HC Deb 11 November 1988 vol 140 cc718-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. David Hunt.]

4.25 pm
Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

I wish to take this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the plight of the Sikhs in India, an issue which, for some reason best known to the Government, has not been raised in the Chamber before. That omission by the Government could well be due to embarrassment, to say the least.

Just before independence the Constituent Assembly in India agreed a package of proposals called the Objectives Resolution which guaranteed the autonomous status of Sikhs in the Punjab. The British Government accepted the validity of the Objectives Resolution and, on the strength of that, granted India independence in 1947. Unfortunately, with the coming of independence, the guarantees given to the Sikhs were not honoured and the constitution was changed to reflect the interests of the Hindu majority.

Since then the British Government have said and done nothing over the years to correct that position, despite their direct involvement. We have continued to give aid to India as though money had gone out of fashion. Between 1978 and 1987 Britain has given about £1.6 billion in overseas aid and India has topped the league table of recipients in each of the past 10 years.

There are about 8,000 Sikhs in my constituency, the vast majority of whom are decent, hard-working people who want to live in peace with their neighbours and make a positive contribution to the community. Judging from reports that I have read of debates in the American Congress, the same is true of Sikhs who reside in the United States and of Sikhs the world over.

In India the Sikhs constitute about 2 per cent. of the population, but produce a quarter of India's gross national product. Sikh farmers account for 73 per cent. of wheat and 48 per cent. of rice produced in India. Many Sikhs have made a valuable contribution to the professions, to the military and to the Government of India.

I do not have to remind the House, especially at this time of the year, of the contribution that Sikhs have made in two world wars to defend the freedom and security of the United Kingdom. The list of decorations won by Sikh soldiers is a credit to their loyalty and devotion to our country.

Given that background, one would have thought that the Indian Government would have recognised the contribution that the Sikh community makes to the world and would treat it with the respect and understanding that it so richly deserves. Unfortunately, the opposite is the case.

While Rajiv Gandhi, the so-called leader of the world's largest democracy, struts like a bloated peacock on the international stage, condemning South Africa for its alleged abuse of human rights, he has been responsible for the murder, torture and imprisonment without trial of thousands of his fellow countrymen and he has left a great many others fearing for their lives.

Rajiv Gandhi is aware of and supports unlawful killing and widespread torture by his own security forces and the police. He is aware of and supports arbitrary arrests and prolonged detention without trial. He is also aware of and supports extrajudicial execution, which is unlawful killing by the Government or Government-backed forces. Rajiv Gandhi is aware of and supports the killing of political activists as a result of fake encounters staged by the Indian police. The most widespread reports of these killings and other atrocities come from the Punjab, one of the regions where the security forces enjoy immunity from prosecution when exercising shoot-on-sight powers—powers given to them by the Indian Government led by Rajiv Ghandi.

According to an Amnesty International report, of August this year, more than 70 young Sikhs were killed by police in fake encounters in Amritsar in the month of August last year. The Indian Government have done nothing to investigate those claims; they have simply issued blanket denials and ignored any representations made to them.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dicks

No, I will not. We all know of my hon. Friend's support for the Indian Government and their behaviour.

Mr. Jessel

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member to attack the head of a very friendly Commonwealth country in such a manner without giving other hon. Members the right to intervene?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. It is contrary to our conventions to attack the head of a friendly state unreasonably, but equally no hon. Member has an obligation to give way to another.

Mr. Dicks

I shall not give way to my hon. Friend, because he supports the Indian Government and Rajiv Gandhi and the atrocities committed by the Indian Government in the name of so-called democracy.

Dozens of prisoners are reported to have died after torture in police stations, according to the review. Those most at risk of torture are political prisoners, many of whom are Sikhs. The most persistent allegations of torture of political prisoners have come from the Punjab, the home of the Sikhs, where prisoners have said that they were hung from ceilings with their hands tied behind their backs, beaten and given electric shocks. According to the Amnesty International report, those responsible for torturing prisoners are almost never brought to justice: they are allowed to continue along their evil path uninterrupted by the so-called democratic regime.

Amnesty International has also highlighted the fact that hundreds of political detainees have been held for four years under special security laws which lack basic legal safeguards. As would be expected, they include more than 300 Sikhs held in Jodhpur prison since June 1984, many of whom have been detained for non-violently expressing their political feelings.

How dare Rajiv Gandhi lecture the South African Government on human rights when evidence from Amnesty International and information received in this country by Sikhs from friends and relatives living in the Punjab show that without doubt blacks in South Africa are far more likely to have their human rights recognised by their Government than are the Sikhs by theirs. The Sikhs have to endure considerable suffering and injustice, and they do so with great dignity and courage.

The Indian Government claim that Sikh violence has been taking place in the Punjab area, and around the Golden Temple in particular. They have produced no evidence to substantiate that claim, and as entry to the Punjab is severely limited many people, including myself, doubt the truth of those claims. Most of the Sikhs with whom I have come in contact, both here and abroad, are seeking a peaceful solution to the Punjab problem and a recognition of their position by the Indian Government.

Those interested in democracy should be pressing the Indian Government to behave in a reasonable and responsible manner, while at the same time bringing pressure to bear on them to recognise the human rights violations that have taken place. Unfortunately the British Government are taking a different view. They are turning a deaf ear to the cries of Sikhs in Britain who are concerned about the suffering of friends and relatives in India, and at the same time they are turning a blind eye to reports from organisations such as Amnesty International, which provide clear evidence of that suffering.

On 31 October this year I asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary whether he would make a statement on a recent report by Amnesty International entitled, "India—A review of Human Rights Violations." His answer was no. On the same day I asked him what representations he had made to the Indian Government about the alleged violation of basic hum an rights, as reported by Amnesty International. Again, his answer was no. I also asked whether he would publish the evidence on which he based his view that the judicial system in India protected the rights of minority groups such as the Sikhs. His answer was no. On the same day I asked whether he would receive a deputation from the Sikh community in Britain to discuss the allegation of violations of human rights in India. Again, his answer was no.

Finally, I asked whether the Foreign Secretary would use his good offices to persuade the Indian Government to grant me an entry visa to visit the Punjab and make contact with relatives and friends of my constituents. He replied that it was a matter for the Indian authorities.

Let me also bring to light an immigration case that is interesting to say the least. Until March of last year a Mr. Gunga Singh Dhillon, a Sikh with an American passport, had been allowed unfettered entry to the United Kingdom. However, when he arrived in August of last year he was prevented from entering the United Kingdom and sent back on the next available plane without being allowed access to a telephone to contact his solicitor or a Member of Parliament.

On making inquiries on behalf of Mr. Dhillon, I was told that he had been excluded for reasons of national security. I then asked what had happened between March 1987 and August 1987 to make the Home Office take this action. I was told that, even as the Member of Parliament involved, I could not be given that information. I am aware, however, as is Mr. Dhillon, that the Indian Government had brought pressure to bear on the British Government to ensure that Mr. Dhillon was not allowed to enter the United Kingdom. This gentleman—well respected in America and known to both Republican and Democrat politicians on Capitol Hill—was denied entry to this country to see his family, at the whim of the corrupt Indian Government.

On the evidence of the replies that I have received from the Foreign Office and the attitude towards Mr. Dhillon by the Home Office, it seems to me that the British Government are taking a blinkered, not to say hypocritical, view of the situation in India. Our Government have never been slow publicly to condemn South Africa whenever an allegation of the violation of human rights has been made. They have intervened personally in the case of a group of black Africans, known as the Sharpeville Six, who are awaiting execution for crimes committed in the Republic. The Government, without any evidence being available at all, were quick to condemn the Iraqi Government for allegedly gassing the Kurds living in the north of Iraq. Even the Prime Minister, on her recent visit to Poland, spoke out in favour of freedom and justice for the people of that country.

Why, therefore, when it comes to India, does the British Government's attitude change dramatically? The evidence suggesting widespread violation of human rights is overwhelming. The man who is responsible for implementing that policy, the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr. Buta Singh, sought a bribe from me when I last visited India before he would respond to my request for information regarding a constituent of mine, Mrs. Kuldip Kaur, who had been wrongly imprisoned in India. That man asked me face to face for a bribe before he would take any action on my behalf.

Mr. Jessel

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Member of Parliament to take advantage of parliamentary privilege to accuse a Minister in the Government of a friendly Commonwealth country of a corrupt act when that Minister is not here to reply for himself? Is that not grossly improper and an abuse of the House, and is it in order?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I doubt whether it is out of order, but it is hardly consistent with the conventions of the House. I ask the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) to bear in mind that the 20th edition of "Erskine May," on page 431, states: Opprobrious reflections must not be cast in debate on sovereigns and rulers over, or governments of, independent Commonwealth territories or countries in amity with Her Majesty, or their representatives in this country. I hope that the hon. Member will bear that reference in mind.

Mr. Dicks

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that ruling, but I remind you that when I made the same claim in December 1986 during an Adjournment debate I was neither stopped nor corrected. I made the same allegation, because it is true. I was there; I know that it happened. Mr. Buta Singh then had the opportunity to take whatever action he wanted against me, but he did not do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) bleeds too much for the Indian Government. He should be more objective and take off his blinkers. He would then understand and appreciate the problems that the Sikhs face in India.

There is overwhelming evidence from many quarters that the Sikhs are being persecuted by the Indian Government in general and particularly at the hands of the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Only a few days ago his Minister of Commerce called at No. 10 Downing street. Among other things, I understand that he asked whether the policy that is about to be introduced to control the appearance on television of IRA terrorists could be extended to include members of the Sikh community living in Britain. Given that background, there can be no justification whatsoever for the British Government's continued support of the Indian regime. If they are to continue to comment on human rights issues around the world, they have a duty loudly and clearly to condemn the abuse of human rights and the persecution of the Sikhs in India. A foreign policy based on selectivity, hypocrisy and double standards may be good for the Foreign Office, but it is not good for the British Government or the British people. It will be seen by many as yet another example of the Foreign Office putting its own interests before those of Britain.

It is not with any pleasure that I speak on this subject today. I do so because I believe that Sikh people in India are being persecuted by the Government there. The Sikh community in my constituency and elsewhere in the United Kingdom are worried about relatives and friends in India. They can get no access to them, and their Members of Parliament cannot in most cases.

The fault lies at the feet of the British Government of 1947 who accepted the word of the Constituent Assembly that Sikhs would be protected in the new constitution. The moment that that constitution came into operation after independence, the Indian Government ignored their obligations regarding Sikhs and their autonomy in their own state of the Punjab and rewrote the constitution to protect the interests of the Hindu majority. That was an appalling thing to do, but the British Government sat back and made no protest.

It is surprising that I have to raise this important matter on the Adjournment because the British Government—of the party to which I belong—have flatly refused to answer my questions fully and frankly. They have flatly refused to condemn the Indian Government, although they condemn the South African Government. The Government have also refused to bring the issue before the House and the British people. The Government meet and greet members of the Indian Government all over the place. They recognise the so-called status of Rajiv Gandhi as an international politician of repute—a man who goes with a begging bowl looking for aid wherever he can get it, but who has given the Sandinista regime $10.4 million of aid. How can a country which demands aid from us afford to give aid to an evil Left-wing regime in Central America? We must have answers to these questions.

The Indian security services operate within the Indian community in Britain, but the Government are doing nothing about it. The Sikhs in Britain need their families and friends in India to be protected. They need Government support in their effort to get justice in the Punjab. They are not all terrorists, if, indeed, any of them are. Most are decent, hard-working people who love this country. Indeed, they love the British Government— the Tory Government, in particular—and have a high regard for our Prime Minister. Why are their views not heard? Why do the Government not respond to them? Why do we continue to bend the knee to this evil Government in India?

4.42 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. William Waldegrave)

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) has spoken in his characteristically robust way and I have listened to him with attention. The Foreign Office has a broad back. It can even put up with the criticisms of Mr. David Hart in The Times—that great commentator on international affairs—but I was a little struck with my hon. Friend's accusation of hypocrisy. I know that my hon Friend takes a robust view about, for example, terrorism in other forms, and quite rightly. He is robust about terrorism in Northern Ireland. I believe that he is robust in his belief that the Iraqi Government have a legitimate interest in putting down a minority rebellion among Kurdish resistance fighters or terrorists—it depends which side of the argument one takes—in northern Iraq.

The perspective with which one approaches these issues is crucial. My hon. Friend rightly said that our relationship with India is old and close and that there is a burden of history on it. It is reinforced by many contacts, the greatest of which is the presence in the United Kingdom of 800,000 people of Indian origin who have made their home here. Among them, the Sikhs are the largest group and total more than 300,000. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that they have made a valued contribution to many areas of our national life. They are hard-working, loyal and excellent people. I have some in my constituency and share my hon. Friend's view. I share their concern about the terrible and tragic events that are taking place in the Punjab.

We should, however, remember one fact. Sikhs have played a distinguished part in the life of independent India and have continued to be represented, I believe, out of all proportion to their number, among India's leading politicians, public servants, soldiers and business men. As my hon. Friend said, the vast majority of Indian Sikhs are law-abiding citizens. But a small minority, which had never commanded a majority of democratic votes in the Sikhs' home state of the Punjab, has sought to obtain by violence what it clearly could not hope to secure by a democratic campaign—the dismemberment of the state of India.

The Sikh population represents about 60 per cent. of the population in the Punjab and is scattered elsewhere thoughout India. As my hon. Friend said, the Punjab is the richest state in India, thanks to the energy of its— mainly Sikh—farmers, the extensive irrigation works undertaken originally under British administration and the "green revolution" achieved more recently.

So it is not true to say—and my hon. Friend did not say it in his speech, but it has been said—that Sikhs in general are underprivileged or second-class citizens. However there are those in the Sikh community who have become very concerned that the processes of modernisation have damaged the traditional Sikh way of life. They have expressed concern—which may be legitimate—over access to water and other farming resources. There is also the grievance about the promise made in the 1960s to give the Punjab exclusive control of Chandigarh— the new city built when Punjab was divided in 1966. For all I know —and my hon. Friend is far more learned than I am in these matters—they may be legitimate grievances, but I know that he will want to join me in urging that they must be pursued by legitimate democratic means.

The main Sikh political party—Akali Dal—has long pursued some of those concerns with legitimate campaigning. That is fair enough, but my hon. Friend recognises that there is a minority who have taken the other line and have pursued the route of violence. Indeed, the casualties have been very great. I am advised that Sikh extremists have killed more than 2,400 people so far this year and more are dying every day. There have been indiscriminate bomb attacks and a wide variety of the terrorist techniques with which I fear we are all too familiar in the modern world. There have been further attacks in recent weeks. Bombs killed 21 people on 1 November, and another bomb attack on 4 November left 27 dead.

The Indian Government have tried to respond to those activities. And I am sure that my hon. Friend, faced with the much smaller scale of terrorism in Northern Ireland does not doubt that the British Government are right to pursue vigorous means to supress that terrorism.

Clearly, the allegations to which my hon. Friend has referred, which have come from Amnesty International and from representatives of some of the Sikh community, must be properly investigated. I challenge what my hon. Friend said. Whenever we believe and have evidence that human rights are at risk, the British Government say so, but we must try to judge in our relationships with other countries which other countries have a system of law. In its most recent report, Amnesty International refers to the fact that there are legal remedies in India, although they may be slow—as they may be slow in Britain and in other countries where the rule of law is in place—there have been cases where allegations have been properly investigated and action taken against the perpetrators. That must colour our judgment of the situation. There is democratic Government and the rule of law in India, so the situation there is quite different from that in many countries in the world where neither exists.

The activities of the terrorists are not confined to India. In October 1985 a plot was uncovered to assassinate Prime Minister Gandhi during his visit to the United Kingdom. A moderate Sikh leader, Tarsem Singh Tor, was murdered in January 1986; another, Darshan Das Vasdev, was shot dead in November 1987; and three other attempts were made or plotted on the lives of leading Sikh moderates. In all those cases, those responsible have been tried and convicted or charges have been brought. It is intolerable that people living in this country and enjoying the liberties of British citizenship should abuse those liberties to promote a violent and anti-democratic threat to India.

Faced by the fact that we share a terrorist threat against our people, we have been closely in touch with the Indian Government during the past few days to find ways of strengthening our co-operation to combat the activities of extremists within the framework of our laws. We continue actively to look for ways of working still more closely together. That co-operation is something to which the Indian Government understandably attach great importance, and it has assumed a central place in the political relations between the two countries.

But legal or administrative measures are not what will, in the end, defeat extremism in India or anywhere else. What is necessary is that the extremists should be shunned by society at large and should no longer be able to call on the tolerance or passive acquiescence of people who do not share their extremist beliefs. I agree with my hon. Friend that the vast majority of Sikhs in Britain are moderate, decent people.

The extremists number perhaps a few hundred at most, but organisations are active in the Sikh community whose main purpose is to offer help and support to the extremists in India. Those organisations seem to be able to draw on the moral and financial support of many Sikhs in Britain who do not share that objective. I call on all decent Sikhs in Britain to ensure, before they give their support to an organisation, that they are clear about its intention. We have had to fight a similar campaign for many years among decent Americans of Irish extraction, who have often fallen into the same trap in relation to the provisional IRA. Unless they are perfectly certain that the organisation in question has no truck with violence, they should have nothing to do with it, and those who give even the most passive support to extremism must bear some share of the condemnation for the misery of the Punjab and the suffering which that conflict has brought to India as a whole.

I have already implied that it is perfectly possible that in a bitter terrorist war the servants of any Government of any country may from time to time abuse their authority. What matters is the action that that Government take to bring to book those who have broken the law. In response to earlier reports by Amnesty, the Government of India said that specific charges of alleged violence are thoroughly investigated, and where such charges have been proved exemplary action has been taken against the guilty.

India is a democratic and independent state. Its constitution formally prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion or race. Its people are subject to the rule of law—a rule of law to which Britain contributed more than a little. Remedies are available within the Indian legal system, as Amnesty itself acknowledges. In its latest report, Amnesty says: National and local bodies in India, including the Supreme Court and high courts in the various states, do important work to protect … fundamental rights. Amnesty also recognises the important role played by civil liberties groups and by India's free press.

Mr. Dicks

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the case of my constituent, Mrs. Kuldip Kaur, who two years ago was imprisoned on no grounds for eight months, and was then released and told that she was completely innocent. I have written twice to and telephoned the Indian High Commission asking whether it will consider paying compensation to that lady, who has lost eight months of her life and is now suffering mentally, as is her family. Will he take up this case with the Indian Government, bearing in mind what he said about the Indian judicial system, to see whether the system will ensure that that lady is recompensed? She has a piece of paper from the Indian Government saying, "We have made a mistake; you are completely innocent", but it took them eight months to reach that decision and she has lost eight months of her life.

Mr. Waldegrave

Off the cuff at the Dispatch Box, and without examining the case, I cannot say that I will take it up. I shall certainly consider the case and write to my hon. Friend about it. His representations have helped to produce justice in that case, which to some extent proves that my comments have some validity— that the normal open lobbying procedures with which we are familiar can have some effect.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to alleged violations of human rights in India. We make clear, in public and in private, our views on the need for all Governments to respect human rights.

I return briefly to the original question asked by my hon. Friend: what is the effect on Anglo-British relations of the situation of Sikhs in India?

Mr. Jessel

On that point about relations between Britain and India, is my hon. Friend aware that the vast majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House greatly cherish the historic ties of friendship between Britain and India—

Mr. Dicks

How does my hon. Friend know that?

Mr. Jessel

—and that this was shown on Wednesday when 45 Members of the House attended a function of the Indo-British parliamentary group at India house? That is the view of most hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) is right over the top.

Mr. Dicks

They all had a free curry at the Indian Government's expense.

Mr. Waldegrave

Against the background of tragedy and terrorism, it behoves us all not to do anything to encourage the spilling over of those bitternesses in Britain. On the contrary, we should argue for moderation and for a democratic means of solving the problems which may have a legitimate basis but which must be solved through the ballot box if this House is to remain true to its tradition. Nothing that we say or do today should give the least encouragement or quarter to those who follow the route of violence.

I have listened with care and interest to what my hon. Friend said, and I urge him to work with us to bring this tragedy to an end.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Five o'clock.