Freedom of Religion in India – A Debate
and Discussion at the House of Lords
Dr. Mozammel Haque
There are well-known facts on paper and documents which nobody can deny and question. Similarly, there are facts on the ground the reality suffered by people, the facts people are going through their lives and the facts which are happening everyday, the day-to-day life of the people of India. Both of these facts are there on documents and in people’s life – the question is which one you are going to highlight; which one you are going to place before the public. As a neutral observer of facts, I will not ignore any one of that.
Facts on Documents
Lord Popat (Con):
Let’s see the facts on paper and documents. It is a fact that India is the largest democracy in the world. It is also a fact that the population of India is more than 1.3 billion. It is also a fact that India has a population of 780 languages. “For millennia, India has been home to vast diversities, cultures and traditions. In the rich tapestry of Indian society, we see 780 languages and seven major religions,” said Lord Popat from the Conservative Party at a debate and discussion at the House of Lords, British Parliament recently and . added, “Yet India also has a depressingly long list of incidents in which religious tensions have risen. Today’s debate could realistically have happened at any point in the past few decades and still reached worrying conclusions. While India’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths, it so often leads to moments of weakness. We should not pretend that religious tensions in India have come to the fore only recently, or under the BJP. Some, if not most, of the worst riots, including the Sikh massacre of 1984, which the noble Lord, Lord Singh, mentioned, were committed under the regime of the Congress Party.”
Baroness Berridge (Con):
Similarly, at the same debate and discussion on India: Freedom of Religion at the House of Lords, British Parliament recent, Baroness Berridge from the Conservative Party, mentioned, “The predominant religion of the Commonwealth is Hinduism, a fact which derives directly from India’s membership. The Commonwealth’s second most widespread religion, Islam, is also well represented in India with 172 million people—the world’s third largest Muslim population. By 2050 India is predicted to have the largest Muslim population in the world. India currently has the world’s largest populations of Sikhs, Jains, and Zoroastrians, as well as substantial numbers of Christians and Buddhists and people of no religion at all. India has more people who are not Hindus—a quarter of a billion—than most countries have people. India’s religious diversity has always been part of its national identity and history.
Lord Sheikh (Con)
In the same discussion and debate at the House of Lords, British Parliamnt, Lord Sheikh from the Conservative Party also pointed some of the facts on the documents. He said, “India is home to 1.3 billion people, who belong to all the major religions of the world. More than 780 languages are spoken there. Additionally, the state cannot impose any tax to promote a religion or to maintain a religious institution. The Indian constitution ensures that every citizen of India has the freedom to profess, practice and propagate his own religion. Therefore, citizens can follow their own religions and beliefs. We should all remember that India took an active role and was originally instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that we are discussing here today.”
“Since 1993, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians have been noted as minority communities. I stand here as a Muslim of Indian origin. Approximately 15% of the country is Muslim, totalling about 180 million people,” Lord Sheikh mentioned.
Facts on the Ground
These are facts and figures on Papers, on Documents and in the Constitution. The question is about facts on the ground, human rights of the people, and the religious tolerance in India. These we can understand from the day-to-day life of the people. The debate and discussion on “India: Freedom of Religion” at the House of Lords was raised by Lord Indarjit Singh of Wimbledon, a Crossbench (Independent) Life Peer since 2011.
Lord Indarjit Singh of Wimbledon:
Lord Singh highlighted concerns over the plight of minority faiths in India. Narendra Modi, leader of the nationalist BJP, won a landslide victory in the May 2015 Indian election, mainly on ostensibly economic issues, but after his election he has given increasing support to the Hindu extremist agenda of those who helped propel him to power. He refers increasingly to restoring dignity and power to the Hindu community. His own credentials were questioned by many in India and abroad. As Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, he failed to stop widespread violence against the Muslim community and for some years was banned from entering the UK or the USA.”
In support of his argument, Lord Singh of Wimbledon mentioned, “Reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and other human rights organisations all tell the same story of forced conversions of Muslims and Christians, with brutal rape and killing and the destruction or seizure of property. This has been paralleled, sadly, by a more general crackdown on the right to free speech.”
Harassment of Muslims and Christians
Lord Singh of Wimbledon
There is an increasing disregard of Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Lord Singh has given just a few examples to explain the fear now felt, particularly by Christians and Muslims in India. He said, “The highly respected US Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed concern in its 2015 report over the biased application of state anti-discrimination conversion laws, under which Christian preachers have been harassed and arrested, while no action has been taken against those who, by inducement or otherwise, force people to convert to Hinduism. Its report also drew attention to the increasing harassment of Muslims and Christians, particularly those who have converted to Christianity, with physical violence, arson and the desecration of churches and bibles. Although this highly respected US Commission on International Religious Freedom is allowed to function in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China, it is now banned from entering India.”
Muslims targets of Hindu extremists
Lord Singh also mentioned, “Muslims in particular are targets of Hindu extremists and are routinely accused of spying for Pakistan, of being terrorists, of forcibly kidnapping and marrying Hindu women and of slaughtering cows. Muslim villages in remote areas, particularly in Bihar, are routinely attacked. Sadly, the police, as with the mass killing of Sikhs in 1984, are either silent spectators or active participants. Discrimination against religious minorities was prevalent, as Sikhs know too well, under successive Congress Governments. Under the BJP Government of Narendra Modi the increasing attacks on minority faiths have become more blatant and are accompanied by a disturbing silence of those in power. Under Congress, discrimination against Sikhs was direct and brutal. In the run-up to the election that put him in power, Narendra Modi himself pointed out that the Congress Government were responsible for the mass killing of thousands of Sikh men, women.”
Assault on Freedom of Speech
Lord Singh of Wimbledon
Speaking on the growing assault on freedom of speech in India, Lord Singh mentioned, “The growing assault on freedom of speech has alarmed many in India from all walks of life. Recently, a number of prominent Indians honoured for their work in arts, science and business returned their awards as a protest against curbs on free speech.”
“Despite my concerns, I believe that India is a wonderful country that has a lot going for it. It is a country rich in talent with a vast pool of highly educated and qualified people in business, science and the arts. But to achieve its real potential, those in positions of authority should heed the words of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who declared that the care of minorities was more than a duty, it was a sacred trust. India has a lofty constitution with grandiose pledges of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. It is a country that is home to many different faiths, but it cannot fulfil its full potential unless it takes its religious minorities with it. Sadly, there is no sign of this happening. What can, or should, Britain do about the deteriorating attitude to human rights and religious freedom in India?” Lord Singh raised the question.
Religious Freedom, Rights
of women and children
Lord Hussain (LD)
Lord Hussain, Peer from the Liberal Democrat Party was reading the Human Rights Watch Report 2016. He said, “The Human Rights Watch report 2016 states that the Government (of India) did little in 2015 to implement promises by the newly-elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to improve respect for religious freedom, to protect the rights of women and children and to end abuse against marginalised communities. Even as the Prime Minister celebrated Indian democracy abroad, back home civil society groups faced increased harassment and government critics faced intimidation and law suits. Officials warned media against making what they called unsubstantiated allegations against the Government, saying that it weakened democracy. In several cases, courts reprimanded the Government for restricting free expression.”
Lord Hussain also said, “According to the report, religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, accused the authorities of not doing enough to protect their rights. Some leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party made inflammatory remarks against minorities, and right-wing Hindu fringe groups threatened and harassed them and in some cases even attacked them. It has been widely reported throughout the past many years that Hindu extremism in India is growing and the human rights and freedoms of Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Dalits are hugely being victimised through its activities and attacks.”
“I read two news articles in the past two days relating to India; one of them stated that four Kashmiri Muslim students were attacked and charged for eating beef in Rajasthan. That is the kind of environment that people are having to live in. For eating something they like, they are not only attacked and beaten up but then charged. At the same time, I read that an American watchdog had been refused a visa to look into the freedoms and rights of religious communities in India. That shows the intention of the Indian Government,” Lord Hussain mentioned two articles only to show the kind of environment Indian minorities are living.
Lord Hussain particularly mentioned about the human rights situation of the Kashmiri Muslims. He said, “In particular, Muslims, who form the largest minority in India, are facing enormous pressure because of various laws. For example, Kashmir is the only Muslim majority state in India, where, as we all know; Indian forces have been since 1947. However, since 1990, they have continuously enjoyed immunity via the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, through which they are being given licence to kill. I bring this up in the debate on religious minorities’ rights because 99.9% of the victims suffering at the hands of the armed forces with immunity under that Act are Muslims. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the last 20 years by the armed forces. I know that there have been reports lately that some soldiers have been charged for wrongdoings in Kashmir, but that is only a token prosecution. When the Foreign Secretary next sees his counterpart in India, will he raise the issue of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the immunity given to its forces in Kashmir? When will India take that away from them? When will it take the army back out of the cities and heavily populated areas?”
Observance of Basic Human Rights,
Right to Practise one’s religion
Professor the Rt. Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a Crossbench Peer of the House of Lords expressed his concerns and worries about the observance of basic human rights.
Professor the Rt. Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth
Lord Harries said, “There are some real worries about the observance of basic human rights, especially the right to practise one’s religion. On paper, India has an excellent secular constitution. As Amartya Sen has argued, “secular” here does not mean the banishment of religion from public life but the fact that all religions are treated, in theory, with equal respect and concern by the state and its institutions. However, in practice, because of certain Hindu extremist groups, there is sustained violence against Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. Human rights are indivisible, and my concern is with the freedom of all religions in India—Muslims and Sikhs as much as Christians, although I wish to focus on Christians for a few moments.”
Attacks on Christians
Speaking about the recorded attacks on Christians, Professor the RT Revd Richard Douglas Harries, Cross-Bench Peer of the House of Lords mentioned, “A new report from the Evangelical Fellowship of India documented 177 recorded attacks on Christians last year. Church services were stormed and Christian leaders harassed and assaulted. There were beatings and violence, including the rape of a 71 year-old nun. There were even reports of 18 church pastors being arrested. This, the report stressed, is a drop in the ocean because most cases are simply not recorded by the police or local government. These attacks on Christianity must also be understood in relation to the caste system, because many Christians are Dalits—the former untouchables. As is well known, Dalits suffer disproportionately by every possible criteria: the number of rapes, lack of clean water and sanitation, poverty, and inability to obtain justice from the police and judiciary. It should also be noted that Christian Dalits do not qualify for the positive discrimination measures that other Dalits enjoy, so they suffer twice—both as Dalits and as Christian Dalits. A full list of these gross injustices is being set out this month at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.”
Discrimination against Dalits
Speaking about the discrimination against Dalits, Lord Harries said, “Not surprisingly, a good number of Dalit Hindus in the past sought to convert to Christianity or Buddhism. However, it should be noted—to the shame of the church—that caste has now also heavily infiltrated the church. The point here is that Christians are the object of attack by Hindu extremist groups, because these groups believe that they seek to attract converts from Hinduism by the promise of escape from the caste system. Whether this is true or not, it is very difficult for people to convert should they want to because of the threat of violence. Yet freedom to convert from one religion to another is fundamental to Article 18.”
Hindu extremist groups
Speaking about the religious violence by the Hindu extremist groups against other religions, Lord Harries said, “Mr (Narendra) Modi, in his younger days, was a member of the RSS, the main Hindu extremist group. He has not disowned that past, nor, as far as I am aware has there been a ringing condemnation of Hindu-inflicted violence against other religions. At the moment, there seems to be a culture of impunity, which can only poison the atmosphere further and lead to an increased number of attacks. Will the Minister, in our dealings with the Indian Government, call on Mr Modi to be clear, forceful and unequivocal in condemning these Hindu extremist groups, and firm in ensuring that perpetrators of religious violence are brought to justice? On too many occasions, there has been little or no action against criminals when the victims have been Christian Dalits or simply Christians.”
Treatment of Religious minorities
In India problematic
Lord Nazir Ahmed of Rotherham, an Independent Peer of the House of Lords, British Parliament also took part in the debate and discussion on India: Freedom of Religion at the House of Lords.
Lord Ahmed spoke about the alarming situation of the religious minorities in the so-called largest democracy in the world. He said, “Democracy without human rights, equality, fairness, rule of law and minority rights does not impress me. President Putin was democratically elected; Donald Trump is leading the race for the Republican Party presidential nomination in the US; Hitler was also democratically elected; and so were many others in history who had a terrible record in the treatment of religious minorities. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, with all due respect, that I disagree with him: India’s record on the treatment of religious minorities has been problematic for decades.”
Reports of attacks, intimidation and
Marginalisation of religious minorities
Lord Ahmed continued, “We are seeing, as many had predicted, disturbing new levels of threat emerging since the formation of the openly Hindu nationalist BJP Government led by Prime Minister Modi. There are almost daily reports of attacks, intimidation and marginalisation of religious minorities. In 2015, President Obama identified the risk of religious intolerance as a possible cause of India failing as a state The noble Lord, Lord Singh, mentioned the tens of thousands of victims of mass violence, against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, where mobs widely believed to have official backing massacred, raped and looted with impunity.”
“In the past year Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made numerous international trips in the hope of boosting trade and India’s engagement in global affairs. However, this did not go as planned as India continued to vote poorly when it came to human rights issues at the United Nations. I accept India being involved with the UN declaration, but India abstained from the Human Rights Council’s resolution on Syria, North Korea and Ukraine and voted against resolutions on Iran and Belarus. India’s long-term determination to play a larger role in global affairs and Prime Minister
Modi’s aspirations have been shot down because of India’s weak record on human rights, both at home and abroad,” mentioned Lord Ahmed.
Christian Communities face
Discrimination and religious violence
Lord Ahmed mentioned about the discrimination and religious violence against Christian communities. He said, “Christian communities in India have faced discrimination, as we have heard, and religious violence over a period of time. For example, on 17 June 2014 in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, over 50 village councils adopted a resolution which banned all non-Hindu religious propaganda, prayers and speeches. In those communities this effectively criminalised the practice of Christianity for approximately 300 Christian families in the region. Many were also injured in the violence following that. Numerous incidents of violence have recently taken place in India over the consumption of beef, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, and many have been killed.”
Sikhism as a distinct religion
Speaking about Sikhism as a distinct religion, Lord Ahmed said, “Lack of recognition of Sikhism as a distinct religion has gone on for too long. Article 25 of India’s constitution deems them to be Hindus for the purposes of religion and personal law. Sikhs’ efforts to amend that incredible, offensive and divisive article have been thwarted for decades. This has resulted in the prevention of members of the Sikh communities from accessing employment, social services and education, preferences available to other religious communities. Sikh community members are reportedly harassed and pressured to reject religious practices and beliefs distinct to Sikhism. In October 2015, security forces in Punjab killed two Sikhs and injured scores more who were protesting peacefully against the desecration of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, which is the holy Sikh scripture. No action has been taken against those who committed this sacrilege or the security personnel who killed those innocent Sikhs.”
Visa Refusal to the United States Commission
On International Religious Freedom
Lord Ahmed raised the topic of visa refusal to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He mentioned, “The Indian Government has recently refused visas to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; this denial of impartial international access proves that there is still a veil that the Government of India and Mr Modi do not want the world to lift. I think it is clear that India has been and remains in breach of its duty towards minority religions. Prime Minister Modi and his allies in hard-line Hindu groups, such as Vishva Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, present a challenge to the international community. Do we confront this overt threat to tens of millions Christians, Muslims and Sikhs in India, or do we appease these extremist forces in the name of trade and profit? I urge the UK Government to make wiser choices and tailor its India policy towards the protection of internationally accepted religious freedoms. Backing India’s claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, for example, is folly under present circumstances. Surely we should demand compliance with international law as a bare minimum price for such a prize.”
US Commission on International
Religious Freedom Annual Report
Lord Collins of Highbury, Peer from the Labour Party at the House of Lords took part in the discussion and debate.
Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab):
Lord Collins said, “Countries that do not respect religious freedom invariably do not respect other basic human rights. Last weekend I listened to BBC Radio 4’s “Sunday” programme—I am a regular listener despite being a Humanist—during which a representative from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom was interviewed about being denied the opportunity to visit India to examine reports of religious discrimination and abuse. In the commission’s recent annual report, it was suggested that incidents of religiously motivated and communal violence in India had increased for three consecutive years. NGOs and religious leaders, including leaders from the Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities, attributed the initial increase to religiously divisive campaigning in advance of the country’s general election.”
“Do the Government ensure that the issue of religious freedom is integrated into regular dialogue between India and the UK? Once again, as we have heard, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office seems focused on what it called prosperity interventions in India, but what is being done on human rights since Prime Minister Modi came to power? The prosperity agenda and the lives and fundamental freedoms of people must never be part of a cynical trade-off. You cannot trade human rights with economic trade,” said Lord Collins of Highbury.
While paying tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, on religious freedom in the Commonwealth, Lord Collins said, “Despite the importance of the relationship with India, which I strongly respect, we must not shirk from raising human-rights issues if the country fails to adhere to domestic and international law.”
The Earl of Courtown (Con)
The Earl of Courtown from the Conservative Party said, we all deplore “the desecration of the sacred text of any religion and acts of violence against any human being on grounds of their faith. It is also natural that many will have worried about the effect on their own families of recent events in Haryana, Punjab and at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Many—again both here and in India—are rightly horrified at the crimes inflicted upon innocent women and girls going about their daily lives.”
Human Rights Concerns in Kashmir
The Earl of Courtown also said, “We recognise that there are human rights concerns in Kashmir. Any allegations of human rights abuses should be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. We are also aware that in Indian-administered Kashmir the Public Safety Act and the Armed Forces Act provide for detention and house arrest without trial for up to two years. We are also aware of the concerns regarding allegations of immunity from prosecution for Indian Armed Forces personnel in Indian-administered Kashmir. There is also a mechanism which allows people to request that the Government of India investigate such concerns. We expect all states to ensure that their domestic laws are in line with international standards. Any allegations of human rights abuses must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently.”
Human rights violations on Muslims
The Earl of Courtown said, “As for the human rights attacks on Muslims recounted by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, the United Kingdom engages on human rights matters with India, including religious freedom, both bilaterally and through EU-India human rights dialogue.”
Facts on the Ground reported
In the Newspapers and protest
Indian Intellectuals alarmed by
Rising intolerance attacks
It is reported on 1 November 2015 that “First writers then artists, followed by filmmakers, historians and scientists. The chorus of Indian intellectuals protesting religious bigotry and communal violence grows louder by the week with a single message for Prime Minister Narendra Modi: Protect India’s tradition of secularism and diversity. Those protesting are angry and worried by a spate of deadly attacks against atheist thinkers and minorities, and by Modi’s relative silence through it all.”
Arundhati Roy joins protest against intolerance
And returns award
It is reported on 5 November 2015 that “Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy has joined the growing number of writers, filmmakers, scientists and historians voicing alarm over what they describe as a climate of religious intolerance and violence in India. Roy said in a sharply worded editorial published Thursday in The Indian Express newspaper that millions of minority people including Muslims, Christians and members of low-caste or tribal communities “are being forced to live in terror, unsure of when and from where the assault will come.”
It is also reported, “Already dozens of writers have returned awards to the country’s top literary institution, the Sahitya Academi, over disappointment that it has not condemned the recent killings of atheist activists who campaigned against religious superstition or Muslims rumored to have slaughtered cows or eaten cow meat.”
Roy said she was “so ashamed of what is going on in this country” and was pleased to return her 1989 national screenplay award and “to be a part of the political movement.” “I believe what artists and intellectuals are doing right now is unprecedented, and does not have a historical parallel. It is politics by other means,” said Roy, who in recent years has become a fervent civil rights activist.
Many of those protesting have also criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party for not speaking out against religious attacks, saying their silence has encouraged Hindu hard-liners to justify the attacks and assert Hindu superiority, it is reported in the press.
Religious Intolerance in India
Who’s afraid of Shah Rukh Khan?
Under the above caption, Mr. Aijaz Zaka Syed wrote in the Jeddah-based English daily Arab News dated 6 November 2015: “If this is how India’s biggest superstar, feted around the world including by universities such as Harvard and Edinburgh, is treated for once speaking his mind and not preening and fudging like the other politically correct Khans, imagine the predicament of the less fortunate members of his clan. But then what’s new? The more things change in India the more they remain the same. Indeed, they seem to be unraveling at an alarming pace.”
He also observed in his write-up: “He (Mr. Narendra Modi) has been in power barely a year and half and he has split the country down in the middle, with people who have co-existed in peace for centuries thirsting for each other’s blood. Not a day passes without the Hindutva rabble-rousers, many of them senior BJP leaders and members of Modi’s Cabinet, telling Muslims, Christians and other minorities to leave the country or persuading them with attacks such as Dadri.”
Mr. Zaka Syed maintained, “Is it any wonder then the foot soldiers see these comments as the leader’s nod and wink-wink to go berserk. As another group of writers pointed out this week in their letter of protest, the Dear Leader is not only tolerating spiraling acts of intolerance and violence, he is mandating them with his selective and strategic silence.
“This sinister silence has not only forced hundreds of writers, intellectuals, scientists, filmmakers and artists to come out on the streets, it provoked rare rebuke from the President of India at least thrice and one long, passionate speech from the Vice President. Theirs are ceremonial positions and they are supposed to read from the script. Nonetheless they couldn’t help emphasize the urgent need to uphold India’s traditions of tolerance and diversity. Even the international media, not too long ago gushing about the ‘rock star reception of Modi’ in America, has started noticing the dark underbelly. While New York Times on Tuesday slammed Modi for tolerating and encouraging the extremists, the Economist did a cover story titled ‘Lights! Camera! Inaction!’ underlining the reality of Modi hype,” concluded by Mr. Zaka Syed.