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Volume 282: debated on Wednesday 24 July 1996

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1 pm

I am pleased to introduce this short debate on the future of Kashmir. I have notified the Minister that the hon. Members for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) and for Keighley (Mr. Waller) hope to contribute briefly. I am glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) and for Tooting (Mr. Cox) are in their places, together with the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway)—all of whom have taken a considerable interest in the Kashmir dispute over many years.

Since 1990, there has been a popular insurrection by the people of Kashmir in support of the right of self-determination, for which they have struggled in the face of a determined effort to eradicate their state. We have seen the displacement of 2 million Kashmiris over a long period, the killing of 40,000 Kashmiris, the murder of an entire generation of young Kashmiris, and the transfer of large numbers of non-Kashmiris to Kashmir, with the clear objective of diluting the indigenous population and facilitating a more favourable electorate.

We have seen the occupation of Kashmir by 700,000 members of the Indian forces—one member of the Indian security forces for every 10 Kashmiris. We have seen the systematic destruction of the local economy, grievous pollution of the Kashmiri environment, gross human rights violations, systematic curfews, house searches, rape, torture, detention without trial and disappearances.

We have seen an orchestrated bid to remove political and other leaders of the Kashmiri people by assassination and disappearance, and sustained efforts to erode the Kashmiri language and culture. All that has occurred over many long years.

The recent elections in Kashmir were widely condemned by the international media, who reported widespread intimidation and coercion of Kashmiri people by Indian military forces. Before the elections, there was one member of the Indian military forces for every four Kashmiris.

The British Government have equivocated in the face of challenges to the free and fair nature of those elections. It was absurd of the Government to refuse to publish a report by a British high commission official from Delhi who observed the Kashmir elections, on the ground that it was a confidential internal document. That absurdity caused widespread concern in the House and outside, and I hope that the Minister will say today that the report will be published, so that we may all know the views of the British official who was asked to observe the elections.

The current view of the Indian Government is that state elections will take place in September. It is important that candidates should not be required to sign a declaration of support for the Indian constitution, and essential that a large number of international observers are present in Kashmir to monitor the elections.

The new Indian Government have received an overwhelming welcome. We all wish Prime Minister Gowda well in overcoming the awesome problems facing his country. Senior members of his Cabinet are known for their sympathetic understanding of the Kashmir dispute, which they have demonstrated in courageous ways in the past. I think particularly of Foreign Minister Gujral, Home Minster Gupta, and Defence Minister Yadav of the United Front Government of India.

A recently published document, "The United Front: A Common Approach to Major Policy Matters and a Minimum Programme" concludes:
"India today is in the midst of a major transition in its economic, social and political life. This is a transition period which will be guided by the need to strengthen the principles of democracy, secularism, federalism and social justice. The ethos of our humanist tradition and the aspirations of the Independence struggle inspire the United Front Government to carry out the above programme. In the building of this new India of equality, justice and fraternity, we seek the fullest participation of all citizens. The hallmark of the United Front Government's approach will be the greater and greater involvement of our people in all its endeavours."
The section on Jammu and Kashmir states:
"the problems of Jammu and Kashmir will be resolved through giving the people of that State the maximum degree of autonomy."
That important statement comes from a new Government who have clearly broken the mould of Indian politics, which will never be the same again now that the Gandhi dynasty has been broken. In the climate of enormous opportunities and challenges that that presents, the British Government should say what they propose to do. This country has a shared history with the Indian subcontinent. The core reasons for the Kashmir conflict go back to before independence in 1947. We carry an enormous responsibility for the present situation. The situation in Kashmir today is unacceptable to the international community and to the vast majority of the British public, including the Kashmiri community in this country.

Do the Government have the will and political determination to encourage talks between the Governments of India and Pakistan—if necessary, talks about talks? The UK convened several conferences to resolve the Bosnian conflict. Why not a conference in London to find a way out of the Kashmir conflict? We have appointed a special envoy to try to resolve the Cyprus dispute. Why not a special envoy to do the same in respect of Kashmir? There are close parallels.

Will the British Government press the Indian Government to allow access to Kashmir by UN rapporteurs—particularly those responsible for investigating torture and executions? It is intolerable that successive Indian Governments have isolated the people, problems and conflicts of Kashmir from world and international opinion. They have consistently refused Amnesty International and other human rights groups access to Kashmir and the right to move freely around the country.

Will our Government now press the new Government of India to allow human rights groups access to Kashmir? Will they press the new Government of India to grant visas to Lord Avebury and an international mission which applied for visas weeks ago, which wishes to mediate on the hostages taken more than a year ago in Kashmir? We shall all appreciate it if the Minister gives us the latest reports on the hostages.

We should remember that the people of Kashmir have demonstrated against and condemned the taking of hostages and condemned those who were responsible for taking the hostages, who were kidnapped more than a year ago. Several leading Kashmiri politicians have sought to mediate and ensure that those hostages are released immediately alive and well. So Kashmiri politicians and the Kashmiri people do not condone hostage-taking. Indeed, their struggle is for the right to self-determination and it is clearly based on democratic means.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, since 1947, there have been elections in Kashmir, and democratic Governments have been established who have not at any stage demanded independent status for the people of Kashmir? Does he accept that there is outside interference, and that the terrorists who are killing ordinary people are being armed from outside? Those who have taken up arms are not even citizens of Pakistan, but citizens of other countries.

My hon. Friend has a perfect right to express his views. I do not agree entirely with all that he says. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, it is clear that a popular insurrection is under way in Kashmir, which is based on the determined struggle for the right to self-determination. The outcome of self-determination is for the people of Kashmir. We are concerned that the people of Kashmir should be given an early opportunity to decide the destiny of their country.

Will the British Government press the Government of India to allow journalists from around the world freely to report what is happening in Kashmir, and to allow Members of this House and the other place easy access to visas to enable them to visit Kashmir and talk to the people of Kashmir?

Kashmir represents today the most serious threat to regional peace. Both India and Pakistan have gone to war over Kashmir. Both now have nuclear capability. Both countries are using enormous amounts of scarce resources to purchase military hardware and pursue a military solution in Kashmir. That is unavailable; there is no military solution to the Kashmiri conflict. There can be only a political solution. We need to encourage India and Pakistan to declare war on poverty and use their scarce resources to relieve the awesome poverty that both countries confront, and not to pursue military means of resolving the Kashmiri conflict.

Her Majesty's Government have a key role to play. They have a responsibility to find a lasting, peaceful, political settlement. I hope today that we may hear from the Minister some change of thinking and, more particularly, some indication of what action Her Majesty's Government are prepared to take. A more proactive, robust role would be widely welcomed, and might bring a resolution to the conflict earlier rather than later.

1.13 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) for the opportunity to participate in this most valuable debate. One of the encouraging aspects of the long dispute in Kashmir is that, for many years, there has been a bipartisan or tripartisan approach to the issue among Back-Bench Members.

The long conflict over Kashmir can be regarded only as a terrible tragedy, not only for the people of Kashmir but for all the people of the subcontinent. Kashmir's status is essentially the nub of the serious tension which exists between the two great powers of India and Pakistan. It is difficult to imagine the enormous cost to both countries of maintaining such substantial defence forces, which are largely devoted to this single conflict in a small part of south Asia. As the hon. Member for Bradford, West said, the cost greatly outweighs the resources devoted to education, health and social services in the subcontinent.

Britain and other aid-giving countries cannot be indifferent to the disparities in Kashmir. Therefore, although the conflict cannot ultimately be resolved without the commitment of both India and Pakistan, we have a duty to express our concern, and exert some pressure on the parties to negotiate seriously about the future of the territory.

As the hon. Member said, the irregularities and abuses in the most recent elections were well documented in the world's media. New elections for an assembly are now planned by India, and it is most important that international observers should be allowed to be present. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will put some pressure on India to allow that to take place.

The nature of the powers in south Asia in the world today make the dispute in Kashmir one of the most intransigent and dangerous. I hope that, in the 50th year since independence and partition, if we cannot look forward to an imminent resolution, at least some significant progress can be made towards that happy outcome.

1.16 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) for allowing me a little time to intervene in this debate. It is a shame that we have such a short debate. I should like us to have a long debate in the House in Government time about Kashmir.

We are all aware of the documented evidence of torture. We know that cases of rape occur daily. It is intolerable for the people of Indian-controlled Kashmir that the situation should continue. I hope that the Government will use their good offices with the new Indian Government—there is hope now because there is a new Indian Government—to persuade them to come to the negotiating table along with Pakistan to find a just solution and to consult the people of Kashmir. The people of Kashmir have a right to self-determination and to discuss and decide their own future. We cannot continue in this way.

I sincerely hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance today that he and his Government are prepared to put pressure on India to make sure that the human rights abuses stop and that India comes to the negotiating table.

1.18 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) for requesting this debate. I know that the Kashmiri situation continues to be a matter of great concern to him and his constituents and to many others on both sides of the House, as the debate demonstrates. It is also a matter of serious concern to the Government, as I am sure everyone is aware. Therefore, I am pleased to have an opportunity to explain the Government's thinking on this difficult issue.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who is the new Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. As from the end of this debate, he will have direct responsibility for south Asia, in which I wish him well. He is assiduous in his research.

I can assure the hon. Member for Bradford, West that we pay close attention to developments in Kashmir. That has always been the case, and it is even more so now. Indeed, for more than a year we have had a permanent presence in Srinagar as part of our continuing efforts to secure the release of two British citizens, Paul Wells and Keith Mangan, who were kidnapped by militants last summer. They were taken, together with an American, a German and a Norwegian, in early July 1995. Very sadly, the Norwegian was killed in August 1995, and we have not had proof of life for the others since 28 August 1995.

We should not debate the subject of Kashmir without remembering the suffering that all the hostages' families have been through, and continue to endure. Members of the Foreign Office's consular division are in contact with them daily. Our thoughts are always with them and their loved ones as efforts continue in Delhi, Islamabad, Srinagar and capitals throughout the world to find out what has happened to them. These four are caught in an issue that is not of their making, and we owe them all our efforts.

Hostage taking is counter-productive. The kidnapping of Paul, Keith and the others has done nothing but harm to the Kashmir cause. Political leaders in the valley know that. We are grateful to those who have demanded the release of our citizens. We ask those political leaders, and others, to redouble their efforts to help us to establish what has happened to the four of them.

Kashmir has been a theatre of conflict for far too long. The Kashmiri people deserve better than to live their lives in an atmosphere of violence and intimidation. It is 10 years since I was last there, but I remember the beauty of the landscape and the friendliness of the people. Kashmir's reputation has led many thousands of tourists to the edge of Lake Srinagar, to trek into the hills or to buy the excellent carpetware for which the region is rightly famed. Kashmir had a successful tourist industry, but it is no more—the insurgency has ended that. It has brought danger to the region. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office now advises British visitors not to go. We do not want more kidnaps.

Kashmir has been a theatre of conflict for too long. It continues to bedevil relations between two great countries, India and Pakistan, two great friends of the United Kingdom. We regret that.

I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members are familiar with our policy on Kashmir. We believe that the way forward must involve simultaneous progress on three fronts. The first is bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan. Self-evidently, both India and Pakistan are crucial to a settlement, but it is not easy, because they are two neighbours who do not talk. We would like them to, not only on Kashmir but on the full range of bilateral issues, and we have told them so and written to tell them so.

The atmosphere now is encouraging—better than it has been for some time, as the hon. Member for Bradford, West rightly deduced. Since the election of a United Front Government in Delhi, both sides have expressed a willingness to resume talks. We warmly welcomed that. This might initially be at senior official level, continuing talks last held in January 1994. There is no agreement to do so yet, but quiet diplomacy is continuing behind the scenes. We take this opportunity to urge both sides again to agree to hold talks.

Now is surely the right time. It is 25 years since India and Pakistan last went to war. Twenty-five years after the second world war, victors and vanquished had formed new alliances. They had recognised that it made more sense to work together for common prosperity, as equal partners, than to turn their backs on one another. The same could be true in south Asia.

If India and Pakistan do resume talks, I hope that they will agree to open a new chapter in their relationship, to try to establish greater trust between the two Governments and the two peoples. We are keen for greater links to be developed between the two—more trade, more tourism, more exchanges. The hostility that has existed between these two great countries, both Commonwealth nations, with so much in common, has spawned, fanned and sustained the violence in Kashmir.

But what about the Kashmiris? Should they not have a say in the future of their home? Yes, of course they should. An improvement in the relationship between India and Pakistan is a sine qua non for any lasting settlement to the Kashmir problem; but equally important is the development of a genuine political process in which the aspirations of the population can be accommodated. We have not spelt out what that process should be, because it is not for us to do so, but we have said that elections can be part of the process.

There has been much interest in the House in the parliamentary elections held recently in Kashmir. Members on both sides of the House have criticised them, noting specifically the allegations of coercion that were reported in the Indian and international press. We saw those reports of pressure being exerted on people to vote, reports which we are not in a position to dismiss. The elections were not perfect—the statements of the Indian election commissioners implicitly recognise that—but the issue is peace and how to get there.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said in the House on 10 July, free and fair elections can play a part in leading the way from violence towards dialogue and a political settlement of these difficult problems. The voting in the parliamentary elections showed that elections there can take place, and that many of the population want to vote. They are fed up with violence; they want peace. We can all sympathise with that, because terrorism does not offer a way forward. Democracy does.

The hon. Member for Bradford, West mentioned the publication of the high commission's report on the elections. The report was written by one member of our high commission who visited Kashmir during the elections. It is not possible to publish a copy of the report, and it is therefore not possible to place it in the Library of the House, because it is a confidential internal document. I believe that it contains critical information, which we should absorb. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we take the internal report very seriously.

It is important that we try to encourage elections, and that they be free and fair.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I know that time is short.

I too very much welcome the opportunity for the Kashmiri people to express their opinions, but does the Minister accept that it is crucial to a democratic process that people be allowed the right to say what they want and to express their opinions on the whole political position? Is it not the case that the elections that the Indians are talking about would take place on the basis that, unless candidates subscribed to the Indian constitution, they would be committing acts of treason, were they to advocate, for example, that Kashmir should not be part of India? That surely cannot be a true democratic process.

The House should be aware that the Indian authorities want to hold state elections in Kashmir in the autumn; these will be the first state elections since 1987, and will bring an end to President's rule from Delhi. It is only right that the people in Jammu and Kashmir should have the right to elect local representatives and be governed by them, and we hope that, if elections are held, militants and political leaders in the valley will allow those who wish to participate to do so, and that the wishes of those who prefer not to vote will be respected.

If the Indian Government decided to invite international observers to monitor the elections, we would definitely welcome that, and it would enable the elections—

I said "briefly". In welcoming these provincial elections, will my right hon. Friend make it clear that it would be quite wrong if anyone was scared off voting by militant terrorists?

Absolutely; indeed, I have just said that. I agree with my hon. Friend.

If the Indian Government decided to invite observers, we would welcome it; it would allow the elections to take place in an atmosphere of greater trust—that is something that has been lacking in previous elections. Furthenmore, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said on 10 July, it would make an important and significant contribution to the credibility of any electoral process in such a sensitive area.

Elections must be part of the process, but there must be a dialogue between the Indian Government in Delhi and the political leaders in Kashmir if peace is to return, and the development of a genuine political process is important. So too is the improvement of human rights there. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) spoke graphically on that subject.

The situation continues to cause us grave concern. Members of the security forces continue to be implicated in allegations of human rights abuses. Recently, there have been some improvements in the position, but we should like to see more.

The greatest threat to human rights in the region is the cycle of violence that the local population has had to suffer since the insurgency began. We have long called for an end to external support for this violence, but, sadly, it continues. Indeed, it seems likely that many of those responsible for the kidnapping of Paul Wells and Keith Mangan were not Kashmiris.

I recognise that terrorist violence makes life difficult for the security forces in Kashmir, and that they are there in large numbers. As hon. Members know only too well, terrorism must not be allowed to triumph, and tough action is necessary. But the fight against terrorism must not compromise respect for human rights. We know that from Northern Ireland, where our forces are conscious of the need to respect human rights in maintaining law and order.

I am grateful that the Indian Government are showing a willingness to give access to outside observers and international humanitarian organisations. A key development was their agreement in the past year to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to Kashmir.

So what can the UK do? First, it is not right for us to seek to impose a solution. It is for those directly involved to discuss the way forward. I am often asked by those who fail to understand the complexity of the situation why the UK could not mediate. Mediation would work only if the fundamental conditions were right, and both India and Pakistan wanted it.

Order. The next debate is on the defence industry in the north-west. I call Mr. Nigel Evans.