India: Freedom of Religion Debate - 17 March 2016
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for initiating this debate. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, outlined, India is a secular nation. India has a long and rich history of religious tolerance and its secularism is enshrined in its constitution. 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. India’s commitment to the rule of law, democracy and human rights is as old as the nation itself.
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.
“My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence. My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly”.
Those were the words of Prime Minister Modi last year at an event honouring Catholic saints. A lot of what precedes this debate is a suspicion, held by some, that Prime Minister Modi may not be sound, that his past associations hint at a darker character. This suspicion has existed since before he was elected Prime Minister, often by the people who did not see eye to eye with him politically. Yet Modi could not have been clearer about where he stands. It is worth reminding ourselves that, when he was elected in 2014, he received considerable support from religious minority communities across India, including Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir, because of his vision for India: to develop the nation economically, to build a cleaner India, and to help India emerge on the global scene.
In a young nation of 1.3 billion people, tensions will always arise. The best way in the long run for those tensions to be negated is to ensure that every person in India has access to a good education, that there are jobs for all people and that prosperity is available to all. Last year, for the first time since 1999, India overtook China on economic growth, helped by a reorientation of government spending towards needed public infrastructure, which helps all citizens. In the same way, we should condemn any acts of religious intolerance. As a Hindu, I absolutely condemn illegal actions taken in the name of my faith. We should also praise the Indian Government for the work they are doing to build a better India for all.
As an aside, we in Britain have to be very careful about how we, and other foreign nations, approach this topic. It is also not uncommon for us to have our own religiously motivated problems in the western world. We should also not lose sight of how these incidents are so often restricted to very small percentages of the population; nor should we forget India’s strong record of protecting small minority communities, such as the Jews and the Parsis. We must not be intolerant of the tolerance demonstrated by so many.
India is, relatively speaking, still a young nation, which is taking great strides to become an economically and socially developed nation welcome to all. I believe that, rather than see the glass as half-empty and focus only on the negatives, we must acknowledge that there is a tremendous amount of good happening in India, a lot of which is being led by the Indian Government. I believe Britain should be India’s—and Prime Minister Modi’s—partner. In the short term, we should take Modi at his word and support him in the desire to clamp down on religious intolerance, but we should also support him in the wider vision to build a prosperous and developed India.
The full debate can be read through the following link: