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India: Freedom of Religion or Belief

Volume 837: debated on Tuesday 16 April 2024


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what assessment he has made of the current state of freedom of religion or belief in India.

My Lords, India is a multifaith, multiethnic democracy and remains among the most religiously diverse societies in the world. It is home to 966 million Hindus, 172 million Muslims, 28 million Christians, 20 million Sikhs, 8 million Buddhists and 4.5 million Jains. India is committed via its constitution to freedom of religion and belief. Where specific issues or concerns arise, the UK Government of course raise these directly with the Government of India.

I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. Disturbing reports of violations of freedom of religion or belief in the Indian state of Manipur over the past year have been rightly highlighted by the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance —of which the UK is a member, under the leadership of the Member of Parliament for Congleton, Fiona Bruce MP, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm his support for the Bill to place the vital international role of the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on FORB on a statutory footing? I hope to bring that Bill forward to this House in the next few weeks once it concludes its current stages in another place. The statutory establishment of this role was a recommendation of the Truro review that I was honoured to author, the implementation of which remains government policy.

I can certainly give the right reverend Prelate that confirmation. I very much agree with the Bill. In fact, I insisted that it went forward with government support. Fiona Bruce does an excellent job in this regard and, for the first time, one of these governmental envoys will be placed on a statutory footing. That reflects the importance that we in this Government and in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office attach to celebrating freedom of religious belief. She does a great job and should be able to do it on a statutory basis.

My Lords, will the noble Lord build on the success of his department at the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in managing to include in communiqué the words,

“freedom of religion or belief are cornerstones of democratic societies”,

and will he encourage his officials on two things? The first is to emphasise that this is not exceptionalism and that Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—that everyone has the right to believe, not to believe or to change their belief—is about every human being’s right. Secondly, there is empirical evidence that shows that those countries which promote freedom of religion or belief are the most prosperous and most stable in the world. If we look at factors such as the 114 million displaced people in the world, we see that they are often in countries where there is not such freedom.

The noble Lord speaks with great passion and knowledge about this. My department takes this very seriously: not only have we set up the envoy and are putting that into legislation but we have dedicated staff in the FCDO who look at freedom of religious belief. My noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon led at the United Nations Security Council in June, together with UAE, in defence of a motion on freedom of religious belief. Of course, in response to the report by the right reverend Prelate when he was the Bishop of Truro, we commemorate Red Wednesday—I want to reassure my noble friends that this is not a political moment; it is a moment when we celebrate and make clear how important it is that people have freedom of religious belief, and how we stand up for those being persecuted for their beliefs. I think that on the last occasion of Red Wednesday, we lit up the FCDO in red—something which, in other circumstances, I hope is not going to happen any time soon.

My Lords, it is almost exactly 10 years since the Minister stated, in the other place, that the mass killing of tens of thousands of Sikhs in 1984 was one of the greatest blots on the history of post-partition India. It is true that India has what is called a secular constitution, but since then, we have had the riots in Ayodhya where tens of thousands of Muslims were killed; then we had its Home Minister describing the Muslims as termites; then a Hindu temple was built on a razed mosque. Christians have been persecuted again and again, and Sikhs are told that if they behave like Hindus, they are fine; otherwise, they are termed separatists. Does the Minister agree that India is a member of the Commonwealth, and should not freedom of belief be at the forefront of the Commonwealth charter?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I will never forget the visit I made to Amritsar; it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to and one of the most peaceful places, but, of course, it is important that we acknowledge what happened there and how wrong it was. The noble Lord makes important points about the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of religious belief in India. There have been occasions on which it has been something we have raised with the Indian Government. That should continue.

The original question was about the situation in Manipur. A very good report on that has been written by David Campanale, which I have studied. It is right to say that we should not downplay the religious aspects of some of this strife. Sometimes it is communal, tribal or ethnic, but in many cases, there is a clear religious part of it. We should be clear about that.

My Lords, perhaps I may broaden the Question out to an issue that I think is close to the Foreign Secretary’s heart: the delivery of the sustainable development goals. Religious tolerance is important in creating a secure world. He will be aware that India will be key to delivering the sustainable development goals. Could he inform the House of any discussions he has had recently with the Indian Government on how they can play a role, with us in partnership, to ensure that they are delivered?

We have an excellent dialogue with the Indian Government in all sorts of ways. In fact, I spoke to Foreign Minister Jaishankar at the weekend. My noble friend Lord Ahmad visits frequently and has a very deep dialogue. I have a good relationship with Prime Minister Modi, and we discuss all these things.

In terms of meeting the sustainable development goals, the most important thing India can do is to continue to grow and lift people out of poverty. I think it is true that there are more people in India below the poverty line than in sub-Saharan Africa. The need for India to grow and pull people out of poverty is great. Obviously, one thing we will discuss at the G20 and elsewhere is how to scale up the multilateral development banks, in which India has a voice, to make sure that we have the financing available to meet those development goals.

My Lords, the democratic elections in India are a positive for the whole world and are to be commended to the Indian authorities. But all too often there has been harassment and intimidation by the Indian Government when there has been reporting of human rights concerns, as well as freedom of religion concerns, including the necessity for the BBC uniquely to restructure in India so that it is no longer operating there like it operates in any other country. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that we are not offering market access to India for media, data and telecoms on an unequal basis? The freedoms that we should enjoy in this country when it comes to the BBC and open media to report human rights concerns should exist in India also. We should not give preferential market access here when we are not offered it there.

The noble Lord makes a very good point about the rumbustious nature of Indian democracy. India should be proud of being the biggest democracy in the world. As with all democracies, there are imperfections—as there are in our own country. We should celebrate the scale of India’s democracy.

The point the noble Lord makes about the BBC is important. My understanding is that India passed a law insisting that digital media companies had to be Indian-owned, and the BBC has had to restructure on that basis. That is not the British way—insisting that all media have to be domestically owned—although I know that some in this place and elsewhere have been tempted by those moves; I have sometimes fantasised about that when reading things that I have read. None the less, that is the reason why the BBC has restructured, together with some disagreements with India.

I will take away and look at the point that the noble Lord then made about the trade deal. My understanding of where we are with the trade deal is that good market access has been offered on both sides, but not quite enough yet to secure a deal. It is important with such trade deals, as you only really get one proper shot at it, to make sure that it is a good enough deal that will be welcomed by industry leaders here in the UK as offering real market access. On the point on media access, I will have to go away and look at that. Personally, I would say that we should open up media access on both sides to make sure we have a good plurality of media.

My Lords, first, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his continuing focus on Christian persecution and his comprehensive Truro report. In that report, it is noted that Foreign Office staff are often not equipped to deal with these terrible issues. A recommendation was made for mandatory training for all FCDO staff on religious diversity and inclusivity. The current training is not mandatory—perhaps the Foreign Secretary could tell us why.

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. I shall have to take that one away and look at it. There is a lot of diversity training in the FCDO, and there is a dedicated number of staff for dealing with freedom of religious belief questions, but I shall certainly ask the specific question about whether the training is included in this area.