I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), and the Backbench Business Committee, for the opportunity to have this important debate. I also thank all Members on both sides of the House who made such passionate and eloquent contributions, and I welcome the Minister to her place and congratulate her on her appointment.
The conflict in Jammu and Kashmir has been going on for 72 years; it is the world’s longest unresolved conflict. It dates back to 1947, and it is defined by a long and tragic history of political and military conflict. In that year, the British state was, as the departing colonial power, a signatory to the instrument of accession, which gave Kashmir a high degree of autonomy—
Rachel Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on that really important point. Many of my constituents in Luton South say that the UK has a vital role to play in this international issue, and that it should not just be left as a bilateral issue. Does my hon. Friend agree?
Stephen Kinnock: Absolutely. It is not just about an historical responsibility; it is also about the fact that we have so many ties that bind us now, in 2021, so there is an opportunity to work with our friends and partners in India and Pakistan, and with the Kashmiri people, to find a peaceful solution.
At the same time, in 1947, India was granted control over Kashmir’s foreign affairs, defence and communications. Since then, we have seen countless UN resolutions, plus many other diplomatic interventions, each attempting to resolve the Kashmir conflict. Perhaps the most significant was the Simla agreement, which was concluded following the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. The Labour party strongly supports the conclusions of the Simla agreement, in particular its conclusion that issues involving India, Pakistan and Kashmir should be negotiated between the parties and that no state should deploy force or act unilaterally.
Imran Hussain: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Stephen Kinnock: I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I am going to run out of time.
Imran Hussain: It is on that point.
Stephen Kinnock: If my hon. Friend can make his intervention extremely short, I will give way.
Imran Hussain: I thank my hon. Friend; it is on a very important point. Does he agree that the Simla agreement, as important as it is, does not take precedence over United Nations resolutions?
Stephen Kinnock: I think it is important to see Simla and the UN resolutions as a framework for peace. What is very important in all those resolutions is that the agreements and peace negotiations have to be between all the parties. That is the key point about not taking unilateral action, which I will come to.
The Labour party does not interfere with the internal affairs of other nations, but we do seek to uphold what we see as universal values; namely, respect for the rule of law, support for democracy and the promotion of universal rights and freedoms. Where we see those principles being violated, we will comment, and we will urge other Governments to take action and change course.
Fifty years after Simla, we recognise that the situation on the ground is deeply troubling. By some accounts, as many as 95,000 people have been killed in the last 30 years alone, and Kashmir is recognised as the most heavily militarised place in the world. It is deeply distressing that Kashmir has become a political football in a sordid game of great power competition between India, China and Pakistan. What a dangerous game that is, given that each of those nations holds nuclear capabilities.
Mr Steve Baker: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Stephen Kinnock: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I am going to have to push on.
On 5 August 2019, the Indian Government’s Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act 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. What followed was an Indian army-imposed lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir, lasting until February 2021, in tandem with a communications blackout. The lockdown and the internet ban had a far-reaching impact on every aspect of life for the Kashmiri people; education, health services and media freedom were all undermined. The Indian Government maintain that their decision to unilaterally revoke article 370 is an internal matter, claiming that such actions do not interfere with the boundaries of the territory or the line of control, and citing security concerns based on attacks by what New Delhi believes to be Pakistan-backed militant groups. Indeed, we all recall with great sadness the tragic suicide-bomb attack on 14 February 2019, which targeted Indian soldiers in Kashmir.
However, 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. There can be no doubt that that unilateral action was counterproductive in terms of trying to achieve a peaceful and just long-term settlement. Furthermore, in line with Labour’s commitments to universal rights and the rule of law, we urge the Indian Government to consider carefully the impact on the individual rights and freedoms of innocent Kashmiri citizens when taking such significant action.
I also make clear that the Labour party will always speak up vociferously in defence of the human rights of the people of Kashmir. On that note, we 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. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the Leader of the Opposition, made it clear that all sides must play their part in ending the conflict. He wrote:
“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…that can only be achieved”
“India and Pakistan working together, with the people of Kashmir”.
It is with that in mind that I have the following questions for the Minister.
First, since taking up her new role, has she yet sought to impress on her Indian and Pakistani counterparts the need for a plan to demilitarise the larger Kashmiri region? On that note, has she met yet with the high commissioner for India? Did she make clear the need for the Indian Government to uphold human rights in Jammu and Kashmir?
Secondly, what meetings has the Minister had with human rights organisations about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir? Does she give support to the work of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir, which seeks to address the human rights situation?
Thirdly, do the Government have any plans to send a delegation to Jammu and Kashmir to assess the human rights situation and to report back to Parliament? Her predecessor said that the Government were looking to do that once the pandemic allowed.
Finally, will the UK Government commit to doing all they can to support and work with representatives from India, Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir, including all five regions, to deliver justice, peace and resolution to that terrible conflict? I welcome her again to her place, and I look forward to hearing her answers.