This week witnessed the Houses of Parliament complex in London attract two debates, called by backbench British MPs, on matters perceived largely as domestic matters of another country at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic crisis is at its peak in the UK.
Indian diaspora members took to social media to voice their anger at not one but two Westminster Hall debates revolving around India – one on minority rights and the second on Kashmir – during a week when the UK recorded the highest figures of daily Covid-19 deaths.
“We need MPs who work and focus on our matters. We have enough on our plate,” noted one such social media intervention.
“Regardless of one's politics, UK MPs MUST recognise India is an independent sovereign democracy. If you want to advocate on local policies stand for election there,” noted another.
Labour MP Barry Gardiner encapsulated the mood during the debate entitled “India: Persecution of Minority Groups”, as he referred to letters 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.
He said: “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.”
The Indian High Commission in London took an equally balanced approach as it called for facts and accuracy to be the defining feature of any debate and discussion.
“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,” a High Commission statement noted.
In relation to the second debate, entitled “Political situation in Kashmir”, it sought to highlight similar points of facts.
It noted: “Regarding the reference to ‘Kashmir’ in the title: the need is felt to differentiate between the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which is an integral part of India, and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (when erstwhile princely state of Kashmir legally acceded to India in October 1947, this part was forcibly and illegally occupied by Pakistan).
“It was also noted that references to the Indian Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, despite the volumes of authentic information available in the public domain – based on up to date and visible facts on the ground – ignored current ground reality and, instead chose to reflect false assertions of the kind promoted by a third country.”
The statement reiterated that while it was not the policy of India to take “undue interest” in the internal discussions within a foreign Parliament, the High Commission of India continues to engage with all concerned – including the UK government and parliamentarians – to avoid “misperceptions and misinformation” by making authentic information about India available to all.
As is customary with such backbench debates, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) minister Nigel Adams was the government minister who responded to both debates as the Minister for Asia.
On the issue of minority rights, the minister made references to India’s diversity and its rich tapestry of religious minorities alongside its sizable Hindu majority as he reiterated that the country’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.
On the issue of Kashmir, he asserted the UK government’s long-held stance that the dispute in the region is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to.
He said: “The government’s policy [on Kashmir] remains stable, it’s unchanged. We continue to believe that this is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to the situation that takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
“It’s not appropriate for the UK government to prescribe a solution or act as a mediator in this regard but it would be wrong to not acknowledge there are serious human rights concerns in both India-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.”