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Mr. Burns: No doubt, the House will be reassured to know that I will be equally brief. The Opposition did not oppose the Bill on Second Reading. We had serious misgivings about clauses 4 and 5, which we raised then and, at length, in Committee. As a result of the debate today, we still have serious misgivings about the increased powers of the Secretary of State and his powers to interfere in the whole process, but we will not change our position and oppose the Bill because, as the Minister for the Environment generously mentioned, it has been improved in a number of ways, where the Minister has been prepared to listen and make the necessary arrangements.

11.26 pm

Mr. Brake: I merely wish to say that we are happy for the Bill to make further progress.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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Christians (Indian Sub-Continent)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Betts.]

11.27 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Like all my colleagues, I am strenuously opposed to all forms of racial and religious discrimination, hence the way in which we have long campaigned--certainly in the Labour party--for tolerance, and non-discriminatory policies and practices for minorities of all kinds, including in Britain in the post-war years in particular, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.

I asked for this debate to outline the position for Christians on the Indian sub-continent and to ask the British Government to let the Indian and Pakistani authorities know of our deep and continuing concern about what has been happening there recently. In raising this matter, I recognise--as we all do--that India has maintained democracy while facing far greater social problems than we face in Britain.

However, more recently, some extremists in India have become more intolerant towards Christians. I shall describe a particularly brutal and murderous case. On 23 January, Graham Staines, a 55-year-old missionary, was murdered with his two sons, Philip, 10, and Timothy, 8, when their vehicle was torched. As they tried desperately to get out of the vehicle, the mob ensured that that was impossible--they were burnt alive. Mr. Staines had worked with leper patients for more than 30 years in India. Surely, no one can dispute the good work that he did for so many people in that time.

On Sunday, three days ago, two Christian teenagers--a girl and a boy--were murdered and another teenager seriously injured in an eastern state in India. Sadly, those are not isolated incidents. All the evidence points the finger at various extremist groups, some of which are connected with the ruling Bharatiya Janata party.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): Does my hon. Friend accept that India is a secular state, and that it respects all religions equally and allows everyone to worship equally in that spirit? That has been the case for hundreds of years, and that has been the spirit since independence.

Mr. Winnick: Yes, and that is why it is all the more sad that these incidents and tragedies have occurred. I accept what my hon. Friend said, and I am sure that he will agree that, against that background, it is unfortunate that such extremist actions have been taken. They are, in the main, carried out by extremist Hindus who do not represent the vast majority of people of their religion in that country.

Graham Staines's widow has accused an extremist group connected with the ruling party of being responsible for what happened to her husband and children. It is known by the initials RSS and is sometimes referred to as a national volunteer corps of the BJP.

I am referring to extremist elements; this is not a criticism of the Hindu religion. Indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) raised a point of order today about extremist Christians. We should be concerned

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about extremists anywhere, whatever their religion or even if they have no religion. In India, an extremist group believes that its role is to create an atmosphere of hatred against the Christian minority. That is why I am raising this matter.

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): The debate is about the position across the Indian sub-continent. Will my hon. Friend join with me in condemning the persecution of the Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan? I am sure that the House universally condemns that action.

Mr. Winnick: Yes, indeed. I condemn all forms of persecution and intolerance. I shall refer briefly to Pakistan, because the subject of my debate is the Indian sub-continent.

The BJP is the ruling party in India. It is a nationalist, right-wing, Hindu-based party which came to power two years ago. Since that time, there have been attacks on churches, convents, schools and other properties belonging to the Christian community. In November last year, the RSS attacked a church in a village in south India. Members of the congregation were severely beaten up, and the pastor had to be taken to hospital. In September last year, four nuns belonging to the Foreign Missionary Sisters were gang raped by thugs in a state in central India. Those ugly incidents cause the deepest concern in the international community, and certainly in Britain.

There have been more than 100 reported incidents against Christians in India in the past two years. It is a matter of deep concern that a pogrom atmosphere has been building up against the Christian minority, particularly in the past two years. The position is serious enough without exacerbating it, but sometimes the authorities in India show indifference when dealing with the culprits.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): The hon. Gentleman said that he would refer to Pakistan, and the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) has mentioned the situation there. Does he agree that, whereas the problem in India is caused by extremists, when it comes to Pakistan, certain laws have been passed by the state that unfairly discriminate against minorities, particularly the Christian minority?

Mr. Winnick: Certainly I agree, and I shall refer to that later.

The brutal killing of Mr. Staines and his two sons prompted condemnation from senior Ministers in India. I understand that an inquiry is to be set up, and I welcome that.

Let me say, particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar), who intervened earlier, that India has a good record--leaving aside the controversial and complex problem of Kashmir--of general tolerance of religious minorities. That was the record for many years--before Britain was involved in any way, during British rule and certainly during most of the post-independence period, owing to good work on the part of the Indian authorities, which has been recognised in this country.

Let me illustrate the way in which the position has changed. Between 1964 and 1996, 38 cases of violence--38 cases in 32 years--were reported against Christians in

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India. Last year alone, 136 were reported. Some say that is the result of the BJP's winning the election two years ago. They say that the extremists--not necessarily Ministers in the Indian Government, but extremists who are affiliated to the BJP or support it in elections--feel that they have more freedom to demonstrate their intolerance, and to whip up hatred of the Christian minority, than they had before. Christians constitute about 2.5 per cent. of the Indian population.

Reference has been made to the position in Pakistan. I believe that the blasphemy laws in that country are often used purely for malicious and arbitrary reasons. Given such laws, it is not difficult for those who have a grudge against a neighbour or are in debt to deal with the grudge, or not pay the debt, by reporting the person concerned to the authorities under the blasphemy laws. I believe that, as with the position with Hindus in India, most Muslims in Pakistan oppose the practices that I have mentioned. It is unfortunate that those blasphemy laws in Pakistan can be used, and sometimes are used, to persecute the small Christian minority. I should add that Amnesty International has made clear its disquiet about the position in Pakistan.

It is not a question--I do not suppose that any of my hon. Friends is surprised to hear this--of trying to take India's side against that of Pakistan, or of taking the side of Pakistan against that of India. It is simply a question of making it clear that we are totally opposed to discrimination and intolerance. We have been against that in our country, even at times when such opposition has not been very popular. Even when it might have lost us votes, we have made our position clear and have stood by our principles. If that is so in this country, we have a duty and a responsibility to defend minorities elsewhere, and we shall continue to do so, even if at times that causes some disquiet in the Indian high commission or the Pakistan high commission, or among others here who feel that we are attacking their native country. Be that as it may, we work on the basis of certain principles, and will continue to do so.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): My hon. Friend mentioned the Indian high commissioner. The commissioner has written to him stating that the Government condemn the attacks. What more can the Indian Government do?

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