Talking Kashmir

30 September 2014
The News

London: There are 1.1 million people of Pakistani heritage in the UK, most of whom originally come from Kashmir. And there are similar numbers of Brits with an Indian heritage background. Given those numbers, and the strong passions associated with the Kashmir dispute, you might think that Kashmir would be an important subject in British politics. After all, it's difficult to think of another foreign policy issue about which so many Brits feel so passionately. Strange then that the issue is barely ever mentioned. When asked about Kashmir many British civil servants and politicians (like most of their American counterparts) habitually make lame jokes about how complicated the issue is and how impossible it will be to find a solution. It's an appalling attitude to strike in the face of the suffering on both sides of the line of control. It is impossible to imagine anyone being so cavalier and casually dismissive of the Middle East dispute or the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. For decades now those who have tried to raise the Kashmir issue have been stonewalled by British officials who trot out a standard, formulaic response echoing the Indian line: the Simla Accord, they repeatedly say, means that both India and Pakistan agreed that the Kashmir dispute was a bilateral matter; consequently there is no role for outside powers to act as mediators. Of course, the Simla Accord is a relevant reality. But British officials somehow forget to mention Pakistan's talking point: that India's failure to honour its solemn commitment to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir is another relevant reality. The failure to engage with the Kashmir issue was challenged in the UK early this month when a member of parliament with a significant Kashmiri heritage vote bank in his Bradford East constituency, David Ward, secured a three-hour parliamentary debate on the issue. That it was the first time the UK parliament had formally debated Kashmir since 1999 tells its own story. Perhaps the long interval since the last debate explains why the speeches were so poor. Despite the habit of many members of parliament to lavish unctuous praise on each other's orations, the speeches in fact revealed that most MPs have not only a shallow understanding of the Kashmir dispute but also an inability to rise above the temptation to pander to local activists in their constituencies - whether they be Indian or Pakistani heritage voters. Most of those with Pakistani heritage constituents made the usual, well-worn arguments. India should be held accountable for human right abuses; the Indian military presence means free elections cannot be held and the Kashmiri people should have the right to self-determination. None of them even mentioned the role of the Pakistani state in supporting the movement of non-Kashmiri militants across the Line of Control. As for those MPs who align themselves with India, two stood out. The British parliament frequently discusses Russia, Iraq and Israel but, for some, Kashmir is meant to be different. In his eagerness to support the BJP view that even talking about the issue was 'a brazen interference in the internal affairs of India', the conservative Gregory Barker embraced vocabulary normally associated with the left: 'I have to say, that I find the assumption - presumption, rather - that we somehow have a role to play slightly offensive. It smacks of neo-imperialism, it is arrogant and we should respect the extraordinary achievements of India since 1947.' Barker was only outdone by another Conservative, Bob Blackman, who went further even than many hard-line Indian nationalists: '1 have a solution to the problem, which is that the Pakistani forces illegally occupying part of Kashmir should leave and unite Jammu and Kashmir as one state under the auspices of India, and then it should be decided what is to happen.' For obvious reasons trying to conduct opinion polls in Kashmir is a hazardous exercise. Nonetheless such surveys as have been attempted are consistent with the anecdotal evidence gathered by reporters such as myself who have been to both sides of the line of control. For all the propaganda pumped out by Delhi and Islamabad and transmitted to British MPs by the somewhat out-of-touch diaspora elements in their constituencies and by the Pakistani and Indian high commissions in London, the truth is that, given a choice, most Kashmiris would vote for independence. So who in the British parliament reflected that point of view? Just one speaker. David Ward, the MP who had campaigned for and secured the parliamentary time for the debate, cited polling data that fewer than one percent on both sides of the line want the status quo and that 40 percent on both sides want independence (although, as he said, proponents of that view are geographically unevenly distributed on the Indian side of the line). 'There is no evidence', he added, 'that the proposition to join India or Pakistan would come close to obtaining more than a quarter of the total vote.' So credit to Mr Ward for both discussing a neglected international security issue of clear interest to many in the UK and for getting beyond the entrenched positions of Pakistan and India. But Mr Ward was the exception rather than the rule. As the recent decision to resume the bombing of Iraq demonstrates, Britain still likes to think of itself as a global player. But as the debate on Kashmir revealed, most MPs in fact look inward. They have little hunger to understand the world but a great appetite to get re-elected. The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC's Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.