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
Getty
Show Hide image

Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.