Richard Harries – 2021 Comments on Human Rights in India

The comments made by Richard Harries in the House of Lords on 22 July 2021.

My Lords, I have enormous admiration for the people of India, especially for the resilience and sheer joy shown by so many of them even when living in dire poverty. I recognise the early birth of its culture 4,500 years ago in the Indus valley, and note the brilliant contribution of Indians in the fields of mathematics and astronomy over many centuries. I appreciate the long tradition of public debate and intellectual pluralism in India, as illustrated by Amartya Sen in his wonderful book, The Argumentative Indian. I marvel at the way in which a country of 1.4 billion people can hold democratic elections in which nearly 70% of the people vote. I also believe that many aspects of British policy and behaviour during the imperial period are deeply shaming. As Gandhi responded when asked what he thought of western civilisation, “It would be nice”.

So it is with real sadness that I have to bring this Question before the Committee this afternoon, sadness that, over the past few years, India has joined the growing list of countries that have combined an increasingly autocratic rule, an appeal to a narrow nationalism and a denial of fundamental human rights.

Fundamental to human rights and the long tradition of Indian public debate and intellectual pluralism is academic freedom. There are now numerous reports showing how this in increasingly under threat, with academics who hold views that the Indian Government do not like being put under pressure to resign, and with permission from the Government now being required to hold an international webinar if it relates to certain sensitive subjects. A recent headline in an Indian newspaper asked, “Is academic freedom any longer viable?” Another cited what can happen even in a privately funded Ivy League-equivalent university such as Ashoka. When Pratap Bhanu Mehta was pressured to resign, he said:

“After a meeting with founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability. My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university.”

I should also mention journalists. Between 2010 and 2020, 150 were arrested, detained and interrogated, 67 in 2020 alone.

NGOs—in India, they are called civil society organisations—are another group being put under great pressure. Even before Covid, they were finding it difficult to obtain visas. Since Covid, they have been harassed by new laws against protesters, and some have had their bank accounts frozen. So serious is this that Amnesty International, for example, has had to stop its work in India.

A no less serious cause for concern is the position of Muslims. There are some 200 million Muslims in India—about 14% of the population. One recent survey revealed that 35% of Muslims in north-east India said that they had experienced discrimination over the past year and were now adopting a survival strategy in the realisation that an anti-Muslim Hindutva policy was now the dominant narrative.

Christianity in India is not a western import. Christians have been there for 2,000 years, and were certainly well established in Kerala by the sixth century. There are 28 million Christians in India—about 2.3% of the population. They, too, are suffering from the present Hindutva policies. Their stigma is increased not only by the fact that they are not Hindu but because they are sometimes regarded—quite wrongly—as a legacy of western imperialism and because many of them are Dalits who converted to Christianity, as others converted to Buddhism, partly to escape the stigma of being treated as untouchable.

So I come to the Dalits and other marginalised groups, such as the tribal peoples. It must be emphasised that the Indian constitution is in many ways admirable, in particular its emphasis on equality for all India’s diverse peoples. Its architect was the polymath, scholar and jurist Dr Ambedkar, who was recently honoured by having a new portrait unveiled at Gray’s Inn, where he studied. He was born into a family of what were then referred to as untouchables in 1891, and wrote:

“Untouchability is far worse than slavery, for the latter may be abolished by statute. It will take more than a law to remove the stigma from the people of India. Nothing less than the aroused opinion of the world can do it.”

His constitution was a step towards achieving that but, despite that constitution, Dalits continue to suffer disproportionately by every indicator. The policies and practices of the present reveal that the stigma is still there and being reinforced.

When it comes to access to clean water and sanitation, Dalits lag far behind; when it comes to access to education and health, again they are disproportionately failed. The conscience of India can rightly be aroused when a student on a bus in Delhi is abducted, raped and murdered—as happened not long ago—but rapes of young Dalit girls in isolated villages happen frequently and get very little publicity. A high proportion of Dalits are bonded or day labourers—groups who are particularly vulnerable to violence. It is particularly distressing when Dalits try to get justice for some outrage and, again and again, fail to achieve it. A Dalit Christian village might be burned, as has happened, and the perpetrators known, but justice is delayed and delayed.

At the moment, more than 24 Dalit rights activists are in jail on unproven charges, including 80 year-old poet Varavara Rao and, until he died on 5 July, 83 year- old Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy. Father Swamy spent nine months in jail under the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, was denied bail and medical care and was transferred to a hospital only when his condition became critical. At the time of his arrest, Stan Swamy was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease, significant loss of hearing in both ears and other serious underlying health issues. His death in custody and the continued incarceration of other defenders is a tragic indictment of India’s human rights record and the global community’s human rights commitments. India sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council and the United Nations Security Council, which carry specific human rights commitments.

As I said at the beginning, it is a real sadness to note what is happening in India today. I believe that all true friends of India should protest about this and make it clear to the Mr Modi that this is a denial of what is best in Indian culture and is totally unacceptable. I know the Minister very much shares this concern about human rights, and I look forward to hearing from him about the action that Her Majesty’s Government are taking. I beg to move.