Foreign Office minister Mark Field has said he will make representations to the Foreign Secretary, to suggest that he meets with Jagtar Singh’s MP and family.
The remarks came in a House of Commons debate brought by Jagtar Singh’s constituency MP Martin Docherty-Hughes yesterday, in which there was widespread concern that the Foreign Secretary had not yet met with either Jagtar Singh’s family or MP.
Asking for a meeting was at the heart of Docherty-Hughes’ speech, in which he spoke of several actions, and instances of inaction from the British government, which formed a ‘consistent narrative over the last year’ of ‘superficiality underpinned by an incoherent approach to consular support.’ Britain’s first turbaned Sikh MP, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, said that such a meeting was ‘the very least that the family deserves’, as the Commons heard that the Foreign Secretary had in fact already met with another MP (Eddie Hughes) regarding the case. Meanwhile, the Foreign Office minister maintained that Jagtar Singh’s case ‘has been a priority for the government at the highest levels.’
Jagtar Singh, described by his MP as ‘a true son of the rock [of Dumbarton]’ has been detained for over a year in India. In that time, he has risked severe consequences by telling British officials of his torture at the hands of the Indian authorities. Shortly after his arrest, the Chief Minister of Punjab boasted that the authorities had all the evidence against Jagtar Singh; over one year later not a single piece of evidence against him has been presented. Martin Docherty-Hughes called for Jagtar Singh to receive a fair, transparent trial based on due process or ‘if there are no witnesses, if there is no evidence, to be released.’
Despite starting much earlier than planned, the debate was well attended, with even the minister expressing the sentiment that it was far from ‘a standard half-an-hour, two-member adjournment debate.’ Taking advantage of the earlier start time, Martin Docherty-Hughes carefully presented a thorough timeline of Jagtar Singh’s abduction by plain-clothes police in Punjab to the House and read out his report of the subsequent torture which included electrocution of his private areas. He took numerous interventions, mainly from SNP colleagues who all raised concerns regarding not just Jagtar Singh’s torture but the government inaction thereafter.
Martin Docherty-Hughes was also scathing of the fact that the British Deputy High Commissioner in Chandigarh discussed Jagtar Singh’s case at public meetings in the UK before meeting his MP or his family. Docherty-Hughes asked: ‘How did it come about that I and my constituent’s family got the discuss the issue with the Deputy High Commissioner, who has visited my constituent (I have not had that luxury)? It was through the office of my honourable friend [Preet Kaur Gill].’ Using self-admittedly diplomatic language, Docherty-Hughes described that meeting as ‘fraught or even frosty,’ following from the intervention of Preet Kaur Gill, Chair of the APPG for British Sikhs, who said that it was unclear what representations the British High Commissioner in Chandigarh had made to Punjab’s Chief Minister when the two met.
Alison Thewliss, whose constituency of Glasgow Central contains the city’s three Gurdwaras said: ‘Jagtar’s case raises wider concerns for each of the members of those congregations [of Glasgow’s three Gurdwaras] when they go to travel to India, they may face similar threats and that there are real and genuine worries there for their own safety’ Martin Docherty-Hughes agreed, saying that he thought gurdwaras not just in Scotland but across the UK shared that concern. The minister acknowledged the interest of not just Jagtar Singh’s family, but the wider Sikh community, in his case.
Referencing the ‘extreme action’ remarks made by the then-Foreign minister Rory Stewart, Docherty-Hughes asked ‘that the minister today enlightens us as to what “extreme action” was and what their own investigations concluded.’ Mark Field replied: ‘While in all fairness, I probably would not have used the phrase “extreme action” – I don’t think “extreme” is something that many people would associate with me and my brand of politics – nonetheless allegations like this are taken extremely seriously.’ Regarding the allegations of torture, the minister said that ‘at this stage they [the Indian authorities]are refuting that they have happened,’ but said he would write to the MP for West Dunbartonshire with a response that he could guarantee would be accurate.
Jagtar Singh’s MP methodically raised specific points of concern about his constituent’s detention, not least the discouraging remarks from state authorities in Punjab, which he explicitly called out. He said: ‘Since nearly day one in this case, state authorities specifically in the Punjab have been quite open that they believe my constituent to be guilty. They have conducted a trial by media and they have made it quite clear that they expect him to be found guilty if a trial should ever take place. That clearly undermines the very principle of due process in the Republic of India and that really should concern us all.’
He also addressed concerning reports in the Indian media, notably a ‘set pattern of a series of seemingly well-informed leaks and briefings to Indian media regarding the case’ that had an ‘often sinister, if not sectarian, air.’ The minister said that while he was not alleging such activities had taken place, any such activities would not be an acceptable state of affairs.
Several MPs raised the recent case of Matthew Hedges, who has been pardoned by the government of the United Arab Emirates following swift and decisive intervention from the Foreign Secretary. When asked why it had taken so long in Jagtar’s case compared to Matthew Hedges’, Martin Docherty-Hughes replied: ‘If I had the answer to that we wouldn’t need to have this debate on the floor of this House today.’ The Foreign Office minister however was adamant that it would be ‘unfair to draw or make any implications about comparisons in particular cases,’ adding: ‘There is no suggestion that there is a preferential treatment because of any cultural or other difficulties that may apply.’ This did not address the specific point raised by Martin Docherty-Hughes who highlighted ‘the inconsistency of the narrative of other cases where the Foreign Secretary – both the present one and their predecessor – have unequivocally opened their doors to meet certain families of specific cases.’ The minister was keen to adopt a cautious tone, explaining: ‘For every win, as it were – of that description – there are many other cases where perhaps, as I say, under the radar we are working extremely hard for many, many months without quick and positive results.’
Furthermore, the debate explored the role of Martin Docherty-Hughes as a constituency MP. Members across the House were united in the belief that British politicians could not dictate to the Indian legal and judicial systems. Jagtar’s MP said: ‘My duty to my constituent is to highlight that serious charges have been laid and I must only hope they are tested in a manner consistent with the laws and practices of the Republic of India.’ He added that the pillars of the rule of law and of due process ‘are being sorely tested in Jagtar’s case.’ While the minister agreed that the laws and systems of other countries needed to be respected, he said: ‘We can intervene on behalf of British nationals where they are not treated in line with international accepted standards or if there are unreasonable delays or procedures.’ The minister did not respond to a question from Docherty-Hughes which cited the diplomatic implications of Brexit: ‘What type of trade will we have where we might sacrifice our own ability to defend democracy and its pillars for free trade?’
The Foreign Office minister also issued a formal apology to Jagtar Singh’s brother Gurpreet, saying he was ‘deeply apologetic’ for not responding to his Freedom of Information request in a timely manner. He closed the debate by saying: ‘The fact that we have this debate here today, I think, will make it very clear to the Indian authorities, to the new Indian High Commissioner here in London, that we are ready to continue to raise our concerns about his case at the highest levels and will continue to do so until there is a resolution of these matters.’ It remains to be seen whether that will include a meeting between Jagtar Singh’s brother, his MP, and the Foreign Secretary.