Liberal Democrats must acknowledge massive human rights abuse in India

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Britain’s announcement of a £1 billion trade deal with India coincided with a thundering condemnation of that country by the British-Indian artist Sir Anish Kapoor in The Times. He writes:

Sixty per cent of the population — 800 million people — live, or more accurately survive, in abject poverty and are forced into invisibility. The harshness of caste boundaries and endemic social segregation means they are the downtrodden of the earth and it matters not if they live or die.

Britain is pursuing India for post-Brexit trade deals and as a strategic ally against China’s expansion. By doing so, it is turning a blind eye to widespread human rights abuses there where individual suffering may well be equal or higher than that of China.

The voice of Liberal Democrats is close to silent on these atrocities.

As a journalist, I have reported over many years from India where government policies allow millions to remain in poverty and illiteracy through the country’s bonded labour and caste systems.

They are not in prison camps such as we are condemning in Xinjiang. It is far messier than that. They are entrapped, kidnapped, held hostage, locked into a social system which Mahatma Gandhi referred to as the ‘violence of poverty’.

I have seen diseased and malnourished children kept out of school so they can break rocks or pack mud for businessmen. I have been with young women trafficked to the cotton factories in Gujarat working in air so poisonous that they become crippled by a lung disease known as the ‘horror of the white cloud’. I have spoken to pregnant women kicked in the stomach by police because they stepped out of line while being sent to work in a brick factory.

I have interviewed an illiterate bonded labourer whose arm was severed by an axe as a punishment for trying to escape. The perpetrators operate with near impunity.

India’s economic and cultural systems encourage this abuse that destroys lives in their millions.

Indian corruption levels are among the highest in the world. Some forty per cent of members of the current parliament face criminal charges including rape and murder.

The ruling party’s base vote is embedded in Hindu nationalism. The government has passed a series of laws which discriminate against the Muslim minority.

The prime minister Narendra Modi has been accused of fuelling anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. The United States denied him a visa until he became prime minister in 2014.

“There is a reality about India that remains wilfully undeclared. It is that India today is the most unequal society there has ever been,” writes Sir Anish Kapoor, appealing for us to heed the cries of its people.

Indeed. So, why do Liberal Democrats not listen?

Or does the universality of human rights not apply to India?

* Humphrey Hawksley is a member of the Hammersmith and Fulham Local Party and on the Executive of the Liberal Democrat European Group.

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  • Humphrey Hawksley is to be congratulated on this article. I agree with his conclusions.

  • TVM for an interesting article.


    It does seem to be: “Let’s all jump on the bandwagon and find sticks to beat India with” month on LDV. Can’t think why? .

    India is a far from perfect. But the Economist do rate her as the 53rd best democracy in the world – yes a “flawed democracy” but 2nd best poorer country in Asia & most ahead of her tend to be rich nations – indeed she’s ahead of Hungry.

    40% MPs facing criminal charges is bad – but it may be a slightly hopeful they’ve at least been charged. Disappointingly poverty & politics do tend to equal corruption. A rotten borough anyone?

    And it’s better than many were leaders install themselves for life & end up very rich indeed.

    Obviously the caste system is against India. But that is not just caused by the Government – and indeed there are laws against it & quotas for Government jobs etc. but rooted in the culture. Indeed most poor rural economies, e.g. ours in medieval times, have a strong feudal structure & in some a dominant tribe. And the Congress party which isn’t in power now but was for a long time after independence, was, I believe, the party of the upper castes.

    Clearly also in this country we also “allow” people to suffer because of their background, (race/”caste”) BAME people tend to have worse health outcomes, shorter lives and be poorer. But economic development and urbanisation, are, I believe, fast breakdown the traditional caste system in India.

    Of course modern day slavery and exploitation of women and children are bad and its good that we have had reporters like you highlighting it. But it is seen in most poor economies as they develop and industrialise – ours included and actually a fully rural economy is probably even worse for women and children. It’s a very tough scrapping a life from the land as a peasant.

    India is rated 53rd worst out of 167 countries by the Global Slavery Index – which is obviously not good but it does indicate that there are 52 countries we should be more concerned about.

    I don’t condone the bad things about India – and yes we should be (more) concerned about her human rights (along with those of other countries) but I do also try and introduce a little balance and fact-checking on LDV and counter too much “group think”!

  • Peter Davies 5th May '21 - 7:50am

    While Modi is undoubtedly part of the problem, he is only a small part. The vast majority of the problem is poverty and the corruption that feeds and is fed by it. They existed under Congress, the Raj and the Moguls.

    We are a small country and uniquely unqualified to lecture India. We do have influence there but largely through family connections and through trade. The Islands of prosperity are also the least corrupt parts and it is their foreign connections that allow them to opt out of the corrupt patron-client system.

    We should criticize Modi more but we should also promote trade. £1bn is actually a quite pathetic volume for potentially our second biggest post-Brexit trade deal.

  • John Marriott 5th May '21 - 8:31am

    It’s the caste system, stupid!

    That said, in this brave new (independent) world we are now entering any port in a storm will do, at least according to Ms Truss.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th May '21 - 8:53am

    @Peter Davies
    “We are a small country and uniquely unqualified to lecture India.”
    Perhaps through our history of exploitation on the country and its people?
    “Mukerjee has presented evidence the cabinet was warned repeatedly that the exhaustive use of Indian resources for the war effort could result in famine, but it opted to continue exporting rice from India to elsewhere in the empire.

    Rice stocks continued to leave India even as London was denying urgent requests from India’s viceroy for more than 1m tonnes of emergency wheat supplies in 1942-43. Churchill has been quoted as blaming the famine on the fact Indians were “breeding like rabbits”, and asking how, if the shortages were so bad, Mahatma Gandhi was still alive.”

  • Nigel Jones 5th May '21 - 9:36am

    One of the problems in India is the strength of historical culture which still comes before the rule of law in so many places. The Government can pass all kinds of good laws, but so many, including the police, ignore them. This relates to the size of the country, the power of each state and of course the caste system. I was told all this many times on a visit there, when I was with a group that went off the tourist track.

  • Paul Reynolds 5th May '21 - 9:40am

    India has come forward in leaps and bounds, economically and socially in the last decade. What I always find shocking, however, is the way in which the caste system is regarded as the natural order of things. It is something you don’t see if staying in posh hotels, working on governmental aid projects or on guided holidays, but for the vast majority of the population it is the day to day reality. Visiting the home of a centre-left politician, with a high moral position, I was surprised to see even a caste hierarchy among the (very many) servants, with people of Dalit caste doing the ‘least desirable’ work. ‘They came with the house, and at least I am providing employment’ she said. Nevertheless the UK as the former colonial power has a lot to answer for in India, and is in a weak position if seen to be lecturing senior officials and politicians. The UK Liberal Democrats do need to be clear about their approach, however, and how we work with allies to …. help India modernise ? I believe Humphrey Hawksley has got it about right in his article. The Lib Dems need to press the UK to take a more enlightened position for the long term (not just appearing desperate to ‘chalk up’ a post-Brexit trade agreement, and blindly going along with US anti-China policy).

  • Barry Lofty 5th May '21 - 10:38am

    Although I maybe off subject, I have read this morning that our PM and Mr Modi have shared a video call on the subject of a new trade deal, BJ trying to get the first strike before the EU, part of the Indian demand for such a deal is for “free move of people”, forgive me if I am wrong and I am sure I will be corrected if I am, but wasn’t free movement one of the main planks used by the Brexiteers for leaving the EU. Funny world we live in???

  • Humphrey Hawksley 6th May '21 - 7:56am

    Thank you for insightful comments. Michael1 is right about India’s democracy. But as Joe Biden now emphasizes democracy needs to prove that it works. In India, on issues of caste, poverty and corruption, it has failed. Peter Davies has a point about our lack of qualifications on lecturing India. But does he apply the same argument to lecturing China and Russia on the way they treat their citizens? There is also be a wider security issue here. In the 1930s, as the world was rebalancing with new powers and ideologies, the U.S. and Britain chose to backNazism as a buffer against Soviet Communism. We got it wrong. History never repeats itself exactly, but lessons can be learned.

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