A debate called in the British Parliament on Tuesday on persecution of minorities in India drew out some of the most obvious facts about India that much criticism inexplicably – or interestedly – ignores. MPs pointed out that the allegations swirling around must consider just how big India is, how many people it has, and what goes right amidst barbs aimed over what goes wrong.
The debate took place in Westminster Hall, not in the main chamber of the House of Commons. The main chamber saw another debate on China a few hours later where Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab spoke of Beijing torturing Muslims “on an industrial scale”. That was quite another story to India’s.
Raab did not hold back on the concentration camps in China where millions of Uyghur Muslims are reported detained. “The nature and conditions of detention violate basic standards of human rights and, at their worst, amount to torture,” he said. “Internment camps, arbitrary detention, political re-education, forced labour, torture, forced sterilisation. All on an industrial scale. It is truly horrific. Barbarism we all hoped was lost to another era.”
Jim Shannon from the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, who moved the debate on India, acknowledged at the start that the allegations against India were nowhere near what was happening in China. “India has a freely elected government and is not run by a nightmarish authoritarian regime such as China’s, which arbitrarily imprisons millions from religious minorities and sponsors forced organ harvesting,” he said. Shannon, too, spoke of violations in China “on an industrial scale”.
The position in India in relation to China was one obvious fact the debate brought out. But it did more than offer a comparative benefit that India’s record looks good in relation to China’s. Some members who spoke at the debate - held physically and not virtually despite the pandemic – had their complaints about India. Shannon spoke of an increase in anti-minority rhetoric in India and increased incidents against members of the minorities.
Shannon acknowledged that “even in the UK we have recently seen record highs for incidents of anti-semitism, Islamophobia and discrimination against Sikhs and other minority groups”. But he found “the scale and trajectory of the persecution currently being experienced in India by non-Hindus very worrying and disturbing”.
Scale and trajectory
Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, reminded the House of how the Indian government has been responding to such incidents. Over the murder of Christian missionary Graham Staines and of a Muslim trader, Gardiner said 21 years later Dara Singh is still in jail serving a life sentence for his crimes. “Psychopaths and murderers exist in all countries, but when talking of persecution it is important to examine how the authorities in those countries respond to such atrocities,” he said.
In another case, he reminded the House, “When the Muslim trader Alimuddin Ansari was lynched by a Hindu mob for allegedly transporting beef, 11 people were sentenced to life imprisonment, including one local BJP worker.” That justice, he said, was “meted out by a fast-track court and was the first case ever successfully prosecuted against such religious extremists in India”.
The incidents need to be seen in a contextual scale, Gardiner said. Allegations had been made of a thousand attacks on minorities over a long period. India has 200 million Muslims and 30 million Christians in a population of 1.4 billion, the House was reminded.
Conservative MP Theresa Villiers said India is now home to 16% of the world’s Muslim population. “Members of minority faiths have played a prominent part in India’s history and they continue to hold leading roles in Indian politics and public life, in science and universities, in the law and other professions, in business and culture, and across the Indian economy,” she said. A symbolic example was that “in 2004, a Catholic, Sonia Gandhi, facilitated the handover of power to a Sikh, Manmohan Singh, enabling him to become Prime Minister, with his oath of office overseen by a Muslim President, APJ Abdul Kalam”.
In a country as huge as India, she said, “There will be lawbreakers who attack others, including members of minority communities and faiths. Sadly, no state can prevent all such crimes and tragedies, no matter how seriously they take policing and justice. Of course, there are hard-line individuals in India who promote hate speech and division, just as there are in this country. Again, no democracy that allows freedom of speech can shut that down either.”
But India’s record on minority faiths stands up to scrutiny, she said even though no country’s record on law and order can be 100% perfect. “I do not accept that there is evidence of systemic or state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities. When it comes to protection of freedom of religion and belief, the more important focus of this House should be on places such as Pakistan, where forced marriage and forced conversion of young Hindu and Christian women is a serious problem, and from where Asia Bibi had to flee for her life after years of imprisonment, and China, where incarceration and oppression of Uyghur Muslims is, quite frankly, a disgrace,” she said.
Not the least of the obvious facts to surface over the debate was that it was held at all in the midst of a severe lockdown. MPs were required to travel to parliament to attend the debate in person. The holding of the debate seemed violative of the government’s strict advisory to all citizens to observe a strict lockdown. Most recent parliamentary debates have been held virtually.
“I resent having to come here this morning,” Gardiner said. “Scrutiny is very important, and the scrutiny we do in this Chamber is important, but we should be able to do it remotely and observe the guidance that the Government have given to others.”
Minister of Asia Nigel Adams said he too is “surprised to be here”.
Responding to the debate, Adams spoke of India as a “magnificent” country and “one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world”. But he said India does face “challenges in enforcing its constitutional protections for freedom of religion or belief”. The UK government has raised such issues with the Indian government, he said.
It was nobody’s case that the record is perfect. But MPs argued for violations to be seen in context of scale. A parallel is the incidence of Covid in India - high in absolute terms, but amongst the lowest in relation to the population size. Many MPs pointed out to a need for proportionate consideration of allegations of persecution that is not dissimilar.
Nobody denied that even one case of violation is one too many. “In any democracy,” said Villiers, “there is further work to be done to safeguard and protect human rights, and bring to justice those who commit crimes of violence against others, including religious minorities.”