HC Deb 25 March 2003 vol 402 cc263-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Charlotte Atkins.]

6.57 pm
Mr. Mike Wood (Batley and Spen)

I want to raise two issues relating to the communal and religious violence that swept through large parts of Gujarat in northern India just over 12 months ago. My interest was centred initially on the fact that four of my constituents were caught up in the violence, with devastating consequences for them, their families and for the wider constituency community, especially in the Batley area where I have 6,500 Muslim constituents, of whom 6,000 were either born in Gujarat or have parents who were born there.

I shall briefly recount the details of the incident. On 28 February 2002, four of my constituents, all British-born Muslims, were nearing the end of a holiday in India. At least one of them had never been to India before. They had been sightseeing to the Taj Mahal, which is not unusual on a visit to India, and they had visited many of their relatives in the state. However, as they returned to hotel on that fateful date and while driving along the main highway from Jaipur to Surat, their car was stopped by a mob, the vehicle was set on fire and they were dragged out.

The local Muslim driver and one of my constituents, Mr. Aswat Nallabhai, were killed on the spot. The youngest member of the party, Imran Dawood, was beaten and left for dead, but fortunately he survived and is recovering slowly in this country with his family. The other two of my constituents, cousins Sakil and Saeed Dawood, are still missing and, although the families find that impossible to accept—

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Charlotte Atkins.]

Mr. Wood

Although the families find it impossible to accept that Sakil and Saeed are still missing, we have to assume that they, too, fell victim to that terrible crime. Some remains of one of those men were found soon after the event, close by, by a relative who went to search for them, but, 12 months later, because of the poor forensic facilities in Gujarat, the family do not know which of those two men those remains are from and, of course, they have no news whatever of their other relative.

The House will understand that such factors make that dreadful event even more impossible for the families to put behind them. In total, if we assume that both Sakil and Saeed are dead, nine children have been orphaned by that event. Those young men, enjoying a relaxed and informative holiday, were innocently caught up in violence that claimed up to 3,000 lives in a matter of days. Of course, we shall never know the actual number of dead because of the anarchy that reigned for days, until the army was brought in to restore order.

As I said, it will not be difficult for the House to understand that those events have had a devastating effect on two families and a wider community, but that has been greatly exacerbated by their perception of the very poor quality of the police investigation at the time of the riots, which now leaves them with so many unanswered questions and, more importantly, makes it look increasingly unlikely that any individual or even organisation will be brought to book for those murders. Justice is being denied to those families, to add to their other injuries.

I wish to press the Minister tonight to give a commitment that his Department will renew its efforts to convince the Indian Government of their responsibility to mount, even at this late stage, a full and proper investigation into the deaths of those British subjects and, for that matter, the deaths of so many of their own subjects, too. May I further request that that approach should also involve again offering the services of British police officers and resources to help in that exercise if that would help to expedite matters?

I know of the considerable departmental contacts that have been made with the Indian authorities with regard to that case. In particular, the Foreign Secretary has met me three times—once during the week that his own father sadly died. He has met representatives of both families, and he has taken up the matter personally with the Indian Prime Minister and his own counterpart. I understand that the families believe that more could have been done. Having suffered such trauma, how could they believe anything else? However, I should like to place on record my thanks for the efforts of the Department, its Ministers and, not least, the Secretary of State himself.

Time has moved on—as I have said, we are just beyond the first anniversary of those events—and so I would make a plea that those matters should be revisited; we owe those families nothing less.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

I am sure that the House will join my hon. Friend in extending its sympathy to his constituents' families. Will he also join me in expressing the horror of the House not only about the communal violence to which he refers, but about the later attack on the Akshardham at Gandhinagar, in which one of the sadhus, who used to be at the Neasden temple in north-west London in my constituency, was also killed? The communal violence in Gujarat last year is a real scar on the face of Indian democracy, and we must do all that we can to ensure that it does not happen again and that it is certainly never allowed to affect politics and community relations in this country.

Mr. Wood

Of course, I am pleased to identify with the points raised by my hon. Friend. That leads me to the second, more wide-ranging issue that I wish to raise with the Minister.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

I have listened carefully to the concerns and deep feelings that my hon. Friend has expressed about his constituents. As a Hindu, and as someone who was born in India, my heart goes out to his constituents and their families, given the pain and suffering that they have experienced. Given that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) said, this matter is a blot on Indian post-independence, may I also make my hon. Friend aware that it was utterly condemned by the Indian Deputy Prime Minister when he visited the UK last year? The Indian Prime Minister has described the incident as, a blot in the face of the nation". The whole House condemns what happened in that spirit.

Mr. Wood

Again, I hear what my hon. Friend says, although in many ways words are cheap. In the face of the violence that we saw, and the causes of it, actions would speak considerably louder. As I develop my second point, perhaps he will understand where I am coming from.

I share the view of many reputable commentators that the secular India that we have known since independence is under threat. Nowhere is that more true, if it is true at all, than in Gujarat. Indeed, many believe that Gujarat is being used as a test bed for sectarian politics, which, if replicated throughout the country, will have far-reaching and long-standing implications, not just for that region but globally and, more importantly and immediately, for the many minority communities in India. I believe that nationalism is being fostered through antipathy to minorities.

Britain, as the ex-colonial power, has both the opportunity and the duty to monitor the situation and to raise it with the Indian authorities before even greater sectarian violence occurs. Clear commitments are needed to the principles of democracy and inclusion, which have been the hallmark of the India to which my hon. Friend has just referred: the India that we have known for the past 50 years.

One year after the violence that appears to have taken the lives of three of my constituents and many thousands of others, tens of thousands, largely Muslims, are eking out an existence in temporary camps, unable or unwilling to return to their burnt homes and ruined businesses. Many of those homes, of course, were burned to the ground and their occupants murdered while the local sectarian police force stood and watched. A flashpoint such as Ayodhya and partisan administration of justice such as that will provide just the spark needed to make the unrest of the last 12 months seem as nothing unless action is taken urgently.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will assure me, and all those who have the best interests of India at heart, that the Government will play their full part, alongside our allies, the United Nations and the rest, in ensuring that our worst fears are not realised.

7.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mr. Wood) on securing this debate on the British victims of sectarian violence in Gujarat.

I welcome the opportunity that this debate provides to mark the fact that one year has passed since the tragic events took place and to set out the action that we have taken so far. My greatest sympathy goes to the families of the victims of this tragedy. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult this past year must have been for them.

As my hon. Friend said, on 28 February last year four British nationals visiting India were attacked in their car during a period of intense violence in the state of Gujarat. I understand that the group of four British Muslims and one Indian Muslim were travelling from Jaipur to Surat in a seven-seater vehicle. The shocking events took place when it seems that about 50 Hindus ambushed their vehicle near Prantij. The driver of the vehicle, an Indian citizen, was pulled from the vehicle and attacked. The four other occupants fled the vehicle. Imran Salim Dawood, a British citizen, was injured but managed to escape and was hospitalised with minor injuries. We understand that he witnessed a British citizen, Mohammed Aswat Nallabhai, being killed by the mob. The other two occupants, British citizens Saeed Shafik Dawood and Sakil Abdul Dawood, were unaccounted for after the incident.

The British deputy high commission in Mumbai was notified of the incident on 1 March 2002. It immediately alerted the police in Prantij and asked them to investigate. On 8 March, consular staff in Mumbai accompanied Indian police officers and a member of the family to the area of the attack to try to establish what had happened to the two men who had disappeared. During the visit, the group found the burnt out remains of the car. They also examined a burnt out factory, which local people claimed they had seen the two men running towards before it was set on fire. They found human bones, most of which were regrettably little more than ash. Those were collected and sent to the Hyderabad laboratory for DNA testing. The DNA results were received on 8 May and identified some of the bones as belonging to Saeed Dawood.

Our consular staff have been in regular contact with the police, who have launched murder investigations into the deaths of both Mohammed Nallabhai and Saeed Dawood. Very sadly, there is still no indication of the whereabouts of Sakil Dawood. Given the horrific events that took place that day, the family believe that he is dead. The police arrested six people in connection with the incident. They were released on bail on 31 August. We are in regular contact with the Gujarat authorities to make clear our concern that those accused are brought to trial.

I share the families' view that justice should be done. I know that they would welcome UK police assistance in the investigation. However, any police force willing to assist in an investigation in another country can do so only at the invitation of the host Government. We have offered UK police assistance on several occasions at the highest level, but no request for such assistance has been received from the Indian Government. I assure my hon. Friend that the offer is still open and will remain so.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised the case with the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Vajpayee, on 12 October and wrote to him on 4 November. He raised concerns about the case and reiterated our offer of police assistance. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my hon. Friend met the families of the victims of the tragic events on 21 May. My right hon. Friend raised the case with the Indian Government no fewer than four times last year, asking about the progress of the police investigations, offering police assistance and raising the issue of compensation. I also raised those issues with Foreign Secretary Sibal on 16 October last year.

The Indian Government agreed the principle of compensation, which is in the process of being paid. I understand that the issue of compensation is a sensitive and difficult one for the families. The amount offered is a relatively insignificant amount in this country and can in no way compensate for their terrible loss. Furthermore, the whereabouts of Sakil is still unknown. The family of Saeed and Sakil Dawood met the Foreign Office's consular directorate in January. The consular directorate, the high commission in New Delhi and the deputy high commission in Mumbai continue to have a strong interest in the case. They continue to pursue vigorously issues raised by the family and to help in any way that they can. Obviously, the longer that matters are drawn out, the more difficult any investigation becomes, but I reassure my hon. Friend that we remain alert to and will keep a close eye on any progress in the case and that we will continue to do all that we reasonably can to press the Indian authorities to ensure that they bring investigations to a conclusion, which we hope will result in justice for the families of the victims.

The backdrop to the tragic events was the violence that engulfed Gujarat between February and April 2002. It was the worst outbreak of religious-related violence that has occurred in India for at least 10 years. Muslims were the main victims. The deplorable attack by a Muslim mob on a train at Godhra on 27 February, in which 58 Hindus were killed, sparked horrendous violence for the next two months. According to official figures, the ensuing violence claimed more than 1,000 lives, including the three British citizens. Many reports suggest that the true figure is higher. Many women were raped. The large majority of victims were Muslim, and their businesses and homes were destroyed.

The Government of India have publicly condemned the violence, as my hon. Friend has said; Prime Minister Vajpayee called it a "blot on India". However, we are concerned at reports that the state Government of Gujarat did not do as much as they could to prevent and end the violence. We think that they could have acted more quickly and more decisively. The National Human Rights Commission in India has accused the Gujarat Government of a complicity that was tacit if not explicit". Nevertheless, we welcome the Indian Government's quick response in October to prevent further violence after the terrorist attack on a Hindu temple in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) referred to the circumstances surrounding that and to the implications for his constituent. Obviously, we share his concern about that event.

We remain very concerned about the welfare of many in Gujarat, especially Muslims and Christians. The Government of India have given us assurances, which we welcome, that they will take action to bring to justice the perpetrators of the violence. Some 23,277 people have been arrested in connection with the violence so far, but we understand that, to date, there have been very few prosecutions and that many of those arrested have been released on bail.

Ministers and officials have raised our concerns with the Government of India on a number of occasions since the violence began in February last year. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been in regular contact with senior members of the Indian Government about the situation in Gujarat. At the same time, he raised our wider concerns about all incidents of religious intolerance in India.

Most recently, on 17 October, I discussed our concerns about Gujarat with Mr I.D. Swami, the Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs. New Delhi high commission officials have followed developments closely, and also raised our concerns with the Government of India on several occasions last year. We have also offered practical help. The British Government provided immediate relief assistance to victims of the violence. We are now considering whether there are further practical measures that we can support under the human rights project fund to encourage reconciliation between the communities in Gujarat.

For all the justifiable concern that these incidents have caused, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that there remain grounds for hope. The violence in Gujarat, awful as it was, did not spread to other Indian states. The vast majority of people in India were appalled by what happened there last year. The Government of India are always ready to listen to our concerns and consistently reiterate their commitment to religious equality, and we welcome that. Nevertheless, more and swifter action on the ground and in the courts to bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice would send a welcome signal that the Government's commitment is being translated from words into meaningful action. We shall continue to urge them to ensure that such a positive signal is sent. We will also continue to press them and the Gujarat authorities to bring those responsible for the murder of British nationals to justice.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, particularly when he is about to conclude.

I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that over the many years of the appalling so-called troubles in Northern Ireland we lost a lot of people through sectarian violence. In fact, they disappeared without trace and no one has served any time at all or been convicted of their murder. In Northern Ireland, therefore, there is speculation and talk about a truth commission. Has the Minister, or human rights organisations in Gujarat and India, given any consideration to the need for a truth commission in Gujarat to address the problem of people who have disappeared and others who have been killed? Without such a commission, we may never get to the bottom of who was responsible.

Mr. O'Brien

On the particular issue of whether there has been any consideration of a truth commission in Gujarat, I am afraid that I do not know, but I will find out and write to the hon. Lady—[Interruption.] I am getting signals from my hon. Friends the Members for Brent, North and for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar), who obviously have a deep personal knowledge of Gujarat, that they are not aware that any such consideration has been made, but I shall certainly write to the hon. Lady about that.

In conclusion, as far as we are concerned, the death of any British national is a matter of enormous concern for the Government. However, the particularly horrific circumstances in which those British nationals died is of deep concern to all of us, and the matter has been taken up with considerable personal interest not only by the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister but by the British High Commission. We all hoped that India had put such matters behind it. India is a democracy that has made enormous strides in the past 50 years, and these blots on India, as the Prime Minister said, must be dealt with firmly to ensure that they do not arise in future. Our direct involvement as a result of some of the victims of those incidents being British means that this is a matter

of concern not just to Indians but to the British people and the British Government. It is a matter that all right—thinking people across the world ought to be concerned about. India is a great democracy—it needs to be true to the standards of democracy, and will be held to account as a democracy, which means dealing firmly with any religious intolerance and certainly any religious murders.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Seven o'clock.