The community cohesion post at HCLG is viewed as the most junior in the department. Which is why it was originally siphoned off to Andrew Stunell, the only Liberal Democrat placed in it when the Coalition was formed, while the Conservatives bagged housing, planning and local government finance. The present holder of the post isn’t even in the Commons: he is Nick Bourne, the former leader of the Welsh Party, now Lord Bourne and re-badged as Minister for Faith.
Given this set-up, it would be well worth James Brokenshire keeping half an eye on the military escalation between India and Pakistan. The two countries have fought three wars since they were founded over a territory about which both make claims: the former princely state of Kashmir. In a nutshell, India occupies a part of it, the valley, against the wishes of its inhabitants, and has a long record of committing human rights abuses there; Pakistan, meanwhile, equips, trains and manipulates jihadi terrorists, who cross the line of control to commit atrocities in Indian-occupied Kashmir and in India itself.
The present flare-up was sparked by an attack on Indian police in the valley which left 40 of them dead. The Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group was responsible for the assault. A line of control separates the Indian and Pakistani-occupied parts of Kashmir. The terrorists will almost certainly have crossed it to carry out the attack. They would not be able to operate in Pakistani-controlled territory without the protection of the Pakistan Government.
Consequently, India launched retaliatory air strikes. Unsurprisingly, there are conflicting accounts of who they hit and to what effect, but what is certain is that at least one Indian plane was shot down and at least one pilot captured. He has duly been paraded on Pakistani television. That Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, faces an election shortly is inflaming the situation: he must prove to the country’s voters that he won’t go soft on terror. Imran Khan, his Pakistani counterpart (yes: that Imran Khan), has sought to pour oil on these troubled waters. There will be more to his motives than meets the eye, but his words are worth pondering none the less.
“With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we afford a miscalculation? Shouldn’t we think about what will happen if the situation escalates?” he said, calling for talks. As we write, Modi, doubtless with that election in view and outraged Indian voters in mind, isn’t willing to take up the offer. Most likely, the confrontation will simmer down, and the near-70 year old Kashmir dispute duly vanish from the headlines, before duly simmering up again.
But there is always a chance that it will not. There will now be over 1.5 million people of Indian origin in Britain and at least that many people of Pakistani origin. Roughly 60 per of these are, strictly speaking, not Pakistanis at all: they originate from the Mirpur area of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The two populations don’t exactly live side by side, but they do share parts of some cities, such as Birmingham and Leicester. Local councils will be in the lead when it comes to defusing potential tensions, but national government also has a role – just as it does in relation to the Israel-Palestine dispute, which is more visible, at least to Britain’s white majority.
The Attlee Government may not have handled Britain’s departure from the old imperial India well, but given the country’s communalism there would doubtless have been mass bloodshed in any event. In a different world, there would be some Northern Ireland-type solution to the Kashmir problem. But neither India nor Pakistan are remotely, to borrow a phrase that Brokenshire sometimes uses in other contexts, “in that space”. For the moment, he can only watch, get briefed and plan, but “they also serve who only stand and wait”.