Opposition MPs raise concerns over human rights in India amid trade deal talks

Opposition MPs raised concerns over human rights in India after the Prime Minister said on a visit last week that the UK hopes to have a trade deal worked out with the country by October.

One Labour told the House of Commons that the UK would be “dancing on the human rights and civil liberties” of communities across India if it signed a free-trade deal with the country.

Labour MP Zarah Sultana (Coventry South) criticised the Prime Minister for visiting a JCB factory the day after reports its vehicles were used to “destroy and demolish Muslim homes and businesses in Delhi”.

She said visiting the factory was a “mistake”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves from a JCB at the new JCB Factory in Vadodara, Gujarat (Ben Stansall/PA) (PA Wire)

Labour MP Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham Perry Barr) told MPs: “India is a human rights abuser across all of its country: for the Sikh Community, for the Muslim community, for the Christian community and particularly more strongly for the Kashmiri community.

“When she talks about signing an agreement coming up to Diwali, they will be dancing on the human rights and civil liberties of all those people who have been persecuted in India, and will she accept that is not acceptable to us as a democracy?”

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, who kicked off the debate in the Commons by asking an urgent question, asked: “Given the many concerns about ongoing human rights violations in the country, what provisions will be made in any free trade deal to promote and protect our values?”

Mr Blackford also criticised Boris Johnson for not being present in the chamber to answer questions, saying he has “no respect for the office he occupies and even less respect” for the House of Commons.

“Following his visit last week the Prime Minister should have come to this House and given an update, he has once again failed to do so,” he said.

Foreign Office minister Vicky Ford said “We do not pursue trade at the exclusion of human rights.

“We regard both as an important part of a deep, mature and wide-ranging relationship with our partners.”

She said both countries wanted to conclude the “majority” of the talks on the “comprehensive and balanced” agreement “by the end of October”.

She said: “We condemn any instance of discrimination because of freedom of religion or belief.

“Protecting freedom of religion or belief is one of the absolutely top human rights priorities for this country.”

Jagtar Singh Johal (Family/PA) (PA Media)

Labour MP Apsana Begum described reports of Islamophobia in India, saying “leading public figures have openly called for Muslims to be killed”, and what she said was a court ruling banning school girls from hearing hijabs.

Ms Ford said: “It’s a shocking story that she tells.

“But we do engage with India on a range of human rights matters.”

She added: “Where we have concerns we raise them directly with the Government of India, including at ministerial level.”

Elsewhere in the debate, the minister said the Prime Minister did raise the case of Jagtar Singh Johal while on the trip.

Mr Johal of Dumbarton was arrested on November 4 2017 after travelling to the Punjab for his wedding, with local media linking his detention to the killing of Hindu leaders in the area.

SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes MP (West Dunbartonshire) asked “did the Prime Minister, not civil servants, not about a note, directly challenge the arbitrary detention of Jagtar Singh Johal who now faces a death penalty?”

Ms Ford said: “The Prime Minister did raise Mr Johal’s case.

“And he also handed over a note on consular cases.”

Elsewhere in the debate, Labour shadow international trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds asked the Commons: “Why would a UK Prime Minister waste such an opportunity to at least try and convince our Indian friends to join us in standing up to (Vladimir) Putin’s aggression?”

Ms Ford replied: “The British Prime Minister and prime minister (Narendra) Modi released a statement immediately after that meeting unequivocally condemning civilian deaths, reiterating the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities and for peaceful resolution of the conflict.

“He might like to take a look at that.”