India’s Modi in Human Rights Squabble as Commonwealth Summit Nears

When Narendra Modi flew into London on a three-day visit on April 17, having left behind a growing row in India about his failure to react effectively over horrifying rapes, he will have found that his host, Prime Minister Theresa May, in an sharply-contrasting and uncharacteristically penitent mood over human rights.

It is unlikely that Modi will learn anything from the way that May has apologized for the treatment in the UK of Commonwealth people from the Caribbean in recent years. The apology, along with one over gay rights, was a forced last-minute attempt to save an explosive issue upsetting carefully structured plans drawn up by the British government, and by Queen Elizabeth’s family and advisers, for the two-day, 53-country Commonwealth summit that begins on April 19.

Theresa May at her meeting with Caribbean leaders

Nor will he be affected by the street demonstrations against him and his government that will be staged today (April 18) when he has a 10-hour bilateral visit as May’s guest and meets the Queen.

Indeed, Modi probably won’t see the demonstrations – over issues ranging from Kashmir to human rights – that will be kept well back from the two prime ministers, as they were when he last visited London in November 2015.

But stories of him failing to take action over rapes and a killing by regional politicians belonging to his Bharatiya Janata Party do not project the image he needs as he tries to boost his and India’s role in the Commonwealth, where common values and the rights of individuals have been stressed this week in seminars and forums during the run up to the summit.

Modi and his government have failed to respond effectively to the horrifying rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kashmir in January, in which BJP members were implicated. It took Modi till last week to speak about the plight of the girl, who was held and abused at a Hindu temple. BJP activists took part in a rally in support of the man arrested for the crime.

Modi has also said little about an alleged rape of a 16 year-old girl by a BJP assembly member in Uttar Pradesh. The girl tried to kill herself in front of UP’s BJP chief minister’s home after months of trying to get the police to act on her complaint.

Modi “loses his voice”

Noting that Modi frequently tweets and makes powerful public speeches, a sharp editorial in the New York Times says “he loses his voice when it comes to speaking out about the dangers faced by women and minorities who are frequent targets of the nationalist and communal forces that are part of the base of his Bharatiya Janata Party”.

May has not lost her voice this week and, though she is not accustomed to making big public apologies, she has made two. The first one was to a Caribbean delegation over the plight of Caribbean people who have lived in the UK for decades, and the second was over old colonial-era laws that criminalize same-sex relations.

The Caribbean issue threatened to disrupt the summit, known as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), after May (or her officials) refused to set up a meeting between her and a delegation of 12 leaders from Caribbean counties belonging to the Commonwealth to discuss immigration problems faced by what are known as Windrush-generation British residents.

The name comes from a ship, the MV Empire Windrush, which in 1948 brought to the UK the first of thousands of workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands in the then British Empire to help the UK with serious labor shortages. Many of the families of those entirely legal British residents now lack the formal documents to show their right to live in the UK. They have consequently been denied healthcare, pensions and jobs, have had hassle over visas and immigration procedures, and may risk deportation – for which many will now claim compensation.

The news of No 10 Downing Street’s clumsy callousness dominated the front pages of UK newspapers and caused a major row in the House of Commons two days ago where Amber Rudd, the home secretary, tried to stem the uproar. She apologized for the “appalling” actions of her department” that had “lost sight of individuals” and become “too concerned with policy.”

Critics blamed a “hostile environment” approach on immigration enforcement that was put in place rigidly by May when she was home secretary. She introduced seven immigration bills to parliament and made 45,000 changes to the immigration rules that included putting the residency status of some of the Windrush generation at risk and destroying their arrival landing cards.

On Tuesday, May met the Caribbean leaders (above) and said she wanted to “dispel any impression” that her government was “in some sense clamping down on Commonwealth citizens, particularly those from the Caribbean,” adding: “I want to apologize to you today. Because we are genuinely sorry for any anxiety that has been caused,” she said (click here for video).

Earlier in the day, at one of the pre-summit forum sessions, May had also expressed apologies, which sounded hollow given her hard-line record as home secretary on immigration controls. She then had to listen to a stern response from another speaker, Andrew Holness, the prime minister of Jamaica.

Holmes (above) was cheered by the audience of representatives from Commonwealth countries when, having welcomed May’s statement, he said: “As the case now stands and as history will show, citizens of the former colonies, particularly the West Indies, migrated to Great Britain, where they have significantly contributed to the building and enrichment of the country. Now these persons are not able to claim their place as citizens.”

May’s other apology, which drew her loud applause from the audience, was over gay rights. She said she deeply regretted Britain’s role in criminalizing same-sex relations in its former colonies (including India, though that was not mentioned). Such laws, often passed under British rule and still in effect, were “wrong then and wrong now.”

Her remarks were in response to a petition launched this week by campaigners calling for Britain to apologize for colonial-era laws that outlaw same-sex activity in 37 of the 53-member nations, some with the death penalty. As the UK’s prime minister, she said “I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced and the legacy of discrimination violence and even death that persists today.”

May, and the Queen’s royal family, must now be hoping that nothing else will disrupt the summit that is intended to transform the Commonwealth into a significant international organization with “values which are precious, hard won and durable,” as Baroness Scotland, the secretary general, put it.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.