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India and the UK: Tensions between values and interests

Article by Ivan Campbell

June 6, 2022

India and the UK: Tensions between values and interests

In March 2021, the UK launched ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’. At the heart of the Integrated Review was “a renewed commitment to the UK as a force for good in the world – defending openness, democracy and human rights”.[1] As the UK has subsequently embarked on a new foreign policy agenda, attention has turned to its efforts to forge new bilateral strategic partnerships – including how the UK will reconcile the values associated with being a ‘force for good’ with its trade, security and other interests –with a particular focus on how it will fulfil its commitment to defend openness, democracy and human rights overseas.


The Integrated Review also signalled an important geopolitical shift by the UK Government – the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ – towards South and East Asia, a region that accounts for 40% of global GDP and includes the world’s fastest growing economies. To quote: “The Indo-Pacific region matters to the UK: it is critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies”.[2] The Integrated Review several times cites India as a key partner in its ambitions, and the UK Government regards its relationship with India as the cornerstone of the Indo-Pacific tilt, so this is foremost among the new bilateral partnerships the UK would like to establish.


India is the world’s most populous democracy, and was founded on the principles of secularism and pluralism. However, the quality of India’s liberal democratic credentials has been increasingly questioned over recent years, for example in the V-Dem Democracy Report 2021.[3] Since the BJP Government came to power in 2014, its policies have been criticised by both Indian and international observers for eroding democratic norms. The rise of Hindu nationalism can be seen as part of a broader phenomenon of authoritarian populism, characterised by democratic backsliding and retreat from the rule of law and protection of minorities.

The UK-India relationship thus presents an early test case of the UK’s new role in a changing world, and particularly how it can be ‘a force for good’ as set out in the Integrated Review, while pursuing its strategic interests in respect of trade and security. To help address this challenge, the Foreign Policy Centre and Aston University co-hosted a webinar for leading Indian academics and civil society leaders, as well as international researchers, to share their perspectives on the state of openness, democracy and human rights in India today, as well as to consider the implications for UK policy.


In order to understand how these values play out in the Indian context, the speakers considered three core indicators of democratic health: civil society space, the status of women, and the protection of religious minorities. The panel then reflected on how the current UK Government approaches its relations with India, what considerations – whether of values or interests – predominate, and how the relationship might be recalibrated so that ‘Global Britain’ lives up to its aspiration of being a ‘force for good’.


The event was scheduled to coincide with the April 21-22 visit of UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to India to meet with his counterpart, Narendra Modi, where they were due to discuss defence, diplomacy and trade, with the UK Government keen to progress a bilateral trade deal. Despite the stated focus of Johnson’s visit, it took place against a backdrop of inter-religious violence in India’s capital and the demolition of Muslim-owned buildings, so it was hard to ignore the salience of values.


What then is the current state of openness, democracy and human rights – the values the UK commits to defending – in India? One speaker described a context where space for civil society has been drastically curtailed in recent years. This stems from the BJP Government’s view of India’s traditionally independent, vibrant and multi-faceted civil society as a threat to its authority. Indeed, in the context of marginalised opposition parties and a hollowed out parliament, it was argued that India’s civil society represents a greater ideological challenge to the BJP’s power than the formal political opposition.


The speaker described how the Indian Government’s response is reflected in an evolving narrative about the harmful role of civil society. When Prime Minister Modi first came to power in 2014, civil society was characterised as anti-growth and anti-development; and the stigmatisation of civil society has only increased since, with the Government now referring to it as anti-India and anti-national. In response, the Government has deployed an array of legislative tools to curtail the ability of NGOs to operate in India. A key tool was the 2020 Amendment to the ‘Foreign Contribution Regulation Act’ (FCRA), which restricted NGOs in a number of ways, including by permitting them to continue with service-delivery activities, but effectively prohibiting NGO research, advocacy and campaigning. This has had a huge impact on human rights work by Indian civil society, for instance protecting the rights of Dalits, as well as on environmental campaigning.


The Amendment to the FCRA also treats all funding from foreign sources for Indian NGOs as a potential threat to national security, leading to a massive reduction in support for Indian civil society from overseas. The effect of cutting off international funding, combined with the adverse effects of the COVID pandemic, has been in the words of one speaker a ‘body-blow’ for frontline Indian civil society, forcing many smaller Indian NGOs to close down. International NGOs in India have also been seriously affected, with long-standing civil society donor the Ford Foundation suspended, Greenpeace shut down, and Amnesty International charged with money-laundering.


The speaker explained how the FCRA Amendment is part of a larger story of a systematic assault on civil society leaders and organisations. Other regulatory restrictions imposed by the Government include serving income tax notices on civil society leaders, while there has also been a growing number of cases of NGO leaders – as well as Opposition MPs and journalists – being arrested or otherwise persecuted in recent years. All of these government measures and actions have had a chilling effect on NGOs, and have vastly reduced the space for civil society to operate in India.


In apparent contrast, another speaker described how the BJP Government has played up its efforts to improve the status of women in India. It has highlighted its commitment to women’s empowerment, and Prime Minister Modi has put his personal imprint on public schemes intended to benefit women and girls, such as the Pink Toilets campaign. This has contributed to considerable electoral benefits for the ruling party, with a higher turn-out of women than men in state-level elections, and a big swing in voting towards the BJP. However, this has not yet translated into increased women’s political participation at any but the lowest level of government, with India’s parliament comprising 14% women and only 9% in State Assemblies. Such low levels of women’s political participation were attributed by the speaker to a benefits-based rather than rights-based view of women’s status, and to the gatekeepers of India’s political parties preventing women from entering politics. These barriers to women’s political empowerment account for India’s fall towards the bottom of the global gender gap index.[4]


Women in India are also experiencing a decline in economic participation and opportunity due to the BJP Government’s roll-back of social welfare infrastructure. This is evidenced by a significant decrease in women’s employment in paid economic activity (down to 18% compared to 57% for men), while women spend four times as much of time as men working on unpaid domestic chores. All of this has contributed to a decrease in women’s economic assets and greater vulnerability. Meanwhile, continuing violence against women and girls is another factor behind women’s low status in India. Although a number of new laws have been introduced ostensibly to protect women – such as the Child Marriage and Anti-Trafficking Bills – the system for implementing these laws ascribes all power to the authorities and limits women’s right to choose. As Indian women’s groups have complained, these laws give license for police intrusion into women’s lives.


In contrast to these aspects of a decline in women’s status in India, the speaker pointed to an increase in women’s participation in local ‘self-governance’, such as on Village Councils, where approximately a million women take part. Despite suffering frequent verbal and physical attacks for their participation, these forums have enabled Indian women, especially those from lower castes, to increase access to social resources. Moreover, Indian women’s growing participation in street-level politics – e.g. public rallies and demonstrations – was cited as another example of their political empowerment. This could be seen in the 2020-21 Indian farmers protests – where women were centrally involved and affirmed their status as economic as well as political actors – and in the 2019-20 Shaheen Bagh protest in Delhi, when mainly Muslim women demonstrated against the Citizenship Amendment Act and called for India’s Constitution to be protected.


A third and critical dimension of democratic back-sliding in India relates to the protection of religious minorities, and especially of India’s almost 200 million Muslim citizens, who account for 14% of the country’s population. One speaker described how there has been an increase in religious polarisation under the Hindu nationalist BJP Government, leading to frequent violent clashes, especially between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities. As noted above, Prime Minister Johnson’s visit took place against the backdrop of communal violence in the capital, New Delhi, and other Indian cities, which was followed by local authorities demolishing mainly Muslim-owned buildings for alleged encroachment on roads.


This is just the latest eruption of Hindu-Muslim violence in India, and needs to be seen in the context of a raft of legislative measures by the BJP Government, which many feel are designed to marginalise Muslim communities. Most notable among these is the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which offers amnesty to illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and provides them with Indian citizenship, as long as they are not Muslims. Opponents of the CAA claim it is exclusionary and effectively enshrines religious discrimination into law. This violates the secular principles enshrined in India’s constitution, as well as the BJP’s commitment to freedom of religion in their 2014 manifesto.


Other legislative measures perceived to marginalise or persecute India’s Muslim communities include the 2017 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, which bans the sale and purchase of cattle. This Act’s most serious consequences were for Muslims who are engaged in meat production across India and also in the country’s sizeable beef, dairy and leather industries. The Amendment has emboldened Hindu vigilantes to harass and attack those who trade in or consume beef.


The speaker also cited the tacit support of some government authorities for the practice of Ghar Wapsi, a campaign of conversion to Hinduism from Islam and other religions, promoted by Hindu nationalist organisations. A counterpart is the baseless rhetoric about the threat of the ‘Love Jihad’, which claims that Muslim men are seducing Hindu girls to convert them to Islam. Meanwhile, in 2019, India’s Parliament approved a bill to make the Muslim practice of ‘instant divorce’ a criminal offence. “Triple talaq”, as it is known, allows a husband to divorce his wife by repeating the word “talaq” (divorce) three times. Opinion in India is divided over whether triple talaq discriminates against women or makes it easier for them to escape abusive marriages. However, it has been seen by some as a further attack on Muslim identity and culture.


The speaker explained how the cumulative effect of these legislative measures has been to embolden Hindu nationalists and to make India’s Muslims and other religious minorities, such as Christians, feel unprotected by the rule of law and therefore more vulnerable. It has led to an increase in hate speech against Muslims and other minority religions, as well as a growing number of physical attacks. Furthermore, many Indian analysts consider the Government to be complicit in the growing atmosphere of intolerance, hate and violence against Muslims. Certainly the marked deterioration in civil liberties for India’s religious minorities under the BJP Government undermines the values of secularism and pluralism on which the Indian state was founded.


The speakers then turned their attention to the implications for UK foreign policy, and specifically for the Government’s current approach towards India. In May 2021, the UK and Indian governments launched a 10-year joint road-map, which characterised both countries as “vibrant democracies and leading economies… (with) shared history, values and culture”.[5] The roadmap includes the ambition to double UK trade with India by 2030, and to work together “to develop a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific Region”.


The roadmap reflects the UK’s priority concerns vis-à-vis India. Given projected post-Brexit reductions in UK GDP, the Government is championing India as one of the main alternative trading opportunities. A swift Free Trade Agreement would be seen to vindicate the Government’s strategy for ‘Global Britain’. Meanwhile, the UK regards China as a ‘systemic competitor’, with the Indo-Pacific as the main theatre of competition. In this geopolitical context, India is regarded as the critical player in countering China’s rise, both in economic terms and as a democratic partner. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sharpened this framing of the liberal democratic bloc battling against the world’s autocracies – and India is seen as a key ‘swing state’.


Given the decline of liberal democratic values in India, how can the UK reconcile its stated commitment to defend openness, democracy and human rights with its ambition to forge a strategic partnership that will advance trade and security interests? The approach taken thus far by the current government is reportedly one of quiet diplomacy. In response to questions in the UK Parliament about human rights abuses in India or anti-Muslim violence, Ministers have given assurances that concerns have been raised in private by UK officials with their Indian counterparts. To quote one such response: “We engage with India on a range of human rights matters, working with Union and State Governments, and with NGOs, to build capacity and share expertise to promote human rights for all”.[6]


However, the private raising of concerns by UK officials has as its counterpart the public recognition and celebration of India’s democratic credentials. These are regularly invoked by the UK Government in bilateral encounters; for instance, ahead of his recent visit to India, Prime Minister Johnson remarked that: “The world faces growing threats from autocratic states which seek to undermine democracy, choke off free and fair trade and trample on sovereignty. The UK’s partnership with India is a beacon in these stormy seas”. Similarly, the UK has conferred elevated status on India in multilateral settings, with for example Prime Minister Modi invited to be lead speaker on the topic of Open Societies when the UK hosted the G7 last year.


The UK’s approach to India on human rights issues thus seems to be premised on the hope that India will live up to the values attributed to it – a tactic of “admonition disguised as praise”, as an Indian journalist described it. However, the mounting evidence of a deterioration of human rights, openness and democracy in India suggests that the UK’s approach is having little discernible effect. Indeed the speaker argued that the UK’s repeated public affirmations of India’s democratic credentials are actually helping to whitewash disturbing trends in India’s values, and thus contributing to a permissive space for democratic decline.


As noted above, the Indian Government’s clamp-down on civil space has been effective in stifling civil society organisations. The combination of new regulations, use of enforcement agencies and direct threats has led to a restrictive environment and understandable caution among organised civil society in India. However, one speaker made the point that Modi’s policies have also had the effect of mobilising swathes of Indian society that had not previously engaged in civil activism – be that the farmer’s protests or Shaheen Bagh rallies. This unorganised civil society is a growing force within India, and underscores the resilience of the struggle for social justice.


The role of Indian civil society in pushing back against the erosion of democratic values by the Government is all the more important given the absence of formal political opposition. Speakers described how the Hindu nationalism of the BJP is the dominant ideology, with the Congress party failing either to provide constructive criticism of BJP policies or to offer a meaningful alternative vision that Indians can relate to. Meanwhile, power has become so concentrated that State-level governments and Assemblies have been unable to provide an effective challenge or check to the national government.


As for the Indian Government’s stance vis-à-vis the UK, it is well aware of its leverage as a swing state in the new world order. Therefore public condemnation of its values by Western states risks pushing it into the arms of global competitors. However, the Indian Government would likely have been encouraged to see the Indo-Pacific tilt in the Integrated Review – a significant geopolitical realignment given that not so long ago the UK Chancellor declared a “golden era” of UK-China relations and aspired for the UK to become Beijing’s “best partner in the West”.


How should or can the UK Government reconcile, or at least balance, its interests and stated values in relation to India? The Integrated Review does acknowledge that this may not be straightforward, recognising that “we will need to manage inevitable tensions and trade-offs: between… our short-term commercial interests and our values”.[7] However, the consensus among the speakers was that the UK Government’s current policy towards India does not indicate any real tension between values and interests. Whatever efforts the UK Government may make in private to defend openness, democracy and human rights in India, these are vastly over-shadowed by its pursuit of economic and security objectives – especially with securing a Free Trade Agreement seen as the panacea to the economic harms consequent on Brexit.


What alternative foreign policy approaches might the UK adopt in relation to India? Outright public criticism of India’s democratic values was cautioned against as this would likely be weaponised as a rallying point by the BJP Government’s support-base, as well as damaging the bilateral relationship – viz. the nationalistic push-back against the US Secretary of State’s recent criticisms. Ditching the UK rhetoric about defending openness, democracy and human rights in its policy towards India would be a more honest approach, and allow the UK Government simply to pursue its interests – although such a course of action was not advocated.


Making UK-India cooperation dependent on standards relating to democracy and human rights was mooted as a pragmatic and relatively discreet approach and it was noted that trade deals often include labour and human rights commitments. However, one-way conditionalities would rightly be rejected as an extension of British imperialism, so any such approach should be reciprocal, with both sides having to meet agreed benchmarks. This is all the more important as the UK itself is not immune from criticism about its own record on openness and democracy. A September 2021 report by the global alliance of civil society organisations, CIVICUS, named the UK as a country of concern on its global watchlist of nations where there is a significant decline in respect for civic space. It cited the UK as a country where civic space has narrowed, criticising recent reductions in the respect and protection, which the UK Government affords people’s rights to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express their views.[8]


This last point highlighted a concern expressed by all speakers that the tone adopted by the UK in its relations with India is critical. There is a strong post-colonial sensibility among Indians, and in the past UK politicians and others have often spoken about India in an imperialist tone, which only serves to reinforce this. Moreover, the war in Ukraine has fuelled anti-West sentiment among many Indians, who consider the West guilty of hypocrisy and double-standards when comparing its approach to Afghanistan. Thus, rather than the West pressuring India to take a stand against Russia, India should be encouraged to maintain its neutral position of non-alignment. This underlines the need for the UK to engage with India in a spirit of humility and to negotiate with it as two countries that share important values but that are also both confronting challenges in reconciling those values with their interests.


Against this back-drop, a question was posed about what role UK civil society organisations – including think-tanks and universities – might play to support those Indian actors that are defending openness, democracy and human rights in India. Speakers emphasised that such values must, and can only, be built by Indians themselves. And the process of re-imagining a normative framework for India will be a long and laborious one. Nevertheless, reports by international organisations that raise awareness of the decline of democratic values and human rights in India, such as one by a US think-tank sounding the alarm on violence against Muslims, are appreciated and useful for Indian civil society. Meanwhile, the speakers affirmed the value of international civil society initiatives, such as this event, that raise awareness of the threats to democratic values in India and the shrinking space for civil society, while highlighting the gulf between the UK’s foreign policy rhetoric and the reality.


Ivan Campbell is a peacebuilding consultant and psychotherapist in training. He has almost 30 years experience working on conflict, security and peacebuilding with Saferworld and International Alert, and is on the FPC’s Advisory Council.


Image by Number 10 under (CC).


[1] HM Government, Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, March 2021,, p.14

[2] Integrated Review, op. cit. p.66

[3] Nazifa Alizada et al., Autocratization Turns Viral, Democracy Report 2021, University of Gothenburg, V-Dem Institute, March 2021,

[4] World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2021, March 2021,

[5] FCDO and Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, Policy paper: 2030 Roadmap for India-UK future relations,, May 2021,

[6] UK Parliament, India: Religious Freedom and Violence, Question for FCDO, January 2022,

[7] Integrated Review, op. cit. p.17

[8] People power under attack 2021, Country rating changes, see:

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