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Mr. Winnick: I shall ask the Minister to make it perfectly clear that the British Government are very concerned about the change in the position in India, which I have already explained, and want the Indian authorities to do all that they can, first, to bring the culprits to justice and, secondly, not to allow an atmosphere in which it is easy for some thugs to attack the Christian minority. That is more or less what we want in our country and have worked for, as my hon. Friend knows.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Another suggestion might be helpful and find acceptance with both the Indian authorities and those in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which have had trouble with several religious minorities, not just Christians. The Commonwealth might be able to facilitate some way to support Governments in upholding secular states and rights of minorities, as well as bilateral Government

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relations. The Commonwealth could be helpful both to Her Majesty's Government and to the Governments of our friends in the Indian sub-continent.

Mr. Winnick: I accept that point, but India and Pakistan are as independent as this country and, if they really have the will to do so, they can deal with the matters that cause us deep concern.

I reject the notion that, in raising the issue, I am anti-Indian or anti-Pakistani--nothing of the kind. The only thing I am anti in these matters is prejudice, whether that occurs here or abroad.

I understand that missionary work can sometimes cause offence. I accept that some extremist missionaries, usually--perhaps not surprisingly--from the United States, go about their business in a way that can cause disquiet and offence, but, often, the attacks and the atmosphere that are being created are directed against law-abiding people in India who happen to be Christians and who are seen as a soft target. I understand that the British Government have expressed some protest or concern. As I have said, I hope that they will continue to make known the matters that cause us concern, which I have been speaking about.

I want to keep my remarks brief, so I say simply that I do not believe that what I have said would have been disputed by the founding fathers of both India and Pakistan. They wanted to establish independent countries where, as has been mentioned, religious minorities would have the same rights as the religious majority. They wanted tolerance. To a large extent, in the post-independence period, that has been achieved, perhaps particularly in India. Therefore, in raising these issues, it is necessary for us to recognise that human rights are a cause for us in all countries.

As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, earlier today, there was a debate on human rights for women. We want human rights for all. We want people who belong to a religion to have rights and those who do not adhere to a religion to have the same rights. It causes me regret that I have had to raise the matter, but I was right to do so. I will listen carefully to what the Minister says in response.

11.43 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tony Lloyd): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on winning the ballot and securing the debate. His record on issues relating to human rights, freedoms of religious minorities and minorities generally compares with that of any hon. Member. We owe him a debt of gratitude for giving the House an opportunity to discuss a serious issue that, interestingly, has provoked several interventions, something that does not normally happen in an Adjournment debate at this time of night. It is a matter that causes concern here and, of course, in the Indian sub-continent.

We must deplore religious intolerance, whether it occurs in this country or anywhere else, but it is particularly disturbing that we are debating intolerance in the Indian sub-continent because Britain still has many ties with it. Hon. Members who are present tonight represent thousands of people whose ties with India and Pakistan are still intimate and will be for the indefinite future. Therefore, it is in a spirit not of criticism but of

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genuine fellowship and concern that we express our sorrow at the reports of attacks on religious minorities in those countries.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) said, India has been seen for many years as a model of a successful, religiously diverse and democratic state. It has won high standing throughout the world for the respect for, and even celebration of, religious diversity there. India is one of the great countries of the world and has more than 950 million people, so diversity is inherent in India's identity. Anybody who has travelled across even small parts of India knows that its diversity is enormous and one would normally expect to see such diversity spread across a continent, rather than in one country. The majority of the population are Hindu, but people of all faiths co-exist there, including Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists.

The concept of an Indian state in which all religions flourish was central to the thinking of the founders of modern India, including Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote:

Those who grew up when I did certainly felt that the influence of Gandhi and Nehru, and their part in establishing that secular India--home to all its people--was an important statement to the whole world.

After independence, the right to freedom of religion was enshrined in India's constitution. Article 25 of the constitution states:

That is one of the most unambiguous statements of commitment to religious freedom to be found in any country's legal system. It is therefore uncharacteristic for India to witness attacks on religious minorities such as those to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North has referred. It is all the more disturbing that so many incidents have been reported in the past few months.

My hon. Friend referred to several examples and I shall repeat some of them to demonstrate the gravity of the attacks. Last July, there were reports of the burning of bibles and attacks on staff at Christian schools in Gujarat. Muslims have also been targeted. We heard reports that, at the end of July, 350 Muslims fled from a village in Gujarat, fearing attack after two Hindu girls had eloped with Muslim boys. My hon. Friend referred to the reports of the gang rape of a group of nuns in Madhya Pradesh and the subsequent looting of the convent.

At the end of the year, we received reports that, on Christmas day, a rally was held in Gujarat to demonstrate against Christian conversions. My hon. Friend referred to the inflammatory climate and the speeches made against Christians, which led to vehicles being burnt and stones thrown, culminating in injury to three Christians. In another area of the same state, also on Christmas day, reports state that three churches were attacked and a Christian school set on fire, resulting in injuries to the principal. Attempts were made to destroy another school. We understand from press reports that, two days later, four more churches were attacked in the same state.

My hon. Friend referred to one of the most horrific events--the brutal murders of Graham Staines and his two sons. We know that those murders were committed by a

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mob, apparently angered by missionary activity in the state of Orissa. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is bizarre that Mr. Staines had spent the bulk of his adult life working for the most marginalised people in Orissa, the victims of leprosy. I must simply record that we read of such attacks with dismay. For most of us, it is almost beyond belief that two young children were murdered as my hon. Friend described.

My hon. Friend referred also to reports being made as recently as this week of the murders of two Christian teenagers in another district of Orissa and an attack on another youth in the same incident.

The Indian United Christians Forum for Human Rights has claimed that the number of attacks against Christian institutions in 1998 was more than the total number between 1964 and 1997. The claim supports the statistics provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North.

We have to ask ourselves--not to minimise the situation, as we must not try to minimise such horrendous attacks--whether, in such disparate parts of the Indian sub-continent, there is a single root cause of the attacks. The statistics in a country of 950 million people might be brought into perspective if compared with our own statistics. I therefore tell the House that, although we must be forthright in condemnation, we must not stigmatise all of India because of attacks on Christians in some parts of it. It would not be fair or acceptable to do so.

Mr. Winnick: I am sure that the terrible attacks and tragedies that have occurred have been condemned by the overwhelming majority of Indians; I have not the slightest doubt about that. We are dealing with extremist groups which have been encouraged by the election of a very right-wing, nationalist, Hindu-based party that is known for its intolerance. We have to recognise that unfortunate fact.

Mr. Lloyd: I should make it clear that there is no difference between my hon. Friend and myself in our view that India generally, and the Indian population generally, are not guilty of the crimes.

The attack on Graham Staines and his sons has caused anger and anguish in India itself. Significantly, condemnation by the press and major political parties has been unanimous. We should also establish the fact that protest has come first and foremost within India. As my hon. Friend said, the Government of India have responded with a clear denunciation of the attacks and an appeal for a return to India's traditional values of tolerance.

I should like publicly to welcome the forthright statement by the Indian president, President Narayanan, that condemned all attacks on religious minorities and called the murder of Graham Staines and his sons a "barbarous killing" and

I also commend to the House the address by the Indian Prime Minister on the anniversary of Gandhi's death, last month, in which he undertook to

    "protect all sections of the people, irrespective of their gender, caste and faith".

Those are important statements by the most senior figures in the Indian Government.

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