Thursday 19th January 2017
It is a privilege to follow that incredibly articulate speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne). This has been an excellent debate, and I pay tribute to all those who have made contributions, particularly my colleagues from neighbouring constituencies in west Yorkshire, which all have significant Kashmiri communities. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) on securing this debate and on the broader contribution from the all-party group on Kashmir, which has sought to keep Kashmir on the political agenda in the UK—with varying degrees of success, despite its best efforts.
In preparation for today’s debate, I watched the recording of the last debate on Kashmir, secured by David Ward, the then Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, back in 2014. That, too, was a Back-Bench business debate. It is a testament to the Backbench Business Committee that it finds time for debates on issues often overlooked in the day-to-day business of the House, so I thank it for allocating time for this debate.
As I have already mentioned, many of my constituents are of Kashmiri heritage, and so Halifax will always keep a close eye on what is happening in that part of the world. Before Christmas, I met a number of local residents at the local Madni mosque for a constructive discussion about the deterioration of the situation in Kashmir and to consider what practical steps we could take locally. I mentioned that one of the challenges was accessing the latest information directly from the region—my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill just made this point too. We know that this is a consequence of the restrictions on the ground, but I also worry that because this conflict has gone unresolved for so long, it is overshadowed and goes largely unreported by the mainstream media. It is a challenge for us all to get it back on to those media platforms. Even the Foreign Office, in a written response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), said we had limited access to the Kashmir valley, which made it challenging to obtain accurate information on the situation there.
The House will appreciate, however, that, as others have said, for some of those families in Halifax and other communities throughout the UK, the problem is not that they cannot access information—information comes directly from their family and friends still in Kashmir; rather, the challenge is their sense of helplessness on hearing just how desperate the situation has become, feeling unable to protect loved ones and unable to bring about the civil protections and stability we need in order to keep people safe and to work towards a long-term sustainable resolution to the conflict.
Among other issues, we discussed at that meeting the role constituents could play in securing a debate, so once again, although we are all frustrated at how long this conflict has gone on unresolved, that we are having this debate in the main Chamber is a sign that a little progress has been made. The Member who led the 2014 debate outlined that the conflict was long standing and complex; as we have heard today, he was not wrong. Kashmir is one of the longest-running territorial disputes in the world, and the region sits between two nuclear powers, so it is astonishing to think that the world does not pay more attention. Not only have we failed to make any progress since that debate in 2014; the situation has deteriorated. As the motion indicates, we have all grown increasingly alarmed by the recent escalation of violence on the Indian side of the line of control. Depressingly, progress seems to have gone backwards.
I could spend a long time describing the incidents and the timeline that have brought us where we are today, but a number of Members have already done so, and I want to focus, once again, on the human rights violations that are taking place in the region. I am fairly confident that the Minister will tell us that it is the UK’s
“long-standing position…that it is for India and Pakistan to find a ?lasting resolution to the situation, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or act as mediator.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 652.]
After all, that is what I have been told on a number of occasions in response to both written and oral questions.
I appreciate the complexity of the issue, and I do not believe that anyone here is asking the Government simply to prescribe a solution to the problem of either India or Pakistan. Along with many others, I believe in self-determination for the Kashmiri people, and believe that only by empowering those who actually live in Kashmir to determine their own future through the ballot box will we bring about a long-term solution. However, as a responsible member of the international community, we have a responsibility to seek to put a stop to human rights abuses, and that is the work that I am asking the Government to undertake today.
When tensions escalated dramatically last summer, we saw a sharp rise in the use of pellet-firing shotguns by the Indian forces as a means of controlling crowds. I will not go into that particular horror, and the damage that those pellet guns have caused, because other Members have already done so very articulately.
Back in 2008, Doctors Without Borders—MSF—published a report. Although the research was undertaken a number of years ago, the report makes the most comprehensive attempt that I have found to map the health requirements of Kashmiri people living in close proximity to the line of control, in terms of both their physical and mental wellbeing. I found it a harrowing read, and given that the situation has only deteriorated since 2008,1 felt that it was worth sharing some of its findings. The research involved household surveys, conducted in person, in two districts in the Indian-controlled region of Kashmir. Of the 510 people who were interviewed, a staggering 86% reported frequent confrontations with violence including exposure to crossfire, 67% said that they had witnessed torture, and 34% said that they had had personal experience of forced labour. The report found that violence affects nearly everyone living in Kashmir: 40% of interviewees said that they had witnessed somebody being killed, and a horrifying 13% said they had witnessed rape.
Inevitably, MSF concluded not only that the requirements of the region were high in terms of physical injury as a result of the conflict, but that the prevalence of insecurity and prolonged violence had substantial implications for mental health. A third of those interviewed had contemplated suicide, and over a third had symptoms of psychological distress. Within that, the level of psychological distress among women was significantly higher. The prospects of any economic regeneration of the region are hopeless in those circumstances and in the face of such conflict. Fifty-three per cent. of those interviewed had had no formal schooling, and 24% reported high or total dependence on financial assistance from authorities or charities. I am struggling to find evidence that the position has improved substantially since 2008.
Given that the sustainable development goals are high on the world’s agenda this year, may I ask the Minister to work with his colleagues in the Department for International Development to explore all the ways in which we can improve the situation in Kashmir? There is no way that we can make progress in terms of education, health and the alleviation of poverty, or support economic recovery, unless the violence stops. Both Pakistan and India are world players and have obligations in relation to the sustainable development goals. How can we ensure that Kashmir does not get left behind? I am one of the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for Fairtrade. One of the things that we discussed at our meeting in Halifax was the role that it might be able to play, and the direct link that my local town could establish in supporting little independent businesses in Kashmir that might stimulate economic recovery.
I see that I am being encouraged to wind up my speech, so I will leave it there. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to my contribution, and those of other Members.