A debate born of pressure, not purpose

It was as if the Lok Sabha had chosen to debate Britain’s handling of the Ireland question or the Cameron government’s approach to the Scottish independence vote. The Commons backbenchers’ debate on Kashmir in early September, apart from helpfully drawing attention to the urgent need to assist those in the area affected by the recent flooding, seemed inappropriate in timing, content and purpose — unless it was to exacerbate relations between Delhi and Rawalpindi and garner votes for the next British general election.

David Ward, Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, who sponsored the debate, noted that it was the first such event since 1999, apparently oblivious of the irony that such a time span was indicative of the superfluousness of such a debate — given it was about an issue between two sovereign nations to whom the views of backbench British MPs are of little interest. Although a backbenchers’ debate such as this one has no direct influence on government policy it goes into Hansard, the official record of government proceedings.

Cynics might suggest that the debate had more to do with Mr Ward’s precarious electoral position — he won the seat in May 2010 with a one per cent margin over his Labour rival — than any burning desire to find a solution to one of the world’s longest-running disputes. Mr Ward denied, however, that it had anything to do with pressure from his Muslim constituents. He did not give in to such pressures, he told the meeting.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Mr Ward’s long, meandering presentation, peppered with a bewildering array of alphabet soup allusions to various Kashmiri groups, lacked purpose, passion or even a semblance of a suggestion for a solution. Taxed with a question about the appropriateness of the premise to the debate which questioned whether India and Pakistan ‘can’t be trusted to handle their own affairs’, Mr Ward said he thought Britain had an obligation to play a role but he had no suggestions as to what that might be. He feared terrorist fall-out from the region could have global implications and added: ‘The longer it remains unresolved the more dangerous it becomes.’

One analyst was more sanguine: ‘One shouldn’t set too much store by these things. Ward’s figures were not up to date and the timing was ill-advised with the area recovering from severe flooding. The ISI decides it’s time to have another debate. Then the Pakistan High Commission gets in touch with the community to put pressure on the MP. The ISI has a firm grip on the Pakistani community. The debate happens about every three years.’

Leading the charge for India was Barry Gardiner, a Labour Party MP, who said: ‘Britain would be outraged if the Indian parliament debated the merits and demerits of the Scottish referendum.’ He said the debate was ill-judged and added that ‘jihadi elements and terrorists are infiltrating into India from Pakistan as part of a terror campaign… (Indian) soldiers are there not simply to intimidate but to protect the integrity not only of Jammu and Kashmir but the whole Indian nation, which has been subject to vile terrorist attacks.

‘We in Westminster should concern ourselves with forging a new relationship that looks firmly to the future, not with the internal affairs of that great democracy, India.’

Some critics felt that British MPs of Indian-origin should have made a greater effort to turn out and be counted. But what was lacking in numbers was made up by quality with Virendra Sharma for Labour, and Paul Uppal for the Conservatives. In truth, further reinforcements were hardly necessary, given the quality of the opposition they would have been up against.

Priti Patel, prime minister David Cameron’s UK Indian diaspora champion, came in for particular criticism from London-based Indian journalists for not taking part in the debate but she later explained that her office prevented her from so doing:

‘If I were able to participate in the debate, I would have first expressed my deep condolences to all those affected by the devastating floods in the Jammu and Kashmir region.

‘I would also have had the opportunity to join other MPs in stating that any political change affecting the Jammu and Kashmir region is entirely for the local people and Indian and Pakistani authorities to determine. The UK has a special relationship with India, which remains an extremely important international partner, and all renewed engagement between India and Pakistan is welcomed.

‘Indian Prime Minister Modi has shown tremendous leadership in seeking peaceful and lasting resolutions between the two countries, and he is leading these discussions while emphasising the important need to maintain an environment that is free from terrorism and violence.’

Gregory Barker, Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, who is responsible for Britain’s business engagement with India, said: ‘Given Britain’s legacy in India, I have to say that I find the assumption — presumption, rather — that we somehow have a role to play slightly offensive. It smacks of neo-imperialism, it is arrogant and we should respect the extraordinary achievements of India since 1947. Britain would have a role to play only if and when our advice or assistance were sought. Clearly, in this case, it is not.’

Mr Sharma, Labour MP for Ealing, Southall, said: ‘The issue being discussed, as it has been framed, has cause to be divisive for the diaspora communities in this country. It could not only bear a negative impact on the UK’s thriving relationship with India, but prove to be an intrusion into the internal affairs of democratic countries.

‘Jammu and Kashmir is currently facing its worst floods in half a century. With areas still inaccessible, many people are still stranded and in danger. Multitudes are currently homeless. I congratulate the Indian government, who have shown their commitment to the people of Jammu and Kashmir by providing immediate assistance to the flood victims through their massive ongoing rescue and relief operation.

‘Kashmir has certainly been the subject of much contention over the years, but it is clearly an issue that rests in the hands of the two democratic countries involved — India and Pakistan — and not in those of a third party. There is continued dialogue between India and Pakistan. Any issue concerning Kashmir should remain a concerted effort for those two nations to resolve.

‘Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India, the largest democracy in the world, one that is secular, and with elected representation from all the country’s main religions. The elections in Jammu and Kashmir are open to all. All citizens, regardless of their faith or political beliefs, have been encouraged to exercise their democratic right. As I am sure we will all agree, in a free democracy the ballot box is the best illustration of the will of the people. The elections in Jammu and Kashmir have not reflected any determination for separatism. It is for us to respect the democratic choice of the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir, not to question it.

‘Furthermore, at a time when all three main parties advocate a greater and closer relationship with India, this debate and involvement in its internal affairs threatens the very future of our bilateral interest. We have heard statements from the Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. They have all said that this is not our responsibility. Every leader has said that they will intervene or assist if asked to do so.’

— Frank Smith