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UK govt hails India’s religious diversity, inclusive tradition in Parliament debate

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London, Jan 12: The UK government on Tuesday praised India's religious diversity and its "rich tapestry of religious minorities alongside its sizable Hindu majority" during a debate in the House of Commons complex and highlighted the important work being done to promote UK-India interfaith dialogue on tackling shared global challenges.

Boris Johnson

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) minister Nigel Adams, who responded to a debate entitled "India: Persecution of Minority Groups" on behalf of the government as the Minister for Asia, assured MPs that any "difficult issues" around human rights are raised in a free and open manner with Indian counterparts at the ministerial and consular level as he reiterated that India''s secular Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens.

"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.

The debate, which took place at Westminster Hall within the Houses of Parliament complex in London, was called by backbench members of Parliament led by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP from Northern Ireland Jim Shannon, who sought to highlight the "worrying and disturbing scale and trajectory" of the persecution being experienced in India by non-Hindus.

The debate involved cross-party parliamentarians, including Conservative Party MP Theresa Villiers and Labour MP Barry Gardiner, speaking out in favour of India's strong democratic and pluralistic credentials as well as others who quoted from reports to point to an increase in the persecution of Muslims and Christians in India over the past few years.

Theresa Villiers challenged allegations of state involvement as she highlighted India as "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, a former Cabinet minister.

"When it comes to 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.

Labour's Barry Gardiner pointed to letters he had received from his constituents in Brent North in London, which has a large Indian diaspora population, that expressed surprise that elected British MPs are debating subjects "attacking the government of India", rather than focusing on UK priorities such as the severe impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

"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," he said, as he pointed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking out strongly against so-called "cow vigilantes" to condemn the attacks as "criminal, illogical and unacceptable".

The Indian High Commission in London issued a statement in relation to the backbench debate to stress India's "centuries-old tradition of religious tolerance and harmonious co-existence of people of all faiths".

"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 serve useful purposes if they are based on facts, authentic information and a thorough and accurate perception of issues," noted a High Commission statement, as the mission stressed that it stands ready to engage with parliamentarians in the UK to present authentic facts about India and dispel any misinformation being pedalled by vested interests.

"The large majority of people in India believe in fair play and the right to religious belief, but there are those - some in positions of power - who are not prepared to allow that," said DUP MP Jim Shannon, as he opened the debate.

"I reiterate that India is a great ally of the UK, but it must be possible to have constructive criticism among allies and friends," he said, adding that he and a group of others from Northern Ireland plan to meet the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Gaitri Issar Kumar, to discuss the issues further next week.

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