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India: Democratic Freedoms

Volume 836: debated on Thursday 14 March 2024

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reported threats to democratic freedoms in India.

My Lords, the United Kingdom Government are absolutely committed to standing up for democracy and defending human rights around the world. We have a broad and deep partnership with the Government of India. We discuss all elements of our relationship, including concerns where we have them. I visited India in February and had constructive discussions with government representatives on a wide range of issues.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. The BJP policy of Hindu nationalism is increasingly invading press freedom, political opposition and the civil society space. For example, the use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, sedition law, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, all hint at an electoral autocracy in the world’s largest nominal democracy. There appears to be a departure from India’s secular constitution and its underlying democratic principles. Does the Minister not believe these to be dangerous precedents?

My Lords, one area I am very focused on is the importance of the constitutional protections that we have, as well as those that we see abroad. India is a country that provides constitutional protections to communities. I understand the concerns the noble Baroness alludes to. I assure her in every respect that, on every one of the legislative instruments she has mentioned, we have made our views known to India and we will continue to do so. India is a country which is multi-party and elections are coming forward. It is for the people of India to decide on their Government, but it is a country which celebrates a wide diversity of religions as well.

My Lords, how are the Government collaborating with western partners to address shared challenges and promote democratic governance, human rights and the rule of law? What opportunities exist for joint initiatives and co-operation in supporting India’s democratic trajectory while advancing mutual interests?

My noble friend raises the important issue of collaboration. I also put to my noble friend that with India we do not just have a partnership; I would term it a friendship. The nature and depth of the relationship allows us to raise issues of concern on a broad range of human rights indirectly in a constructive way, and we continue to do so. Of course, we learn from each other. India is the world's largest democracy, and its election is imminent. There will be a larger degree of commentary on that, but I believe very strongly that the transparency of the election will be very clear. We hope that all communities in India, as is their right within the constitution, will exercise their right to vote.

My Lords, India is critical to the success of the sustainable development goals. The Secretary-General, on the 75th anniversary of India, said that it was at a critical point in terms of the opportunity to

“lead by example, as a model of resilience and an advocate for sustainable development”

goals. Labour has long supported India’s role in international forums such as the UN Security Council. Could the noble Lord update us on where we are in terms of reaching a consensus for expanding the permanent membership of the UN Security Council?

As the noble Lord knows, the United Kingdom is a long-standing supporter of expanding the UN Security Council. That remains the case with this Government. We believe the inclusion of India as a key member of that widened Security Council is fundamental to reform. However, the noble Lord will be aware of the challenges we face because of the constitution of the Security Council. It requires unanimity amongst the P5, and we have seen the challenges that presents in recent years.

My Lords, last year the Canadian Government expelled Indian diplomats for their involvement in the murder of a Canadian Sikh. This was followed by an attempt in America by the Indian Government to assassinate an American Sikh. In this country, the death of a Sikh in suspicious circumstances in Birmingham led Westminster Police to warn prominent Sikhs of a possible threat to their lives at the hands of Indian agents. Prime Minister Modi, shown in a BBC documentary as having a responsibility for the Gujarat riots in which thousands of Muslims were killed, is now planning a citizenship law that will disadvantage thousands of Muslims in a so-called secular state. Are the Government not being a little hypocritical in not voicing their criticism of India’s abuse of human rights in the same strident terms they reserve for Russia and non-Commonwealth countries?

My Lords, I would not compare India in any shape or form to Russia—we have to be very clear about that. On the specific case that the noble Lord raised, he will be aware that, following speculation on it, a thorough review undertaken by the West Midlands Police concluded that there were no suspicious circumstances. On the wider issues the noble Lord raised, the CAA, which he referred to, was a specific provision, and we have of course raised concerns related to that. But it is clear that it provides freedom of religion or belief protections and minority protections for people seeking citizenship in India from neighbouring Islamic states. We have raised concerns about minorities within the Muslim communities from those states. This amendment allows someone to get citizenship within five years, but Muslims from those states will still be allowed to get citizenship within the 11 years specified.

My Lords, further to the noble Baroness’s question on press freedom, I know this has been a focus of the Minister’s work on human rights. Across its services, the BBC provides more services to Indians than the entire population of the United Kingdom, but, as a result of harassment and intimidation, it has had to uniquely restructure its presence within India to operate from a purely private sector entity. Will the Minister reassure me that officials from the Department for Business and Trade who are negotiating an FTA with India will not provide a market-access offer for Indians to have opportunities in the UK media market while those are not reciprocal for broadcasters such as the BBC within India?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. This Government stand up for media freedom and the protection of media. Indeed, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer initiated such a programme during his time as Foreign Secretary, and we stand by that coalition. We continue to raise those specific concerns related to the BBC with the Government of India, and I assure the noble Lord that, on the positive progress on the FTA, we want to ensure that it is an agreement that works for both countries, that is robust and that is in the interest of all communities, sectors and industries in India and the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the number of acts of religiously motivated violence against Christians in India has increased almost every year since 2014, from 147 to 687 in 2023. Last year, over 500 Christians were arrested under anti-conversion laws, including a couple and their pastor during their wedding, on the grounds that it was a conversion event. Will the Minister condemn this state of affairs and, if so, what steps will the Government take with their allies to defend the freedom of religion and belief in India?

I assure the right reverend Prelate that this Government, with our partners, are fully committed to defending freedom of religion or belief globally. Any reports of discrimination against religious minorities are investigated by the Indian police. We have raised direct concerns about forced conversions, and I assure the right reverend Prelate that we will continue to raise these in a productive and constructive way with the Government of India.

My Lords, before the United Kingdom Government push again for India to join the permanent five, will we look for an improvement in India of the treatment of minorities and the democratic process?

I said in previous answers that we continue to recognise India’s valuable contribution internationally, but, equally, we raise concerns constructively where we see them.

My Lords, in addition to the dangers to minorities identified so far, can the noble Lord assure us that he raises these questions about communal violence, sectarianism and the threat that has to India? I specifically note the recent position in Manipur, for instance, with the hill tribes there being targeted because of their ethnicity and religion. I also note the 166 million Dalits, who continue to be discriminated against. Does the noble Lord raise with the Indian Government the wonderful constitution crafted by a Dalit, Dr Ambedkar, which guarantees those rights, and the work of people like Dr Brian Grim, which shows how freedom of religion or belief leads to prosperity, stability and harmony?

I totally concur with the noble Lord’s summary because that is demonstrable in any country around the world. On the issue of Dalits, we have seen progress in this respect not just on the crafting of the constitution but in terms of the progress that Dalits, and indeed all communities, have made in India. Those have to be protected and strengthened. On Manipur, I met with Home Secretary Bhalla when I was in India and I raised that directly with him. This remains an area of direct and constructive dialogue.