Pakistan and Kashmir

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 25th July 1991.

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Photo of Mr John Wheeler Mr John Wheeler , Westminster North 2:30 pm, 25th July 1991

I am glad to have the opportunity to introduce this debate and I am especially pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Mr. Lennox-Boyd), is to reply. I am also glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) is in his place this afternoon, for he is not only a distinguished vice-chairman of the British Pakistan Group in the House but a long-term friend of Pakistan and the south Asian sub-continent.

I was inspired to seek this debate following the speech by the Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan at the 39th annual dinner of the Pakistan Society held on 20 June. The Chairman of the Senate took the opportunity to touch on the progress of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan and to raise the Kashmir question.

In the 44 years since the establishment of Pakistan as an independent country, there have been only 21 years of genuine civilian government. The murder of President Zia in 1988 set in train the return of a civilian Government. President Zia had always made the commitment that democratic elections should take place, but I pay a very warm tribute to the President of Pakistan for his courageous stewardship of his country's affairs since 1988. Without the wise statesmanship of President Ishaq Khan, I doubt whether Pakistan would have made the continuing progress with parliamentary democracy.

I had the pleasure of meeting President Khan in the week before he exercised his constitutional powers to dissolve the National Assembly, when he took the view that circumstances had arisen in which the government of Pakistan could not be carried out in accordance with the provisions of the constitution and that the electorate should be invited to decide which of the competing political parties should form the future Government of the country.

The election that followed the dissolution of the National Assembly was regarded by the majority who observed the process as lively and vigorous. For example, The Guardian of 31 October 1990 reported from Islamabad that three international reports gave Pakistan a clean bill of health. Perhaps more importantly, in view of the relationship that Pakistan has with the United States, the same newspaper reported: The Washington-based National Democratic Institute has already declared that the elections were generally free and fair". The polls saw a landslide victory for the Islamic Democratic Alliance, and Mr. Nawaz Sharif became Prime Minister. We in the House warmly congratulate Pakistan on its continued commitment to democratic parliamentary institutions and wish them every continued success. We also warmly welcome Pakistan back into membership of the Commonwealth.

The new Prime Minister and Government found themselves having to deal with the consequences of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Notwithstanding the fact that popular sentiment at street level was in favour of Saddam Hussein, the Government of Pakistan courageously sided with the United Nations and condemned the invasion of the independent state of Kuwait. Pakistan remained true to that principle throughout what was inevitably a difficult period for a Muslim state. I am sure that I echo the opinion of many in the House when I say that it was an act of very real courage and statesmanship to stay the course and support the United Nations and its coalition.

Pakistan sent troops to Saudi Arabia for defensive purposes and the United Kingdom recognised the impact of the Gulf crisis on the Pakistan economy, which was damaged by price increases, disruptions in the oil supply and the loss of remittances of workers in Iraq and Kuwait. The United Kingdom played its part in helping Pakistan through the International Monetary Fund's enhanced structural adjustment facility, of which the United Kingdom is the largest contributor to the interest subsidy account. I hope that Pakistan was able to take advantage of that facility.

Since coming to office, Nawaz Sharif has moved with remarkable speed and given a high priority to economic growth and productivity. He is putting into place a vast programme to privatise inefficient state-owned businesses and recognises that the wider welfare programmes can be paid for only by a thriving economy. The Government of Pakistan have brought forth fresh initiatives for investment and exports, with an important relaxation of foreign exchange controls to encourage inward investment. We in the House warmly welcome those developments, especially as the United Kingdom is the largest foreign investor in Pakistan and our overseas aid programme is the third largest in Asia.

I am especially glad that Prime Minister Sharif's Government have decided to work for a thriving free-enterprise economy, because that offers the best prospect of improving the well-being of all the people and will provide a real bridge between Pakistan and India. A successful free economy will do more to solve Indo-Pakistani differences than anything else, and therein lies the longer-term solution to the Kashmir question to which I shall refer later. People who have financial success and something to lose in the event of war are more likely to strive for peace and good will. Real and imagined differences begin to fade when people succeed and the quality of life improves for all. Nawaz Sharif has a vision for the economic future of his country; I hope that he succeeds and I wish him well for all the reasons that I have given.

There are three other issues on which I would like to touch briefly. The first relates to the Shariat Bill. It is not generally understood in the United Kingdom that that Bill is not about what the western press beguilingly labels fundamentalism, but is aimed at making Pakistan a modern, progressive, democratic, Islamic state. Pakistan hopes that the Bill will assist in the elimination of corruption as well as providing fairness and justice for all. Importantly, the Bill does not affect the personal lives, religious freedom, traditions, customs and ways of life of non-Muslims. Minorities will continue to enjoy the full freedom to lead their lives in accordance with their own beliefs.

The second issue, which provides a very firm bond between the United Kingdom and Pakistan, concerns the control of drugs. I know from my visits to Pakistan that the issue of drug addiction is very serious, because Pakistan and its people are as much victims of narcotics as people living in the United Kingdom. I am glad that an increasing level of co-operation exists between the United Kingdom and Pakistan over the collection and use of intelligence information and in other ways. Last year, the former chief inspector of constabulary visited Pakistan to assist the special commission set up to review the future of the police.

I know from my own work that a close relationship is developing between our two countries to assist with the control of narcotics and the problem of lawlessness. The level of heroin addiction is of very great concern, and I hope the United Kingdom will do all that it can to assist Pakistan. I particularly hope that the Foreign Office will be able to provide a bursary to enable senior officers from the Pakistan police to attend the overseas the police staff college. These experiences and links are one of the many ways of assisting a democratic police force in its awesome fight against the drug traders.

I now come to my final point, and it inevitably relates to Kashmir. In his speech to the Pakistan Society, the Chairman of the Senate made it clear that the Government of Pakistan wish to have friendly relations with India. He reminded his audience that there is much in common between the two countries in terms of history, and social and economic conditions. I warmly welcome the fact that both countries wish to resolve the problem of Kashmir through peaceful means, but I would like briefly to outline the history of the Kashmir question.

On 23 March 1940, the Muslim League in session at Lahore passed a resolution demanding in plain terms the partition of India and the formation of independent states in the north-western and eastern parts of India in which Muslims were in a majority. The term Pakistan was used to describe those parts of what was then India to be included in an independent state, and the K of Pakistan referred to Kashmir. The British scramble out of India in 1947 unfortunately left Kashmir as an open question. The then ruling Prince was a Hindu and eventually decided on Kashmir forming part of what was the then dominion of India, whereas the majority of the inhabitants who are Muslim clearly thought that they should be part of the new dominion of Pakistan.

Britain voted in favour of all the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir in 1948 and 1949. Those resolutions remain on the table. Sadly, Pakistan and India have been to war twice over the issue of Kashmir. In the Simla peace agreement of 1972, they agreed to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations, or by any other peaceful means agreed on between them", and the United Kingdom regards the issue as one to be settled by bilateral discussions.

Of course, the House most earnestly wishes that that should be so, yet the fact of the matter is that a substantial part of the Muslim population in Indian-held Kashmir is in rebellion against Indian rule. That has inevitably resulted in Indian police and military forces having to deal with the consequences of determined opposition. I have seen with my own eyes the results of this dispute in the hideous injuries suffered by men, women and children who have been caught up in the conflict, and huge armies stand in readiness on either side of the line of control.

In common with many Members of the House, I believe that we have to do our utmost to encourage our friends in these two democratic Commonwealth countries to find a lasting solution to the Kashmir question. That solution must be to follow the principle that the people of Jammu and Kashmir must decide in some form of agreed test of opinion whether Kashmir should be part of Pakistan or India. That test of opinion will be difficult to arrange. Will it be the opinion of the people in Indian-held Kashmir alone or in Pakistan Kashmir; or will Pakistan Kashmir be exempt from such a test; or will it be the opinion of the people in the whole of what is called Jammu and Kashmir?

Some people irresponsibly suggest that there is a second option of an independent state of Kashmir. Such a proposition is unacceptable to either India or Pakistan and does not accord with the United Nation's resolutions. Nor does it have any credible basis in the recent history of the region. I would not welcome the further fragmentation of the south Asian sub-continent; one need only look at the miserable position of Bangladesh to see the failure that has come from the break-up of former British India. What cannot be allowed to continue is the violation of human rights and the suppression of the right of people to determine their future.

There are many human rights activists in Delhi who share the concern of those of us who worry about events in Kashmir. The incidents which give rise to human rights concerns are a consequence of civil conflict. It has always been so throughout history—even in the days of British rule—that people who seek political change suffer, especially the innocent. I do not want to be suborned into the negative argument as to which alleged atrocity is true. Some incidents will be true, others partially so, and some the concoction of those fighting for their interests. What matters is a lasting solution to the problem and I would rather concentrate on that aspect of the matter and what the leaders of Pakistan and India can do to achieve it.

Those of us who desire to see India and Pakistan develop their economies for the greater benefit of their people firmly believe that every encouragement must be given to the solution of the Kashmir question. As long as the problem remains, the threat of conflict hangs over the sub-continent. I believe that the United Kingdom must shoulder part of the burden of finding a lasting solution. Our unseemly scramble from our responsibilities as the paramount power in 1947 left behind an unwanted legacy. We, too, must show greater concern for this issue and assist our friends in Islamabad and Delhi towards a lasting solution. I hope that United Kingdom policy will be directed towards this effort. We cannot sit on the fence and ignore a growing and serious situation.