John Spellar

Labour MP for Warley

Speech on Kashmir

John Spellar MP (12/09/14)

I congratulate Mr Ward on securing this debate and for distancing himself from his party leader, although I do not know whether he needed to go so far as to sit on the Opposition Benches to do so. I hope his Whips will not take an unkind view of that. I also congratulate those who have spoken for their constituents and for the many communities that live in the beautiful but troubled land of Kashmir.

As has been mentioned by a number of Members, one issue that should focus us is the floods taking place in Kashmir and the devastation that they are causing there, as well as in the surrounding areas in India and Pakistan. The floods reinforce the need, which has been mentioned often in the debate, for co-operation between the two countries. We welcome the news that the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan have offered co-operation. Will the Minister tell us—I have given him notice of this question—what actions Her Majesty’s Government are taking in response? In 2010, the United Kingdom committed some £334 million to the relief and recovery effort, in addition to bringing forward a £10 million bridge project to replace some of those washed away. Private donations from the UK, co-ordinated via the Disasters Emergency Committee, totalled more than £60 million. Interventions included the flying in of 400 metric tonnes of aid—tents, shelters kits, blankets, water containers and food. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales established a major recovery fund to help support projects on health, education, livelihoods and reconstruction. Britain’s role was magnificent in that, and I hope the Government will follow that path.

I am mindful not only of the need for the hon. Member for Bradford East to have time to reply, but of the number of questions put to the Minister, and I hope to leave him sufficient time to reply. First, I will outline the Opposition’s position. The policy of the British Government under both Administrations has been clear, as I am sure the Minister will reinforce. In opposition, we maintain that position: it is not for the UK to prescribe a solution on Kashmir. That is for those parties directly involved to determine through dialogue. We continue, however, to encourage India and Pakistan to seek a lasting resolution for Kashmir that takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. We also recognise that the normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan, which are two old and long-standing friends of Britain, as well as the second and sixth most populous countries in the world, is vital for improving regional security—not just in this regard—and resolving conflict.

Through our engagement, we continue to encourage India and Pakistan to establish and maintain that dialogue. With that, there is a concern that sometimes it is one step forward and two steps back. Although we welcome the agreement on a liberalised visa pact, the problem was that that seemed to have been put on hold by the Indian authorities following the killing of Indian soldiers along the line of control. As was mentioned in the debate, we should recognise that other events in the region, particularly the draw-down in Afghanistan, make it even more imperative that India and Pakistan work together, not only on this, but with other countries surrounding Afghanistan, as I said on Monday in the statement on Afghanistan, to ensure its stability and

future progress. If that is not achieved, that will destabilise the whole of the surrounding region and impact on Kashmir.

In addition, while in government, Labour, through the conflict prevention programme, funded a number of projects designed to support efforts to facilitate dialogue, to address the causes and impact of conflict and to create improvements in the quality of life experienced by Kashmiris. While we look at the geopolitical issues, it is important—this has been mentioned by a number of Members, and in particular by my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) and for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood)—to look at the conditions of life of the people from all communities living there. In that context, we supported capacity-building and skills training for non-governmental organisations on both sides of the line of control, funded media projects that bring Indian and Pakistani journalists together and helped with curriculum design that promotes a modern, inclusive approach to education.

Some of the concerns that have been expressed in this debate and in submissions sent to us are familiar to me, as a Member with a constituency where a substantial percentage of the electorate are of Sikh heritage. We have to face up to concerns about widespread impunity for violations of international law, unlawful killings, extra-judicial executions, torture, and, as was mentioned, particularly by my hon. Friend Simon Danczuk, the enforced disappearance of thousands of people since 1989. I know from my Sikh community that those disappearances are the issue that hurts the most. All those issues have to be considered. There has to be some reconciliation and some accountability on those issues, as well as on the numbers of youths shot dead by police during the protests in the summer of 2010 and, as has rightly been mentioned, the impact of the Public Safety Act.

My hon. Friend Mr Sharma mentioned the suffering of other communities in Kashmir, such as the Pandit Hindus. There was a meeting in the Commons last week, which I was unable to attend, that drew attention to their plight and the substantial exodus in 1990. They left their valley and their communities behind to save themselves from persecution at the hands of terrorists. As my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner said, a substantial number of families—not just Hindu families, but Sikh families as well—still live in refugee camps, and they are still looking for justice.

Let me be clear: I am not seeking to construct a balance sheet of suffering or, indeed, of blame. I make clear that the suffering experienced in all the communities of Kashmir is very deep. I stress that, while the world must hope and work for meaningful talks between the parties concerned, we also have to look at what we can do to improve the position of the people in Kashmir. That has been clear in this debate. Everyone is clear, both today and in the debates over many years, about the strong feelings on this issue in this House and in communities across the country. Equally, we should not allow the fierce debate to obscure the sufferings of the people of Kashmir, their deep desire for an end to conflict and their deep desire to be able to achieve better lives for themselves and their children. A number of measures for that have been outlined, and I have mentioned some of them. I spoke about the tragic consequences of the floods. The people look to a future of freedom from

fear, freedom to work and freedom to build a future for their children. The people of Kashmir, after all their long sufferings, deserve no less.

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