It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
It would be completely wrong to start this debate without reference to the recent devastating floods in Kashmir. Much of the area either side of the line of control has been devastated. The press reports that are coming in on an hourly basis paint a grim picture. We hear of substantial loss of life on both sides of the line of control. The press reports I have received recently discuss the loss of life and the 1 million people who are deprived of basic services, but then refer quite hopefully to the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan offering at the weekend to help each other to deal with the disaster, which I am pleased to say temporarily diverted attention away from fighting along the border. Alas, that was not to be for long.
The latest we heard on Wednesday was that violence had again flared up on the line of control, with two dozen soldiers fighting militants even as flood rescue operations were under way elsewhere. Three militants were shot dead by Indian troops in Kashmir after a gun battle. Similarly, on the other side, we heard comments from a prominent Islamist in Pakistan who accused India of water terrorism. Can anyone believe that? He accused India of causing flooding across the border by discharging dam water downstream. In such a short space of time, we have seen the seriousness of the issue, as well as the despair that many, many people here and across the world must feel when they consider the conflict in Kashmir.
I want to give a little more detail. The latest information from the European Commission’s humanitarian office states that, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the flooding has caused 231 deaths—undoubtedly, there will have been more by now—injured 401 people and affected 580,000 people in 1,460 villages, with 5,400 houses partly damaged and 2,400 destroyed. In India, more than 200 people have been killed and 50,000 have been rescued with help from the Indian army. As I mentioned, more than 1 million people have been affected because the flooding has cut off basic services. In addition to the Minister’s response to today’s general debate on the long-standing conflict between India and Pakistan, will he comment on the Government response to the humanitarian crisis currently faced on both sides of the line of control?
I thank the hon. Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) for supporting my application for this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. My hon. Friend John Hemming could not support my application because he is a member of that Committee, but I know that he supports the debate. I also thank the Jammu Kashmir Self Determination Movement (Europe) for supporting the debate, for supporting me and for galvanising support throughout the country, by helping to get many thousands of signatures on the petition that demanded a parliamentary debate.
I have spoken to a lot of groups and organisations— I will refer to some of them later in my speech—but I found the contribution from the Kashmir Development Foundation to be of real help and value, particularly in terms of the importance of the Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri diasporas, both in this country and internationally, and the positive impact that they could have on the situation in Kashmir.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, my parliamentary neighbour, for giving way, and apologise to him and to you, Mr Hollobone, for the fact that I cannot stay for the whole debate because of other meetings. While the hon. Gentleman is giving his thanks, would he like to join me in thanking Raja Hussain for all the work he does to promote the Kashmiri cause in Bradford and around the country? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, at a time when we are allowing self-determination for people in Scotland and when people such as me want self-determination regarding our membership of the European Union, it is only right that people in Kashmir should have exactly the same opportunity for self-determination regarding their own future?
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s words about Raja Najabat Hussain. There are also many others who have stuck at this issue for a long time. I will focus on self-determination a little later.
This debate is long overdue. Thousands of parliamentary questions have been asked about Kashmir in the House of Commons, but I believe that the last time there was a comprehensive Kashmir-dedicated debate on the political and humanitarian situation in Kashmir was, believe it or not, in 1999, 15 years ago. The conflict in Kashmir was discussed in a debate in the main Chamber a few years ago in 2011—I believe that Steve Baker was behind that—but it was a shared debate.
Indeed; the Backbench Business Committee has proven to be extremely valuable because we can raise issues that may not seem to be vastly important but are none the less important to focus on for particular groups. I am reminded of Simon Danczuk, who secured an Adjournment debate on the Kashmiri involvement in the census. Without these debates, we would not have the opportunity to raise such issues. A three-hour debate on Kashmir is justified and, as we can see by the attendance, welcome.
The conflict in Kashmir is long-standing and complex. The former princely state is divided: approximately one third is Azad Kashmir, or AJK, and approximately two thirds is administered or controlled by India. Other parts include Gilgit-Baltistan, which is administered by Pakistan, and the Chinese-administered disputed regions of Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract. That much we know.
More than 24 years ago, I stood as a candidate in a parliamentary by-election in the seat I eventually managed to win. I asked my party for a briefing on Kashmir, and it was provided to me. I had already been a councillor in the area for six years. I knew of the issue, but I thought that I had better be on message, which shows how young and naive I was. The response that came back was safe and predictable. If asked on the doorstep or at a public meeting about the Kashmir issue, the safe things to talk about were the United Nations resolution, self-determination and the plebiscite, and I suspect that all candidates from all parties receive that briefing. I have probably attended more than 300 meetings on this subject—many of them largely the responsibility of Raja Najabat Hussain—in Bradford and here over the past 30 years, and the message has not changed much at all. Many Members will have attended meetings in their own areas where a succession of speakers turn up and say more or less the same thing to a round of applause. They are followed by another speaker, who is followed by another speaker, and then we go and have a meal.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that one of the difficulties with long-standing conflicts is that the temperature is raised by human rights abuses and that a focus on dealing with human rights abuse is not only good in itself, but assists in resolving the political problems in the long term?
I regard human rights abuses as being a constant cause of conflict. As I will mention later, we have had periods of calm and progress, but then something happens that freezes that good progress. Often, that is because of the abuse and violations that have taken place.
The prevailing view on this debate—certainly in India and, from what I have read in the press, in the Indian high commission in the UK—is that the debate is not welcome and the House of Commons should not be poking its nose into someone else’s business. The House of Commons briefing paper includes a quote from the state president of the Bharatiya Janata party referring to this debate as
“a brazen interference in the internal affairs of India” and
“that Jammu and Kashmir is a settled issue and cannot be reopened under any pretext whatever.”
It does not seem to be a settled issue to me.
I kindly received a message from Mr Balwinder Singh Dhillon, who wrote to me yesterday or the day before. He said:
“I am very concerned why our Members of Parliament are wasting their valuable time and resources to promote these key ring leaders of these terrorist organisations”.
I am not aware that I have done that. In fact, I know that I have not, but that shows something of the degree of emotion that surrounds this area.
A press release came out in the Asianlite newspaper, supported by the Indian high commission. It names the deputy high commissioner. It says that I have called this debate because—I have heard this one before—I have many Muslims in my constituency who have pressured me into doing so. I have to tell the Chamber that I am not very good at responding to pressure. It is offensive when people make such comments about me.
“Britain does not want to be a mediator between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.”
I accept that, and I do not think I have ever suggested that it does. There is a massive difference, however, between mediation and the offer of help, to which I will return. I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister making it categorically clear that he did not oppose the debate in itself and that we had a right to discuss whatever we want to discuss, although I will further justify that later.
I have no qualms about raising the issue of Kashmir in Parliament. We cannot escape the British legacy on the matter. We have a responsibility. We have not so much a right as an obligation to take an interest in Kashmir. We should not take a mild interest from a distance; we should offer help to resolve the conflict. I do not take the view that Britain is interfering. We are highlighting the importance of resolving the issue, not for one side or the other, but for all inhabitants of the region. Ultimately, given the propensity for terrorist acts to be undertaken anywhere in the world as a result of conflict in one part of the world, resolution is of interest to us as well.
Efforts to resolve the conflict have so far been unsuccessful. We have to be honest about that. India and Pakistan have always maintained that this is a matter for them alone, and that might be suggested today. We know about the Simla agreement and the Lahore declaration. We know that that is the line that has been taken, all the way from Sir Owen Dixon through to the improvements and progress made post-2003 right up to today, including the 15 boxes of mangoes that were sent recently as a gift from Pakistan to India. Perhaps we need more mangoes. We need positive moves, even if they might be regarded just as gestures.
We have had so many false starts on reaching agreement, which have faltered for various reasons, including awful, atrocious terror attacks in India, infringements across the line of control—even with the flood devastation facing people on both sides of the line of control—domestic politics in India and political instability in Pakistan. For whatever reason, just as progress is made towards some sort of normalisation, there is a freeze.
The constant cry from Kashmiris is that they have been overlooked as major stakeholders. Their exclusion from peace talks has led to frustration and growing disenchantment, particularly for those seeking independence from India and Pakistan. I welcome the contribution I received from the Kashmir Initiative Group, which made the observation that, while it is common to hear about the trust deficit between Delhi and Islamabad—we are all familiar with that—the trust deficit that has developed in Jammu and Kashmir over the years is seldom discussed. There have been periods of calm when greater progress could have been made. There have been opportunities and there was fertile ground for greater progress to be made, but the danger is that the absence of genuine political initiative in Kashmir will leave the region susceptible to a resurgence of violence at any time. Other Members might refer to that. I am not the first to comment on the withdrawal of NATO-led forces, the international security assistance force, from Afghanistan and the added challenges that that could bring to Kashmir.
Barrister Sultan Mahmood Chaudhry, the former AJK Prime Minister, met MPs here this week through the all-party parliamentary group for Kashmir. With the rise of extreme jihadists and NATO forces leaving Afghanistan, there is a real danger that what he called “unemployed jihadists” will look for new opportunities within the unresolved Kashmir conflict, whether they are invited to take part or not. Further escalation of the conflict through acts of terror could be perpetrated in the name of the unresolved issue over Jammu and Kashmir. That means that the situation is of interest not just in that area but internationally.
On the removal of article of 370 of the Indian constitution—others may comment on this—it has been eroded over time, but it does grant Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir autonomous status within the country. Removal is a controversial and decisive step, even the discussion of which could be a catalyst that sparks an uncontrollable and dangerous escalation in the conflict. It could be a magnet—I have already referred to one possible source—for disenchanted jihadists.
If further justification for Parliament’s interest in the conflict is necessary, I return to my constituents. Each time I meet members of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front or the Jammu Kashmir National Independence Alliance, it becomes clear to me that the Kashmir conflict is not a mere matter of interest to them or just something that they read about; it is an anguish that burns within them and never leaves. They do not just in the newspapers occasionally follow events that happen a long way away; news gets fed directly to them through strong family links. On visiting the area—I know that many hon. Members have—I might be asked by shopkeepers on the high street in Mirpur whether I know their cousin on Nottingham street in Bradford. That helps us to understand the links and why the matter is so important.
Seeking a final resolution to the Kashmir question is hugely important for world peace—it is that serious—because the potential still exists for India and Pakistan to go to war. We only have to think back to December 2001 when we were on the brink of something terrifying as both armies mobilised along the international frontier and maps were drawn up of where a potential nuclear strike might occur, or November 2008 and the atrocious Mumbai attack, to realise that the longer the issue remains unresolved, the more dangerous it becomes in this already dangerous world.
Despite criticism from various quarters, this debate is actually timely. Following a long period of relative calm and with new political leaders in both India and Pakistan, we now find ourselves in a period of opportunity to discuss new and perhaps more fruitful avenues to achieve peace and security for the Kashmiri people. It may sound controversial to some, but I long ago ditched the party line that peace can be attained through a plebiscite. I just do not think that that will happen. The long-awaited plebiscite seems no longer to be a route towards a solution, but instead a contributor to the ongoing conflict. What is the point of a referendum when the outcome will not be accepted by the loser? Would we be having a Scottish referendum if we believed that whoever lost would take up arms? Was a referendum the answer in Northern Ireland? We knew that the result of a Northern Ireland referendum of whatever form would not have resulted in people saying, “Well, we lost.” It is crucial to accept the reality.
Let us not forget that the plebiscite did not propose to offer the third option of an independent state of Kashmir. However, it did offer Kashmiris a say in deciding their own future. That was its value and that vital element can still be achieved. If it is to happen, a plebiscite needs to be viewed as a means to an end and not the end in itself. Surely the end should be peace and security in Kashmir and for the people who live there. The question then is, how can those within the former princely state, who have suffered for so long, have some say in what their future should be? Sometimes to get to what can be, we have to accept what cannot be.
Although I am struggling to agree with much of what my hon. Friend says, it is not right to say that the people of Kashmir do not have a say in their future. At the most recent state elections, 61% of them participated, and there will be elections again this year. There is a democratic process, and it forms part of the world’s greatest democracy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is difficult to undertake a fair election when some 300,000 or 500,000 Indian troops are in the area? That surely has an impact.
What hon. Members are saying is simple common sense. That is the reality of the situation. We cannot go on pretending that things are how we would like them to be. The reality is that India and Pakistan will not give up what they believe to be their right to certain parts of the former princely state. It is ludicrous to continue to believe that that will happen. If that is the case, we must ask what we can do to try to make life tolerable for those who have suffered for so long.
Some might regard that as equivalent to giving up on ever getting rid of slavery or apartheid in South Africa. It is selling out, particularly to those who seek independence. In answer to the question of whether Kashmiris are given the vote, however, which Kashmiris are we talking about? Would Ladakhis regard themselves as Kashmiris? Who are we talking about?
In the totality of Jammu and Kashmir, Muslims constitute about 67% of the population and Hindus 31%; the rest are Sikh or Buddhist. In Jammu itself, however, Hindus constitute 65% of the population, Muslims 31% and Sikhs 4%. In Ladakh, 46% are Buddhist, 6% Hindus and so on. Gilgit-Baltistan is Muslim, as is Azad Jammu and Kashmir, but even within AJK, identity is as much to do with baradari as with religion—believe me, I come from Bradford and I know that. The cultural and linguistic links in AJK are actually stronger with the Punjab than they are with the Kashmiris in the valley. That is the reality.
I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman’s speech and his view of why we should be debating the issue. He seems to be suggesting that the Indian and Pakistani Governments cannot be trusted to reach some form of agreement on the future. Is he suggesting that this country, the United Nations or some other country should somehow force a solution? That would seem completely against self-determination for the people of the Kashmir valley.
I am not suggesting that. As I said earlier when discussing mediation, we should certainly not be forcing a solution; I do not see that as a part for us to play. However, we have close and strong links with those countries, and I believe we have some part to play. We should acknowledge that and find out what that part is. The hon. Gentleman talked about trust; this period of distrust, this failure of trust, has not affected us, but it has resulted in hundreds and thousands of people dying. That has an impact internationally, but also on the people whom I represent.
Given Britain’s legacy in India, 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. Britain would have a role to play only if and when our advice or assistance were sought. Clearly, in this case, it is not.
I am reluctant to help the hon. Gentleman out, but, on that particular point, British Kashmiris are no more likely to ignore the issue of Kashmir than Irish Americans were likely to ignore the issue of Northern Ireland. In a representative democracy, we should simply accept the absolute need for us to listen to our thousands of constituents and to represent their views.
My doubt is whether some people want a solution. We have a part to play, but I will come to that.
In 2009, an opinion poll conducted by Chatham House provided more evidence, if that were needed, that the views of people on either side of the line of control differ widely on a range of issues. Wide differences also exist among the views of people from district to district, not only among those from AJK or J and K. They certainly differ a lot in Pakistan and Indian-administered areas.
The consensus view, however, held by 75% of AJK people and 82% of J and K people, is that the dispute is important. They believe it to be a strong issue and they have little faith that politicians will sort it out. Bob Blackman might well trust the politicians to sort things out, but the people of Jammu and Kashmir do not.
When asked what the most important theme was for the people of the whole area, 66% in AJK and 87% in J and K said unemployment. Basic, ordinary things concerned people—things no different from those affecting our own country. They want to get on in life, get a job and look after themselves. On political change, fewer than 1% in either AJK or J and K wanted the status quo; they wanted change, and just over 40% in both areas wanted independence. Although the preference for independence was fairly uniform across AJK, however, it was very unevenly distributed in J and K. There is no evidence that the proposition to join India or Pakistan would come close to obtaining more than a quarter of the total vote.
That was one opinion survey, but at least it provided an attempt to answer one of the most serious criticisms levelled at India and Pakistan—namely that the views of those in both Pakistan and India-administered Kashmir were not sufficiently heard in the debate about their future. At least the survey gave them a voice.
I will finish on the subject of human rights violations; others will probably refer to them in more detail—in particular the atrocities committed by the Indian army. On hearing about the debate, various groups representing non-Muslim Kashmiris approached me. I knew, and was certainly made aware, that members of my own party were concerned that the debate would be an Indian-bashing one and that, as an MP who represents a large Kashmiri community, many originating from AJK, I would be biased. For party colleagues to hold that view is disappointing; they clearly do not know me. I met a small group of Kashmiri Pandits, who told me how many thousands of people from their community were forced to flee in fear in from the Kashmir valley. Many fled to Jammu, and I have to tell the Chamber that they still live in pretty intolerable conditions there to this day.
If decisions cannot yet be agreed about who is right or wrong, which country Kashmir should belong to or whether it should be independent of either India or Pakistan, can it still not be agreed that terrorist acts and violations of human rights should not and will never provide a path towards such an agreement? Until that peaceful path is found, can we not increase measures that normalise life, such as lax borders, demilitarisation, increased trade and removal of mines? Above all, as those measures begin to make life more tolerable for the long-suffering people on both sides of the line of control, can both the Indian and the Pakistani Governments make a commitment to refuse to allow normalisation measures to be derailed by the violent reaction to normalisation that is inevitably carried out by terrorists? The measures can and should continue.
It is very difficult to follow the hon. Gentleman’s logic. Surely the terrorists, most of whom penetrate across the border from Pakistan, would like nothing more than the withdrawal of Indian troops, who are there to protect the border and the integrity of the frontier. If the troops withdraw, de facto the terrorists will have won.
There is a strong argument that the terrorists need the armies as much as the armies need the terrorists. If the right hon. Gentleman does not understand the powers of the armies in both countries, I do not see how he can understand the difficulties faced by the two Governments, who have made steadfast efforts in the past to reach a peaceful solution.
Above all, as various measures begin to make life more tolerable for those on both sides of the line of control, both Governments must ensure, as they have in the past, that there is a commitment to continuing with the process of normalisation. As the right hon. Gentleman said, while the issue remains unresolved, both India and Pakistan consider a significant military presence is necessary in the region, which brings hardships and human rights abuses for the people there.
One of the most disappointing and perhaps tragic aspects of this whole saga is that huge numbers of people in both India and Pakistan live below the poverty line. How much more money could be spent on health, education and development if it was not being spent on guns, mines and keeping standing armies of hundreds of thousands of troops? We are aid providers, so are hon. Members really saying that we do not have a direct say or interest in that, or any influence over it? Armies need enemies to justify their existence. How many hungry children die because the Kashmir dispute remains unresolved after all this time?
Before I draw to a close, I ask the Minister what our Government are doing. Have they washed their hands of the British legacy? Is there no diplomatic pressure they believe they can bring to bear on the respective Governments to find a lasting solution to the conflict, or at least move towards a process of normalisation for those who have suffered? Does he not see that the continuation of the conflict presents a real danger to international peace, through the involvement of extreme elements in Kashmir?
This is not about being patronising, condescending or judgmental. It is not about diplomatic finger-wagging. We want to be a friend to Pakistan and to India, but support for Pakistan as an ally in the war on terror or for India because of its power and value to us as a trading nation—or for whatever reason hon. Members believe is right—should not make us afraid of being a critical friend. We look on the Kashmir conflict not in a patronising way, but with great sadness, because we believe that it holds back both Pakistan and India from what together they could be.
Many people have helped me on this issue. I finish by thanking Victoria Schofield, in particular, for her support and advice, and by quoting her book, “Kashmir in Conflict”, in which she states:
“That the world can be held in thrall because India and Pakistan, after over half a century, are still arguing about their respective positions on Kashmir, invokes international concern at the highest level.”
That, if nothing else, makes it important that we discuss the matter here in the UK Parliament.
Order. This is clearly an important debate that has attracted a lot of interest. We have until 4.30 pm and 13 hon. Members wish to speak; my humble role is to try to make sure that you all speak. If the Front Benchers start their remarks just after 4 o’clock, that will give them 10 to 15 minutes each. If the 13 Members speak for eight minutes, with no extra time for interventions—you may take interventions, but no extra time will be added—you will all get in. That eight minutes is a maximum, not an optimum.
In exactly a week’s time, the people of Scotland will go to the polls in a referendum to decide the future of our country. The debate has been hotly contested and not without its ill temper; but imagine the outrage on both sides of that debate if the Indian Parliament, the Lok Sabha, were today debating the merits or demerits of Scottish independence and passing judgment upon what we in the United Kingdom see as a matter for us, and us alone, to decide.
The Simla agreement between Pakistan and India is actually quite specific upon this point: it requires the two countries to deal with Kashmir bilaterally and without the involvement or interference of any other state. India and Pakistan have both signed that agreement; it is therefore disingenuous for any politician here to claim that this is somehow a matter in which they have a legitimate role or voice.
Certainly, it is the role of all hon. Members to represent the concerns of their constituents. I do not doubt that or disparage Mr Ward for seeking to do so. But I believe that it is still the custom for every Member, on first entering this House, to be sent a copy of the speech of that great parliamentarian Edmund Burke, in which he speaks to the electors of Bristol in the following manner:
“it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion high respect; their business unremitted attention… But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure, no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
I would ask all hon. Members who contribute to this debate to have the humility to reflect upon and cast their judgment over the following salient fact. Earlier this year, the people of India conducted the largest exercise in democracy and expression of the public will that has ever been concluded in the history of humanity, when 550 million free Indians—7 million of them living in Jammu and Kashmir—voted in peaceful elections. Nobody was assassinated; nobody refused to leave office. The world witnessed an orderly transition of power, as one Prime Minister gave way to the democratic will and passed the levers of state to a new Prime Minister with a different political vision for his country.
In the last elections to the 89 seats in the Legislative Assembly of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, 61.23% of the electorate—a total of 6.479 million citizens— expressed their confidence in the democratic structures of the state of India by voting. They also expressed their faith that the choices they made would find proper expression through their elected representatives under the constitution of India. It is worth recalling that 74.9% of the population of Jammu and Kashmir is of the Muslim faith, because simple mathematics then gives the lie to those who would claim that this is not true for the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir.
The fact is that millions of Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir will make their way to the polls later this year, just as they did in 2008, but there is a significant difference this year. In the general election earlier this year, three of the six Lok Sabah seats from Jammu and Kashmir were won not by the traditional parties of power, but by the Bharatiya Janata party, which actually took the largest share of the vote in Jammu and Kashmir despite having promised to scrap article 370, which gives Jammu and Kashmir special status under the Indian constitution. It won 32.4% of the popular vote ahead of the National Congress party, ahead of the Peoples Democratic party and ahead of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference party, which finished on 11.1%.
The significance of those statistics cannot be lost on anyone with any understanding of Indian politics. The Bharatiya Janata party—the Hindu nationalist party, led by Narendra Modi—is regarded as the no-nonsense scourge of cross-border Pakistani-sponsored terrorism and topped the poll in Jammu and Kashmir. What should that tell the world? Perhaps that the people of Jammu and Kashmir want the constant cross-border interference from Pakistan to stop.
The border between India and Pakistan that lies along the state of Jammu and Kashmir is 1,125 km long. Jihadi terrorists have been infiltrating along that length for more than 40 years and the construction of underground tunnels and the cover fire provided by the Pakistan military has been a constant means of undermining India’s security and integrity.
More than 20,000 people have already been killed by terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, and it is no use hon. Members here in this Chamber of all places condemning the radicalisation of young Muslim men in their own constituencies, while ignoring the fact that those young men are trained in the terror camps that are operating on the Pakistan border with Jammu and Kashmir. Those who continue to argue to undermine the legitimate sovereignty of India might do better to reflect that the people of India live in a relatively transparent and well-functioning democracy where the economy is growing.
Those who point to the presence of the Indian army in the state of Jammu and Kashmir might reflect that it is not Indians who have seen successive Governments overthrown by military coups, and that if it were not for the constant cross-border attacks the Indian army would not need to be there with such a strong presence. It is there to guarantee the country’s border integrity, nothing more.
Many of the victims of the cross-border terror have been Muslims. That is, of course, particularly so in the Kashmir valley, where by far the overwhelming majority of people are followers of Islam. I welcome the fact that on his recent visit Prime Minister Modi spoke of the need to give specific help to those bereaved families. Another group from the Kashmir valley who deserve specific attention is, of course, the Kashmiri Pandits, who for so long have been displaced from their homes because of the fighting and live in the sort of refugee camps that, were they elsewhere in the world, would be a constant item in our evening news.
I welcome the fact that Prime Minister Modi’s first intervention after his election to office was to ask Nawaz Sharif to come from Pakistan to attend his inauguration. I welcome the fact that, as Prime Minister, he visited Jammu and Kashmir just last month, not to engage in political rhetoric against Pakistan’s continuing border violations, but to inaugurate a new hydroelectric power project. To my mind, he seems to be doing as he did in Gujarat and focusing on bringing prosperity and development to people in the belief that votes will follow. It is right that peace in the subcontinent over the issue of Jammu and Kashmir will come only when people living on both sides of the line of control see their quality of life and standard of living improve. With that in mind, it is ill-judged for British politicians to be debating the history and status of people who are currently facing the most devastating floods in 50 years.
Our attention should surely be on the human plight of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and the humanitarian crisis of the people affected by the bursting of the banks of the Jhelum river. At least 200 people are known to have died and thousands have been stranded. Against that background and while politicians here have been raising questions alleging human rights abuses by the Indian army, the Indian army itself has mounted an enormous relief operation that has already saved the lives of 76,500 people in the flood-affected area. It has deployed 30,000 troops for rescue and relief operations, the vast majority of them—244 columns—deployed in the Srinagar region and the Kashmir valley. Eighty transport aircraft and helicopters have been mobilised, and almost 1,000 helicopter sorties have taken place, dropping almost 1,000 tonnes of relief materials. Eighteen relief camps have been established to deal with the appalling aftermath of this natural disaster.
Perhaps those who have shown themselves so keen to decry the actions—
It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to speak under your chairmanship today. Already this afternoon, we have witnessed what a complicated matter this is. We have a duty and an obligation on behalf of our constituents to debate this matter. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time to enable the debate to take place and for listening carefully to the submissions by the hon.
My interest in the matter is that many of my constituents have families in the Kashmir region and they take an understandably deep and considered interest in the affairs of that area. Like all of us, they have seen on their television screens over the last few days the devastating floods that the region has had to cope with. I am sure our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost loved ones and those who are struggling to put their lives back together after this latest disaster to affect the area.
As everyone knows, the roots of the matter can be traced back to the partition of India in 1947. I do not intend to recite the history, some of which was touched on by the hon. Member for Bradford East. Suffice it to say that it is without doubt one of the longest territorial conflicts in the world. It is vital for the safety and peace of the region that progress is made on reaching a permanent resolution.
Notwithstanding the longevity of the dispute, the issue is not widely known or understood outside the Kashmiri diaspora. Many people, including me, often refer to it as the forgotten dispute. It seems that other matters elsewhere in the world always command the attention of the world’s media. For example, today the events in Ukraine and the complex problems of the middle east provide more than sufficient material to keep the world’s media occupied.
Therefore, it is all the more important to use this opportunity this afternoon to pay tribute to those whose work, perseverance and determination keep the issue alive for the Kashmiri community in this country, including the Kashmir Development Foundation and the Jammu Kashmir self-determination movement in Europe under the chairmanship of Raja Najabat Hussain. Their work ensures that this issue is not forgotten.
The Governments of India and Pakistan are the principal parties who can bring about a resolution of the problem. With a new Government in India and a relatively new Government in Pakistan, there is hope for fresh thinking. The hon. Member for Bradford East referred to the fact that the Pakistani Prime Minister attended the inauguration of the new Indian Prime Minister. That was a good sign. Sadly, the cancellation of a visit to Islamabad by the Indian Foreign Secretary on the ground that the Pakistani high commissioner had been consulting with Kashmiris is not such a good sign. Surely we need more talk and more consultation rather than less.
No one doubts that the issue is complicated and one to which there is no single, simple solution. There is no straightforward path to resolve matters, but surely everyone can see the need to try to bring about a permanent peaceful solution. I believe that must involve taking into account, as far as possible, the wishes of the Kashmiri people. Although the Governments of India and Pakistan jointly bear prime responsibility to resolve the matter, the international community can do much to encourage progress. A realistic timetable is needed for talks to begin with a view to resolving the problem.
We all want to see a peaceful resolution. No one wants to see hostilities recommence in the area, with the needless loss of life that would undoubtedly ensue.
After almost seven decades, one thing is perfectly obvious: this matter is not going to go away, and the sooner it is resolved, the better it will be for the long-suffering people of Kashmir.
I pay tribute to Mr Ward for securing this very important debate. When the issue of Kashmir is debated in this House and in other places, the focus tends to be on the diplomatic and military situation. We talk about India, Pakistan, the line of control and escalating tensions, but what sometimes gets lost in the discussion are the voices of the individual Kashmiris who live their lives on both sides of the line of control. Today I want to tell the story of one of those people, Parveena Ahangar.
Parveena is an ordinary Kashmiri. She is also one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. On the night of
First, Parveena took her case to the authorities in Kashmir and in India. She was met with a wall of silence. The authorities denied that anything had happened to her son. She started protesting, holding rallies and staged a sit-in on a road for a full day in the baking heat. Eventually, she was offered money as compensation, but there was still no explanation of what had happened to her son. She rejected the money and carried on campaigning.
During her campaign, Parveena began to see how widespread the issue of arbitrary abduction was in Kashmir and she established the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. That campaign, I am pleased to say, has gone from strength to strength and Parveena is now an international activist on these issues. Every month, members of the association meet in Srinagar to demand answers. They call on the authorities to return their children, or at least to tell them where they are buried. Despite that, the arbitrary actions of the military authorities in Kashmir continue to this day.
Currently, estimates for the number of disappeared people in Kashmir stand at around 10,000. That is not the number of people killed, but simply the number of people who have vanished off the face of the earth, with no explanation and no justice. I can imagine nothing worse than someone having their child taken from them and not knowing what has happened to them. As Parveena says,
“the relatives of the disappeared have nowhere to go. Not even a graveyard.”
In the face of such senseless violence, I think it is fair to say that most people would have given up the fight—but not Parveena. I was lucky enough to meet her recently in London. Sitting across from me in Portcullis House, I could see her resolve and hear the emotion in her voice as she talked about her son. There was sadness and anger—how could there not be? There was also hope that she would, one day, see her son. She has a determination to see her country change for the better.
What we need to see is more positivity in relation to Kashmir. I am still filled with optimism about what can be achieved and what is currently going on in that country. Look at organisations such as Conciliation Resources, which is promoting trade across the line of control. That is vital in building confidence between local communities and promoting peace and stability in the region.
We also need to work closely with the large Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri diasporas in the UK in terms of aid and development. I am proud to have worked on that with the Kashmir Development Foundation, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned; it is based in Rochdale and does an excellent job in bringing people together and creating some energy and enthusiasm within the diaspora in this country to support meaningful projects on the ground in Kashmir. Obviously, we must also now redouble our efforts in the light of the terrible flooding that has taken place in Kashmir, as he pointed out.
I want to finish by returning to Parveena. When I met her earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of showing her around the Palace of Westminster and explaining the history of this place. I was reminded that the rights and freedoms that we now enjoy here were not given to us by chance. They were fought for and won by people who campaigned for what is right and did not give up—people like Parveena.
I started my speech by describing Parveena as an ordinary Kashmiri, and I mean that as a compliment. She is an ordinary Kashmiri because she wants peace, justice, freedom and security for people in Kashmir. She is an ordinary Kashmiri because she resents the military presence in her country and has no quarrel with those on the other side of the line of control. Tragically, she is an ordinary Kashmiri because she and her family have suffered terrible human rights abuses in the course of this conflict. But while Parveena is ordinary, she is also extraordinary—she is extraordinary in her persistence, her passion and her quiet determination to change her country. Kashmir may not have a Parliament as grand as ours, but it is the people that make a country, not the buildings. What Kashmir does not lack are people committed to making a better future for their country.
Three foreign policy issues are of acute interest to my constituents: Israel and Palestine, Sri Lanka and Kashmir. Members will have spotted that all three have something in common, which is, of course, the legacy of the British Empire. I very much welcome this debate, and I congratulate Mr Ward on securing what I think has been an excellent debate so far. It is rather a daunting prospect to try to add to it.
I particularly enjoyed the speech from Simon Danczuk, who, as ever, by highlighting the suffering of a particular individual, throws into sharp relief some difficulties of discussing these questions impartially, given that the real suffering in people’s lives is so great. I also particularly enjoyed the speech from Barry Gardiner, because he reminded us of our duties. I say to him that I think Edmund Burke’s speech was not very well received at the time by his constituents. The hon. Gentleman put me in mind of Auberon Herbert’s essay, “A Politician in Sight of Haven”, which tries to reconcile the tension between party, individual MP and constituents. That is, of course, one of the most difficult duties that we face.
I would like to try to anticipate the Government line, based on past experience. I have the warning against neo-imperialism given by my right hon. Friend Gregory Barker very much ringing in my ears. The Government line has tended to be that we should stay out of it, and for good reasons. I can see that it is very important that the Government do not do anything either precipitate or counter-productive, and I certainly recognise that the British Government is very much in a cleft stick—but aren’t we all?
I have well over 10,000 constituents for whom the issue of Kashmir is a very present and important one, for some of the reasons that have been given. We are talking about family members, perhaps at one or two removes, who are directly exposed to the issues at stake. In addition to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Rochdale, I refer back to the previous debate we had, where the key issue I raised was the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act and the various allegations that have been made in the report, “A ‘Lawless Law’” by Amnesty International in relation to that Act. Today, as then, it is with some humility that I approach these issues, knowing about the British Government’s prior conduct in Northern Ireland.
Why, then, should we be discussing this issue? It is not to condemn outright either India or Pakistan; it is to try and be helpful and to do our duty to our constituents. When I visited Kashmir, I was very grateful for the opportunity to do so and particularly to meet people at the highest level, in both the Government of Pakistan and the Government of Azad Kashmir. I particularly remember meeting Hina Rabbani Khar, who explained at a conference that the decisive question for the prosperity of the entire region—billions of people—is this question of Kashmir and making real progress with Kashmir. That, in the end, is what matters: real progress—not debates about who called which debate when and what questions have been asked, but real progress. That is the decisive issue, not only for prosperity but for geopolitical stability and the lives of billions of people.
It is essential that the British Government do not do anything counter-productive. However, the previous line has been inadequate, in my view. It is not enough simply to assert the sovereignty of both nations and then to step back. There are two reasons why. First, it is simply a fact that we represent thousands of British Kashmiris and, indeed, thousands of people of Indian descent and it is in their interests and those of their families that we make a constructive contribution on this question.
Second is the point about historical responsibility. One of the things that I have learned—again, with some humility—in my time as a politician is that not everyone sees the world through the same frameworks, through the same world-view. Although I, as someone of a modern or perhaps post-modern mindset, would perhaps not pay any attention to my responsibility for the actions of my forebears, people from other cultures certainly do expect me, as a British Member of Parliament—I see people nodding—to accept my responsibility for the actions of people who were politicians at the time when my grandparents were ordinary working people. It is with that in mind that I say that the British Government, as a result of our legacy of imperialism, do have a responsibility in all these places.
If we just look at Israel and Palestine for a moment, we see the danger of platitudes combined with inaction. For far too long, it has been possible for the British Government to say that the Israeli settlements in the west bank are illegal and then to do nothing. That double standard has created enormous outrage—great gales of anger. Similarly, it is not good enough for the foreign policy establishment to consider, as I have heard it said, that Kashmir is the graveyard of Foreign Secretaries and then to step back and do nothing. That is not good enough, given what is at stake and the number of people whom we represent.
What do I think could be done, and how? We must, as I said, begin in humility—a humility about our legacy. That includes recognising that India and Pakistan are sovereign nations and that we cannot tell them how to behave. We must be humble about the fact that we played our part in creating a problem that has led to the deaths of thousands. When people turn to terrorism within a democracy, we must be humble and recognise the British Government’s own legacy, within living memory, of human rights abuses. We must be careful in our condemnation of India, in so far as India has been condemned, because we must remember that in Northern Ireland people were disappeared because they were either terrorists or thought to be terrorists. Shocking, shameful things are done by democracies when they face terrorism.
I speak from the experience of my service in the armed forces and people whom I have met who have shared with me their own anecdotes. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not go any further than that.
Controversy always surrounds these issues of territorial dispute. We should be humble about what has gone before. We should accept this truth—that decent people do terrible things when they lose hope. And we should seek to generate hope among them. We must do something extremely unfashionable: we must insist on some principles and must insist on them consistently.
The first of those principles is to say that one of the origins of peace and security is self-government, self-determination and government by consent, which all decent democracies believe in. That means that, particularly given what was shared earlier about the recent electoral history, the Indian Government should not fear asking the people of Kashmir, in the round, whom they wish to be governed by. The second principle is, of course, non-violence. It does no one any good whatever when people turn to violent means to pursue political ends. Political ends must be pursued by persuasion and through peaceful means.
Finally, these great hooray concepts that politicians talk about often come in pairs, and one of the pairs is justice and mercy, so yes, by all means let us have justice and human rights in Kashmir, but let us have mercy, too.
I am very grateful to be able to make a contribution to the debate, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Mr Ward on securing it.
I shall begin by reflecting on some of the contributions that we have already heard. In particular, there was the sense that somehow it might be seen as offensive elsewhere that we should be debating this issue in the British Parliament. The explanation given by other hon. Members was that we have a duty to stand up for the rights of our constituents. I hope that, in conjunction with its being our duty to stand up for the views, hopes and dreams of our constituents, it is also because we have a tradition of speaking about matters of concern in other countries. That is the whole point, as I understand it, of having a foreign policy.
We often debate in the House issues of concern in other countries. We did so yesterday on the Floor of the House in relation to events in the middle east. We have had debates on Israel, Palestine and the recent fighting in Gaza. I see nothing wrong and nothing to be ashamed of in the British Parliament’s having a debate today about the situation in Kashmir. On the Order Paper, the debate is entitled “Political and humanitarian situation in Kashmir”. There is a political situation in Kashmir because that is a territory under dispute, and there is a humanitarian situation in Kashmir as a result of natural disasters and the territorial dispute, so quite apart from the justification that we speak for tens of thousands of British Kashmiris, we are just doing our job.
Let me make it clear that I am speaking in the debate for those reasons—because tens of thousands of my constituents are British Kashmiris, Kashmiri in origin—but also because of my own background. Both my parents were born in a village called Bab-e-yaam in the district of Mirpur in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. All four of my grandparents were born in what was, before that time, the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. This debate has personal resonance for me because it relates to my own family roots, my own history and my own identity.
The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is of grave concern, as I have said, to many thousands of our constituents across this country and to many people all over the world. What happened after partition—the blood-soaked birth of modern-day Pakistan and India—was that a group of people from different backgrounds, different religions and cultures, saw their homeland ultimately split between two countries. That is what has given rise to the current long-standing dispute.
Those of us privileged enough to know either Azad Jammu and Kashmir or Jammu and Kashmir itself can testify that it is a truly beautiful part of the world; it is often described as heaven on earth. It has been scarred for too long by this conflict. It often does not get much attention in our media, but it is very real and very alive for many people.
The world, through the United Nations, long ago resolved that the people of Jammu and Kashmir should be able to exercise their own will to determine their own future. The inexplicable failure to give effect to that desire for self-determination, to those UN resolutions, is, in my view, unjust and has undeniably caused great turmoil, pain and suffering, which we have heard powerful examples of from my hon. Friend the Member for
Rochdale (Simon Danczuk). As the case that he highlighted, of Parveena Ahangar, shows, in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir that failure has resulted in an uprising, and India’s attempts to suppress that uprising have led to grave human rights violations. That is not my personal finding, but the finding of the respected organisation Amnesty International. It produced some time ago a report called “A ‘Lawless Law’”, which was the subject of our previous House of Commons debate about the Kashmir dispute.
It is undeniable that the Kashmir valley is heavily militarised and that the violence has taken the lives of tens of thousands of people. Whether you place those numbers at the lower end, at about 40,000, or at the higher end of the estimates, at about 100,000, they are, even at the lower end, mind-boggling. They defy comprehension and are a scar on the conscience of all humanity.
A common complaint that we hear from people in Jammu and Kashmir relates to the fact that the huge number of security forces operating in that area do so with impunity because of the feared and hated Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which prevents the prosecution of troops. I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in a place where there is one soldier for every 17 civilians, given that that number on its own would far outnumber any known or potential militants.
I can only conclude that such a large number of soldiers operating in that area will increase the pressure felt by the local civilian population. As we heard, there are many heartbreaking stories of disappearances, particularly of teenagers, and thousands of unmarked mass graves were discovered in the northern districts. Time will unfortunately prevent me from discussing those issues in detail, but they remain real human rights violations. I believe that those need to be answered if we are to have the open and honest debate that the issue deserves.
In addition to the human rights violations, there is a humanitarian crisis caused by the recent floods and the previous earthquake. Undeniably, the people of the region have suffered greatly on many fronts. If we are to give voice to the desire of people in the region to set their own destiny, we must accept that some wish to be wholly a part of India; some wish to be a part of Pakistan; some wish the line of control to be the effective border, but desire freedom of movement across it; and some wish to reunite Jammu and Kashmir into what it was before partition and make it completely independent.
Whatever one’s personal view, it is for the people of the region to decide the course of their own destiny. It is not for me, even as one whose identity and roots hail from that part of the world, to say what their fate should be. I am a Small Heathen Brummie, which makes me an Englishwoman and a Brit.
I have no right to tell the Kashmiri people what their future should be, but I will always speak up passionately for their right to decide their future for themselves. We are seeing that happen in our own country; a week from today, a people with their own land, culture and identity will make a choice about the future course of their own destiny, and it is only right for the people of Kashmir to be given the same choice. For many decades, they have lived in expectation of being given that choice. That was the promise post-partition, and it is not unreasonable for them to expect that promise to be kept. It is not unreasonable for the diaspora communities who live in Britain to want that right to be given to Kashmir.
We have had some discussion about the role of the British Government. I believe that their role should be that of a critical friend to both Pakistan and India. We have a moral responsibility to encourage both sides to move towards a resolution of the dispute, but we also have a responsibility to speak up for the Kashmiri people and to ensure that their voice is heard.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on granting this three-hour debate. The great turnout from Members across the House demonstrates the importance of the matter that we are debating. It is also worth putting on the record that the Public Gallery is absolutely packed—standing room only.
I want to start by mentioning the appalling situation caused by the floods in Kashmir and Pakistan. According to the latest figures, more than 300 people have been killed and more than 96,000 men, women and children have had to be evacuated. The floods in autumn 2010 were the reason why, soon after being elected to the House in the general election, I took the opportunity to visit Pakistan and Kashmir with a constituent of mine, Mr Abdul Razak—a businessman, philanthropist and benefactor to the people of Kashmir. Unfortunately, Mr Razak passed away last year, but his memory lives on in that part of the world.
I wanted to visit Kashmir because I have a Kashmiri community in my constituency, primarily in Crosland Moor, Thornton Lodge and Lockwood. Kashmir was not an area that I knew much about, so I wanted to see at first hand what it was like and meet the people. I flew into Islamabad and visited Dadyal and Mirpur. I saw a beautiful part of the world and met friendly people, many of whom came up to me and said, “Hello, Jason” in a Yorkshire accent, which was absolutely wonderful. The trip gave me some understanding and appreciation of what a beautiful part of the world Kashmir is.
During my trip, I was proud to meet the then Prime Minister of AJK, Sardar Attique Khan. He gave me a green badge, which I still have, which read: “Kashmir deserves attention”. That is a big challenge, because there are so many other huge foreign policy issues at the moment. When the Prime Minister gave a statement on Monday, which I sat through, he talked about the situation between Ukraine and Russia, the situation in northern Iraq and the problems in Syria. We have also heard about Gaza and Israel. There are many big foreign policy issues for the UK Government to tackle, so it is a challenge to get Kashmir on the agenda. That is why today’s debate is so important.
I want to put on the record my thanks for the briefings and support that I have received from Raja Najabat and his team from the Jammu Kashmir Self Determination Movement. We had a good briefing on Monday in Portcullis House. I was struck because for probably the first time at any meeting that I have attended about Kashmir, there were more women than men in attendance. Many times, I attend meetings in my constituency and they are dominated by the men, so it was great to hear the young women’s perspective on what is happening in their part of the world. It was great that they were given the time to talk freely and explain the situation, particularly the humanitarian crisis that the region faces.
I repeat what my hon. Friend Philip Davies said at the beginning of the debate. Parts of the world are facing their own big decisions about self-determination, nowhere more so than in the Scottish referendum. Like my hon. Friend, I have always voted for a referendum on our future membership of the EU, and I hope that we will get one soon. I am here as a democrat. I may not agree with every issue that I speak about, but I fervently believe in self-determination and democracy, which are what the debate is all about. I certainly support self-determination in Kashmir and that troubled part of the world.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister later on, and I hope that the UK Government can continue to give as much support as they have in the past to help with flooding in Kashmir. I am proud of the response from the Department for International Development in troubled spots in the world. I am a staunch defender of that budget, and I support the great things that we are doing in places such as Gaza. We should all be proud of that response, for which DFID does not always get the credit that it deserves. While money is somewhat tight in other budgets, I am proud that we can find the money to help people in other parts of the world. I know that it is appreciated.
As I said, Kashmir needs and deserves attention; in this debate, it is getting that attention. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I welcome my right hon. Friend Mr Spellar, who will respond on behalf of the Opposition. I also welcome Barrister Sultan Mahmood, who is in the Public Gallery. He has been working on the matter for about 30 years—as long as I have been—and he has always tried to convey a fair perspective on the situation, which is what we need in order to resolve it. We need more people like him to do that.
After Mr Ward opened the debate, my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner spoke about Edmund Burke. I will try to plough a furrow through the middle of those contributions and see if I can achieve some sort of balance. I think that we are somewhat sidestepping the real problem by talking about self-determination. The real problem is that, for the past 70 years, while we have talked about whether we want self-determination, whether we want to be with India, whether we want to be with Pakistan or whether somebody wants to go off with China, the people of Kashmir—particularly Jammu Kashmir—have been suffering. They have suffered an immense amount of difficulty, torture and instability. As my hon. Friend Shabana Mahmood has said, rather than trying to take sides in the debate, we need to look at the people who currently have no rights.
Members have raised significant issues, including the size of the Indian army in Jammu and Kashmir. We need to consider how many armed forces personnel are there, what their duties are and what they are about to do. Why is it that, when a male member of a family leaves his home in Jammu Kashmir, his wife, sisters and mother are left wondering whether he will come back, whether he will ever be found again or whether he will return having been tortured and perhaps maimed for life? Why is it that, when a female member of a family leaves home, the rest of the family is left wondering whether she will return with her dignity fully intact, if indeed she manages to return at all? People face those significant issues day in, day out. We must support those people, as they are the ones who most deserve our support.
As has been mentioned, mass graves are a significant issue. There is not enough time to talk about that. Amnesty International and a number of Indian non-governmental organisations have looked at that issue and say that 10,000 people have been buried in mass graves. A barrister, Parvez Imroz, has been working hard on the issue. He estimates that at least 8,000 non-combatants have disappeared.
People have said that India is a democracy, but democracies should be open to investigation. Why has there still been no investigation by the Indian Government to try to address the issue? As has been mentioned, the Indian armed forces have special powers in Jammu and Kashmir. Why have no military personnel been tried in that area? In 2012, the United Nations said that the Indians have draconian laws, which is not acceptable in a democratic state. India professes to be democratic, so it should act as a democratic state and not have such laws.
If we want to support people in Jammu and Kashmir, they must be allowed the right to a health service that looks after them. They need a proper education service in order to grow and move forward. They need a proper structure of devolved government. Scotland has been given the right to hold a referendum. Such a referendum can take place in Kashmir only if the people of Kashmir have those basic, natural rights. They also need a transparent and accountable political structure. A lot has been said about the forthcoming elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Will proper United Nations, European Union and Inter-Parliamentary Union observers go there to see the transparency and openness of those elections for themselves so that we can stand in this place and quote the figures openly and honestly? It is important for us to look at such things.
We must provide a stable economic structure for the people of Kashmir so that they are able to deal with those things. People keep talking about the armies of Pakistan and India, but the real issue is that there have been a number of serious skirmishes on the border, and if we allow those skirmishes to continue, what happened in 2003 will happen again. There will be brinkmanship followed by a state of war between two regional nuclear powers, which is not what we want.
In order to move forward on these serious issues, we need to address the human rights and civil liberties of the people who are stuck in the region through no fault of their own and who only want to have a proper, decent life. They want to be able to move forward, so we need to do that. It has already been tried. When General
Pervez Musharraf was President of Pakistan, a number of confidence-building measures were put in place between India and Pakistan. We need to put some of those measures back in place, but above all we need to consider the people of Kashmir. We must speak to them and let their voices be heard. Ultimately, whatever their religion, they are Kashmiri, and we should support them and ensure that they have the civic right to live their own life in that country.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Hollobone. I do not always take my allotted time in debates because I tend to find I make quite pertinent points. I am a football fan and, as anyone who has watched Barcelona play will know, it is not always about how much possession a team has but what they do with it, so I will try to make some specific points.
One could almost predict what individual Members are going to say. It is easy for the debate to be divided into contributions that take a pro-Pakistani position and those that take a pro-Indian position. I have not prepared any notes for my speech, as I thought I would come along and actually listen to the various contributions. We have heard, particularly from Barry Gardiner, about the contributions that we can make as constituency MPs. My method is always to follow Churchill whenever I want to contribute on such things:
“First—country, second—constituency, third—party.”
I just want to add my personal perspective.
We sit here 13 years on from 9/11. The timing is interesting from the perspective of today’s debate. Many countries look to the British Chamber and the British Parliament because we still have prestige among many of our fellow citizens throughout the world. As people in India and Pakistan look to us, we cannot help but be struck by the point made by my hon. Friend Steve Baker on the perspective of history. Yes, Britain made many great contributions to India, but no one who comes from the subcontinent, or who has a heritage similar to mine, can help but be struck by the fact that in the last few days and weeks before partition there was an element of cut and run. To this day, people are still picking up the pieces.
I have a personal example from my maternal village during the time of partition. I have previously referred to this story in the House. The village was predominantly Sikh, and next door to my great-grandfather’s house was a Muslim household. As the night progressed, a huge mob massed outside my great-grandfather’s house. The mob was determined to burn the Muslim part of the village down. Some people were primarily driven by ideas of retribution and by the pain suffered by other families and friends. My great-grandfather stood alone and said, “If anybody touches this house, they are attacking my own family.” I first visited India in 1981, and when I went there I met the remnants of that family, who are still there to this day. They hugged and kissed me, and I had absolutely no idea why they had such a fondness for me. In subsequent years, I realised that that spirit of good will runs throughout the entire Indian subcontinent.
I cannot help but be struck by the irony that most of the contributors to this debate, although not all of them, have been white, middle-aged men talking about what we should be doing in such conflicts. That does not stick in the craw of many people watching this debate, but they will be acutely aware of the history and the heritage. I say this respectfully to Mr Ward: in his opening comments he said that he was not being patronising or condescending. I always remember that, when I was growing up, people would say to me, “Paul, I don’t mean to be racist, but” and proceed with a racist sentiment. Or they would follow, “I don’t mean to be rude, but” with a rude statement. I am not saying that is the hon. Gentleman’s intention, but I am asking for comprehension and understanding of how it is perceived by a wider audience.
We have had comments on the Scottish referendum. On the verge of a momentous election that everybody is aware of, we are talking here about the fact that people in Kashmir generally mistrust politicians. We have that here as well. Some of those people may seek to vote UKIP; some north of the border may seek to vote SNP. Whatever it is, there is a general anti-politics move sweeping across the world.
It is important we put these things in context. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to visit Kashmir will know that it is a beautiful country. It is striking and wonderful in its geography and in its people. In my travels through India and in the middle east, when I spoke to people they all mentioned the same thing, whatever their background. They want to live in an environment that is conducive to raising a family securely, to having financial security and independence, and where they can reach their full potential. Those are natural human desires that will be shared by people on either side of the political border and of any geographical border. I am mindful that we, as British parliamentarians, keep that point at the forefront of our minds.
I am not here as an apologist for India or to put just the Indian side. Indeed, my family hail from Punjab, which has seen its fair share of suffering on this issue. We should be mindful, in any contribution we make, of the basic fact I alluded to earlier: we have some historical imperial baggage on this. I referred to the historical fact that we are here on the 13th anniversary of 9/11. When we make our contributions from a western perspective, we can often be in error. In fact, in the backlash that followed 9/11 two of the people killed by American citizens aggrieved by what had happened were Sikhs; they had beards and turbans, and the people who killed them had no idea. We should have more faith in the ability of people on the Indian subcontinent to build those bridges. From everything I have seen when I have met people on the Indian subcontinent, I know that their faith and compassion towards one another is huge. Yes, it is not a state of nirvana; yes, it is not perfect. However, I believe that everybody involved in this dispute has the capability to build those bridges and build a positive future.
One of my grandfather’s favourite sayings about politicians is, “When you meet them, they are incredibly smart people. The problem with smart people is they tend to think everyone else is incredibly stupid.” We should not fall into that mistake.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak, Mr Hollobone. I start by expressing my disappointment with the premise of the debate. The issue being discussed, as it has been framed, has cause to be divisive for the diaspora communities in this country. It could not only bear a negative impact on the UK’s thriving relationship with India, but prove to be an intrusion into the internal affairs of democratic countries. We have also talked about 9/11 and paid respect to those who lost their lives in that tragedy.
Jammu and Kashmir is currently facing its worst floods in half a century. With areas still inaccessible, many people are still stranded and in danger. Multitudes are currently homeless. I congratulate the Indian Government, who have shown their commitment to the people of Jammu and Kashmir by providing immediate assistance to the flood victims through their massive ongoing rescue and relief operation. The Indian central Government are doing all in their power to help the victims. I hope that the damage in the region will soon be contained and the victims will be safe. I also congratulate the armed forces on the role that they played in the past few days of the crisis.
Kashmir has certainly been the subject of much contention over the years, but it is clearly an issue that rests in the hands of the two democratic countries involved—India and Pakistan—and not in those of a third party. There is continued dialogue between India and Pakistan. Any issue concerning Kashmir should remain a concerted effort for those two nations to resolve.
Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India, the largest democracy in the world, one that is secular, and with elected representation from all the country’s main religions. The elections in Jammu and Kashmir, as said earlier on, are open to all. All citizens, regardless of their faith or political beliefs, have been encouraged to exercise their democratic right. As I am sure we will all agree, in a free democracy the ballot box is the best illustration of the will of the people. The elections in Jammu and Kashmir have not reflected any determination for separatism. It is for us to respect the democratic choice of the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir, not to question it.
Furthermore, at a time when all three main parties advocate a greater and closer relationship with India, this debate and involvement in its internal affairs threatens the very future of our bilateral interest. We have heard statements from the Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. They have all said that this is not our responsibility. Every leader has said that they will intervene or assist if asked to do so.
The hon. Gentleman can shake his head, but he should read the Hansard report of the Prime Minister’s message two days ago. He said that we must deal with the democratic Governments in Pakistan and other parts of the world.
Over the past 60 years in this country, we have all worked relentlessly to preserve unity between diaspora communities, who will of course feel very strongly about these matters. It would be a shame and it saddens me that the good will of our communities might be squandered by getting involved in an issue that is under the control of two democratic countries. It is not our responsibility. As British Members of Parliament, we have to respect the rights of two autonomous and democratic countries to determine their own internal affairs of state. That is my view as a British parliamentarian of Indian background. As a representative of a diverse constituency, I cannot help but feel that this debate will inflame pre-existing tensions. Many community leaders in this country—Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims—have raised concerns about its impact on their communities.
Unfortunately, I am also concerned about the balance of the debate and its misguided aims. I therefore feel the need to mention the terrible plight of the Kashmiri Pandits. The Pandits have been the victims of continued ethnic cleansing. It is estimated that some 400,000 Kashmiri Hindus—more than 95% of the Hindu population in the Kashmir valley—fled and are now living in exile in their own country. Starting in 1989, there was an organised and systematic campaign by Islamist militants to cleanse Hindus from Kashmir, including documented massacres of innocent civilians, rapes, threats, assassinations and intimidation.
I thank Kashmiri Pandits and the Indo-European Kashmir Forum for providing a briefing on the political situation in Kashmir. Fewer than 4,000 Kashmiri Pandits remain in the valley today. The rest of their kin are internally displaced persons, still unable to return to their homelands and living in overcrowded camps with inadequate facilities and without basic necessities.
It is shameful that those minorities are unable to return safely to their homeland and worrying that a region that pre-1989 had a diverse population mix is now almost homogeneously populated by one religious group, following the systematic terrorising of ethnic minorities. That makes me even more disappointed at the bias of the debate, the aim of which is clearly to be divisive. I maintain, as I did at the beginning of my speech, that those complex internal affairs should remain in the hands of the two countries involved.
Is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as ever, Mr Hollobone, and an honour to follow Mr Sharma. I congratulate Mr Ward on leading the debate. He engaged in much analysis, but after 45 minutes, he came up with no solution.
I know of no other issue that creates such emotion among this country’s Indian and Pakistani communities as the position of Jammu and Kashmir. It is important that we as elected representatives should debate the issues and represent those views. I stand as an unabashed friend of India to defend India’s position in the conflict and the people who were ethnically cleansed from Kashmir.
It is ironic that although the hon. Member for Bradford East gave a balanced view, his website portrays only one viewpoint. That is a shame. Clearly, we have the duty and right to debate the issues that are so emotional for many people. However, as Barry Gardiner mentioned, it is for India and Pakistan under the bilateral agreement—the Simla agreement—to resolve things and make a decision. It is not for Great Britain or any other country to intrude on matters pertinent to them.
Today, we commemorate the anniversary of 9/11, one of the most terrible of terrorist atrocities. We send our sympathies to the victims and their families. However, every day in Kashmir, along the line of control, state-sponsored terrorists from Pakistan infiltrate Jammu and Kashmir and cause atrocities. We must mark that, and say that the Pakistani Government clearly cannot be trusted to do what they should and stop that terrorism against the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Underground tunnels have recently been discovered, which promote the infiltration, and there has clearly been assistance from the Pakistani forces that occupy part of Kashmir.
The role of the Indian army is clear, and I would like to hear from the Minister what aid the United Kingdom will offer flood victims in Kashmir. We are ready to provide such assistance to those poor victims, and our sympathies must go out to them for what they have suffered.
I have a solution to the issue before us, which is that we should remember the long history of the conflict. The United Kingdom had the role of partitioning India and Pakistan, and the partition that was created was never going to last. The concept of East Pakistan and West Pakistan as one country separated by India was never going to stand the test of time. Clearly, it did not, and Bangladesh came from that. Equally, the Maharaja decided to cede the territory to India. The Pakistani Government and forces refused to accept that decision and invaded. It was at the behest of the Maharaja that the Indian army moved in to try to wrest control back, according to the original purpose. That was in 1947. Therefore, we can say that the continued conflict of the past 70 years is terrible, but that it is clear where responsibility for it lies. We must place it fairly and squarely with the Pakistanis and their successive Governments.
I will not give way, as we do not have injury time.
As has been mentioned, there is democracy in Jammu and Kashmir. There is actually a Muslim majority, and as the hon. Member for Brent North said, they voted overwhelmingly in the elections and came up with a decisive result. It may not be the one everyone wants, but it was decisive. When we debate such issues just as Jammu and Kashmir is about to go to the polls, the risk is that we inflame tensions between the communities. We should understand the position of the various groups. The Shi’a Muslims do not support the right of self-determination, and nor do the Gujjars and Bakarwals, Buddhists, Hindi Dogras, Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs or Christians. The only issue is that part of the Muslim population support it; but they are a minority. Far from wanting secession, either to Pakistan or as a separate state, the vast majority of people in the state want it to remain part of India. I 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.
The Hindu Pandits were forced out in a process of ethnic cleansing. The reports that I hear give a figure of 700,000 of them still living in refugee camps having been forced out. It would be ridiculous to reward those who engaged in ethnic cleansing—
I will not give way.
It would be ridiculous to reward those people by saying, “We will get rid of all the people who might vote the wrong way, and then have a plebiscite.” It is absurd to represent the question in that way.
There are humanitarian matters in the conflict that need to be concluded. The victims are the Pandits who were forced out of their homes and the women who were forced at the point of a gun to convert from Hinduism to Islam, and were left to suffer. The populations in Jammu and Kashmir trust the secular state of India, which of course has a growing Muslim population, and Sikh and Christian populations, to administer their country rather more than they trust a predominantly Muslim Pakistani Administration. Minority groups in Pakistan—Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and others—are deliberately persecuted and they suffer at the hands of the Government.
It is now some 25 years since the worst atrocities in the Kashmir valley, when Hindus were driven out by the Islamic fundamentalists. We should be on the side of the people who suffered and make sure that the people who are in exile have the right to return to the homes that they occupied for centuries. Without doubt, that is the position we should take. I look forward to hearing the Minister say that this country stands full square behind the Indian Government and army, to ensure that there is peace and stability in the region.
Paul Uppal bemoaned the preponderance of white, middle-aged males. Thus, I rise with some trepidation and I can only offer an apology—there are some things that I am capable of changing and there are some things that are beyond that.
When I was being lobbied this morning by my appropriately named constituent, Amarjit Jammu, she asked me whether I would be her voice in this afternoon’s debate. I am happy to be that and the voice of many other people. If there is one thing that we have established early on in this debate, it is that it is a debate of entire legitimacy. To say that this issue is something of which we should not speak is wrong; however, to say that it is something that we could inflame is a matter that we must consider. Whether we have a constituency interest in this matter, have a birth line connected to the region or are simple humanitarians—citizens of this planet—we have a duty, an obligation and a right to debate, discuss and speak about these issues.
I commend the quality of the speakers today. My hon. Friend Simon Danczuk spoke extremely movingly from his personal constituency experience. However, the contribution of my hon. Friend Shabana Mahmood was quite simply one of the finest speeches I have heard in Westminster Hall, if not in this House; not only does she speak from a Mirpuri background, as well as with knowledge and understanding, but she speaks with a cool humanity and decency, while looking to the future positively. I found that immensely impressive.
My hon. Friend also mentioned in passing—a few other speakers have mentioned it—the sheer heart-stopping, dazzling beauty of Kashmir. What an utter tragedy it is that this place, this heaven on Earth, is at the moment scarred by this bloody conflict. My hon. Friend Barry Gardiner and I have visited Kashmir on two or three occasions. We have been on Dal lake and seen the cedar houseboats bobbing silently and unused by the sides of the lake, which should be one of the great tourist attractions of the world. We have also seen Gulmarg, and even the 100 Pipers whisky distillery nestling in the highlands, as well as St Andrew’s church. Overwhelmingly, what we have seen in Kashmir is a place that is the reflection of God in its beauty, but also where there is horror, sadness and tragedy. In addition to the places I have mentioned, there is the plateau, Kargil and the line of control. There is a frozen conflict, taking place in temperatures many degrees below zero, in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.
Can we nail, once and for all, the suggestion that the Indian army would be in this place—where soldiers can only serve for 12 hours at a time before they have to be evacuated, before being moved back in again—if it were not for the fact that if they were not there the cross-border problem would be so serious, damaging and cataclysmic? Their presence is absolutely essential. Soldiers do not fight, or stand guard on watchtowers, in sub-zero temperatures and in such an inhospitable environment unless it is utterly essential. That is why the Indian army is there.
We have an answer; we have the Simla agreement of 1972. One of the most important things that we can do today is to recognise the good that is being done in Kashmir. There is some movement towards rapprochement and we should hail that movement.
Some years ago—I think it was in 2002 or 2003—my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North visited Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. I well remember that the economic issues in Kashmir then were the preponderant ones. His daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, was working on a hydro-electric project then to provide free energy to some villages from Kashmir’s ample—indeed, massive—and wonderful supply of fast-flowing waters. It was that type of issue that mattered. One thing that must arise from this debate is not only a recognition of this most tragic of long-standing conflicts but the need to consider—not only from our perspective in this country but, I hope, from the perspective of the EU—offering assistance in nation-building, including providing economic support, assistance and advice.
Let us look at the positives. The devastating and horrendous floods in the region have been mentioned many times, as has the reaction of the Indian Government. On his recent visit to Jammu and Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown the hand of friendship in a most conciliatory way. His letter of
Let us never forget the wise words of my hon. Friend Mr Mahmood, when he spoke earlier. Quite rightly, he reminded the House that this is not simply a territorial or localised dispute; this is a dispute that has led us twice—twice—to the edge of nuclear war. It is that important; in fact, we would be derelict in our duty in this House if we did not discuss this matter.
We must give credit where it is due. I make no bones about it: I have visited Narendra Modi. I am sorry to keep mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North—Members must have the impression that he and I have spent most of our time travelling the world together, which is not true at all—but we visited Narendra Modi. When I think of Narendra Modi’s reputation in the early days, compared with the conciliatory peacemaker that we now see today, it is quite extraordinary. That approach of friendship and bilateral resolution to the problem—assisted, advised, supported and endorsed by other democratic institutions—represents the best way forward.
I am happy to respond to my hon. Friend by saying: precisely so. Of course that should be the case. Equally, however, we must look at the solution. I make no apologies for returning to the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood. I sincerely hope that her words are studied in Islamabad and Delhi, because they were the wisest and most sensible words we have heard today. We have not yet heard from the Minister—he may exceed them—but we should take those words with us from this meeting, because they are the words of someone who knows more about this subject than almost anyone else here in Westminster Hall, and who sees a future and a positive way forward.
This has been an extraordinarily well informed, well attended and well supported debate; it is a tribute to those constituents and friends who have contacted us about this issue that there has been such a good turnout today. I freely give credit to Mr Ward for quite rightly feeling the temperature of the House and calling this debate today and to the Backbench Business Committee for endorsing it.
Let this debate not be remembered as one of recrimination, point-scoring and finger-pointing. Let it mark the point at which we start to look forward to a brighter tomorrow, and move towards a coming-together of two democratic nations that we in this country have very close ties and links with, and that I hope we will always support. Then, may the people of Jammu and
Kashmir—that beautiful but benighted part of the world—enjoy the peace and civilised society that they more than deserve and that is too long overdue.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I speak as the chairman of the all-party group on Kashmir. I congratulate Mr Ward on securing this debate and introducing it so well. I also congratulate Raja Najabat Hussain, as other colleagues have done, for informing Members and bringing this issue to our attention. I welcome Barrister Sultan Mahmood Chaudhry, former Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir, who joins us for this important debate.
Obviously, I am at the tail end of this debate, so I do not want to repeat too much of what other hon. Members have said. Perhaps it might be more helpful if I addressed some of the points raised. A suggestion was made at the beginning that this debate should not be taking place at all—that we are wrong to debate the issue in the House. However, I tell the people who say that that the 4,500 to 5,000 Kashmiris/Pakistanis in my constituency expect us to raise these issues. Barry Gardiner got quite exercised about whether we should be making this case. I gently point out to him that a look at his Hansard appearances shows that in the last few weeks he has spoken about Gaza, Israel and Ukraine, so there is a precedent for us to talk about international issues.
Of course, we must debate international issues. My point was quite simply that, under the Simla agreement, the two countries will deal with the matter bilaterally. To that extent, it is not for the British Government to interfere.
I politely point out to the hon. Gentleman that there was also an agreement at the United Nations—resolution 47, in 1948—which called for a plebiscite in Kashmir and for the people of Kashmir to have a voice on this issue. It might be inconvenient for the hon. Gentleman, but those are the facts.
No. I think I have heard enough from the hon. Gentleman. I have a short amount of time, so I should like to move on.
It is sad that this debate started off in such aggressive tones, because we should not forget that it is not about lines on a map or territory, but about humans and humanity. That must be central in all discussions that take place on this issue.
We have heard some fantastic speeches. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Steve Baker for leading the first debate on Kashmir on the Floor of the House, in which he spoke eloquently and was very informed. I had the pleasure of visiting Pakistan and Kashmir with my friend Simon Danczuk, and talking to people who had been affected by this issue. Shabana Mahmood also made a fantastic speech.
I want to talk about the impact of this situation on the people of Kashmir. We need to talk about human rights. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood mentioned to the report compiled by Amnesty International, “India: A ‘Lawless Law’”, which considered the operations of the 500,000 Indian troops stationed in this area—just think about that figure for a second. We heard earlier that, of course, the elections had taken place and that it was all fine: nobody had raised the issue of separatism in the elections. I say gently that there are 500,000 troops with guns pointed at people in this area, so it is slightly difficult to accept that an election can take place under those circumstances.
My hon. Friend Bob Blackman says, “Well, this is a minority in Indian-administered Kashmir who want a plebiscite and their right to self-determination.” If that is so and he genuinely thinks that only a small minority of people in Indian-administered Kashmir are in favour of independence, then let them have the vote. What is there to worry about? What have the Indian Government got to worry about?
I will carry on, if I may. I have only a few minutes, as my hon. Friend will understand.
There is a serious issue here in relation to human rights. Amnesty International clearly identifies instances of people being abducted and disappearing and talks of torture and rape. We have well documented evidence of mass graves and mass killings. We are talking about the fact that 100,000 have died as a result of what has gone on in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Lots of people in the Kashmiri diaspora in the UK get hugely frustrated that this is the forgotten crisis. How on earth can we forget—how can we ignore—the fact that 100,000 people, or more, have lost their lives, that there are mass graves and that rape is being used by the Indian army? These cases are well documented by recognised non-governmental organisations. It is essential that we address this matter here.
Lots of hon. Members have said today that we should keep our nose out and that the British Government have no reason for involvement in this matter, but of course they do. We have an obligation because it is well documented that the British drew a line on the map. We chose where the borders were. It was a British decision and we have a responsibility to do what we can to assist. It is not for us to come in like some grand colonial power, telling India and Pakistan what they should do. However, we have an obligation to try to facilitate and foster a resolution. We should use our influence to get the Indian and Pakistan Governments around a table, discussing this issue in a calm, civilised way.
There are three sets of people who must take part in these discussions: the Indian Government, the Pakistan Government and the people of Kashmir. That absolutely must happen, and until it happens it will continue to be a stain on India. I am a great fan of India—I have great respect for the country—but this is a question mark that hangs over them and it is in everybody’s interests that they find a solution to the problem.
The hon. Member for Bradford East is pessimistic and I understand his pessimism, but there is some opportunity for us to move things forward. Although we have had some setbacks with Mr Modi, he has the power and the desire to find some solution here.
There are other things we can do. We must keep in the forefront of our minds the effect that the situation has on the people of Kashmir and try to do what we can to improve the lives of those people—including, as we have heard, allowing trade across the borders and allowing movement. It is unthinkable that, because of the line of control, people have never been able to see their grandchildren or visit the graves of their parents. That is barbaric and we must do what we can to solve that problem.
We should try to demilitarise the area. I understand the concerns about the line of control, but how can it be necessary to have 500,000 troops to defend that? We must try to take the gun out of this situation as much as possible.
We have seen the devastating impact this situation has had on the people of Kashmir. I hope that there is a change in approach from this Government and that we can be proactive in trying to encourage a solution. The British and American Governments have a role to play in facilitating that dialogue and improving the lives of the people of Kashmir. There must be an improvement in those people’s quality of life. Yes, I would love to see the people of Kashmir having the right to self-determination, but it is critical that Kashmiris’ lives improve, and improve as soon as possible.
I shall be relatively brief, not least because so much of what I wanted to say in this debate has already been expressed far more eloquently than I could hope to do. I am also chided by my hon. Friend Paul Uppal, as I am a white, middle-aged male—
I would not say middle-aged either, but I get the gist.
Over many years in the House I have had the great pleasure of listening to a number of speeches by Barry Gardiner, and I must say that the one he gave today was the best I have ever heard from him, not least because he quoted so approvingly a great Tory philosopher and statesman. If he wants to improve the tone of his speeches in the Chamber more generally, perhaps he should quote approvingly great historical Tory figures at greater length in future.
I understand the emotions that this debate has given rise to. Everyone present agrees that, wherever in the world and by whomever they are committed, human rights abuses will never be condoned by anyone in the House. We all want Kashmir to live in peace and prosperity.
However, there is a difference between us. There are those who are much more concerned that the British legacy in India means that we should tread much more carefully in seeking to express views on, let alone intervene in, the internal politics of that great democracy, and there are those who seem to presume that we have some enduring legacy that gives us the right to interfere. British insertion into what I see as an explicitly domestic issue for India and Pakistan is deeply unhelpful. We should be mindful not to insert ourselves. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend Andrew Griffiths, as much as I see no role for the United Kingdom, I see no role for the United States either.
Unlike many other people who have spoken in a very informed way this afternoon, I am not an expert on Jammu and Kashmir—I have visited India many times, but never that region. However, in my time in the Government, I was privileged to get to know a tremendous politician who is a former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, my former opposite number in the Indian Government under the previous Administration, Mr Farooq Abdullah. It is just wrong to pretend that people from Jammu and Kashmir are not playing a vibrant role in the life of the world’s biggest and greatest democracy.
I know that others have mentioned it already, but we must remind ourselves that the recently concluded Indian elections were the largest exercise in democracy in the history of the world: 550 million free Indians, including 7 million from Jammu and Kashmir, voted in peaceful elections and witnessed the orderly transition of power to a new Government with a new vision. We should not cease to celebrate that. As we look around at a globe with so many troubles and so much strife, we must ensure that we praise and single out a triumph of humanity such as democracy in India. Elections for the legislative assembly of the state of Jammu and Kashmir had a turnout of more than 61% in 2008, which is significantly higher than in presidential elections in the United States. I expect that the turnout will be very substantial in the elections later this year.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the place we are discussing is not England. It is a beautiful part of the world, but it is very different. India’s land border with Pakistan in that state is 1,200 km long. Jihadi elements and terrorists are infiltrating into India from Pakistan as part of a terror campaign. The border is porous and must be protected. Soldiers are there not simply to intimidate but to protect the integrity of not only Jammu and Kashmir but the whole Indian nation, which has been subject to vile terrorist attacks, just like we have in the west and in the UK. Obviously, on 9/11 we remember in particular the attacks on the United States. It is important that wherever democracies stand up against terrorism around the world, we stand shoulder to shoulder with them.
I do not want to labour my points any further. Although I understand that Members wish to speak up in defence of their constituents and articulate their concerns, particularly those of constituents who are of Kashmiri origin, we must nevertheless look forward, not back. We must be mindful of India in the 21st century, rather than look back to a role that we may have played in the 20th century. We in Westminster should concern ourselves with forging a new relationship that looks firmly to the future, not with the internal affairs of that great democracy.
I am extremely grateful that you have allowed me to speak, Mr Hollobone, and I will keep my remarks short. As you mentioned, I have just got off a plane at Heathrow and so missed the early contributions to this debate, for which I feel greatly the poorer.
I want to make two specific points. First, from listening to the debate I understand that there seems to be a question about the legitimacy of the topic for discussion and whether we should restrict our contributions. We want the region of Kashmir to be a flourishing area for democracy. I am reminded of Bill Clinton’s comment that it is not only about majority rule but minority rights as well. When we talk about the region, it is vital that we understand that it is about not only who gets to vote and how, but the conditions in which that vote takes place.
There is damage and death on all sides in the ongoing conflict. That leads to a great sense of anger and frustration among many people who live in this country and want their voices to be heard in Parliament, and it also drives broader trends in the UK. I do, therefore, think that it is a legitimate topic of conversation. Fundamentally, it is an issue not of India or Pakistan, but of justice. We need to talk about the region and its future ongoing success, which can come only from the resolution of this issue, from justice and from security.
Secondly, I want to make a series of specific recommendations relating to the concern expressed by some Members that we should stay out of this area of conflict. I know from my role as a shadow Department for International Development Minister that we are a major donor to both India and Pakistan through our international development work. I believe that through that engagement we could do a great deal to help the people of Kashmir to resolve the issue.
First is the issue of democratic strengthening. We spend significant amounts of money in-country and know that allowing democratic structures to flourish makes a real difference. A number of leading organisations have identified concerns about the rights not only of political parties but of ordinary citizens to get justice.
Secondly, there is a greater role for the diaspora community in this country to play in helping to shape our response across the whole region, not only in individual areas and countries. I hope that we will be able to say more on that in the coming months because it is important that we feel a sense of ownership and recognise the historic ties in the region.
Thirdly, there are a number of cross-regional priorities. Currently, DFID cannot even tell us what we are spending in particular areas. We know that the resolution to this conflict can come only when there is an alignment and a recognition from great nations—they are possibly becoming superpowers—in the region that, without resolving this issue, they will be held back. They stand right on the edge of stepping up in our generation to become great nations and great influences in the world. That is why it is right for us to continue to ask these questions and to keep this debate going.
I congratulate Mr Ward on securing this debate and for distancing himself from his party leader, although I do not know whether he needed to go so far as to sit on the Opposition Benches to do so. I hope his Whips will not take an unkind view of that. I also congratulate those who have spoken for their constituents and for the many communities that live in the beautiful but troubled land of Kashmir.
As has been mentioned by a number of Members, one issue that should focus us is the floods taking place in Kashmir and the devastation that they are causing there, as well as in the surrounding areas in India and Pakistan. The floods reinforce the need, which has been mentioned often in the debate, for co-operation between the two countries. We welcome the news that the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan have offered co-operation. Will the Minister tell us—I have given him notice of this question—what actions Her Majesty’s Government are taking in response? In 2010, the United Kingdom committed some £334 million to the relief and recovery effort, in addition to bringing forward a £10 million bridge project to replace some of those washed away. Private donations from the UK, co-ordinated via the Disasters Emergency Committee, totalled more than £60 million. Interventions included the flying in of 400 metric tonnes of aid—tents, shelters kits, blankets, water containers and food. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales established a major recovery fund to help support projects on health, education, livelihoods and reconstruction. Britain’s role was magnificent in that, and I hope the Government will follow that path.
I am mindful not only of the need for the hon. Member for Bradford East to have time to reply, but of the number of questions put to the Minister, and I hope to leave him sufficient time to reply. First, I will outline the Opposition’s position. The policy of the British Government under both Administrations has been clear, as I am sure the Minister will reinforce. In opposition, we maintain that position: it is not for the UK to prescribe a solution on Kashmir. That is for those parties directly involved to determine through dialogue. We continue, however, to encourage India and Pakistan to seek a lasting resolution for Kashmir that takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. We also recognise that the normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan, which are two old and long-standing friends of Britain, as well as the second and sixth most populous countries in the world, is vital for improving regional security—not just in this regard—and resolving conflict.
Through our engagement, we continue to encourage India and Pakistan to establish and maintain that dialogue. With that, there is a concern that sometimes it is one step forward and two steps back. Although we welcome the agreement on a liberalised visa pact, the problem was that that seemed to have been put on hold by the Indian authorities following the killing of Indian soldiers along the line of control. As was mentioned in the debate, we should recognise that other events in the region, particularly the draw-down in Afghanistan, make it even more imperative that India and Pakistan work together, not only on this, but with other countries surrounding Afghanistan, as I said on Monday in the statement on Afghanistan, to ensure its stability and future progress. If that is not achieved, that will destabilise the whole of the surrounding region and impact on Kashmir.
In addition, while in government, Labour, through the conflict prevention programme, funded a number of projects designed to support efforts to facilitate dialogue, to address the causes and impact of conflict and to create improvements in the quality of life experienced by Kashmiris. While we look at the geopolitical issues, it is important—this has been mentioned by a number of Members, and in particular by my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) and for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood)—to look at the conditions of life of the people from all communities living there. In that context, we supported capacity-building and skills training for non-governmental organisations on both sides of the line of control, funded media projects that bring Indian and Pakistani journalists together and helped with curriculum design that promotes a modern, inclusive approach to education.
Some of the concerns that have been expressed in this debate and in submissions sent to us are familiar to me, as a Member with a constituency where a substantial percentage of the electorate are of Sikh heritage. We have to face up to concerns about widespread impunity for violations of international law, unlawful killings, extra-judicial executions, torture, and, as was mentioned, particularly by my hon. Friend Simon Danczuk, the enforced disappearance of thousands of people since 1989. I know from my Sikh community that those disappearances are the issue that hurts the most. All those issues have to be considered. There has to be some reconciliation and some accountability on those issues, as well as on the numbers of youths shot dead by police during the protests in the summer of 2010 and, as has rightly been mentioned, the impact of the Public Safety Act.
My hon. Friend Mr Sharma mentioned the suffering of other communities in Kashmir, such as the Pandit Hindus. There was a meeting in the Commons last week, which I was unable to attend, that drew attention to their plight and the substantial exodus in 1990. They left their valley and their communities behind to save themselves from persecution at the hands of terrorists. As my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner said, a substantial number of families—not just Hindu families, but Sikh families as well—still live in refugee camps, and they are still looking for justice.
Let me be clear: I am not seeking to construct a balance sheet of suffering or, indeed, of blame. I make clear that the suffering experienced in all the communities of Kashmir is very deep. I stress that, while the world must hope and work for meaningful talks between the parties concerned, we also have to look at what we can do to improve the position of the people in Kashmir. That has been clear in this debate. Everyone is clear, both today and in the debates over many years, about the strong feelings on this issue in this House and in communities across the country. Equally, we should not allow the fierce debate to obscure the sufferings of the people of Kashmir, their deep desire for an end to conflict and their deep desire to be able to achieve better lives for themselves and their children. A number of measures for that have been outlined, and I have mentioned some of them. I spoke about the tragic consequences of the floods. The people look to a future of freedom from fear, freedom to work and freedom to build a future for their children. The people of Kashmir, after all their long sufferings, deserve no less.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I begin, as others have done, by congratulating Mr Ward on securing this important debate. I apologise that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend Mr Swire, who should be responding to this debate, cannot be here today.
The debate has been not only well-attended, informative and passionate, but constructive, and I am pleased that we have had it. It is our right to debate such matters in this place. India and Pakistan are long-standing and important friends of the United Kingdom, and our unique historical and cultural ties still bind us, as do the important Indian and Pakistani diasporas that have been mentioned. The situation in Kashmir attracts much public and parliamentary interest in the UK, and I welcome the contributions of all hon. Members from both sides of the House.
Before responding to the specific points made during the debate, I will briefly set out the Government’s position on India-Pakistan relations and Kashmir. Before I do that, however, I want to extend, as others have done, the Government’s deepest condolences to all those who have lost family and loved ones in the extensive flooding in Pakistan and in both Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir. We particularly note the offers of assistance to each other by the Governments of India and Pakistan to tackle the humanitarian crisis.
The Department for International Development is of course monitoring the situation, but the UK has not received any request for assistance. We will nevertheless continue to monitor the evolving situation in close co-operation with the European Union and the other bilateral and civil society agencies. The British Government stand ready to assist where appropriate. Our travel advice has been updated to take account of the current flooding, and we advise all British nationals in the area to take extreme care and to contact our consular staff in case of emergency.
The UK Government recognise the importance of a strong relationship between India and Pakistan not only for its own sake, but for regional stability. We encourage both sides to maintain dialogue, the pace and scope of which is for the two countries to determine. In that context, we welcome the renewed engagement between India and Pakistan in recent years, including the potential economic benefits that that would bring. We hope that both sides will continue to take further steps to help the growth of both countries’ economies.
As Mr Spellar, whom I thank for the extra time that he has provided me, highlighted from his position as shadow Minister, we welcomed Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to Prime Minister Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony on
“peaceful, friendly and co-operative ties with Pakistan.”
We agree with Mr Modi that
“any meaningful bilateral dialogue necessarily requires an environment that is free from terrorism and violence”.
The long-standing position of the UK is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution to the situation in Kashmir, one which takes into account, as the shadow Minister said, the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or to mediate in finding one.
I will now address some of the specific points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Bradford East began his speech describing the water issues. Management of water resources is a global challenge that requires international co-operation. Transparent mechanisms already exist to support Indian and Pakistani water management, but it is for both sides to find ways to optimise their water resources effectively. He also asked about UK aid and development, which is a Department for International Development matter, so I will write to him with more detail. However, the long-standing position is that it is for us to feed our funds for Kashmir through Pakistan and through India, and I will provide him with a breakdown of the numbers in writing.
Barry Gardiner gave a passionate speech and was the first to mention the right of this place to debate such matters. He mentioned Edmund Burke, who is a hero of mine and all Government Members, as the philosophical founder of conservatism. I think he was a Whig to begin with, but we will gloss over that.
Indeed. My hon. Friend Jesse Norman has written a book on Burke’s contribution and the right of individuals to have their say. The hon. Member for Brent North also spoke of the importance of the historic elections that have taken place.
My hon. Friend Mr Nuttall also gave a passionate speech and reminded the House of the significant diasporas here in the UK that we represent, many of whom are connected with those who have been caught up in the floods.
Simon Danczuk spoke passionately about the people who actually live in Kashmir and about the challenges on the ground, which stand in sharp relief to the debates taking place elsewhere.
My hon. Friend Steve Baker spoke of the historical ties between the two countries and of the use of the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act in Indian-administered Kashmir. It is also worth mentioning the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. It is important that all judicial practices meet international standards.
I have much to cover, so I will get the Minister of State to write to my hon. Friend on that.
Shabana Mahmood spoke movingly about her relationship with the situation. She brings a passionate and personal aspect and dimension to the debate, which is much better for her contribution and for her bringing her knowledge and experience to bear. She also spoke of human rights violations. India has a strong democratic framework that guarantees human rights within its constitution. However, it also faces numerous challenges relating to size and social and economic development. The British Government are working with the Indian Government to build capacity and share expertise to tackle those challenges, including the promotion and protection of human rights.
Mr Mahmood spoke of the importance of confidence-building measures.
My hon. Friend Paul Uppal took the novel approach of turning up without any notes at all, but he did an amazing job. I will give that method a try the next time that I turn up for a debate—
Probably not as a Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West gave a powerful speech and wisely and rightly placed the conflict into context. He described the limitations of what stakeholders can and cannot do, or should or should not do, away from Kashmir itself.
Mr Sharma spoke about the devastating floods and of the welcome collaboration between Pakistan and India in responding to the event. I agree that it is for the two nations to resolve the matter, and I am pleased that he made that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West—[Hon. Members: “East!”] I am not doing well here; I will bring a compass next time. My hon. Friend Bob Blackman also mentioned flooding. As I said, we have not yet received a request from either Government for assistance, but we are in close contact with the relevant partners in both countries and stand by ready to help. As has been mentioned, we, including under the last Government, have given support during previous disasters in the region. In Pakistan, we are already helping more than 250,000 people who had their livelihoods destroyed in the 2012 flooding to use more productive farming techniques, as well as helping over 70,000 people to build more flood-resilient housing.
Stephen Pound—he is the House’s hon. Friend—gave a characteristically entertaining, passionate and wise speech and spoke of our right to debate such issues. We have that freedom, right and ability to speak, but we must speak responsibly so as not to inflame the situation.
My hon. Friend Andrew Griffiths talked about the impact of the troubles on the people of Kashmir and about the importance of trade and movement across the line of control, which we are keen to encourage.
My right hon. Friend Gregory Barker echoed the importance of the two sides seeking a solution to the issue of Kashmir without other countries such as the UK and the US trying to solve it from afar. He also reminded us of the significance of the date today—9/11—when we saw terrorism try to have an effect on, or make a dent in, our democratic values and democratic society. Sadly, as he knows, I lost a brother to terrorism, killed in the Bali bombing in 2002, so I stand here as someone who is passionate about our democratic values and about the fact that we must stand up to and fight terrorism in all its guises. I defend the right for us to have such debates and to promote democracy throughout the world.
Finally, Gavin Shuker managed to squeeze in at the end, after his flight got in. He spoke about the importance of justice and security issues.
I am grateful to have participated in the debate. We have all learned much about what is happening, bringing the House up to date. I am pleased that on a Thursday, when there is only a one-line Whip for today and tomorrow, we are still able to fill the Chamber and to discuss such matters with the urgency that they deserve. I fully recognise the strength of feeling about the dispute among many people in Britain. I am glad that the debate has given me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Bradford East for raising the issues and hon. Members for their important and valuable contributions. I hope that I leave enough time for the hon. Gentleman to respond.
I will not require all the time, but I thank the Minister. I thank everyone who has taken part in and attended the debate. I think that it has been of value and, personally, I found it interesting to hear the different views. I believe that the debate has been conducted, with a few exceptions, in the right spirit.
I regret that some of the speeches that I have heard today were written before coming to the Chamber, as most would have been, but then not adjusted after I had spoken. Some people anticipated what I would say. I serve a diverse community, including Hindus, Sikhs and, as is known, a large Kashmiri community. I feel that some of the speeches were prepared on the assumption that I would be pro-Pakistan and anti-India. That was unfair, because that is certainly not what I attempted to do, or did, in my speech. I tried to express the concerns of people on either side about malpractices and atrocities on both sides of the line of control.
Some comments were made about the debate itself being inflammatory, but, strangely, it seemed to me that such comments were made by those who made the most inflammatory speeches. They were more partisan than the rest of us. That was a great shame.
Many people have talked about whether it is right for us to discuss the subject. I am bound to say this, but I thought that the balance of the arguments justifying our right and obligation to raise and debate the issue was in favour of doing so. I would say that, wouldn’t I? I stick to my view that we have that right, and that we have exercised it well today.
I was not happy with the criticism from Bob Blackman. It was strange criticism, because one of his arguments was that Kashmir is not our business, that we should not discus it, that Pakistan and India should come up with a solution and that we should not prescribe one. I was then criticised for speaking for so long and for not having come forward with a solution, which I found a strange argument to make. I was carefully avoiding saying what I believe that the two countries and the Kashmiri people should be deciding for themselves. Whatever my beliefs about the subject, I tried to avoid making that comment.
I was also unhappy about what Paul Uppal said. I took exception to his comment about white middle-aged men. I do not feel it necessary to apologise for not being from a large community that I do my very best to represent. I said something along the lines of not wanting to be patronising, but it was then suggested that I was being patronising in some way. I take exception to that.
What did I say? What has been echoed by many of us? First, the issue is one for us to discuss. I welcome the Minister’s comments accepting and acknowledging that, and agreeing with me on that. Secondly, although it is not for us to propose a solution, I said that until a solution can be found, please do not support or commit atrocities. That is the essence of what I was saying. The subject is complex and difficult, otherwise it would have been solved many years ago. I tried to emphasise, however, that violence on either side will never take us closer to a final resolution.
Perhaps we can provide support, as a friend of Pakistan and of India, when the inevitable violent interventions of terrorism on both sides take place. We can ensure support for both the Pakistani and Indian Governments, so that they are not blown off course or derailed when introducing normalisation initiatives, which simply make life more tolerable. The issue is a humanitarian one; it is not about land, or who it belongs to, but about how to make the situation more tolerable for those who are living and have lived in insufferable conditions for so long.
My final point has been made by many other Members. When a solution is being considered, the people of Kashmir themselves must be part of that process. That is the message. Whatever the divide, whatever our opinions or however strongly we feel them, the solution should not be arrived at without hearing the voices of the people of Kashmir. I hope that that is something on which we can find common agreement.
Question put and agreed to.