Cameron’s ill-considered flattery

On his “jobs mission” to India, the Prime Minister unashamedly promotes British interests and ignore

As David Cameron rounds up his first visit to India as Prime Minister, quite a number of unwanted talking points have emerged, not least the lack of attention paid to India's chronic poverty. On this "jobs mission", he has unashamedly (and understandably) promoted Britain's interest in getting a piece of India's impressively fast-emerging market, fuelled by its expanding and confident middle classes.

Adrian Michaels points out in the Telegraph that Cameron's first foreign trips have been marked by a tendency to say just what his hosts want to hear. On this one, much has been made of his controversial comments about terrorism and the Pakistani state.

But here's another talking point: Cameron praised India for its "tradition of tolerance, with dozens of faiths and hundreds of languages living side by side -- a lesson to our world". Really?

On the face of it, he is quite right. In fact, he underestimated India's linguistic diversity: over 1,600 languages are spoken across the country. India certainly boasts a rich tapestry of religious traditions and faiths, from traditional tribal practices to what we call Hinduism, and from Buddhism to Jainism and Sikhism, all of which originated in India. Christianity arrived on India's shores in the 1st century, and Islam came in the 8th century. Baha'is, Jews and Zoroastrians further contribute to the country's remarkable religious diversity.

India also has a fine intellectual tradition of secularism. It is not the bland European model of laïcité, keeping religion out of public life altogether, but a more vital model of religious pluralism and official neutrality.

So, undoubtedly, Cameron is right on one level. But it is only part of the story, the rather banal repetition of a crude stereotype peddled in the 2005 EU-India Joint Action Plan, which describes India as a "paradigm . . . of how various religions can flourish in a plural, democratic and open society".

It takes only minor scratching at the surface to expose this myth of perpetual happy coexistence as a chronic oversimplification that distorts the truth.

India's remarkable range of beliefs is enmeshed with historical narratives of conquest, colonialism, nationalism, protest, peaceful proselytisation and acculturation. Today, tragically, communal violence against Indians of minority faiths is routinely stoked by powerful, ethno-religious supremacist groups. The RSS, the principal organ of the Hindu nationalist movement, claims to operate 50,000 shakhas, or daily local meetings of its members, and is a highly influential force in modern India. Such groups justify their anti-minority actions in the name of combating a supposed threat to the necessarily Hindu character of India.

Thousands of victims of communal violence would take grave exception to Cameron's stereotype. Take Asmith Digal, a lady of 27 with two young daughters. She was living in a crowded relief camp when she recounted the death of her husband, Rajesh.

Returning to his home in central Orissa in August 2008, he was accosted by a pair from the mobs marauding the area. He was asked to tear, to urinate on, and to burn his Bible. He refused. His assailants then beat him to within an inch of his life, dug a hole in a muddy riverbank and buried him alive. His death was one of over 70 in this rapacious slaughter of Christians, and local police failed even to register it.

In terms of a crude measure of lives lost, the tragedy of the Christians of Orissa pales against the 2,000 killed during the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 in Gujarat, or the Sikhs killed in Delhi in 1984.

One scholar criticises the tendency to write off such violence as "riots". Gyanendra Pandey argues that the term implies closure, as though the events are just one-offs. But they happen again and again. He prefers to speak of "routine violence", the construction and reinforcement of social norms which see "minorities" as "other". In these circumstances, some degree of official collusion is almost expected. Consider that India's judiciary has a backlog of at least 30 million cases: impunity is rampant, and nowhere is this worse than for victims of religiously motivated violence.

Communal violence is not perpetrated by the suave staff at Infosys where Cameron delivered his first speech. But, quite simply, theirs is not the only India, and it is a fallacy to pretend that it is.

Meanwhile, back in London, the minister of state responsible for human rights, Jeremy Browne MP, assured a parliamentary meeting on Tuesday that standing up for freedom, fairness and responsibility is at the heart of British foreign policy. He highlighted as one of four main priority areas "the right to equality and freedom from persecution regardless of religion, ethnicity or sexual preference".

Indeed, the third annual report of the Conservative Human Rights Commission, which Cameron launched in 2009, expressed grave concern about the communal violence against Christians in Orissa, making reference to "reports of gang-rape, mutilation and burning of people" and "forced conversions of Christians to Hinduism".

But it's the high-profile public statements that really matter. I, for one, hope that our promised "stronger, wider and deeper" relationship with India will not gloss over religious persecution and inequality in favour of a bland stereotype of India's religious pluralism being "a lesson to our world". Instead, we should engage in a critical friendship, one in which some level of honest mutual appraisal is welcomed. That may well be a naive hope, but it is what real democratic partnerships should surely be about.

David Griffiths is south Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

David Griffiths is an Advocacy Officer for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) - a human rights organisation which specialises in religious freedom in over 25 countries around the world
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.