HC Deb 21 July 1999 vol 335 cc1160-70 1.25 pm
Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

It is a great honour to initiate this Adjournment debate. I understand that this is the first time that the House has discussed Kashmir since 1996. Given recent events in Kargil, it is important that British Members of Parliament have a chance to put on record our opinions and views and the work that we and the Government have been doing in relation to Kashmir and the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

I shall set out the movement that I am asking for from the Government in using the direct representation that Ministers have in their power and garnering support from the rest of the international community on several issues relating to human rights, democracy and demilitarisation in Jammu and Kashmir.

Many people will have views about my motivations as the hon. Member for Rochdale. Is the purpose of the debate pure electoral expediency because there is a large Kashmiri community within my constituency? Am I too pro-Pakistani? Might I be nice to the Indian Government? The House has to thank two people for my taking up the cause of the Kashmiri people. These are real, ordinary people in my constituency, who are British citizens. They do not represent an organisation. Their stories motivated me to take up the issue. I refer to Haji Ahmed and Amna Meir. They are two of my dearest friends.

Haji is the closest that I have ever come to someone who is genuinely a pacifist. He was imprisoned in India-controlled Kashmir for three years. He is with us now through the interventions of Neil Kinnock and Cyril Smith. To my knowledge, Haji has never done anything, not even swatting a fly, that could ever be construed as violence. The way that he stoically but passionately carries the belief still that the Kashmiris are the wronged people in everything that has happened throughout history in the territory led me to initiate the debate.

It is an historical truism that the Kashmiris are the wronged people. It was not their fault that 50 years ago their maharajah decided that, because of incursions from one side of the territory and because the state of Pakistan wanted to hurry him up in making a decision because he was doing a lot of fence-sitting, he would sign an accession agreement with India without consulting the people. The subsequent United Nations resolution recognised that and demanded that there should be a plebiscite to put the question to the people of Jammu and Kashmir and the princely state.

I have always been told by those much more eminent than me that we do not know where we are going in future if we do not know our history. In the research that I undertook in preparing for the debate I had quite a big history lesson. I want to say thank you to many people because I have actively tried to be even-handed and I have been briefed by the Indian high commissioner, the Pakistani high commissioner, representatives in the United Kingdom of Sultan Mahmud Chaudhary and many of my constituents. I have genuinely sought to be balanced.

I was surprised, when talking to the Indian high commissioner, about India's non-acceptance of the 1949 UN resolution. Basically, the high commissioner said that India played the politics of the day wrong. It did not realise that, because Pakistan was starting to be pro-western, the cookie could crumble on its side. India thinks that the agreement that it signed with Pakistan in 1972 negates any responsibility in terms of the original UN resolution. It says that despite all the problems in all the other ex-princely states that now make up India, no plebiscite or vote was offered to them. The decision was made by the maharajah of the time. India says that it could not retrospectively, no matter what the UN resolution stated, refer the question to the people of Jammu and Kashmir now.

I pay tribute to one of our international guests who, I am pleased to say, is watching the debate—the former chief justice of Azad Kashmir, Majid Malik, whose wisdom and even-handed approach to history and whose advice to me I have found extremely beneficial.

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Lorna Fitzsimons

No. I shall make a little progress before giving way.

I am led to believe that there are two historical anomalies in the current Indian position. The first relates to Juna Garh. I hope that the House will forgive my pronunciation—I am a northern lass. Juna Garh was a princely state whose ruler was a Muslim, although the majority of the population was non-Muslim. India opposed the decision that was made and Pakistan brought the matter to the attention of the United Nations Security Council. A plebiscite was held and the decision went with the will of the people, rather than the will of the maharajah.

A second example is Hyderabad, a large state in the middle of India. The ruler decided to declare independence rather than accede to India or Pakistan. According to some commentators, India forcibly occupied the state. A plebiscite was held and the will of the people, who were predominantly non-Muslim, favoured accession to India.

In those two examples, because of the discrepancy between the will of the maharajah and the democratic will of the majority of the people, a plebiscite was held. That flies in the face of what Indian representatives would have us believe about the problems of implementing the UN resolution.

I emphasise that I want to be seen to be even-handed, but deeds speak loudest about what is happening in India. I do not like to be told that my job is to represent my people in Rochdale, not to poke my nose into international issues. I have been requested to speak out by Haji and Amna. Their families still live in Azad Kashmir, and I represent people who still have families in Indian-controlled Kashmir. If the families of British citizens are affected by what is happening 50 years on, I have a responsibility as an elected representative in the United Kingdom Parliament to draw attention to the matter.

One of the things that brings us together, and brought the world together in the second world war, is that when human rights are denied in some part of the world, we as civilised western society have the responsibility to do everything in our power to bring about a cessation of violence, demilitarisation and the restoration of human rights.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene in this important debate. Does she agree that the line of control must be respected if there is ever to be peace between India and Pakistan, and that India has shown remarkable and commendable restraint in its response to the incursion by Pakistani armed forces across the line of control in their attempt to undermine India's territorial sovereignty?

Lorna Fitzsimons

I understand my hon. Friend's position, but I do not agree with him. Aircraft were used, not in time of war. I do not call that restraint. The presence of a military person to every six civilians is not what I call even-handed.

That does not mean that I do not have views about terror organisations that do not have at heart the interests of Kashmiri people. I abhor their perpetration of acts of terror, supposedly in the name of self-determination, as I abhor violence on the part of any country or military organisation. If we criticise terror organisations, as India and Amnesty International would have us do, we should also scrutinise India's human rights record. I watch with interest.

Mr. Khabra

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Lorna Fitzsimons


We must ask those on the Front Bench to scrutinise the new state human rights commission established by India in 1997. When I met the Indian high commissioner, it was acknowledged that, because India had such a strong and independent judicial system, it was thought that that would deal with any human rights petitions, disappearances and so on. Primarily because of lobbying by the Kashmiri population throughout the world, and the pressures brought to bear by the British Government and others and by Amnesty International, the human rights commission was set up.

At first the commission was not trusted, and there was no flood of people coming forward with cases to be investigated. Now the head of the commission reports that it cannot cope with the number of cases of people reported missing, in enforced detention and so on.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that it would enhance the confidence of the Kashmiri people in the organisations available to redress human rights injustices if the Indian Government would also recognise that scrutiny from independent human rights organisations would be helpful in matters of greatest dispute? As in my hon. Friend's constituency, people in my constituency have families who are directly affected. They can tell me of human rights violations that go on daily. Their confidence in the existing human rights organisations established by the Indian Government will not be enhanced without independent scrutiny.

Lorna Fitzsimons

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. If it is true, as the Indian Government tell us, that the majority of human rights abuses are perpetrated by terror organisations, why do they not allow independent scrutineers? We welcome the fact that recently they have allowed the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Save the Children some access, and one or two journalists have been allowed in. However, truly independent scrutiny would, for example, allow a delegation of interested UK Members of Parliament to obtain visas to visit the disputed areas to see the situation for themselves, and would grant Amnesty International access.

Mr. Khabra

Will my hon. Friend give way, please?

Lorna Fitzsimons

No. I want to make progress.

I understand the Indian Government's concerns about Amnesty International, which previously commented only on state-sponsored abuses of human rights. Now, as can be seen from Amnesty's latest report that was made available on the internet in February, it also comments—and investigates as far as it can without being allowed access—on abuses of human rights by terror organisations, the occurrence of which we must all acknowledge.

The Kashmiri people whom I represent hate the cause of Kashmiri liberation being hijacked by other organisations. Taking up the gun and using the bullet does no one any favours. The Kashmiri people have no chance of democratic choice and self-determination unless they have human rights.

I am not speaking of access to health care and education. Forget that. I am speaking about the fact that women and children are paying the price. People mysteriously disappear or are held in detention. There is ample evidence from Amnesty and the Indian Government in reports to Congress by successive Ministers that people are detained under defunct anti-terrorism legislation. All over the world, the people who pay the price are the most vulnerable in society. If the main breadwinner disappears, who will support the women and children, if there is no active welfare state?

As people who believe in human rights and as internationalists, we have to join together to say that India should allow the international community into Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir if it believes that people are being made destitute because of the actions of terror organisations. Independent evidence could therefore be gathered and people could make a judgment. When Back Benchers or delegations meet the Indian Government, they make the point that Pakistan is involved in funding and promoting terror incursions across the border. There is clearly enough room for believing that the Government of Pakistan are in some way involved in those incursions; indeed, it would be very difficult to say that they are not involved. However, proof is required. India uses the alleged incursions and the funding or promotion of such activities by freelance terror organisations—

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)


Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Interventions from the Opposition Front Bench are not allowed in Adjournment debates.

Lorna Fitzsimons

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound).

Mr. Pound

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Like every Member of the House, I respect her reputation for representing the best interests of her constituents and the even-handed way in which she has approached this matter, but she used the expression "alleged incursions". Does she not agree that there was a military incursion? Will she condemn it, regardless of who financed or initiated it?

Lorna Fitzsimons

I condemn any overt military activity taken against a peace-loving people, wherever it comes from. That goes for India's overt military action and the unwelcome terror activities undertaken by some of the organisations that allegedly support the Kashmiri cause. I represent wholly non-violent people who want to use the ballot box to achieve self-determination.

Mr. Khabra

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Lorna Fitzsimons


People should be allowed to achieve self-determination through the ballot box and that can be achieved only when their human rights are established. For example, the United Nations does not want free and fair elections to be held in East Timor until stability has been achieved and until it has been proven that there will be no intimidation from any force. The same must happen in Kashmir. We cannot expect people to participate in a democracy when they are being subjected to bullying, which is the weakest phrase that I can use, or to terrorism, which is the stronger expression used in the Amnesty International report, in order to deny them their free will. Such action must be condemned, wherever it comes from.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that, to end the tensions between India and Pakistan and to bring peace and stability to the region, it is absolutely essential that the dispute over Kashmir is resolved according to the UN resolution and the wishes of the Kashmiri people? Does she further agree that the representatives of the Kashmiri people should be involved in any future talks or negotiations?

Lorna Fitzsimons

Yes. The bottom line is that the Kashmiri people have been wronged. It cannot be argued that other princely states did not play a role in deciding their own destinies when disputes arose and, as was recognised as far back as 1949, the people of Jammu and Kashmir must be allowed to play such a role.

We must recognise that some of our compatriots, who want an independent state to be established, think that the UN resolution has shortcomings. It is not up to me to determine whether independence or accession to India or to Pakistan is the issue, but we have to be honest with the Kashmiri people we represent and say to them that that is not part of the UN resolution. I believe, however, that any vote that allowed the Kashmiri people to express a view, whether on accession to India or on accession to Pakistan, would be a step forward. Hon. Members will be able to understand these concerns, especially as there have been several rounds of bilateral talks between India and Pakistan over 50 years. The Kashmiri people themselves are at the bottom of the list, however, and the dispute is treated as territorial rather than as something that affects real people.

We must acknowledge in the debate that real people are paying the price for the dispute and scaling down the military presence must be the priority. If Pakistan is perpetrating or encouraging incursions and acts of terror as has been alleged, it must desist because the Indian Government are using those incursions as a fig leaf. By the same token, the Indian Government have to accept that having such an overt military presence has not worked; they have not calmed or charmed the Kashmiri people and implementation of the UN resolution is the only measure that would allow the Kashmiri people some peace of mind.

There has been a breakdown in trust because of the recent Kargil incidents, so we have to welcome the moves made by Nawaz Sharif, who visited the United States to hold talks with Bill Clinton, to try to calm the situation. We have to ask India to say that it is in nobody's interest to continue the stand-off: it has reclaimed Kargil and Nawaz Sharif has used his power and influence to make sure that the forces in Kargil retreated. We must ensure that the Lahore agreement, and every agreement that has been made since the original UN resolution was passed, is implemented.

It is right to pay tribute to the late Derek Fatchett and I welcome his successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), to the debate. I know that, like Derek, he will take a lot of interest in Kashmir. We talked to Derek about the possibility of confidence-building measures being introduced to increase trust and deal with issues that affect the Administrations in both parts of the former princely state, which is split down the middle. We should try to achieve some movement—for example, dialogue between the representative groups in both parts of Kashmir. Nothing in the UN resolution or the 1972 accord says that the people could not and should not be allowed to cross the line freely.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she accept that this country's experience in Northern Ireland has taught us that recognition by sovereign states that such a problem is not merely a little local difficulty in part of their own country, but a bigger question, is one of the great steps that must be taken to achieve progress? When countries can accept that, the dialogue that needs to take place between two sovereign states in order to resolve a conflict is that much more likely to happen.

Lorna Fitzsimons

Absolutely. We could push for dialogue between the representative groups, including people who have been elected, so that they could discuss whether a joint agreement could be reached between them all. The Hurriat conference is an example of that. Lord Avebury has tried to organise conferences to facilitate some dialogue between the different representative Kashmiri organisations, and Derek Fatchett made similar efforts. We must keep trying even though we have not been successful so far—primarily because a lot of leaders in Indian-controlled Kashmir were not allowed visas to travel to the conference venues. We have to allow that dialogue to happen and we have to ask for the recommendations made by Amnesty International in its most recent report to be taken up.

We also must acknowledge our duty to ensure that we engage in continual dialogue with the Government of Azad Kashmir and the Jammu and Kashmir Administration of Farooq Abdullah. We must ensure that they provide people with feedback on any bilateral discussions that take place at the top table, or on any talks about getting other countries to take forward the cause of Kashmir, so that they feel that they are part of the process. If India is not going to accept a mediator, we must ensure that we use all the channels available so that the Kashmiris feel that they are represented. That is the key to the problem.

Mr. Khabra

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Lorna Fitzsimons

No, I shall not. I must leave enough time for the Minister to reply, and I have already run over time.

I am proud of my Back-Bench colleagues who join me in the Chamber today. Many of them have campaigned for far longer than I have been involved in the Kashmiri issue to ensure that it is on the agenda. It is at the behest of us all, however, not to use the Kashmiri cause as a political football. I lament the fact that, both in my constituency and nationally, certain parties are using it in that way. No Liberal Democrat has ever attended an all-party Kashmir group since I have been elected, nor ever been to an all-party ministerial meeting. A promised early-day motion, which was discussed in Rochdale council chamber, about recognition of nationality in the forthcoming census has not been produced. All the activity that has taken place to keep the flag flying for the Kashmiri people and to ensure that they feel that we are representing them has been, and will continue to be, initiated by Labour Members. I am proud to say that we shall keep the flag flying for people such as my constituents, Haji and Amna.

I hope that every office will be used, as it has in the past, by the Foreign Secretary and the appropriate Ministers to ensure that we make progress on this issue. We must not just use our diplomatic channels with India and Pakistan, but must harness the power of the United States and other nation states. Just because no oil is involved, we must not fail to recognise that an injustice has been done. The people who have had the injustice done to them are those who are most vulnerable: the women and children of Kashmir.

1.52 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) for making Kashmir the subject of this debate.

This is a timely opportunity to debate the question, and its place in our wider relations with India and Pakistan. Kashmir is an issue of great importance to all in Britain who count themselves as friends of India and Pakistan.

The recent fighting in Kashmir underlines the risks inherent in this continuing dispute—risks that have taken on a disturbing dimension given last year's nuclear tests. It is widely accepted that Kashmir is one of the most pressing regional security problems. I assure the House that the Government fully share those concerns and are actively encouraging India and Pakistan to resolve the underlying issues.

Our relations with both India and Pakistan are deep, multi-faceted and long-standing. Well over a million British people have their roots in the sub-continent. Our shared history with those countries has developed into links of enormous variety and dynamism. Consolidating and developing our relations with both countries is a priority for the Government.

India is already a major player on the world stage, and its importance is set to increase over the next few years. We want a modern, close and forward-looking partnership. We have many shared interests and we could, and should, be working more closely together in areas of mutual concern. Environmental protection is a prime example of a global issue in which India and the United Kingdom have leading roles, and where we seek better co-operation with India.

Our relations with Pakistan have long been marked by their warmth. We continue to build on our relationship to work with the Government of Pakistan on a wide range of issues. We want Pakistan to realise its great economic and human potential, and to continue to develop as a democratic partner in the Islamic world.

Mr. Gardiner

Is the Minister concerned that, while Pakistan's army chief, General Parvez Musharaf, admitted on 16 July that Pakistan forces aggressively crossed the line of control, the Pakistani Government were claiming that they were not responsible for the incursions? Does he agree that that raises worrying questions about who is really running the country? Given what he has already said about nuclear proliferation in the region, is he concerned about whether the civilian Government or the military is in control?

Mr. Hoon

I shall deal in due course with the resolution of the recent events in Kargil. In specific response to my hon. Friend, it may not be entirely helpful at this stage to dwell on what might have happened in the past. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale said, what is important is to say how we shall take these issues forward, which is what I shall seek to do.

I have spent some time describing our wider relations with India and Pakistan. Our policy towards Kashmir is bound to our ties with those two countries. We can, and do, promote the search for a solution to this long-running issue through our contacts with both countries. Our efforts are all the more effective for being conducted quietly and within the context of established political relations based on mutual trust.

I shall not repeat the history of the Kashmir dispute, which is well known to Members of this House. Three wars and countless skirmishes have been fought over Kashmir. It has the dubious distinction of containing the world's highest battleground, the Siachen glacier, where Indian and Pakistani soldiers face each other, at dreadful cost, in financial and human terms, at heights of over 20,000 ft. Kashmir has been one of the reasons that India and Pakistan have been unable firmly to establish good relations and to realise their true economic potential.

We were, therefore, particularly concerned by events in Kargil over the past few weeks. The fighting could easily have escalated. That it did not is a tribute to the Indian Government, who restricted their response to the incursion; and to the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who used his influence to ensure that those combatants who had crossed the line of control withdrew from those positions.

The UK was active behind the scenes. We were in close and constant contact with both Governments. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke at an early stage to his Indian and Pakistani colleagues to urge restraint and despatched a special envoy to Islamabad to reiterate those points. I spoke to the Indian and Pakistani high commissioners to reinforce that. Our high commissions in New Delhi and Islamabad stayed in close touch with their host Governments. We co-ordinated closely with our international partners, especially the United States. The UK was instrumental in ensuring that the European Union and the G8 made strong statements on the fighting.

We welcome the joint statement by President Clinton and Prime Minister Sharif of 4 July as a positive step. The Prime Minister met Prime Minister Sharif on 6 July to urge him to take the steps described in the statement. The Prime Minister wrote soon afterwards to the Indian Prime Minister to encourage him to maintain India's policy of restraint and respond positively to any moves by Pakistan. The Prime Minister has welcomed the end to the fighting around Kargil. Relieved as we are by the end of the immediate conflict, we are concerned that the suffering of ordinary people in Kashmir continues. There have been four massacres in recent weeks, and militants continue to attack the Indian security forces.

Throughout the crisis in Kargil, we have made it clear to both India and Pakistan that we consider that the route to a long-term solution lies in dialogue.

Mr. Khabra

Is the Minister aware that terrorists have brutally murdered Kashmiris, both Muslims and Hindus, including Europeans, and that that is one of the biggest problems? Does he agree that every Member of this House must recognise that the Government are committed to the fight against terrorism?

Mr. Hoon

I accept my hon. Friend's point. I shall turn to that matter in a moment.

When Prime Minister Vajpayee memorably travelled to Lahore this February, there was good reason to believe that both countries were ready to address the issues between them in a new and constructive spirit. From popular reaction in India and Pakistan, it seemed clear that this new spirit matched the hopes of the peoples of both countries. It is a matter of great regret that, only a few months after both Prime Ministers undertook to intensify their efforts to resolve all bilateral issues, including Kashmir, the events in Kargil have rendered that process more difficult.

It is important to recognise that the incursion, and the continuing violence of the militants in Jammu and Kashmir, have done nothing, and can do nothing, to promote a durable solution in Kashmir. The evidence suggests that the militants have little in common with the ordinary people of Kashmir, and do not represent them. As Amnesty International pointed out in a recent report, the militants are guilty of severe human rights abuses. An end to the support that the militants receive from outside Kashmir would greatly assist the search for a solution to the problem.

The search for a solution would also be assisted by early steps to improve the human rights performance of the Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. Amnesty International has documented continuing reports of disappearances. We have welcomed the action already taken by the Indian authorities to address human rights concerns. The national human rights commission is regarded as an effective custodian and promoter of human rights in India. It is to be hoped that the state human rights commission in Jammu and Kashmir develops in the same vein. We shall continue to press the Indian authorities to bring wrong-doers to justice, and to allow international organisations access to Jammu and Kashmir. My predecessor, Derek Fatchett, raised this issue with the Indian Home Minister last November, and I shall ensure that it continues to be a part of our dialogue with India.

Militancy, and human rights problems, will not be resolved overnight. In the meantime, we urge the Governments of India and Pakistan to resume their dialogue on all outstanding issues, including Kashmir. The long-term interests of both countries lie in a mutually acceptable solution.

The role of the people living in Kashmir is, rightly, another source of concern. No single group or institution can accurately claim to represent the views of all those who live in the territory of the former princely state. The interests of the Muslims of the Valley, the Buddhists of Ladakh and the displaced Hindu population are not uniform; nor have India and Pakistan agreed on the issue of Kashmiri participation. We firmly believe, however, that any solution, if it is to carry with it the people living in Kashmir, must take account of their views. Only then will it be accepted as just, and have a chance of lasting.

The Kashmir issue has been with us for more than 50 painful years. I agree with my hon. Friend—

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.