New Delhi: Britain’s opposition Labour Party has taken an unusually aggressive position against India’s move to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status.
While this is being seen as a major departure from the longstanding bipartisan consensus in London to treat the Kashmir issue as a strictly bilateral one between India and Pakistan, diplomatic observers said the shift is rooted in the local politics of Britain.
A significant chunk of the supporters of Labour Party members who have raised their voice against the Modi government’s move to scrap Article 370 have their roots in Pakistan or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), they said.
The Labour Party was one of the first to react when the Narendra Modi government made its shock announcement on 5 August to scrap Article 370 and split Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories. Labour MP Liz McInnes, who is also the party’s ‘Shadow Foreign Minister’, issued a statement the same evening when no other country had reacted to the development.
In a detailed statement, the party said, India’s decision to scrap the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, and its bifurcation “threatens stability in the region and the chances of a peaceful resolution which is so desperately needed”.
McInnes even urged UK’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab to “do everything within his power to deescalate this tense and threatening situation and end the cycle of violence and fear within which generation after generation of Kashmiri children have grown up for the last seven decades”.
This was followed by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s tweet last Sunday. “The situation in Kashmir is deeply disturbing. Human rights abuses taking place are unacceptable. The rights of the Kashmiri people must be respected and UN resolutions implemented,” he wrote.
As many as eight Labour MPs have even urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to call the Modi government’s move on Kashmir illegal and unjustified.
MP Yasmin Qureshi, who represents Bolton South East, wrote a letter to Johnson, urging him to “strongly condemn the actions of the Indian government” and its “illegal and unconstitutional revocation of Article 370 to annex Kashmir”.
Qureshi was born in Pakistan’s Gujrat city and moved to Britain when she was nine years old.
Labour vs Tories over Kashmir
The Labour Party’s combative mood was countered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Tories.
Conservative Party MP Bob Blackman also shot off a letter to 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British PM, condemning the Labour Party for reacting on India’s “internal matter”.
Blackman wrote that the Constitutional changes are an “internal matter” for India, which is a “long-standing friend and ally” of the Britain.
“It has been the long-held position of successive UK governments that any matter concerning Kashmir is a strictly bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. We should urgently clarify whether the Labour Party has decided to break with cross-party consensus given the significant adverse impact this would have upon the future of UK-India relations,” Blackman said.
He also went on to accuse the Labour Party of being “anti-Indian” and “anti-Hindu” that is not keen on establishing a long-term friendly relationship with India.
Last week, after a telephone conversation between Prime Minister Johnson and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan, 10 Downing Street had issued a statement saying the situation in Kashmir was “serious” while agreeing to the fact that a dialogue on the issue has to be maintained.
Raab, on other hand, said that he has conveyed Britain’s “concerns” to India’s foreign minister S. Jaishankar.
Analysts said they are not surprised by the hard turn of the Labour Party on Kashmir. After all, British-Pakistani and Muslim voters have helped revive the party and even propelled its leader Corbyn to Labour leadership, they said.
According to a survey conducted in 2017 by Pakistan-based The News and Geo TV, there were around 39 constituencies in Britain in which more than 1,000 voters were Muslims. “A clear pattern in all constituencies shows that more than 90 per cent of these voters voted for Labour as Conservatives didn’t make any effort to connect with these voters,” the survey said.
A British problem
India has long viewed Britain to be pro-Pakistan on the Kashmir issue even though successive governments in London, including the present one headed by Johnson, have generally sought to maintain their distance from the thorny dispute.
In 1985, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had raised serious concerns with then British PM Margaret Thatcher, who was a Conservative Party member, for creating a ‘Parliamentary Committee on Kashmir’ that largely constituted MPs whose voters were mostly of Pakistani origin.
During his visit to Pakistan in 2006, then British prime minister Tony Blair, a Labour Party leader, had ruled out the possibility of Britain mediating peace between India and Pakistan on Kashmir.
However, Blair had also linked the Kashmir dispute and Chechen fighting with the war that was underway in Iraq, Afghanistan and West Asia. He had even described the incidents as the overarching “arc of Muslim extremism” across the world.
Later, it was David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister for six years from 2010, who had said that Britain was responsible for many of the world’s historic problems, including the conflict in Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
While he rejected Pakistan’s request for mediation with India, Cameron had said during one of his visits to Islamabad: “I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.”
Ambition to mediate
Some experts, however, said that a section of British politicians has always nurtured a secret desire to mediate peace between India and Pakistan.
“It is a very serious situation and is affecting Indian and Pakistani communities in the UK,” British military historian Victoria Schofield, who has done extensive research on Kashmir, told ThePrint.
Schofield, author of ‘Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and The Ending War’, said that in 1997 the Labour Party had passed a resolution that the Kashmir issue was part of the unfinished business of Partition.
“Their (Labour Party) various Members of Parliament who had people in their constituencies from Pakistan-administered Kashmir had done a lot of lobbying prior to the passage of the resolution. So, the reaction now reflects that sentiment,” she added.
Nandan Unnikrishnan, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), said, “In a charitable way the Labour Party seems genuinely concerned that there can be a flare-up between India and Pakistan.”
“However, personally I think this does not come as a surprise that British politicians want to be seen relevant by trying to meddle between India and Pakistan,” he added.
According to another expert, who did not wish to be identified, the issue also connects with the presence of Indian as well as Pakistani diaspora in Britain, who are major vote banks.
Former diplomat Neelam Deo, director of Mumbai-based Gateway House, said, “The UN resolutions are long outdated. Besides, Corbyn who has no locus standi in this matter should see what the UNSG (United Nations Secretary General) himself has said. Britishers who have historically created problems around the world should now focus on the mess that is BREXIT.”
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