The UK government on Tuesday defended India’s position on religious rights and praised its “diversity” and “rich tapestry of religious minorities alongside its sizable Hindu majority” during a Westminster Hall debate on ‘Persecution of Muslims, Christians and minority groups in India’.
The Indian High Commission in London issued a statement in relation to the backbench debate to stress India, as the largest “functioning democracy” in the world, values the sacred and fundamental right of free “discussion” and “debate”.
“We believe that disruptions to the overall communal harmony – that may occur in a population as large and diverse as India’s must not be generalized to portray our whole nation, unique in its commitment to a centuries-old tradition of religious tolerance and harmonious co-existence of people of all faiths,” said the High Commission statement,
The debate was led by UK parliamentarians Jim Shannon MP, David Linden MP, Stephen Timms MP and Paul Girvan.
While it was not discussed in the parliament and does not have any real bearing on foreign policy decisions, the parliamentarians did seek answers from the Boris Johnson administration as to what the government is doing to protect the rights of minorities in India.
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) minister Nigel Adams, assured the MPs that any “difficult issues” around human rights are raised in a free and open manner with the Indian counterparts.
“Those of us who have had the pleasure of visiting India know that it is a magnificent country. It is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world,” the minister said.
“I can confirm that during the Foreign Secretary’s [Dominic Raab] visit to India in December, he raised a number of these human rights issues with his Indian counterpart, including the situation in Kashmir and our concern around many consular cases we look to the government of India to address these concerns and protect the rights of people of all religions. That is in keeping with India’s Constitution and a proud and inclusive tradition,” he said.
Northern Ireland MP, Jim Shannon is also the chairman of the APPG for International freedom of religion or belief along with Labour MP Stephen Timms from the largely Pakistani constituency. Shannon sought to highlight the “worrying and disturbing scale and trajectory” of the persecution being experienced in India by non-Hindus.
Conservative MP Theresa Villiers and Labour MP Barry Gardiner spoke passionately in defence of India’s pluralistic nature and inclusive democracy.
Labour’s Barry Gardiner said that the UK should set her priorities on issues such as the severe impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Asking the forum to look within, he said, “I say this, not to minimise the subject but to give ourselves a sense of humility and a little perspective about how we might feel, as parliamentarians, if legislators in India were to pronounce on our institutions from afar, putting us under the microscope in the same way that colleagues are doing for their Indian counterparts today,”
The FCDO minister of state for Asia, Nigel Adams, echoed Barry Gardiner’s sentiments of this debate being unnecessary and inappropriate by stating that “He was as surprised to be here…”
Controversial Labour MP, Naz Shah, started off by dragging Indian MP Shashi Tharoor into her speech by quoting him and saying, “It is time that Modi government learn that they cannot promote ‘Make in India’ abroad while condoning the propagation of hate in India at home. These are not my words but the words of Shashi Tharoor, an author and Indian politician highlighting the reality of India under a BJP government. With the rise of nationalist politics all over the world, we have seen the threat to minority rights…we are witnessing the scaling down of secular and liberal rights that the Indian democracy once hailed itself for.”
Theresa Villiers, a former Cabinet minister, challenged the other side by calling India “a stable and increasingly prosperous home to around 200 million Muslims and 32 million Christians”.
“I argue that India’s record on minority faiths stands up to scrutiny. I do not accept that there is evidence of systemic or state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities,” said Villiers.
She instead asked the lawmakers to focus on countries like Pakistan and China that have witnessed real diminishing of rights. “When it comes to the 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.
The Indian mission stressed that it is open to engaging the UK government and invited the parliamentarians for an open discussion.
“We reiterate our invitation to the Hon’ble Members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to consult with the High Commission anytime- on all India-related issues of interest to them in order to have up-to-date, authentic and factual information about India – including on issues that may be of concern to them or their constituents,” said the statement.
“The people of India have due respect and regard for parliaments of the world – just as they regard their own as a most sacred institution of India’s democracy. However, we believe that debates and discussions are purposeful if they are based on facts, authentic information and a thorough and accurate perception of issues,” the statement added.