HC Deb 14 February 1991 vol 185 cc1098-104

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

10.12 pm
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to debate human rights in Kashmir.

At a time when the world's attention is focussed on events in the Gulf, it is right for us not to forget those other people who are seeking to establish their own rights and freedoms. Many right hon. and hon. Members have raised the subject of self-determination for the Baltic states, and I share their concern; but I believe that the situation in Kashmir has become a forgotten issue, and I am seeking to rectify that.

It is now some 43 years since the partition of India, but ever since then, Kashmir has been in a state of political limbo. The United Nations has passed resolutions on the region, but has failed to pursue them with any commitment—certainly with the vigour and enthusiasm that characterises more recent Security Council decisions.

The state of Kashmir is of strategic importance, bordering, as it does, Afghanistan, Russia, China, Tibet, Pakistan and, of course, India. Throughout history, it has been subjected to incursions and acts of aggression. After 2,000-odd years of strife and torment, surely it is time that the people of Kashmir had peace and stability in their lives.

Since 1947, there have been sporadic outbursts of internal conflict and strife, and peace-keeping forces have been sent into the area. Nothing that has previously happened compares with the present position. There are more than 250,000 troops in Kashmir, notionally to maintain law and order. The reality, I suspect, is vastly different.

Despite the curfews and censorship imposed by the armed forces, reports of horrific abuses of human rights are coming from the region, including the torture of protesters, looting, rape, arson and murder. While much of the evidence is inevitably anecdotal, the refusal of the authorities to allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross to investigate these claims points to their validity and substance. Demonstrations in support of self-determination have numbered up to 1 million people. Surely such strength of feeling deserves recognition.

It is important at this stage to point out that these demonstrations are cross-cultural and multi-religious. The population of Kashmir numbers over 10 million. While the majority of the population are Muslim, there are very significant minorities of Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and other religious groups. Support for the right of Kashmiris to self-determination crosses all religious and cultural boundaries.

We cannot and should not condone violence for its own end—the pursuit of freedom. It is, alas, inevitable that when tensions are high and fear is the prevalent emotion that innocent people are maimed, injured and even killed. It has been estimated that 1.5 million people have fled from the area or are incarcerated in camps in Delhi, Amritsar and Jammu. These events are taking place in Commonwealth countries. That is why I believe that it is the duty of the House to facilitate the ending of these hostilities and atrocities.

The current disputes over Kashmir can be traced back to 1947 and the independence of India and Pakistan. Resolutions were passed by the United Nations on 21 April 1948 and 13 August 1948 requiring a plebiscite to be carried out to obtain the views of the Kashmiri people, with the unfortunate restriction that this was to be on whether to accede to India or Pakistan. Despite that limitation, no referendum has ever been allowed. It is to the detriment of all concerned that we have now had 43 years of inertia, of needless suffering of a proud nation and of blind eyes being turned. The convenience of politicians has been allowed to transcend the needs and wishes of Kashmir.

Hon. Members in all parts of the House have condemned the violence in Kashmir and expressed support for the concept of self-determination. Now it is time to translate that support into action. If the Indian Government are unwilling or unable to find a way forward, I suggest that the Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries of all the Commonwealth countries should be called on to mediate and prepare the ground. That must be by way of a plebiscite of the Kashmiri people, with all options on the agenda—that is, remaining part of India, joining Pakistan or forming an independent state. I favour the last, but I do not presume to impose my views on others.

In my home city of Bradford, there are more than 30,000 citizens of Kashmiri origin, many of whom have relatives still living in Kashmir. They are at the moment in complete ignorance as to the health and welfare of these relatives because of the news blackout and the poor state of information. They are denied the opportunity of visiting by the Government's refusal to issue visas. I know that there are thousands of Kashmiris in other parts of the country with the same concern. We also have a duty to them to resolve this issue as speedily and as peacefully as possible.

I believe that it is imperative to investigate the question of abuses of human rights. I call on the Indian authorities to allow Amnesty International to be given free and unhindered access to assess the situation in the unbiased and objective manner for which it is rightly renowned.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating this debate. Does he agree that it is important that the Indian Government immedately allow Amnesty International to investigate the many allegations about human rights abuses? Will he also confirm that the scale and savagery of the brutality that the people of Kashmir have faced in recent years at the hands of the Indian security forces are comparable to anything that has occurred in Kuwait? Does he agree that it is necessary for the Government to confirm—as they have confirmed in the case of Kuwait and the Baltic states—that the people of Kashmir have a right to determine their future and the destiny of their country on the basis that he has outlined?

Mr. Rooney

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. He also represents an area of Bradford. He has had an opportunity that I have not yet had to visit Kashmir. I have heard—as the House has heard—his first-hand accounts of some of the atrocities in that area. However, I understand that even he, in his mission of good will, was denied access to many areas of the state of Kashmir. Perhaps that gives us a lead to the forces at work in the region.

It is imperative that, wherever possible, we expose any abuse of human rights and any atrocities that man is capable of perpetrating on others. Amnesty International has a record which is second to none. I do not believe that anyone could doubt the integrity of such an organisation. I am worried that it is being denied access in the same way that the Red Cross is being denied access. To me, that is a sign that something extremely serious is happening there, about which the Government and forces in the area do not wish the outside world to know.

Violence is being perpetrated on an enormous scale. That is certain. Where the blame lies need not interest us especially. Blame does not bring anyone back to life, heal injuries, restore lives or give orphans parents. If we are to resolve conflict—the Baltic states and Kuwait have been mentioned, but there are many other areas of the world where conflict exists—we need to do it on a reasoned basis and on the back of sound information. If, for whatever reason, the Government and authorities of India will not allow parliamentary or similar delegations, we must press them to allow Amnesty International to assess the situation and to report back to Governments, to the Commonwealth and to the United Nations, so that progress can be made.

Self-determination is enshrined in article 1 of the United Nations charter. People must be free to determine their own Government, their own life style, their own form of democracy and their own mode of economy. That must be inherent in any civilised society. It is not for other powers to impose their will, by force, by aggression or by any other means. Self-determination must be a basic human right, and must be the basis of any freedom and any democracy. Any self-respecting politician would accept that.

We are constantly told that India is the world's largest democracy, with 1 billion people—perhaps more. There are many turmoils in India and one does not envy the President, the Prime Minister or the Parliament of India their job. Nevertheless, we must tell India that, because of its federal nature, unless it resolves conflicts such as that in Kashmir to the satisfaction of the world community, it will be in danger of tearing itself apart. That would be a tragedy for all of us—especially for all the people of India and for the region generally.

I have received many statements, depositions and reports from all sections of the community. I absolve no one from blame for the violence that is occurring in Kashmir. Some would say that it is entirely the work of Hindus against Muslims—others, vice versa. I do not think that we are in the business of apportioning blame. We are in the business of removing the violence, establishing peace and stability and restoring human rights in the area and allowing a proud people to get on with their lives in a pleasant land. We want to make it an attractive place for people to live, to give children hope for the future and the elderly peace in their last years. The situation in Kashmir has been allowed to continue for far too long —from 1947 to 1991—with little sign of any progress being made.

As part of the Commonwealth, we have a lead role to play. It is right and proper that we should use the good offices of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to impress upon India the need to bring Amnesty International in as a starting point and then to use diplomatic channels and so on to allow the people of Kashmir a plebiscite so that they can express their wishes and desires for the future of Kashmir. In that sense, they are no different from the people of the Baltic states, the people of Kuwait and the people of all the oppressed nations of the world. The difference is that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people of Kashmiri descent have been in prison, and they think that it is about time that we took the same positive action on this difficult state of affairs as has been taken in other arenas.

Recently I received a petition carrying 3,000 signatures. I was intrigued to find that name 137 was that of one John Major. Unfortunately, he lives at Silverhill drive in Bradford, not at No. 10 Downing street.

10.27 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

I have listened with interest to the hon. Member for Bradford. North (Mr. Rooney) and I congratulate him on bringing the subject of Kashmir before the House again.

We share concern about the violence in Kashmir, the tension it has caused between India and Pakistan—both good friends of Britain—and the need for human rights to be respected. It is, however, important to understand something of the historical background to the problem before considering the present situation.

At the time of Indian independence in 1947, there were some 560 princely states, of which Jammu and Kashmir was one of the largest. A majority of its population were Muslim, but there was a large Hindu community, and also significant Buddhist and tribal minorities. The Maharaja was Hindu.

The rulers of all the princely states were advised to accede to either India or Pakistan. Most did, opting for the country in which their state was situated. At independence, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir had still not opted for either country. However, an uprising among the Muslims of his western territories, supported by irregular forces from the new state of Pakistan, led the Maharaja to sign an instrument of accession to India in October 1947. Pakistan did not accept the decision, and the first war broke out between the two newly independent countries. It continued throughout 1948 until a ceasefire came into effect on 1 January 1949. In July 1949, India and Pakistan agreed a ceasefire line which passed through the territory of the former princely state. That line was subsequently redefined as the "line of control" after the 1971 war.

At the heart of the present disturbances in Kashmir is the long-standing dispute over its status. As the hon. Gentleman reminded the House, India and Pakistan originally agreed to a plebiscite covering the entire princely state, as set out in United Nations resolutions in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The issue was whether Kashmir should accede to India or to Pakistan, not independence. But apart from that, much has happened since then. There have been two wars over Kashmir. The territory of the former princely state has in practice been divided between India and Pakistan by the line of control. In 1972, India and Pakistan reached a fresh agreement at Simla. Under the Simla agreement both countries agreed to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed on between them". Those are words with which many hon. Members will be familiar. Both sides also committed themselves to a final settlement of Jammu and Kashmir". So the earlier agreement to which the hon. Gentleman referred was superseded by the 1972 agreement.

That brief synopsis shows some of the complex background to the Kashmir problem. It also has a bearing on the present violence there. The disturbances over Kashmir which have racked the relations between India and Pakistan ever since their independence are centred on the valley of Kashmir. The Indian constitution gives special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, but the Muslim inhabitants of the valley of Kashmir have felt an increasing dissatisfaction with their situation.

We have consistently condemned those who resort to terrorist tactics for political ends. The bomb and the bullet are no substitute for the ballot box and the democratic process. We support the Government of India in their efforts to deal with the challenge from terrorist violence in Kashmir, but, at the same time, we have urged the Indian Government to try to exercise the greatest restraint in dealing with the serious threat to law and order facing them in Kashmir.

There have been harrowing accounts of what has taken place in Kashmir. We have no way of knowing how reliable such reports are, but we are confident that the Indian Government are trying to prevent such occurrences. However, even if only a small part of the reports is true, it is too much. We condemn abuses of human rights wherever in the world they occur. In relation to Kashmir, we have regularly made clear to the Indian Government our concern that human rights must be respected. In their response, members of the Indian Government have underlined the seriousness of the challenge facing them and the violence committed by the militants, which we acknowledge.

Members of the Indian Government have also assured us of their respect for human rights and their determination to do their best to ensure that human rights are not violated. The Government have instituted a special court in Kashmir to examine complaints against the police. Cases of alleged wrongdoing by the security forces are also reported to be under investigation. We welcome those concrete steps as signs of the Indian Government's intentions, but we shall continue to urge them to practise the utmost restraint in confronting the challenge in Kashmir.

The hon. Member for Bradford, North referred to Amnesty International. As I expect he knows, we welcomed the previous Indian Government's decision to allow members of Amnesty International to go to India for private visits and meetings with the Government. The previous Government of India faced considerable complaint from their Opposition for making that decision. We hope that the present Indian Government will stand by that commitment. We have always commended Amnesty International to that Government, and we hope that Amnesty will soon be able to carry out whatever investigation it has in mind.

India has often claimed that the disturbances it faces in Kashmir could be easily dealt with if the militants were deprived of the support that they receive from within Pakistan. The Pakistan Government deny that they are giving any support, except moral and political support for fellow Muslims in difficulties. Whatever the truth of that, we have also urged the Pakistan authorities to do their utmost to avoid any steps that might appear to confirm India's suspicions.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Does my hon. Friend agree that we should point out to the Indian authorities that they are playing into the hands of the militants by not stamping firmly on atrocities against the population of Kashmir? Such acts only serve to cause greater bitterness. It is well known that feelings against the Indian authorities have grown much stronger as the months have gone by and little progress has been made. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if not only Amnesty International but a group from the House visited the region, with, one hopes, the co-operation of the Indian authorities, to assess the situation and report back to the House?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

My hon. Friend's point speaks for itself. The institution by the Indian Government of the special court in Kashmir is in response to the type of argument my hon. Friend has deployed. I can inform my hon. Friend that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) was to visit Kashmir with the agreement of the Indian Government earlier this month, but that trip has had to be delayed because of the conflict in the Gulf.

There is some evidence that there has been a welcome reduction in the level of violence in Kashmir in recent weeks. It is a great tragedy that an area so rich in natural assets, not least the resourcefulness of the people, and outstanding beauty, with which I know that you, Mr. Speaker, and many other hon. Members are familiar, should have been plunged into such serious law and order difficulties.

To find a lasting solution to the long-running problem and bring to an end the violence which distresses us all, it will be necessary first to build up confidence between all those involved. We welcome the series of bilateral discussions currently under way between India and Pakistan about practical confidence-building measures. We also welcome the efforts being made by the present Indian Government to re-establish a political dialogue with the Muslim communities of the Kashmir valley. We hope that those discussions will contribute to the process of finding a solution to the problem of Kashmir.

The House can be assured that we will continue to watch the situation in Kashmir closely and encourage all concerned to resolve the matter peacefully. Only that will bring a lasting end to the recent violence which so saddens all who are friends of India and Pakistan, and of the Kashmiri people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.