Parvez Akhtar is an engine design specialist and a former Conservative mayoral candidate for Bedford.
Part of London was brought to a standstill by a demonstration outside the Indian High Commission last Thursday. This annual event usually passes without much fanfare as a few hundred people protest about the plight of Kashmiris on the day India celebrates its independence from Britain.
However, this year, it attracted a huge crowd of many thousands from across the country incensed by the recent decisions of the BJP government. These include: instituting a total communications blackout (from phone lines to internet to television) on the region; placing Kashmiri politicians, including those sympathetic to India, under house arrest; introducing a complete curfew now in its third week; and, crucially, revoking Article 370 and 35A from the constitution.
Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the disputed territory of Kashmir has been occupied by the two countries. Article 370 and 35A were added to the Indian constitution to buy support from the Kashmiris and ensure they ceded the territory to India, not Pakistan. These protections afforded Kashmiris special rights and privileges and for 72 years, Indian-administered Kashmir has remained autonomous as a result.
But the removal of this constitutional protection on the August 5 means that the state has effectively been annexed by India.
As troubling is the way this was done in the world’s largest democracy. Indian law requires the assent of Kashmir’s state legislature for any change but in order to get around this, the Hindu Nationalist BJP government of Modi dissolved the state legislature and an emergency federal rule was imposed on Kashmir, which allowed Delhi to unilaterally change the law.
At this point, ConservativeHome readers will argue we have enough on our plate delivering Brexit, mending public services and keeping Corbyn out of Number 10. So why is what’s happening in Kashmir important?
Firstly, there are over a million people in Britain of Kashmiri origin, some of whom are spread over 30 or so battleground constituencies where the size of the majority is smaller than the Kashmiri vote. Although this vote is historically more Labour-leaning, over the last decade a lot of progress has been made in seats like Bedford, Watford, Milton Keynes North, Wycombe, Peterborough, Burton, Walsall North, Crawley, Reading West, Worcester, and Pendle. All the MP’s in those seats get regular representations on the issue from their constituents.
Our Government’s response on the latest crisis has fallen well short, perhaps because the focus is elsewhere but on the eve of a crucial General Election, a million votes are at stake.
Secondly, the United Kingdom has called out unjust, illegal, and undemocratic actions of governments around the world – East Timor, South Sudan, Kosovo, and Hong Kong to name a few. Kashmir should be no exception, especially as we ruled the princely state for over 200 years and left without resolving its status during the partition of 1947. Having played a part in the enduring conflict between India and Pakistan, it important to bring both sides to the negotiating table so that UN resolutions, which give the people of the state the right of self-determination, can be implemented.
What about trade? Can we afford to upset India post Brexit? Our exports to India amount to some 5.7 billion… but our imports are closer to 10 billion. The Indian economy is contracting, and having spent two and a half years in India with Jaguar Landrover, I have seen first-hand rise of unemployment amongst young engineers and graduates. Just as in the case of the EU with Brexit, I would argue India needs us more then we need her.
Our exports to China are also five times those to India but the intervention of the Foreign Secretary on Hong Kong shows we won’t be held hostage to trade when it comes to calling out violation of international law or abuse of human rights.
How about the geopolitics of the region? Isn’t India important to counter the rise of China? Yes, it is, but I would argue Pakistan is even more important, because it serves as a gateway into central Asia and has played a vital role in the war in Afghanistan. The Belt & Road Initiative is already strengthening the co-operation between Pakistan and China, and allowing India to annex Kashmir, would drive Pakistan further into the arms of China.
Militancy and terrorist attacks may also increase in India and if relations deteriorate further we could end up with a fourth war between the two nuclear armed states, which is why the United Nations Security Council met for the first time in over 50 years to discuss the conflict at a special session behind closed doors last Friday.
This is an untimely headache for the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, who have full inbox at the moment, but for all the reasons I have mentioned Kashmir really does matter to us. As a permanent member of the UN security council, our government must continue to press for the implementation of the 11 United Nations resolutions which give the people of Kashmir the right of self-determination.