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The UK House of Lords debate on India and Human Rights

13th August 2021

On 22 July 2021, Lord Harries of Pentregarth (Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits) opened a debate in the House of Lords on India and Human Rights. Whilst expressing his enormous admiration for those in India, and appreciating their long history of discussion and debate, he also raised his sadness over the rise of nationalism and increasing denial of fundamental human rights.

Aside from the lack of academic freedom, Lord Harries mentioned the targeting of journalists; human rights groups who have had bank accounts frozen and been denied travel visas; Muslims who have suffered attacks stemming from an anti-Muslim Hindutva policy and their lack of inclusion in the new terms of the Citizenship Amendment Act; Christians who have tried to escape the stigma of being ‘untouchable’; and Dalits. Lord Harries was keen to point out that while the Indian constitution is in many ways admirable, including its emphasis on equality for all, being born into ‘untouchability’ is worse than slavery and requires more than legislation to remove it. Dalits suffer disproportionately by every indicator, and as many are bonded or day labourers, they are particularly vulnerable to abuse and a lack of access to justice. Currently there are 24 Dalit activists being detained under anti-terrorism laws, and this is unacceptable.

India is on the UN Human Rights Council, and as such, it must be held to certain commitments. He urged that submissions should be made at the highest level to encourage change.

Lord Parekh and Baroness Verma both acknowledged that there were some issues that still needed to be considered, including the treatment of Dalits, but warned that with such a large population, incidents were inevitable and that the situation should not be exaggerated. Lord Parekh pointed out that while independent India has adopted positive discrimination, there is still a long way to go and that there needs to be a greater sense of urgency. However, while India welcomes critical advice, it should be accompanied by humility and based on a sympathetic understanding of India’s culture. Baroness Verma added that over the last seven or eight years the government has embedded policies to improve equality, particularly for women, including protection from the Muslim Triple Talaq divorce law. However, she argued that the UK has a habit of ‘lobbing charges into India without contextualising the progress that has been made’, and that when pointing fingers, we have our own prejudicial barriers. Baroness Verma criticised the number of commentaries coming from the House of Lords without providing evidence of the accusations being levelled, and voiced her concern that many of the comments were inflammatory.

Lord Hussein agreed that the current human rights record ‘paints a very dark picture’ in some areas, with daily life for Muslims and Christians becoming a daily struggle under the Hindutva far-right influence. The violence against the Dalit community never seems to end and he questioned why India has not been mentioned in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s latest report on Human Rights. Lord Singh added that under the current government, with its desire to become a Hindu state, Muslims and Dalits continue to suffer brutality.

The Earl of Sandwich, Lord Cashman and Lord Collins of Highbury expressed that it was important that as friends of India we should be able to speak out much more often and more loudly. Despite the deterioration of Human Rights, India has shielded itself from international criticism due to its economic prospects and the desire of other countries to solidify trade agreements. Lord Cashman in particular wants reassurance from the UK government that when strengthening its ties, it ensures that there are human rights clauses included within any agreement, while Lord Collins asked what would be done to end violence against Dalit Women.

Lord Alton quoted Dr Ambedkar, one of the founding fathers of India’s constitution: ‘If I find the constitution being misused, I will be the first to burn it.’ Again, the denial of rights to Dalits, despite this constitution, and the dubious sedition laws being used to arrest and detain opposition voices was mentioned. Though he praised the British High Commission project to provide legal training for women his concern was that the high levels of rape perpetrated against them was not given enough significance. Furthermore, Covid has had more impact on Dalits as bonded or daily labourers, further deteriorating their well-being. This was also cited by Baroness Northover, along with her concern that the FCDO has not taken this into account when looking at funding. It was also noted that Freedom House has downgraded India to being only ‘partly free’.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State for the Commonwealth and United Nations at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, responded to the questions by stating his credentials as both the minister responsible for relationships with India and the Minister for Human Rights. He agreed with Lord Parekh and Baroness Verma about the UK’s relationship with India and its importance, and stated he has engaged in candid discussions with his counterparts. At the G7 partners committed to tackle all forms of discrimination, and media freedom plays an important role in that. However, everyone recognises that human rights work is never done. This month the 2020 Human Rights and Democracy Report from the FCDO was published and the UK has stepped up its efforts all over the world, including in its close collaboration with India to provide oxygen during the Covid pandemic. He added that just because a country is not specifically mentioned in the Human Rights Report, it doesn’t mean that these issues are not raised with the relevant countries. Furthermore, the Foreign Secretary has raised a number of issues, including the position of Kashmir, minorities communities and religious communities. They have also asked for Amnesty India’s funds to be unfrozen in order for them to continue their crucial work. Meanwhile the government’s ‘recent project work with the Dalits has included the provision of legal training for over 2,000 Dalit women to combat domestic violence and the creation of the first ever network of Dalit women human rights defenders trained as paralegals.’ Lord Ahmad concluded by assuring the other members that the UK government would continue to engage with India on various issues, including trade, of which human rights will remain a central part.