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.