrictions on civil society groups in India with the Indian high commissioner.

My Lords, to give just one of numerous examples, more than 24 Dalit rights activists are in jail on unproven charges, including an 80 year-old poet, Varavara Rao, and an 83 year-old Jesuit priest, Father Stan Swamy. When the Prime Minister’s proposed visit to India is reinstated, will he draw Mr Modi’s attention to the report of Freedom House published this week, in which India has been downgraded from a democratic, free society to one which is only “partly free”?

My Lords, our approach has always been to raise any concerns directly with the Indian Government. We will continue to engage India on the full range of human rights matters and raise our concerns where we have them—as we do—including at ministerial level.

My Lords, in my view these reports of restrictions on freedom of expression and organisation in India follow directly from the decision in 2019 to end the autonomy of the people of Kashmir and impose severe restrictions there, locking up political leaders and ending freedom of expression. Do the Government agree that India cannot claim to be the world’s largest democracy if it continues to restrict freedom of expression and freedom to organise? Will the Government make representations to India that, if it wants to be part of the democratic nations of the world, it must stick to these values rigidly?

As one of the world’s largest democracies and one of the world’s oldest, India and the UK have a broad and deep relationship. Long may that continue. On Kashmir, India and Pakistan are long-standing and important friends of the UK; we encourage both countries to engage in dialogue to find lasting diplomatic solutions to maintain regional stability. We are of course concerned by the lack of communication between India and Pakistan and its impact on tensions, but it is for them to find a lasting political resolution on Kashmir, taking into account the wishes of Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or act as a mediator.

My Lords, the Government of India are reported to consider human rights there an internal matter. Does the noble Lord agree that lessons from the 20th century in particular show that it is vital that the world pays attention to human rights, even within borders? If so, what representations have been and are being made to the Government of India on the forced closure of Amnesty International India and the freezing of its accounts?

My Lords, the right to peaceful protest is vital in any democracy and we encourage all states to ensure that their laws are in line with international standards. Any allegation of human rights violations is clearly very concerning and should be addressed. My noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon raised Amnesty International India’s case with the Indian high commissioner on 1 December and FCDO officials have raised our concerns with the Indian High Commission. Just a few weeks before, we requested in our representations that Amnesty’s accounts be unfrozen while the investigation is ongoing. We have noted the important role of NGOs in all democracies.

My Lords, until recently India has broadly upheld the democratic principles and traditions she inherited from the UK. It is now observable that the Indian Government have restructured some hitherto democratic freedoms in a number of areas, as the Question of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, implies. My question is whether it is the task of Her Majesty’s Government to raise this with the Indian Government, when the possible response might be that the UK is following a similar trend. It is also quite likely that the response will be that it is none of our business. Is this a major and not easily reversible stance?

My Lords, I hope I caught the question adequately. I hate to repeat myself, but our approach has always been and will remain one which involves taking our concerns directly to the Government of India. We do this; we have many discussions and a close relationship. We will continue to engage on the full range of concerns that have been raised on this Question and on others. We have always taken that approach and will continue to take it, as we feel it yields the greatest possible results.

My Lords, in the interests of cricket and fair play, does the Minister share my concern about the use of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act and its very damaging effect on civil society and the mainstream aid agencies? Will HMG continue to complain regularly to the Modi Government about the imprisonment of journalists and the fear of persecution felt by non-Hindu minorities, Dalit activists, NGOs and all those campaigning against human rights violations?

My Lords, the UK is committed to media freedom, democracy and human rights all around the world. Independent media is a prerequisite to any vibrant democracy such as the UK and India. We regularly engage with India’s vibrant media, including through the annual South Asia Journalism Fellowship programme under our flagship Chevening brand. This year we are supporting the Thomson Reuters Foundation to run workshops covering issues such as human trafficking, child labour and more. In July, my noble friend Lord Ahmad discussed the UK’s commitment to promoting media freedom through the Media Freedom Coalition with India’s Minister for External Affairs.

My Lords, the strong relationship with India, built on trust and mutual respect, should give us the confidence to play the role of a critical friend. That means stressing the importance of a free civil society in a democracy. Can the Minister say whether the Prime Minister will raise this issue not just through our connections with Ministers but with Prime Minister Modi at the G7?

My Lords, the Prime Minister will visit India shortly. That will be an opportunity to discuss a very wide range of bilateral and multilateral issues directly with the Indian Government. Of course, where we have specific concerns, the Prime Minister will raise them directly with the Government of India, as you would expect of a close friend and partner.

My Lords, many reputable human rights organisations, including the UN Human Rights Council and Amnesty International, have reported that the Indian army in Kashmir is involved in illegal detentions, torture, rape and murder, with complete impunity under the Indian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Tens of thousands of political workers and leaders, including Shabir Shah and Asiya Andrabi, have been held in prison without trial for decades under another notorious law called the public safety Act. Can the Minister tell us whether our Prime Minister will make any representations to the Government of India to withdraw these draconian laws and free all Kashmiri political prisoners?

My Lords, I believe that the former Chief Ministers who have been detained under the public safety Act have now been released. We welcome the Indian Government’s assurances that all those detained under the so-called preventive measures since August 2019 have now been released. We will continue to raise our concerns with the Indian Government where we have them.

My Lords, it is very sad to see the retrograde steps being taken towards civil society in India and how NGOs are being shut down there. I speak as a former member of the UK-India round table, a bilateral organisation that fostered free and frank discussion on such issues between our two countries. It had a successful track record of achieving progress but in 2014, almost as the then Chancellor, George Osborne, visited India and said “Let us link hands” and “Embrace the future together”, the round table was abandoned. Would the Government consider re-establishing this organisation that fostered strong links between our two countries at a level below government where people could actually speak freely?

My Lords, India—as the world’s largest and, as I say, one of the oldest democracies—and the UK have a very deep and broad relationship. Our trade and investment partnership is thriving, and we collaborate on defence and security. Together we are a force for good in the world. The unique “living bridge” that George Osborne described at the time, including a 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora in the UK, connects our countries across sport, culture, food and more. During the Foreign Secretary’s visit to India in December, he agreed with his counterpart the key elements of the 10-year UK-India road map to deliver a step change in ambition for our relationships. We regard ourselves as friends, but as critical friends. We look forward to taking this plan forward into 2021.