Yesterday I attended a Westminster Hall debate on Kashmir. The full Hansard transcript of proceedings can be found here. I made the following remarks;
Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): Three foreign policy issues are of acute interest to my constituents: Israel and Palestine, Sri Lanka and Kashmir. Members will have spotted that all three have something in common, which is, of course, the legacy of the British Empire. I very much welcome this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) on securing what I think has been an excellent debate so far. It is rather a daunting prospect to try to add to it.
I particularly enjoyed the speech from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), who, as ever, by highlighting the suffering of a particular individual, throws into sharp relief some difficulties of discussing these questions impartially, given that the real suffering in people’s lives is so great. I also particularly enjoyed the speech from the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), because he reminded us of our duties. I say to him that I think Edmund Burke’s speech was not very well received at the time by his constituents. The hon. Gentleman put me in mind of Auberon Herbert’s essay, “A Politician in Sight of Haven”, which tries to reconcile the tension between party, individual MP and constituents. That is, of course, one of the most difficult duties that we face.
I would like to try to anticipate the Government line, based on past experience. I have the warning against neo-imperialism given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) very much ringing in my ears. The Government line has tended to be that we should stay out of it, and for good reasons. I can see that it is very important that the Government do not do anything either precipitate or counter-productive, and I certainly recognise that the British Government is very much in a cleft stick—but aren’t we all?
I have well over 10,000 constituents for whom the issue of Kashmir is a very present and important one, for some of the reasons that have been given. We are talking about family members, perhaps at one or two removes, who are directly exposed to the issues at stake. In addition to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Rochdale, I refer back to the previous debate we had, where the key issue I raised was the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act and the various allegations that have been made in the report, “A ‘Lawless Law’” by Amnesty International in relation to that Act. Today, as then, it is with some humility that I approach these issues, knowing about the British Government’s prior conduct in Northern Ireland.
Why, then, should we be discussing this issue? It is not to condemn outright either India or Pakistan; it is to try and be helpful and to do our duty to our constituents. When I visited Kashmir, I was very grateful for the opportunity to do so and particularly to meet people at the highest level, in both the Government of Pakistan and the Government of Azad Kashmir. I particularly remember meeting Hina Rabbani Khar, who explained at a conference that the decisive question for the prosperity of the entire region—billions of people—is this question of Kashmir and making real progress with Kashmir. That, in the end, is what matters: real progress—not debates about who called which debate when and what questions have been asked, but real progress. That is the decisive issue, not only for prosperity but for geopolitical stability and the lives of billions of people.
It is essential that the British Government do not do anything counter-productive. However, the previous line has been inadequate, in my view. It is not enough simply to assert the sovereignty of both nations and then to step back. There are two reasons why. First, it is simply a fact that we represent thousands of British Kashmiris and, indeed, thousands of people of Indian descent and it is in their interests and those of their families that we make a constructive contribution on this question.
Second is the point about historical responsibility. One of the things that I have learned—again, with some humility—in my time as a politician is that not everyone sees the world through the same frameworks, through the same world-view. Although I, as someone of a modern or perhaps post-modern mindset, would perhaps not pay any attention to my responsibility for the actions of my forebears, people from other cultures certainly do expect me, as a British Member of Parliament—I see people nodding—to accept my responsibility for the actions of people who were politicians at the time when my grandparents were ordinary working people. It is with that in mind that I say that the British Government, as a result of our legacy of imperialism, do have a responsibility in all these places.
If we just look at Israel and Palestine for a moment, we see the danger of platitudes combined with inaction. For far too long, it has been possible for the British Government to say that the Israeli settlements in the west bank are illegal and then to do nothing. That double standard has created enormous outrage—great gales of anger. Similarly, it is not good enough for the foreign policy establishment to consider, as I have heard it said, that Kashmir is the graveyard of Foreign Secretaries and then to step back and do nothing. That is not good enough, given what is at stake and the number of people whom we represent.
What do I think could be done, and how? We must, as I said, begin in humility—a humility about our legacy. That includes recognising that India and Pakistan are sovereign nations and that we cannot tell them how to behave. We must be humble about the fact that we played our part in creating a problem that has led to the deaths of thousands. When people turn to terrorism within a democracy, we must be humble and recognise the British Government’s own legacy, within living memory, of human rights abuses. We must be careful in our condemnation of India, in so far as India has been condemned, because we must remember that in Northern Ireland people were disappeared because they were either terrorists or thought to be terrorists. Shocking, shameful things are done by democracies when they face terrorism.
Steve Baker: I speak from the experience of my service in the armed forces and people whom I have met who have shared with me their own anecdotes. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not go any further than that.
Controversy always surrounds these issues of territorial dispute. We should be humble about what has gone before. We should accept this truth—that decent people do terrible things when they lose hope. And we should seek to generate hope among them. We must do something extremely unfashionable: we must insist on some principles and must insist on them consistently.
The first of those principles is to say that one of the origins of peace and security is self-government, self-determination and government by consent, which all decent democracies believe in. That means that, particularly given what was shared earlier about the recent electoral history, the Indian Government should not fear asking the people of Kashmir, in the round, whom they wish to be governed by. The second principle is, of course, non-violence. It does no one any good whatever when people turn to violent means to pursue political ends. Political ends must be pursued by persuasion and through peaceful means.
Finally, these great hooray concepts that politicians talk about often come in pairs, and one of the pairs is justice and mercy, so yes, by all means let us have justice and human rights in Kashmir, but let us have mercy, too.