Skip to main content

India: Missionaries of Charity

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 6 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of India about the blocking of overseas funds for the Missionaries of Charity and other non-governmental organisations.

My Lords, we are aware of some non-governmental organisations that face difficulties in India due to the use of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act by the Indian Government, and that some have recently had applications to renew their foreign funding licences rejected. We support a wide range of local NGO partners in India, including through programmes directly. A vibrant civil society is central to any democracy. Officials have discussed issues facing NGOs with the Indian Government, and the British high commission in New Delhi will continue to monitor developments in this respect.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The work of Mother Theresa and the charity she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, is renowned throughout the world. It works among some of the poorest and most destitute people on earth. What possible reason could the Indian Government have for wanting to hinder and block its work? The rumour, I am afraid, is that it is continuing pressure from Hindu nationalism, because people might come into contact with Christianity and eventually convert to it. We need to know from the Indian Government precisely, in writing, what their reasons are so that we can examine the validity of their reasoning.

My Lords, first, I share the noble and right reverend Lord’s view on the important work the Missionaries of Charity has done among particularly vulnerable populations within India. On the issue of the licence in India, I have looked into this specifically, and we do not know why its applications were rejected. I have asked and pressed to see the kinds of numbers that currently exist. Among the 12,580 organisations whose licences have ceased to exist, some ceased to exist because they did not submit their applications in time, and others were rejected for other reasons. There are Christian NGOs, but there are also 250 Hindu NGOs and more than 250 Muslim NGOs, so whether this is specifically against Christian organisations is not shown by the data, but I am requesting further information in this respect.

My Lords, civil society organisations provide a lifeline in many societies, including in India, where among their invaluable contribution they have helped to sustain communities and individuals during the pandemic. They are a bulwark against populism, and they defend human rights and freedom of the press. Any and all attempts to curb their powers or indeed crush them have to be condemned. Will the Minister join me in praising the National Foundation for India for the work that it does in strengthening civil society? I am proud to be a distinguished fellow of the NFI.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, in my capacity as not just Minister for South Asia but Minister for Human Rights, I see the issue and important role of civil society organisation as key. I share with the noble Baroness the view that civil society has a central and pivotal role to play in not just standing up for but defending human rights within countries. India is a very good example of a massive democracy where the institution of human rights is key. A key pillar of human rights is ensuring that civil society is not just sustained but able to prosper. That will certainly continue to be part of my engagement with the Indian Government.

My Lords, may I pin the Minister down somewhat? This is an issue which has come up repeatedly and over a period of time, so he will be very familiar with it. He mentions officials taking action here. Does he think it right that organisations such as Amnesty International and Oxfam are, in effect, being starved of funds? If he does not, what are we doing at ministerial level to engage with the Indian Government to seek to have these funds unblocked? Is this not what global Britain was supposed to be about: promoting UK values, including human rights?

My Lords, the noble Baroness rightly raises specific issues. She mentioned Amnesty International and I can assure her that I have taken that issue up directly with the Indian authorities, including the Indian high commissioner, as well as the Government in Delhi. That issue continues to provide challenge. However, because of our lobbying and representations, we welcomed the recent High Court decision in Karnataka which allowed Amnesty to access some of its funds. We remain in direct contact with Amnesty International and other organisations. I meet with them quite regularly on these and other matters.

My Lords, I have written to the Minister, copying in the Indian high commissioner, specifically about the life-saving work of Mother Teresa’s community in Calcutta, which I have seen first-hand. I have registered with the Minister my concern about the withdrawal of FCRA licences. Has he studied the list of organisations which have now lost their licences—the number of which some put as high as 3,000, not the 1,200 he just mentioned? It includes Oxfam, which says that its work will be severely affected, and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, which has had its bank account frozen. When he says that he and his officials have contacted the high commission and Mr Modi’s office, what response has he received to date? Does he not agree that there will be appalling consequences for some of India’s most vulnerable people unless this iniquitous decision is reversed?

My Lords, we are raising these issues quite directly. Because of the constructive nature of our engagement, we are able to raise this not just with the Indian high commission here in London but in a constructive manner with the Indian Government directly. The noble Lord points to specific numbers. As I alluded to earlier, I have asked specifically for a drill-down on the numbers over a period, so that I can analyse directly which organisations are impacted and the reasons why these licences have been revoked, to allow us to make much more qualified representation.

My Lords, constructive dialogue with an ally such as India is important. Last year, I raised with the noble Lord, and the noble Lord also raised, the situation of caste discrimination in India and the impact that was having. He said to me then, in relation to the G7 meeting that had taken place, that this issue would be raised on an ongoing basis, so that the dialogue was not limited just to the UK and India but became a much broader dialogue on how we can support human rights in India. Can he tell us whether that dialogue has continued and whether we are working with other allies to ensure that democracy in India is maintained and human rights are supported?

My Lords, as I alluded to in my response to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, India is a key partner and ally. It is also a democracy with a constitution and that constitution provides protection for all communities, including those of different faiths and, as the noble Lord pointed out, the Dalit community. I assure the noble Lord that we continue to make the case for strengthening human rights constructively with the Government of India. We believe we are strong partners and friends of India, which allows us to make these representations in a constructive manner and strengthen the work we do ourselves with NGO partners in India, to ensure that representation of those such as the Dalits is supported, particularly through specific funding programmes funded by the British Government.

My Lords, as someone who knows that part of the world well, what we have seen in India over time is increased representation of different castes and communities within different parts of the Government and in society. Human rights is never a done deal or a completed job; we need to be ever vigilant across the world and stand up for the human rights of all communities.

My Lords, the Government of India have had considerable success in reducing poverty in recent years, but government and indigenous agencies do not reach many of the poorest people in India. In their dialogue with the Indian Government, will the Government ask them to explain how those people will be reached if the agencies currently serving them are withdrawn?

My Lords, as I said, I am looking into the figures, but a lot of NGOs continue to operate across a range of different areas across India. India is a very diverse country, with great strengths, and it is very multi-religious, as well as multi-community. We will continue to work and raise issues constructively where we have concerns, including on issues raised in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, as well as bilateral representation country to country, which can sometimes be misunderstood, will the Minister and the Government explore the possibility of using multilateral organisations, particularly the Commonwealth, to make representations? In this instance, would he have discussions with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, at the Commonwealth Secretariat and Stephen Twigg, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to see how they can help? Sometimes multilateral representations can be better than getting a lecture from the United Kingdom.

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, I think we are well away from the time when the UK should be perceived as lecturing others. When we approach the issue of human rights, I do so with a domestic lens. Our own journey on human rights was not an easy one, when we look at the equality that people enjoy across different communities in the UK today. It is that experience that we should share in a constructive and friendly, but in no sense condescending, manner with other partners across the world. The noble Lord talks about the secretary-general of the Commonwealth Secretariat and Stephen Twigg, people with whom I often discuss various issues.