I beg to move,
That this House has considered the political situation in Kashmir.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I will not take interventions, as this is a short debate and I want everybody to have an opportunity to say what they want and need to say.
I am sure we have all caught ourselves at some stage moaning about lockdown, but for the people of Kashmir it is not something new and, unlike here, in Kashmir lockdown is not about safety; it is about control. In our lockdown, we talk about Netflix, FaceTime and Zoom. In Kashmir, it is very different. The lockdown of 2019 shut off entire communities and their communications to the outside world. Around 7 million people have been silenced and cut off. There were families worried about loved ones. Students studying in Luton were unable to get fees paid by parents in Kashmir, as banking ceased. There are curfews to control people lives, not a virus—a lockdown enforced by half a million soldiers.
When Narendra Modi stripped Kashmir of its autonomy and statehood in August 2019, he also cancelled Kashmiris’ rights to land and jobs. Along with the loss of rights came the loss of dreams for so many. It has also laid bare the true motivation for such a removal of freedoms for the entire world to see—see, yet say nothing about, and, in most cases unfortunately, do nothing about as well.
I have attended numerous meetings with people living in Luton and internationally—those who live in Jammu and Kashmir, those who have loved ones there and people who just care about human rights. A person does not and should not have to be Kashmiri to care about their struggle for self-determination—their struggle to live safely and freely. What happens in Kashmir is felt across the world and in communities such as mine in Luton North.
The pandemic has not slowed the reports of human rights abuses. In some cases, it has exacerbated people’s pain. Muslims have reported being turned away from hospitals. That is shocking at the best of times, but especially so during a global pandemic. There are spates of unexplained and uninvestigated killings. The recent killing of two young men and a 16-year-old boy, Athar Mushtaq, must be investigated. Will the Minister join the call for a transparent investigation into their deaths? Will he make that call clear to his relevant international counterparts?
As with all war, sadly, women are the silent casualties. The situation in Kashmir is no different. There are numerous reports of Kashmiri women and girls being raped. Senior officials in the Bharatiya Janata party have put on record their intentions to make Kashmiri women a part of the conflict. The Chief Minister of Haryana said:
“Some people are now saying that as Kashmir is open, brides will be brought from there. But jokes apart, if [the gender] ratio is improved, then there will be a right balance in society”.
That is appalling. I have heard from women in Kashmir who are terrified of being assaulted by the thousands of soldiers on their doorstep. Women fear for their lives and do not feel safe.
We often hear about the UK’s commitment to women’s rights, but will the Minister’s actions match the rhetoric? What guarantees can he give that rape claims in asylum cases from Kashmiri women will be taken seriously by his colleagues at the Home Office, especially after the worrying reports from Women Against Rape that thousands of asylum-seeking women were either disbelieved out of hand or not routinely asked if they had suffered sexual violence in asylum interviews? I sincerely hope that changes.
I want to raise with the Minister an issue not often discussed regarding Kashmir, but which is incredibly important in the world we live in. What are the Government doing to tackle the use of social media sites, in particular WhatsApp, which are used to stoke the flames of division and further weaponise Islamophobia in the region? Online communication is now part of modern-day warfare. We regularly see states and leaders—not just Trump—use online propaganda as part of their arsenal. On the flip side, Kashmiris’ freedom of speech online is suffocated to the point that any criticism of the Indian Government risks terrorism charges. Will the Minister commit to work internationally on online propaganda, fake news, the spread of racism and the measures taken to silence news coming from Kashmir?
The fight for Kashmiris to determine their own future is now decades-long, and that outcome looks further from reality than ever before. I wish we were here to talk about what the future of Kashmir could look like—how its people could rightly shape and be in charge of their own destiny. What would come next? However, given the current political situation in Jammu and Kashmir, it is clear that we are a long way from realising that hope.
Until the people of Kashmir have the most fundamental of all human rights—to live safely and to be free from fear—we must, and we will, continue to stand with the people of Kashmir. I say to Kashmiris, whether in Kashmir or in Luton North, you have not only my solidarity, but my enduring friendship and commitment to keep fighting until your human rights are protected, now and in the future.
As people can see, there are eight people on the call list wishing to speak. I want to get to the Front-Bench spokespersons by as close to 5.10 pm as possible, so we will start with a limit of five minutes, which will probably have to be reduced. I call James Daly.
Thank you very much, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this important debate, and I agree with absolutely every word that she said in respect of this issue.
The voices of individual MPs in different parts of the country are so important. I have a large Kashmiri diaspora in my constituency. Throughout the general election campaign, the most important issue for that section of my population—they are the friendliest, most entrepreneurial and most positive, decent people whom I have had the pleasure to meet—was the issue of Kashmir. It came back to the issue of human rights, which is what I want to talk about today.
It will not surprise you, Mr Davies, that the first speech I wrote was far too long and wordy. It was a history lesson that we do not need to hear today. What we need to concentrate on is that this is a human rights issue. I am lucky enough to be an officer of the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group. It seems a long time ago, but we went to Kashmir in February and March of last year. I went with my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) and Labour Members. The reason we went—I hesitate to speak on behalf of my hon. Friend—is that it is not enough to say to our constituents, “Yes, I can read about this in a book.” After speaking to my constituents during the general election, I wanted to go to the frontline to ask people who are affected by the crisis and the ongoing human rights disaster what was going on. As one example, we went to a refugee camp in Kotli and met people who had suffered the most grievous injuries. We are talking about hundreds of people, not people who were in a queue provided by some political organisation. They told us that these appalling acts are happening.
The hon. Member for Luton North was absolutely right to say that the lockdown in Kashmir is not like our lockdown. It is a lockdown that attacks the fundamental rights that we all take for granted in this country. The Government have quite rightly expressed in the last few days their views on China’s treatment of the Muslim population in that country. We must take a similar stance in respect of Kashmir and put the obvious human rights abuses at the top of our agenda. Thousands of our fellow citizens are from a Kashmiri background and have family members there who are affected on a daily basis by the acts that take place.
As a lawyer, I have a long list of human rights abuses—things such as detention without trial. There are people in Kashmir who have been waiting 15 years for a trial—15 years! There is not a word from the international community in respect of that. Torture is commonplace, and young people are disappearing, yet we do not see that on television screens in the western world—we do not see it on the BBC. Quite rightly, we recently saw coverage of the issues in Hong Kong and other places. Kashmiris are people who we represent—they are our friends, and this issue affects their daily lives. We must take a stand.
All I ask from the excellent Minister—I know how committed he and the Government are to standing up to human rights abusers throughout the world—is that whatever our relationship with other countries, and whatever the political dimension to this, we cannot be deflected from the task of working with our international partners to come up with an appropriate way to protect the interests of children. I have heard appalling stories of rape and sexual violence against women—it is absolutely appalling. As an international community working with our European partners with President-elect Biden in America, we have the opportunity now to come up with an international programme through the United Nations that will give succour and hope to those poor people in Kashmir who for 70-plus years have been going through the most awful, appalling hell.
There is always a temptation, in all debates, to blame this or that person. I would like to finish by saying we can draw a line in the sand and join together on a cross- party basis. We can be united by a determination to help, with regard to anti-Muslim persecution in Kashmir. We can be united in our desire to protect human rights everywhere but certainly in that region. The geopolitical issues there are perhaps the most severe in the world, with two nuclear powers. Therefore I welcome this debate. I know that the Government are committed to human rights, and that the Minister is. I thank all colleagues for their contributions. Let us all stand and do this together again and again.
I welcome the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, on this important debate on the political situation in Kashmir. As a constitutional entity, the so-called Azad Jammu and Kashmir, which is better known to the world as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, is not just strange but unique. It has been given the trappings of a country, with a President, Prime Minister and even a legislative assembly, but it is neither a country with its own sovereignty nor a province with its own clearly defined devolved authority from the national Government. Under section 56 of the AJK interim constitution of 1974, the Pakistan Government can dismiss any elected Government in AJK, irrespective of the support it might have in the legislative assembly.
Strangely enough for an entity that purports to be a country, the constitution bars anyone from public office and prohibits them from participating in politics unless they publicly support the principle of Jammu and Kashmir acceding to Pakistan. Imagine that: a country all of whose politicians can be politicians only if they say they do not want to be a country. It will therefore come as little surprise to colleagues when I say that all the major civil and police administrative positions in AJK are held by Pakistani civil and military officers. It may also come as no surprise to them to find that that putative country has no representation in the Parliament of Pakistan. The territory’s local representatives are excluded not just from the Pakistan Parliament but from even those Pakistani bodies that negotiate inter-provincial resource allocation and federal taxes. So much for “No taxation without representation”. It is not a country. It is not a province. It is not a state. It is a satrapy. Were I not a British MP, conscious of the fact that much of this mess is a legacy of our colonial past in the region, I might almost describe it as a prize of war; but then, of course, that is precisely what Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is.
Yesterday in this Chamber we held a debate on religious persecution. Religious minorities in Pakistan have been systematically marginalised. Pakistan, while calling itself an Islamic republic, actually had a secular constitution in 1956. It was only after the ethnic civil war in 1971, which saw the division of the country and the secession of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh, that Pakistan adopted Islam as its state religion under a new and less democratic—and much less secular—constitution. Stringent blasphemy laws mean that many religious groups face the death penalty if they are even accused of denigrating the Prophet, peace be upon him. Sadly, the infamous case of Asia Bibi is not unique, and the rights of women are of course governed by the Offence of Zina (Enforcement of Hudood) Ordinance 1979 penal provisions, which prevent women from exercising their marriage choices.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal records that, of the 42 identified terrorist training camps located in Pakistan, 21 were located in Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Those camps belong to three main terrorist groups: Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul Mujahideen. One of the key areas around which the camps are located is Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. According to Human Rights Watch, the Pakistani Government repress democratic freedoms, muzzle the press and practise routine torture within Azad Jammu and Kashmir. According to the world press freedom index, prepared by Reporters Without Borders, Pakistan ranks 142nd out of the world’s countries. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 2019 “Human Rights and Democracy” report noted that the human rights situation continues to worsen, and pointed out that freedom of expression and intimidation of journalists continue to be a serious problem. The report speaks of widespread intolerance, violence and discrimination, and Pakistan is one of the countries of deterioration, as they are called by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The situation moved on. Despite further conflicts in 1965, the Simla agreement was signed in 1972, when both countries committed to resolving all differences bilaterally and peacefully. That is what they should do, and it is what UK policy is and should be: to let them resolve their differences without political interference from either side.
I deplore the way in which some have always tried to import the conflicts of the subcontinent into our domestic politics. In my borough of Brent, our council leader is a fine and devout Muslim whose family is from Pakistan; our chief whip is a wonderfully authoritative Bangladeshi woman; and our Greater London Authority representative is an enormously respected Hindu.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this debate and introducing it so well. It is very noticeably a cross-party assembly here, and we will be hearing many views from all sides. Frankly, this is not a matter of left and right; it is a matter of right and wrong.
We are not against India. It is a huge country with an incredible history and limitless potential, but that does not mean that we should not hold the Indian Government to account for their abusive behaviour, especially in Kashmir. We also reject any argument in relation to Kashmir, the Punjab or the Uyghurs in China that these are internal matters and of no concern to those outside. Human rights are actually a universal matter and universal concern. That was unambiguously established 75 years ago this week, just across the road from here, when the United Nations had its first meeting of its Assembly and its Security Council.
Britain, of course, has a special place in raising this matter, not just because of our history but because of the concern of thousands of our constituents, who are desperately worried about their families in Jammu and Kashmir. It is made even worse when communications are shut down and they have to spend weeks and sometimes months with no idea what has happened to their loved ones. Obviously, that is of deep concern to them, and that is why it should be of deep concern to us.
Can we be clear? The current crisis has been deliberately instigated by the Indian authorities with their rewriting of the long-standing constitution, which has been left by parties of different stripes in India before. That has undermined the autonomy of Kashmir. There has also been the change to property law, to try to change the facts on the ground in Kashmir, fundamentally by changing the population and therefore trying to secure a different outcome from a possible referendum.
Then, in the face of understandable opposition, there was a dramatic and brutal shutdown of communications and there were beatings of individuals, shootings—including many well attested cases of people being hit by birdshot and blinded as a consequence—arrests and disappearances, which I have to say were also an appalling feature of the crackdown in the Punjab after the assault on the Golden Temple. And many report that this is still going on.
So bad was the situation that for quite a long time Indian opposition politicians were denied the right to visit the area by the authorities. In spite of condemnation from around the world, oppression continues to this day, and we have the dangerous situation of two nuclear powers facing off and shooting against each other across the border. Clearly, not only is that a matter of concern to those in the area, but it should be of great concern to the international community as a potential threat to world peace and international order.
I hope that the Minister will acknowledge in his reply the suffering of the people of Kashmir—previous Ministers have indicated that they have raised the issues strongly with Indian Ministers—and his concern. Will he tell us what the Government intend to do to bring about peace and justice to this beautiful but troubled land, and to bring peace of mind to its people and to their families here in the United Kingdom?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful to be following the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar).
I am a member of the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group, and we have worked proactively to promote human rights across all parts of Kashmir. I travelled with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) to Pakistan. We went to the line of control, and I was able to witness at first hand what my constituents have been telling me for a long time. These are truly heartbreaking stories to hear. We need to be doing all we can to support people. I will be very frank and honest: it was one of the most sobering experiences of my life, especially when we visited the refugee camp.
One of the moments that will stay with me forever was when we arrived. A man was pulling at my arm for me to take notice of him. It is difficult to talk about, but he pulled up his trouser leg and explained how, when he was tortured, his leg was cut off. He showed me that. Then I had the women and children begging me, pulling at me. My hon. Friend can confirm that too, because he saw that happening—they were desperate for my help, and they were begging me.
That should not be happening. We are in the 21st century, and we need to be doing something about it. It is awful, and it has been for years. The citizens of the region have been living in the world’s most militarised zone, with the fallout damaging the lives of the men, women and children of Kashmir with curfews, a ban on communications access, the closing of media outlets, and widespread arrest of politicians and human rights activists. We have seen similar treatment before by authoritarian states, but let us be clear that today’s oppression could get worse. As an advocate of the Kashmir region, I have been pleased by the human rights activism of charities such as Amnesty International. It is welcome that some progress has been made in recent months, especially regarding the communications blackout. Nevertheless, the people of Kashmir should never have been placed under such strict rules.
As many know, over the past year the number of political and human rights detainees has increased into the thousands. What is more worrying is that those political and community leaders are not being offered a fair trial. Under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, the court rules specify a 14-day limit for lodging an application for a hearing, but that process has not been followed, meaning that people are still in prison, with no prospect of a fair trial. That failure of the courts has become particularly urgent since a shocking wave of arrests in October last year.
Yesterday, our Government took a positive step in condemning the Chinese Government’s treatment of religious minorities, as UK businesses will face fines if their products are linked to forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region. However, more needs to be done, otherwise millions of Muslim people will continue to live in oppression, fearing for their constitutional freedom and, ultimately, for their own lives.
I will close by echoing the points made already. We need to remember that two nuclear powers are involved in the tension. It must become more of a concern to the international community. We must ensure that we do all we can to protect the fundamental human rights of the Kashmir people.
Thank you, Mr Davies, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this debate.
In 1945, the world set up the United Nations, with peace, justice and international co-operation in mind. At the signing of the UN charter, which was signed by 50 nations, including ours, President Truman famously said:
“If we had had this Charter a few years ago—and above all, the will to use it—millions now dead would be alive. If we should falter in the future in our will to use it, millions now living will surely die.”
For Members across this House and to those who listen to my words after this debate, the charter lives on today but, tragically for the people of Kashmir, the will to use it does not.
UN Security Council resolution 47, which provides for the right of a plebiscite for the people of Kashmir, has existed since 1948. The will to implement still does not. Seventy-four years on, the trajectory for the people of Kashmir is leading to a future far from a right of self-determination and closer to one of non-existence. But let us put history to one side for a second. In 2019, India unilaterally revoked article 370, removing the special status of Kashmir, outrightly defying the United Nations resolution, setting back previously agreed international resolutions such as the Simla agreement, arresting Kashmiri political leaders, enforcing curfews, implementing a media blackout, and denying internationally agreed principles of human rights for Kashmiri people. I ask this House and our Government: apart from the words of condemnation, what else do the people of Kashmir get?
From the start of 2010 to the 2019 siege, the Kashmiri people have been shut off from the entire world—occupied by more than 600,000 Indian soldiers, in the largest military operation in the world; Kashmiri women targeted for rape; 250 Kashmiris killed; 1,500 injured; 657 houses destroyed; 4,815 cordon and search operations during the past one year alone; political leaders under house arrest and put through kangaroo courts; thousands of non-Kashmiri Hindus of India issued with domicile certificates; and the Indian Government proactively changing the very demographics of Kashmir, leading only to a path of ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri people. Without the UN rapporteurs allowed into the region, and with every report out of the region censored, how can anyone assure this House that a genocide in Kashmir is not taking place?
From 2015 to last year, Britain sold more than half a billion pounds-worth of arms to India, which will contribute to shedding the blood of the Kashmiri people. Without the reassurances from the UN, we cannot be sure that we are not contributing to a genocide. As a proud daughter of Kashmir, I simply ask the Minister whether the Prime Minister, who has now cancelled his visit to India, will follow on and cancel the shipment of arms to India? We do not need international leaders and Governments protesting with words; we have activists on the streets for that. We need international leaders and Governments with the will to take action and stop genocide taking place. The time to act is now. Will the Minister act now while there is still time, or history will not be so forgiving?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for securing this really important debate. I want to say a huge thanks to all my constituents who contacted me specifically on this issue. I know it sits very close to their hearts.
Kashmir has been living under heavy lockdown restrictions since August 2019, following the special status of Jammu and Kashmir being revoked by India. We should be clear about what these lockdowns actually mean. No foreign journalists are being allowed into Kashmir by the Indian Government. Thousands of people have been arrested and face harassment and imprisonment without due cause: lawyers, small business owners, journalists, students and of course human rights activists. Phone lines have been blocked and internet access taken away. Although some communication has been restored, it is patchy and heavily controlled by the Government.
Legal reforms have been made so that residents’ property rights can be revoked. Properties have been destroyed and innocent people are losing their lives. It is reported that nearly 300 Kashmiris have been killed and over 1,600 injured, and more than 900 houses have been destroyed since special status was revoked. That, quite rightly, is causing a huge amount of concern for many of my constituents across Keighley. These stories are being reported to me—to all of us, as we have heard—and they are harrowing.
Of course, as elected politicians in the United Kingdom we cannot decide on domestic policy in another country, but we can use our influence to ensure that this terrible situation is investigated and that our Government use their weight to put on pressure to reach a solution. The UK’s fundamental values are freedom and democracy. That applies not only to the situation in Kashmir, but around the world. Only yesterday, I said that to the Foreign Secretary during his statement on the terrible situation in western China.
I say to the Minister that now is the time to hear the allegations of human rights abuses from both sides of the line of control, but particularly from the Indian side. Only last October, speaking in the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, the world heard the President of Azad Kashmir accuse India of genocide. It is not in India’s interest for those allegations to go stated without investigation. I call on the Government to take this issue extremely seriously.
I would like to see UN human rights officials get access to both sides of the line of control, to find out the facts. Of course, India and Pakistan are both longstanding friends of our country. That is strengthened by the large Indian and Pakistani communities across our country. But a solution to the situation in Kashmir must be sought—after all, both countries are nuclear powers—and it must be sought at speed.
I know the Prime Minister is due to visit India at some point. I hope that he will raise the issue directly with Prime Minister Modi and seek his reassurances that all is being done to seek a solution. The UK must stand for freedom and democracy. That applies around the world, including in Kashmir.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for securing it.
For the sake of time, I will not give hon. Members a history lesson on this part of the world. The central point I want to make is that what happens in Kashmir matters in the UK. It matters in Peterborough, because my home city has a large and vibrant Kashmiri population. That diaspora has many friends and family members on both sides of the line of control. Whatever community they are from, people cannot grow up in Peterborough without being touched by this issue. If it matters to the large Kashmiri diaspora, surely it matters to British parliamentarians and the British Government. The area is bordered by three nuclear powers and the UK also has an historical responsibility for the region.
Most of all, this is about human rights, murder and torture. The Government take seriously what is going on in China with the Uyghur Muslim population, and the same must apply in this case. I stand with the hundreds of millions of Indians across the world who are equally concerned about human rights abuses in Kashmir.
It certainly cannot be in the interest of the Indian Government for allegations of human rights abuses to be made repeatedly. Why do they not allow them to be independently investigated? My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) was planning to raise that point today, but, regrettably, he is self-isolating. Muslims in the UK must feel that atrocities and crimes affecting fellow Muslims across the world are a priority for this Government. What the Government have done with the Rohingya and Uyghurs, as well as persecuted Christians, they must now do for Kashmir.
India is a friend of the UK, and friends should be able to talk honestly and openly with one another, so I would urge Ministers to raise with their Indian counterparts the arbitrary detention of Kashmiri political leaders, the 18-month arbitrary enforced lockdown on the Kashmiri people, the ban on access to 4G and the internet in that part of the world, the crackdown on a free and fair media and the allegations of appalling human rights abuses.
Finally and briefly, I would like to counter a narrative that I have heard many times before, which is that the resolution to this dispute is a bilateral approach between India and Pakistan. On the Falklands, the UK Government assert that self-determination is a universal right enshrined in the UN charter and applies in the case of the Falkland Islanders. On Gibraltar, Spain insists on a bilateral agreement with the UK over sovereignty, whereas this Government will discuss sovereignty only if the Gibraltarians themselves are included in these discussions. Surely, what is good for the people of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar is also good enough for the people of Kashmir.
If you had asked me at the beginning whether I would get five minutes, I would have told you I would only get three, Mr Davies. I am pleased to have the five, and I will probably take the whole five as well, just to let you know, and I thank you for calling me to speak.
I thank the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for raising this important issue. I congratulate her on setting the scene so well. I state my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Pakistani minorities and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. My work with both groups has led me to be very concerned about the human rights situations in both India and Pakistan. I want to give a broad-based account of both, if I can. I had the privilege to lead a debate yesterday on the persecution of minority groups in India, and some hon. Members in the Chamber participated in that. I also travelled with colleagues to Pakistan in 2018 to raise similar issues.
I will focus my comments on instances of persecution and human rights violations within both the India and Pakistan-administered areas of Kashmir. I had the opportunity to meet the governor of Pakistan-administered Kashmir and got a good insight into what was happening. With regards to the India-administered area, I am concerned about the incredible loss of life over the last decade. Some 1,081 civilians have been killed by security forces in extrajudicial killings between 2008 and 2018. It is deeply concerning that according to UN reports there seem to be no investigations of the use of excessive force by authorities and no prosecutions. It does not even appear that Indian security forces have been asked to re-evaluate or change their crowd control techniques or rules of engagement.
Beyond the violations of the right to life, many other human rights concerns emerged following the Indian Government’s unilateral annulment of the semi-autonomous states of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. In order to prevent protests about the decision, authorities initiated a massive deployment of troops and arbitrarily arrested hundreds of Kashmiri leaders and activists. They even detained 144 children—my goodness me. What threat is there in children? The Indian authorities also imposed broad restrictions on freedom of movement, banned public meetings, and shut down telecommunications and educational institutions.
The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that in the first three months of the lockdown the economy lost $2.4 billion, which is an enormous loss to bear for any country. While most of those arbitrarily detained by authorities have been released, there are still more 400 people who remain in custody under the draconian Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978. That is clearly a violation of human rights. There is also a freedom of religion or belief element to the human rights violations of Kashmir, such as the shutting down of many mosques and restrictions on gatherings at Muslim shrines or at religious festivals. I express my concern about that.
Turning to the Pakistan-administered territories of Kashmir, they are not lily white. I have to say that and I want to make some comments on it. They have problems with poor relationships, too. They amended their interim constitution in 2018 to define who is a real Muslim—I expressed concern about that when I was in Pakistan—and used that definition to discriminate against the minority Ahmadiyya community, who are the loveliest group of people who you will ever meet, Mr Davies. Their motto is “love for all, hatred for none”; we could all take that as our motto and live it out.
The same blasphemy provisions that were often misused to persecute both religious and non-religious groups in Pakistan are still a problem in some provinces. According to the UN, members of nationalist and pro-independence political parties often report threats, intimidation and even arrest for their political activities at the hands of local authorities and the intelligence agency. There is credible information about the enforced disappearances of people from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. All those things are backed up by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. They have the facts and the evidence, and they say it.
I might slow down, because I know I have a minute left. I have lots of concerns about freedom of expression. Journalists in Pakistan-administered Kashmir continue to face threats and harassment in the course of carrying out their professional duties. The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) referred to that, and there is no need to say it again, but I believe that it violates the right of freedom of expression. I want to put on the record that it is clearly a gross violation of freedom of expression for the constitution to determine what political views it is acceptable for citizens to express.
I want to end by expressing my sincere hope that the United Kingdom Government can use their influence with India and Pakistan to help improve the human rights situation for all those living in Kashmir. I look to the Minister, who gave us an excellent response to our debate yesterday, and we appreciate that. I believe it is time that our Government encouraged authorities to grant access to all EU and UN independent experts and international human rights monitoring mechanisms. Let us do our best for the people in Kashmir. They deserve it. Every one of us wants to ensure that their civil rights and human rights are protected.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this vital debate. She made a powerful speech that painted a harrowing picture of the plight of the Kashmiri people and the human rights crisis that they are facing. I also thank the other contributors to the debate, who made a number of compelling points— not least my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah).
The Labour party’s new foreign policy puts the rule of law, democracy and human rights at the very heart of our global agenda, and we of course apply those principles to Jammu and Kashmir, as we do consistently to every other part of the world. The situation in Kashmir is defined tragically by a long history of political and military conflict. In 1947, the British state was a signatory, as the departing colonial power, to the instrument of accession, which gave Kashmir a high degree of autonomy, while granting India control over Kashmir’s communications, defence and foreign affairs.
Countless attempts have been made to resolve the Kashmir issue through UN resolutions and by other means. Perhaps the most significant was the Simla agreement, which was concluded following the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. The Labour party strongly supports the conclusions of the Simla agreement and agrees that issues involving India, Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir should be negotiated between the parties, and that no state should deploy force or act unilaterally. We also recognise that the UK has a particular responsibility to do all it can to help secure a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
If we fast forward 50 years from Simla, we see that the situation on the ground in Kashmir is bleak. At 72 years, the conflict is the longest unresolved conflict on the agenda of the United Nations. Some accounts claim that as many as 95,000 have been killed in the past 30 years alone. Kashmir is the most militarised place on earth. Moreover, it has become a political football in almost a great game, a great power competition between India, China and Pakistan, all of which have nuclear capability. This is a very dangerous game to be playing.
On 5 August 2019, the Indian Government’s Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill unilaterally revoked article 370 and replaced the autonomous state of Jammu and Kashmir with two new union territories governed directly by New Delhi: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Further to that intervention, Jammu and Kashmir has been in an Indian army-imposed lockdown, with the Indian Government citing security risks and the need to prevent violence. The lockdown, along with a communications blackout and an internet ban, has had a profound and far-reaching impact on every aspect of life in Kashmir, including health services, school closures and media freedom. The Indian Government maintain that their decision to unilaterally revoke article 370, and the ensuing lockdown, is an internal matter, as such actions do not interfere with the boundaries of the territory or the line of control. India also cites security concerns, based on attacks by what New Delhi believes to be Pakistan-backed militant groups. Indeed, we recall with sadness the tragic suicide-bomb attack on 14 February 2019, which targeted Indian soldiers in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, the Labour party recognises that those who are opposed to the revocation of article 370 and the subsequent lockdown are understandably angered by what they see as a unilateral act of aggression on the part of the Indian Government. I assure hon. Members that the Labour party will always speak up vociferously in defence of the human rights of the people of Kashmir. We also recognise the hardship faced by those living in Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir, where the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Elections Act 2020 clearly contravened universal freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
In a letter to the Muslim Council of Britain on 8 May, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear that all sides must play their part in ending the conflict, which has gone on for far too long. He said that
“the Labour party will always uphold and respect international law and will always stand up for human rights and for the rule of law.
Our position on Kashmir has not changed, we support and recognise previous UN resolutions on the rights of the Kashmiri people but maintain that if we are to find a lasting settlement, to end this ongoing conflict, that can only be achieved”
“India and Pakistan working together, with the people of Kashmir.”
What can the UK Government do to support the peaceful resolution of this conflict and defend and uphold the human rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir? Well, let me ask the Minister a few questions. Will he impress on his Indian and Pakistani counterparts the need for a plan to demilitarise the larger Kashmir region, and ask what steps the Indian Government are taking to uphold human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in the light of the events of 5 August 2019? That conversation must include the rights of political prisoners.
What meetings has the Minister had with human rights organisations about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir? Does the Minister give support to the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir, which seeks to address the human rights situation in Kashmir following the events of 5 August 2019? Does the Minister have any plans to send his own UK delegation to Jammu and Kashmir to assess the human rights situation and report back to our Parliament? Finally, will the UK Government commit to doing all they can to support and work with, wherever helpful and necessary, representatives from India, Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir, including all five regions, to deliver justice, peace and resolution to that terrible conflict. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for securing the debate, and to all hon. Members for their contributions. We have heard some really passionate speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (James Daly), for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), for Keighley (Robbie Moore), and for Peterborough (Paul Bristow), from the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), and from the hon. Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
The situation in Kashmir undoubtedly elicits strong feelings and is of great concern to the Government. I assure the hon. Member for Luton North that my colleague, the Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, regularly discusses Kashmir with representatives of the Governments of India and Pakistan. I hope to be able to address many of the issues that have been raised by hon. Members, and leave a bit of time for the hon. Lady to sum up at the end.
Pakistan and India, as we all know, are magnificent countries, as I said in yesterday’s debate. We enjoy incredibly strong and enduring ties with both countries. We have long-standing partnerships with India and Pakistan, based on a wide range of shared interests, including trade, security, development and investment. The Indian and Pakistani diasporas are the largest in the UK, with over 3 million Brits having Indian or Pakistani heritage. These vibrant diaspora communities make a vital contribution to the richness and diversity of British society and the broad and deep relationships between our countries, and those ties enable close co-operation between our Governments. That was evident—as I am fully aware, because it happened within 72 hours of my taking on this role—when we supported the return of thousands of British nationals from India and Pakistan in the wake of the covid-19 outbreak.
Just before turning to the detail of the debate, it is important to highlight the impact that covid-19 has had in Kashmir. According to official figures, there are nearly 3,000 cases of covid-19 in India-administered Kashmir, and 13,000 cases in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. We are in regular contact with both Governments about the situation, and also discussing the economic and health implications of the pandemic in those countries.
Turning to Kashmir, I stress that the Government’s policy remains stable; it is unchanged. We continue to believe that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to the situation, one that takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people: as the hon. Members for Brent North and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) mentioned, this was laid out in the 1972 Simla agreement. It is not appropriate for the UK Government to prescribe a solution or act as a mediator in this regard, but it would be wrong to not acknowledge that there are serious human rights concerns in both India-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This has been confirmed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in his reports, and has also rightly been raised by the hon. Member for Aberavon.
The situation in India-administered Kashmir has been of particular concern to many here today, including this Government, especially since the revocation of article 370 of the Indian constitution in 2019 and the introduction of a number of restrictions on assembly and communications by the Indian Government, which has been raised by many Members. We understand that some of these restrictions may have been relaxed, with broadband internet partially restored, along with some access to social media. This is welcome news, but more should be done, as the hon. Member for Luton North rightly says. There have been recent elections to the District Development Council in India-administered Kashmir, the first to take place since the revocation of article 370.
However, we are concerned that some restrictions remain in place, including on internet connectivity. This was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, and I thank him for speaking up on behalf of the people of his constituency on the issue of Kashmir. We in the UK Government call for these restrictions to be lifted as soon as possible.
The Minister mentioned the DDC elections. Would he confirm that over 50% of the population freely took part in those elections, and that the largest single party—as opposed to the combined parties—that won in those elections was, in fact, the Bharatiya Janata party?
I do not have the exact results of the election to hand, but I suspect the hon. Gentleman does, and I am more than happy to go along with him.
Since 2019, we have closely followed reports of detentions in India-administered Kashmir—I think my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, who again has been a real champion on behalf of his constituents on the issue of Kashmir, raised this. We welcome the release last year of former Chief Ministers Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. According to the Indian Government, all individuals who were detained under so-called preventive measures since the constitutional changes have now been released. That is welcome, but of course we will continue to monitor the situation closely.
The hon. Members for Luton North and for Bradford West rightly raised the issue of violence against women and girls and the use of rape as a weapon of war in Kashmir—a point that would also have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who we have heard today is, sadly, self-isolating. He has long been a champion for Kashmir. Affecting one in three worldwide, violence against women and girls is one of the most systematic and widespread human rights violations of our time. Any allegations of human rights violations must be investigated promptly, thoroughly and transparently.
We are aware of the media reports that the hon. Member for Luton North raised that an Indian soldier has been charged with murder, kidnap and criminal conspiracy after the deaths of three Kashmiri men. We welcome assurances from the Indian Government that the army is committed to ethical conduct in its operations and that disciplinary action will be undertaken in accordance with the law where necessary.
We have repeatedly raised our concerns about detentions and restrictions with the Indian Government. The Foreign Secretary has raised Kashmir with his counterparts, including during his visit to New Delhi last month, when he discussed the situation with his counterpart. He has urged, again, India and Pakistan to resolve their differences through dialogue. My noble friend Lord Ahmad is in regular contact with his counterparts, Indian and Pakistani Ministers and senior officials and most recently raised our concerns about the human rights issues with the Indian Foreign Secretary on 3 November. We reinforce these concerns through our high commissioners in New Delhi and Islamabad and here in London.
The hon. Member for Aberavon asked whether I would be trying to facilitate a visit. We are requesting permission for officials from our high commission to visit Kashmir as soon as the situation permits.
It is incumbent on all Governments to ensure that domestic laws are in line with international standards. Any allegations of human rights violations or abuses must be investigated promptly, thoroughly and transparently.
We heard a very moving speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn about her visit to Kashmir. She is an excellent advocate for the region. We call for all restrictions in Kashmir to be lifted as soon as possible.
The hon. Member for Luton North mentioned religious discrimination. We condemn any instances of discrimination, regardless of the country or faith involved. We urge India and Pakistan to exercise restraint across the line of control, to de-escalate tensions and to improve their lines of communication.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough spoke passionately about Kashmir on behalf of his constituents and urged us to raise those issues with the two sides. I can confirm that the Prime Minister has spoken with Prime Minister Modi of India and Prime Minister Khan of Pakistan about the importance of keeping channels of communication open and the importance of managing regional tensions.
The people of Kashmir deserve the opportunity to thrive and succeed, so, more broadly, we welcome the commitment that the Indian Government have made to the economic and social development of India-administered Kashmir. We continue to seek further details of their plans.
Let me end by reassuring hon. Members that the situation in Kashmir remains an important issue for the Government. We continue to talk frankly to the Governments of India and Pakistan about our human rights concerns and to call for all remaining restrictions in India-administered Kashmir to be lifted as soon as possible. We strongly believe that everyone everywhere should enjoy equal rights and protections under the law.
I thank the Minister for his response. May I ask for a follow-up meeting to discuss some of the issues we did not get to touch on today? An hour is far too short to discuss an issue as complex as Kashmir.
I thank hon. Members for their heartfelt contributions and concerns, which are cross-party, as has been mentioned time and again. That goes to the heart of the point that this is a human rights issue and is not something that divides us politically. If we care about human rights, it does not matter where in the world the human rights abuses are taking place or who is being abused, we have to stand up and stand up loud and proud for those human rights.
On that note, I make a particular mention of freedom of expression. What we are seeing in Kashmir is only a snippet—it is only the surface of what is happening—because of the lack of transparency and the lack of freedom of expression.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).