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Peter Oborne is a columnist for Middle East Eye. His books include Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan. Jan-Peter Westad is a freelance journalist.

This week marks the 73rd anniversary of Jammu and Kashmir joining India. The region has been a source of bitter dispute between India and Pakistan ever since.

In India, October 27 will be celebrated as “Accession Day”. But in Pakistan, and for many Kashmiris, it is known as Black Day.

With Narendra Modi’s treatment of Kashmir becoming steadily more brutal, commemorations this year will be sombre.

Kashmiris have been under heavy restrictions since India revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August last year.

This status had given special privileges to permanent residents of Kashmir, including state government jobs and the exclusive right to own property.

It was designed to protect the state’s distinct character as the only Muslim-majority state in India.

Many of these rights have since been undermined by further legal changes. Government jobs that were previously reserved for Kashmiris have now been opened up to Indian citizens. It has also been made easier to revoke residency rights.

With the outbreak of coronavirus, heavily armed police line the streets in ever greater number. Following a communications blackout at the time of the revocation last year, internet access and other means of communication remain limited.

With the outbreak of coronavirus, heavily armed police line the streets in ever greater number. Following a communications blackout at the time of the revocation last year, internet access and other means of communication remain limited.

Journalists, too, face harassment and imprisonment. Nearly 400 journalists & civil society members have called for the release of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan who has been in jail for more than two years.

Only last week, the office of the Kashmir Times, an English-language daily newspaper, was sealed off by Indian officials.

Properties have been destroyed and innocent people are losing their lives. According to human rights organisations, between 1 January and 20 June, there were 229 killings, of which 32 were civilians, 54 were government forces and 143 were militants.

One would have thought this would be a matter of grave concern for the British government, which has gone to great lengths to announce itself as a defender of human rights in recent months.

Earlier this year, Dominic Raab announced new sanctions on human rights abusers. A move he said was “a demonstration of Global Britain’s commitment to acting as a force for good in the world.”

The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office embarked on a highly publicised campaign to protect worldwide media freedoms last year. It constantly uses social media to warn, for example, that “journalists are under attack across the world, threatening basic human rights such as freedom of expression.”

But Raab and the government’s words on Kashmir have been conspicuously sotto voce.

At the time of the revocation in August last year, Raab “expressed concern” to India about their actions, but no action was taken.

Britain’s then high commissioner to India, Sir Dominic Asquith, was similarly limp.

He said the “UK’s position has not changed one degree….We are no different today than we were a year ago, which is, the question of Kashmir has to be sorted out bilaterally between Indian government and Pakistani government, taking into account the wishes of Kashmiri people.”

The government’s position appears to be unchanged, as Nigel Adams, the Asia Minister, made clear. Responding to a written question in July saying it was for India and Pakistan “to find a lasting political resolution on Kashmir”.

To sum up: the official policy of Boris Johnson’s government has been to ignore the Kashmir issue. And pretend that it does not exist.

Hence the importance of the resuscitation of “The Conservative Friends of Kashmir” group in September.

This comprises a group of nine Tory MPs. They tend to have one thing in common: a significant number of Muslim voters in their constituencies.

Many are in areas of Yorkshire or the North West with high Muslim and Pakistani populations, including Mark Eastwood, MP for Dewsbury.

The so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats in the north of England do not just contain a large number of white working class voters. Large numbers of Muslim voters live in them too.

Marco Longhi is MP for the red wall seat of Dudley North in the West Midlands, another region with a large Muslim and Pakistani population. He’s part of the group.

Another member, Steve Baker, is MP for Wycombe where, according to the last census, 13.4% of the constituency are Muslim and 11.8 per cent are Pakistani.

There are more than a million British Pakistanis. Many of whom hail from Kashmir. As many as 70 per cent have been estimated to originate from the Mirpur district of Azad Kashmir, which is administered by Pakistan.

Many British Pakistanis maintain close ties to family in Kashmir. They view the situation in India-administered Kashmir as a great injustice and a burning issue.

And it’s now becoming an issue for certain Conservative MPs keen to hold onto their seats. These MPs are not helped by a foreign policy which gives the appearance of kowtowing to Narendra Modi’s BJP government.

The chairman of Conservative Friends of Kashmir is Peterborough MP, Paul Bristow – another area where the Muslim population of 9.4 per cent is above the national average.

When we rang him last week, he told us that “we’ve left the Kashmir issue to the Labour party and that can’t happen anymore.”

“The fact that a much more aggressive India has abandoned any attempt to be a secular government, combined with basic issues of human rights, means that Kashmir is now an issue for us,” he said.

He stressed how he felt when talking to his constituents who can’t talk to family and friends back in Kashmir.

He told us that his organisation was there to encourage more people from the Kashmiri diaspora into his party’s fold, rather than take a stance on the politics of the region. “We are making it clear that the Conservative Party is for them too.”

But talking about his own views on the UK Government’s foreign policy, he outlined three main objectives. “We need to shine a spotlight on human rights issues in Kashmir.

“We also need to raise the issue of self-determination. Britain doesn’t just say that sovereignty over the Falkland Islands is a matter between Britain and Argentina. We say it’s an international matter. The same should apply in Kashmir.”

“Thirdly, we need to take account of the views of people in Kashmir itself. Not to do so, is morally indefensible.”

These sentiments are bold. They put Bristow and some of those in his band of Tory MPs at odds with government policy. It’s no coincidence that they’ve already come under fierce attack from Bob Blackman, the MP for Harrow East.

Mr Blackman was awarded the Padma Shri award (perhaps the nearest thing India has to a British knighthood) from the Indian government earlier this year, and is a strong supporter of the Modi government.

He is on record defending Modi’s decision to revoke the special status of Kashmir and has previously encouraged voters to support Modi’s BJP party in elections in India.

Until now, Blackman has been far more reflective of Tory opinion than Bristow and his colleagues in the Kashmir group.

There are many reasons for this, including the need of post-Brexit Britain to maintain trading links with Modi’s India, to which must be added Islamophobic opinions among Tory members, with one recent poll finding nearly half of Conservative members believe Islam to be “a threat to the British way of life.”

But when I put these statistics to Paul Bristow, he pointed to the example of Peterborough, which has two Muslim Conservative councillors and a Muslim Conservative mayor. He is battling to build relations with British Muslims. Lets see how he gets on.

45 comments for: Peter Oborne & Jan-Peter Westad: Conservative MPs with Muslim constituents are starting to speak up about Kashmir

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