Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who are taking part in this debate. Human rights are universal, and Britain is known to be a champion of human rights around the world. As parliamentarians of this country, it is our moral duty to highlight abuses of these rights wherever they occur.
Today, I will speak on human rights in India and particularly in Indian-administered Kashmir. Amnesty International’s India 2021 report states:
“The authorities used repressive laws to silence critics by curbing freedom of expression both offline and online. Human rights defenders, including activists, journalists, students, lawyers and actors, continued to face intimidation and harassment. Independent investigations revealed a massive unlawful surveillance apparatus being used by the government against human rights defenders, violating their rights to privacy, non-discrimination and data protection. The foreign contribution law was misused to crack down on human rights NGOs. Police and security forces used excessive force against members of minority communities and farmers protesting peacefully against laws on farming. Courts undermined the right to a fair trial and delayed hearing crucial cases involving violations of human rights … Caste-based discrimination and violence against Dalits and Adivasis continued unabated. Vigilante cow protection groups attacked minority communities, adversely affecting their livelihoods.”
The report goes into detailed examples and is available online for everyone to read.
The human rights situation in India has also been highlighted by Gregory Stanton, the founder and director of Genocide Watch, an expert who predicted the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda years before it took place in 1994. During a US congressional briefing in January 2022, he said that there were early “signs and processes” of genocide in the Indian state of Assam and Indian-administered Kashmir.
Stanton said that genocide was not an event but a process and drew parallels between the policies pursued by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the discriminatory policies of Myanmar’s Government against Rohingya Muslims in 2017. Among the policies he cited were the revocation of the special autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir in 2019, which stripped Kashmiris of the special autonomy they had had for seven decades, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act the same year, which granted citizenship to religious minorities but excluded Muslims.
I want now to focus on the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir. As many noble Lords know, I am perhaps the only Member of this House who was born in Azad Kashmir—the Pakistan-administered area—and I have family and friends living on both sides of the line of control that divides the state between India and Pakistan. What happens in Kashmir affects me, my family and approximately 1.2 million Britons of Kashmiri origin living in the UK.
Without going too much into the history or politics of the state, I want briefly to remind your Lordships that when the Indian army came to Kashmir in 1947, the Prime Minister of India at that time, Mr Nehru, is on record as saying that the Indian Army was there to protect the lives and property of the Kashmiri people. He took the matter to the United Nations and obtained UN resolutions promising Kashmiris the right of self-determination through a plebiscite. Mr Nehru promised the Kashmiris and the whole world that, as soon as peace was restored, his forces would withdraw, and Kashmiris would decide their own destiny. He further said:
“At the end, even if they decide to stay separate from India, we will swallow that bitter pill.”
In 75 years, India has deviated from the UN resolutions and increased its army deployed in Kashmir to nearly 900,000, with special powers granted under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. In these 75 years, more than 100,000 Kashmiri civilians have been killed and many more detained and tortured. According to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Commission on Human Rights and many other credible organisations, Indian security forces are reported to be involved in illegal detentions, torture, extrajudicial killing, fake encounters, rape and murder with complete impunity under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. An Amnesty International report called A ‘Lawless Law’ throws light on some chilling facts of rape and torture. The widely reported and documented case of the Kunan Poshpora gang rape is an example of brutality committed with complete impunity.
The New York-based human rights group Human Rights Watch, in its recent report, said:
“The authorities have invoked the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, as well as terrorism allegations, to conduct raids and arbitrarily detain journalists, activists, and political leaders without evidence and meaningful judicial review. The authorities have also barred several prominent Kashmiris from traveling abroad without providing reasons … In November 2021, the authorities arrested a prominent Kashmiri human rights activist, Khurram Parvez,”
who is 44 years old,
“on politically motivated charges under … the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) … He has documented cases of enforced disappearances and investigated unmarked graves in Kashmir,”
and as a result the Indian authorities have detained him. The report continues:
“Journalists in Kashmir face increasing harassment by security forces, including raids and arbitrary arrests on terrorism charges. Authorities in India have shut down the internet more often than anywhere else in the world. A majority of those shutdowns have been in Kashmir, where they are used to curb protests and access to information … In March 2021 … UN expert mandates wrote to the Indian government seeking information about the detention of a Kashmiri politician, Waheed Para; the alleged killing in custody of a shopkeeper, Irfan Ahmad Dar; and the enforced disappearance of Naseer Ahmad Wani, a resident of Shopian district. They raised concerns about ‘the repressive measures and broader pattern of systematic infringements of fundamental rights used against the local population, as well as of intimidations, searches, and confiscations committed by national security agents.’”
According to the UNHCR, thousands of mass graves have been discovered and need to be investigated. In its 2018 and 2019 reports, the UNHCR asked for free access to investigate these reports of human rights abuses, but India has refused to co-operate.
According to a Kashmiri NGO called the Legal Forum for Kashmir, 26 prominent Kashmiri political leaders and clerics are detained under the public safety Act, UAPA and similar draconian laws. They include Shabir Shah, detained for more than 32 years; Asiya Andrabi, in prison since 2018; and Masarat Alam Bhat, detained for more than 20 years. The Legal Forum for Kashmir has also produced a list containing names and details of 872 Kashmiri youths and political activists held in detention, most of them under the PSA or similar laws. I am willing to share these lists with the Minister and urge him to raise these cases with the Indian Government for their release.
Taking the above information into account, I ask the Minister the following questions. First, can he assure the Committee that our future free trade deal with India will be linked with human rights? If not, why not? Secondly, will he ensure that India is included in the FCDO’s annual list of countries with human rights concerns? Thirdly, considering the reports of Genocide Watch seriously, what steps are His Majesty’s Government taking to prevent a genocide in Kashmir? Finally, does he consider the UN resolutions on Kashmir of 1948 and 1949 to still be relevant? If so, what will our Government do to help implement them?
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, for initiating this debate. It will provide us with an opportunity to talk about the great diversity that is found in India, which is one of the most religiously and culturally diverse countries on the planet. I am a frequent visitor to India, encouraging greater partnership and collaboration between it and the UK. Both countries believe in the strength and importance of this relationship. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, alluded to, there will be a free trade deal between our two great nations. That trade deal will be based on a lot of issues. I will come to his point on human rights a little later.
In all my visits to India over many decades, I have seen an economic growth success story that many in the world would envy, as India stands as the fifth-largest economy in the world. There has not been a decline in minority populations in India. Every person is allowed to speak freely and in no fear of being persecuted, kidnapped or murdered. Incitement to hatred is a crime, whether here in the UK or in India, and any incitement that brings populations on to the streets to kill is dangerous.
Therefore, when I hear about the so-called atrocities and persecutions, I ask a number of questions. Where are the voices speaking on behalf of the thousands of Kashmiri Pandits and their families who were murdered or driven away from their homes in 1989? They were indigenous Kashmiris; 80% were driven out of their homes by mobs taking instructions from external powers. It would be really appreciated if the noble Lord and others would speak up and defend those people fleeing their homes.
Recently I spoke to the Chief Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir. He is very keen to see the state building on investment that is now beginning to appear as the state becomes safer and more stable. Some $7.5 billion has been invested in a range of sectors in recent years. The highest railway bridge in the world is being built in Kashmir. We are keen to be part of that growth and investment story and I encourage British companies to work towards building those closer ties and to work with our friends in Jammu and Kashmir.
On a wider point about India, I have been told that in Punjab there is going to be built one of the largest churches in the country, possibly the subcontinent. There has been no decline in minority populations. The Indian census shows that, decade on decade, the number of people from minority communities in India has increased. That cannot be said for India’s neighbouring countries, where temples and churches have been destroyed and minority communities have been persecuted and driven out.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, that as parliamentarians we have a duty to speak up where we find any form of abuse. But it has to be right that we highlight it wherever it occurs. I stand up often to defend women and girls and human rights in Iran. I stand up often to defend the rights of the tribal people in India, because I believe everybody has a right to be treated fairly by every state on the planet, but there seems to be silence when it comes to the countries that really do abuse minority communities. There may be reports by Amnesty and others, but I would like to see the evidence that is collected before I support any report, because I know, as a recent and keen visitor to India, the progress that is being made by every person there.
The noble Lord alluded to 2019. All central laws have now been extended to Jammu and Kashmir. That means that every single person has the same rights in any part of India. That must be right. It must be right that, if you are a homosexual, you have equal rights in Jammu and Kashmir, as you would across India, and that women have land inheritance rights, just like they do across India.
These discussions need be fair and informed when we have them, without one side believing that only one part of the community in India is persecuted, because I will stand up and fight for everyone’s human rights. That means that we have an honest debate.
My Lords, I have lived and worked in India, but I have never had the opportunity to visit Kashmir, which is my loss. It also explains why I am not qualified to speak about one of the most difficult questions in foreign policy. However, I have learned from what the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, said, and I hope he will forgive me if I focus on other issues concerning human rights. I take the noble Baroness’s point about balance.
One of the issues is, of course, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, which the noble Lord mentioned, which also affects Kashmiris. It led to violent communal riots in Delhi and Assam, costing many lives. It specifically excluded Muslim refugees from Indian citizenship and was condemned for that by the UN and human rights groups, as well as Indian Muslim leaders, as discriminatory. I have given examples of the treatment of minorities and castes in previous debates so I do not want to repeat them today, but I expect that the Minister will confirm that discrimination against Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, Adivasis and others remains a major concern of the FCDO and that human rights come up in regular discussions with South Block.
The Minister will know that the 10th EU-India human rights dialogue was held on 15 July in New Delhi. According to the communiqué, India and the EU reiterated their commitment to protecting all human rights. Unfortunately, such a dialogue leads to some very bland statements. Has Brexit opened up any more meaningful dialogue than the one we had through the EU? It is true that we have a long association with India, but “full and frank exchanges” do not necessarily mean action, even between friends.
In this context, the new FTA with India provides another good opportunity to develop our friendship, which we have already debated in the Chamber. I declare my interest as a member of our International Agreements Select Committee. I am also concerned about civil society in India and in the UK, especially those concerned with development and the many NGOs in both countries that attempt to address human rights violations.
One of these is the Trade Justice Movement, which represents about 60 organisations and has studied the FTA in some detail. It argues that development and human rights should have a much higher priority in trade agreements. Many people believe that, including some in the Foreign Office. The Trade Justice Movement refers to disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests, surveillance of citizens, and the listing of academics, journalists and lawyers as enemies of the state. It mentions the Scottish Sikh, Jagtar Singh Johal, who has been arbitrarily detained since 2017, tortured and held without charge.
The movement uses the interesting phrase of “aligning” development and the environment with trade, but the DIT is not so sure that any of these things belong with trade. The so-called Diwali deal is taking a long time to negotiate, not surprisingly, because of the range and depth of the issues. The aspirations expressed in various DIT showcasing documents contain many references to subjects such as climate change, labour rights and human rights—although the latter appears rather less—but these are unlikely to appear in the final version of the deal. Other possible overlaps with trade of much interest to India are mobility, temporary work visas and perhaps the use of aid funds for refugees, but these may not end up in the FTA either. The DIT scoping assessment says that the UK and India have already ratified most of the international human rights treaties and comments dryly:
“Recently it has become more common for FTAs to include provisions related to human rights, although it is not possible to assess the exact impact of an agreement on human rights prior to the conclusion of negotiations.”
Clearly, at this point the DIT is not concerned about human rights in India but only about the impact of the agreement.
The very sad case of Alaa Abd el-Fattah in Egypt shows that the FCDO can take up the case of victims of human rights abuses, including prisoners of conscience, where there is a direct UK connection. The Minister will be well aware that Alaa has been held for many years and his case has been widely publicised. World leaders, while negotiating climate issues, were challenging President al-Sisi’s appalling treatment of Alaa. India is arguably a much closer friend than Egypt and we should be able to discuss human rights issues much more openly, without jeopardising our trade deal.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, for bringing the topic of human rights to the House’s attention again and again, and for giving us an opportunity to reflect on what is going on around India.
The noble Lord lives in a country where equality for all is guaranteed, regardless of race, religion or gender, yet he advocates for the majority population of Kashmir to be able to use religion to devalue their fellow Kashmiris of different faiths, as was done in Pakistan without a referendum. Sadly, minorities there are persecuted daily and do not enjoy equality even today. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, knows that Hindus were the first settlers in Kashmir. Then, the rest came. If they have become a majority, that does not mean that those who were there before should now be dispelled.
Incidentally, I am a reject of Pakistan. I was born there, but was rejected on the basis of my religion. My father was killed for opposing the break-up of India on the basis of religion. We were made refugees in the country of our birth. We arrived on a refugee train to India as destitute people, because our property was taken by the majority.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, has conveniently forgotten the citizens of Bangladesh and how, in 1971, they won the election and were denied the result. Instead, they were massacred. Two million Bengalis were killed because of their race. Millions of women were raped because of their race. Where was the noble Lord then? Did he raise his voice to say that democracy had been abused and the rights of people had been—
I did not interrupt the noble Lord when he was speaking. I am so proud that our country, India, where I was raised, intervened and saved the future of the Bengali people. If India had not intervened, I shudder to think what would have been their plight today.
I have brought some statistics to show that religion does not keep people together. If religion had that force, the people of Bangladesh would not have suffered, and east Pakistan would still be part of Pakistan.
Kashmiri people are now benefiting from the development of the fifth-largest economy in the world. Every company in the world is investing in India; there are a lot of opportunities. We have just heard that the FTA between our two countries is in the offing. That will bring more benefit to the people of Kashmir. Kashmiris have a huge market of 1.3 billion people, and the standard of living is rising all the time. India is investing a record amount of money in Kashmir, opening universities, airports, hospitals, schools, colleges—you name it. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, just has to see what is next door to Kashmir, and see the state between the two. He just has to fly to see the number of lights emitting from the ground below.
Finally, no religious country can progress while systematically discriminating against any section of its population because of their religion. Sadly, no scientific, technological or medical innovation has come out of such countries to benefit humanity; only scholars of religion spreading hatred. Look at this great country, where the noble Lord and I are sitting because the Christian majority population is not using religion to keep us down.
Using religion to divide humanity brings religion into disrepute. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, will promote living in peace and harmony regardless of race, religion and gender. Let us learn from history and never encourage more religious hatred. Let us condemn cross-border terrorism, which has turned a paradise into what has just been described: people killed daily because a worthless terrorist can come and surprise everybody. Let us make Kashmir a real paradise by condemning terrorism of any shape and form. There can be no place for terrorists in the world.
Kashmiri people are free to form political parties and select their leaders and Government. What they cannot do is use religion to devalue their fellow Kashmiris. They have freedom in every other part of India. How would the noble Lord feel if other states did that against Muslim minorities? In fact, everywhere in India, equality is enshrined in its constitution. What will be the state of women in Kashmir? Can noble Lords imagine? I am the child of a single parent. If my mother was not educated or empowered, I would not be standing here and I would not have received eight Queen’s awards on merit, competing with the best in Britain.
Let us not use religion to put people in straitjackets. Let us allow people to breathe. In which religious country would the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, like to live? He lives in this country, so he should follow this principle.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, I have great respect for the people of India and its constitution. Resilience and joy can be found there, sometimes even in the harshest of conditions, and the constitution, which was the work of Dr Ambedkar, recognises the equality of every citizen. It is indeed a country of many diverse communities, with Muslims, Christians and Sikhs among the minorities, but all those minority groups, in one way or another, feel under pressure at the moment.
I will briefly focus on two areas, which are often interlinked. First, in recent years, those who raise their voices to protest against the direction the state is taking, or even to ask questions about it, are increasingly and systematically silenced and sometimes even imprisoned. For example, even academics in the course of their work are being put under pressure. If their work touches on a sensitive subject, they are forced to withdraw from speaking at conferences and seminars.
Unbelievably, this has happened to academics in this country. One was Lindsay Bremner, professor of architecture and cities at the University of Westminster, who recently arrived in India with a valid research visa but was told that she could not enter the country and was bundled on to an aeroplane hours later. Filippo Osella, professor of anthropology and south Asian studies at the University of Sussex, had a similar experience when he was turned away at the border in March despite having a valid research visa and having had no previous trouble in 30 years of travelling to Kerala for fieldwork.
India prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy, but there is no democracy without freedom of speech. As George Orwell put it, if it means anything at all, it means telling people what they do not want to hear. Freedom to follow and speak the truth is fundamental to all academic life.
In terms of balance, and I hope I am as balanced as anybody in this House, there are many countries—more than half the world—with human rights records far worse than India’s, and I am often among those who speak up against what is happening in other countries, but India should see that what is happening now is against its own highest standards. The great Amartya Sen, in his book The Argumentative Indian, maintained that serious discussion and disagreement had in the past been a fundamental part of Indian life. Against that standard, we have to ask: what is happening now when even academics are not being allowed to speak at conferences? Will the Government urge upon India the absolute necessity of allowing free debate, not least for academics?
The other area of particular concern at the moment is the justice system, which in some areas is deeply flawed; for example, political prisoners are being denied bail and imprisoned for long periods awaiting trial. Last year, Father Stan Swamy, a Catholic priest and tribal activist, who was 84 and suffering from Parkinson’s, was denied bail and died in prison. Similarly, there are prisoners in the Bhima Koregaon case who have been refused bail on health grounds and are still awaiting trial. They include trade unionists, human rights activists, lawyers and academics. Among them are Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha and Dr GN Saibaba. These trials continue to be delayed by the Indian courts.
More long-standing is the case of Dr GN Saibaba, a Delhi University professor of English. Saibaba, a long-time activist for the rights of India’s vulnerable indigenous people and other oppressed communities, was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017. Professor Saibaba has post-polio syndrome, is wheelchair-bound and suffers from numerous health issues. Over the seven years of Professor Saibaba’s imprisonment, he has been denied adequate medical care on numerous occasions. There are others. There is Pandu Narote, an Adivasi person, who was convicted alongside him, who died in prison in August this year aged only 35 after contracting swine flu as a result of medical neglect. There is Prashant Rahi, a journalist and legal activist who is also suffering in prison and has health needs that are not being adequately attended to. All this is apart from the long-standing problem of Dalits getting recourse to justice when their village has been attacked.
Will the Government raise some of these issues, not least in connection with the trade deal? I agree with other noble Lords that we do not want to see a trade deal going through that does not take into account the absolute importance of the observance of human rights in India as elsewhere in the world.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and I, along with the Minister of course, have been discussing human rights within Europe, including Ukraine. Later, we will do so on China and, in the context of the debate that my noble friend has brought to us today, it is right that we discuss human rights relations with our close partner, India. In debating all three areas, we understand the complexities that exist, as well as the power of history. But that should not blind us to what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, indicated or allow us to ignore what our contemporary relations are within our key trading relationships. I will come back to that before I close.
India is a much-valued ally of the UK, with enormously deep historical and contemporary ties in all parts of the UK—every single corner of our country. Our long-term future in the world as the UK is linked with the ongoing development of India itself in the global economy, in development support, in research and development and in education and skills. There is no part of the UK’s future on which India will not have an influence. Of course, that includes democratic development and the ever-advancing universality of human rights and freedoms, but it does not mean that we are silent within this partnership on those areas that have been brought to our attention today.
We strive continuously to share common values and I agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, about their universal nature. I also share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, who indicated that when it comes to LGBTQI+ and women’s rights, we should have common threads in our relationships with all partners. In that regard, for example, it has been regrettable that India has resumed executions and the death penalty over recent years. There are areas where we will signal that the UK has a different approach but we want to work with our allies and friends in development, not least in sharing areas of common values, such as openness, tolerance and, of course, human rights. The concerns raised today are therefore relevant in the current climate.
I will refer, as I have repeatedly in debates on human rights, to the Government’s Human Rights and Democracy Report. I commend officials in the FCO and FCDO who have put those reports together over recent years. The examples that I will relate are drawn from that FCDO report, and there is no question about the areas highlighted in it. I put on record at this point my support for the Minister’s work as Minister for Human Rights—he has taken responsibility in this region—and the work that he has done to advance the human rights agenda of the United Kingdom. But, as the Government themselves have indicated and reported, some of the areas where we see a trend in the wrong direction have resulted from the Covid crisis and the more repressive nature of some of the lockdowns that existed. The Government were right, in my view, to highlight some of those.
In the wider trading relationship, the Government have highlighted some of the challenges that exist on the lack of respect for ILO or labour rights in areas such as trafficking and garment production, as well as the lack of implementation of some international obligations on modern slavery and forced labour. I absolutely recognise that this is not unique to India and that therefore our work in those areas has been with regional partners in Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, the Government also highlighted some concerning areas with regard to the restriction on those who have highlighted human rights concerns, including the restrictions on Amnesty International and its categorisation under domestic legislation within India. There are also areas where NGOs have struggled to highlight some of their concerns.
Let me address the point that I referenced earlier with regard to our trade relations. The Committee will not be surprised to know that I hold the UK’s trading relations with India on a par with all other areas where I, along with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others—indeed, the whole House—have resolved that the Government should have a trade and human rights policy, which should be reflected in all our agreements.
When we debated the prospective UK-India free trade agreement, we raised human rights concerns, the lack of stakeholder consultation, the lack of a full review by the Government of human rights and trade, and the lack of clarity over whether the Government are seeking triggering mechanisms in chapters on human rights within the prospective trade agreement with India. It is fair to ask the Government for there to be more clarity in this area—on how a trade agreement with India could advance areas such as core UN and ILO human rights conventions, and how we will work with India on moving towards full ratification of the convention against torture, to which it is a signatory. When it comes to investment and trading relations, this should be seen as a positive, but human rights should be an integral part of it, not a secondary element.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, for initiating this debate. Of course, it has reminded us that India is the world’s largest democracy and will always remain a close ally of the United Kingdom, underpinned, as we have heard, by the close social, economic and cultural ties that we enjoy. Perhaps it is because of that close relationship and shared ties that we should continue to stand up for human rights everywhere, and call out human rights violations wherever they exist, including in Kashmir. A peaceful dialogue and respect for human rights, with India and Pakistan working together, is the only way that a political solution can be achieved. All parties should refrain from unilateral decisions, which make the process of building a lasting peace more difficult.
The conflict in Kashmir is more than 70 years long and is the longest unresolved conflict on the agenda of the United Nations. We will continue to respect UN resolutions on this issue. As the Minister for the United Nations, can the Minister update the Committee on whether the UK mission is involved in any efforts to monitor resolutions relating to Kashmir?
Of course, we should look beyond Kashmir to wider human rights violations which persist elsewhere in India, including violence against religious minorities and other vulnerable communities. Can the Minister offer an assessment of recent levels of violence and the safety of religious minorities?
The United Kingdom—as all noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, have stressed—must be a strong advocate for human rights wherever they are under threat, and that always means supporting a free press and a strong civil society. They, rather than politicians and Governments, are often the guarantors of human rights.
I have raised previously with the Minister the question of media freedom, particularly in Kashmir. I hope he can update us on the FCDO’s recent efforts to secure this and what protections we are able to offer. I echo the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, about civil society and hope that the Minister can update us on the steps taken by the department to engage with civil society groups in India and Kashmir, including those representing workers, women’s groups and religious minorities.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to what has been a very insightful debate. I will try to respond to most of the points raised and, in the usual manner, will extend courtesies on any specific questions that I am not able to answer in the time allocated. I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, for tabling this debate.
Before I go any further into what is in front of me, I want to reflect on points made by my noble friends Lord Ranger and Lady Verma. A nation’s rich diversity reflects its strength—a point alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Collins—and our country is reflective of exactly that quality. At a time when we celebrate our first Prime Minister of the Hindu faith, it is amusing for me—as someone of the Muslim faith whose heritage extends to India on my paternal and maternal sides—that in the case of our Prime Minister, who is Hindu by faith, his maternal and paternal sides extend to modern-day Pakistan, in Gujranwala. That shows the rich diversity but also the hope and opportunity that lie in the relationships and the importance of bridge building between communities, not just here in the United Kingdom but across the Indian subcontinent—an area I know well, both through my personal links and, importantly, as the Minister responsible for that region.
I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that here in the UK we pride ourselves on speaking out whenever we see a violation of human rights, anywhere in the world and on whatever issue. The greatest challenge we all face is when we stand up on human rights violations that are reflective not of our own values, personal beliefs or religion but those of others. That is the real test. I often say that being the Minister for Human Rights for the United Kingdom is the proudest part of my brief but also, arguably, the most challenging.
My noble friend Lady Verma talked of her strong advocacy for human rights. On a personal level, I have experienced that for well over 25 years. She has been a guardian of my personal human rights in all aspects of my life. Examples in all noble Lords’ contributions demonstrate how live we are to these important issues. I therefore align myself with the principles and values that have been a thread—a human rights golden thread, if I can put it that way—through every contribution.
As we have made clear time and again, including in our integrated review, open societies and human rights should and do remain a priority for the United Kingdom, as the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, rightly pointed out. Our security and prosperity are best served by a world in which democratic societies flourish and fundamental human rights are protected and, indeed, strengthened.
I turn to India. Many are rightly proud of their country’s inclusive institutions, Governments, rich history and constitution. That is important. I have always said that when we approach the issue of human rights and seek to raise it, wherever that may be in the world, we must apply the lens of the challenges and where a country is on its human rights journey at that point in time. As we heard earlier from my noble friend Lord Ranger, who would have been in this Room 105 years ago? There would be no women and arguably no people of other faiths or people openly professing their sexuality. That shows that our own country has been on a journey when it comes to human rights. Therefore, it is right that we look at a country’s journey but also its institutions and constitutions and the protections it affords. Just as we are proud of our democracy and institutions here in the UK, I know from direct engagement with the Government of India, including on the issue of human rights, how proud they are of their constitutions and institutions as protectors and guardians of human rights.
Our values and our vibrant democracies sit at the heart of the UK-India comprehensive strategic partnership and our 2030 road map for future relations. The road map, which several noble Lords alluded to, guides our co-operation and covers all aspects of our multifaceted relationship. We set out our shared belief in the importance of democratic norms and principles, and respect for universal human rights. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has underlined the importance of protecting human rights.
I assure the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that we do raise human rights issues and the consular cases he referred to, including the case of Mr Johal. I know on how many occasions I raised that during my time as Minister for India. We need to ensure that we raise the rights of British citizens who are held. Equally, when we raise human rights we do so in a constructive and candid manner. The strength of our relationship with India allows us to do so.
We know that India is the world’s largest democracy and has long traditions, but we look to India to uphold all freedoms and rights guaranteed in its constitution, as with all democracies including ours. Indeed, that is the analysis and the point that I expect to be put about our own values and human rights here in the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom engages with India on a range of human rights issues. Of course, we recognise the nature of the human rights situation across India. As my noble friend Lady Verma pointed out, India is not a homogenous country. It has so many religions and cultures. I will stand corrected if I am wrong, but I think there are still more Muslims in India than there are in either Pakistan or Bangladesh. That shows the rich diversity of the nation when it comes to religion. There are constitutional protections for places of worship. Indeed, the 1989 constitutional protection for places of worship stands very strongly. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, that we have a wide network through our high commission, Ministers and our network of deputy high commissions because of the nature and breadth of India. Indeed, we recently heard that India will become the most populous country in the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, spoke about strengthening ties with civil society. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned Amnesty International and other human rights groups. Only earlier this week I met with human rights groups as part of my regular engagement with them to ensure that their concerns, which are sometimes aired privately on specific issues, can be highlighted so that we can take them up constructively with Governments around the world, including the Indian Government. Recently I spoke with the high commissioner of India; human rights form a regular part of that dialogue.
As today’s debate has shown, it is clear that Kashmir is a topic close to the hearts of many. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, spoke very personally about his ties across the line of control. We are lucky to have 1.7 million British citizens of Indian heritage living here in the UK, and a similar number with Pakistani heritage. There is sometimes even an argument about who qualifies under which category, which perhaps shows the strong, binding nature of cultural ties between the two countries. India and Pakistan are long-standing and important friends of the United Kingdom, and we have significant links with both countries, particularly through the diaspora communities.
The Government take the situation, and the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, very seriously. He talked about resolutions, as did the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Our position remains exactly as before: it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the United Kingdom to prescribe a solution or to act as a mediator. This position is not new; it has been the consistent position of successive British Governments.
We welcomed the renewal of the ceasefire along the line of control in February last year, and we encourage both sides to find lasting diplomatic solutions to maintain regional stability. At a time when people often talk about problems, I always look at the challenges we face and the role that the United Kingdom can play in terms of opportunity and hope. I know that my noble friend Lord Ranger has visited and knows this quite directly. The Kartarpur corridor provides a profound example of what can be achieved with the right intent between two Governments doing something for the right reasons.
Human rights concerns in India-administered Kashmir are raised with me, as they are about Pakistan-administered Kashmir. As I said, we raise these directly with the respective Governments of India and Pakistan. I assure noble Lords that these form part of our bilateral relationships as well.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Hussain, talked about human rights in negotiations and the trade agreement with India. The Government’s international obligations and commitments, including on human rights, will remain paramount when we make decisions on all trading relations. We are also clear that more trade will not come at the expense of workers or the environment.
While trade discussions continue, I assure noble Lords that as we discuss the importance of strengthening our road map, whether on trade, investment, technological co-operation or improving lives and livelihoods in India and the UK, the issue of lives and livelihoods is intrinsically tied to the whole concept of human rights. We continue to engage on an ambitious free trade agreement.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, talked about the Diwali agreement. There is good progress on many chapters and we will continue to discuss these issues directly. Indeed, my right honourable friend did so with External Affairs Minister Jaishankar during his recent visit to India.
There have been other areas of partnership with India over recent years, including co-operation over Covid-19 and the co-operation we have had on trade, education partnerships and climate change. Those areas will continue to be raised.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, raised some specific issues on the human rights report. I am proud that we produce reports on this issue. The noble Lord asked about other countries, including India. The decision on whether a country is designated in that report is based on the trajectory of change, the UK’s potential work on human rights and where we have influence. At this time, we judge that it is not appropriate to designate India in the human rights report. However, as I said—I emphasise this point—where we have concerns, we will raise them.
My noble friend Lord Ranger raised the issue of the Kashmiri Pandits. Of course, that is important. As we look at human rights issues, we need to be consistent across the piece. I assure my noble friend that those issues form part and parcel of our engagement.
This is extremely important. I am sure we will return to issues of human rights across the world—including very shortly in our next debate. I welcome our continued engagement on this issue. India matters to the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom matters to India. Our relationship with India, as democracies and friends, is built on important pillars, such as strengthening trade. We are two key democracies where the rule of law matters and we will continue to have candid, constructive exchanges on issues of human rights. That will remain an important pillar in our relationships. This matters to me and to all noble Lords who have expressed their views today. It matters to the United Kingdom and, from my engagement with our partners and friends in India, I can assure noble Lords that it matters to India as well.
As we have a minute or two in reserve, can I just ask a factual question? The Minister cannot answer for the Department for International Trade, clearly, but it would be interesting to know how often on the present trade deal the Foreign Office has intervened. Have there been formal occasions or is it just in chance meetings through the year?
I assure the noble Earl that on every FTA we have a very integrated approach with our colleagues in DIT. When we need to raise these issues directly, these are not chance meetings. We are quite structured in our approach, whether through diplomacy or trade.