Disappointment in life isn’t uncommon. In politics, even more so, I am told. So when the Conservative Friends of Kashmir group was formed by seven Tory MPs, it should not have been a shock? But it was. Why?
In 2014, when a debate on Kashmir was planned in Parliament, it was expected to be lopsided because there was nobody to present the MPs with the whole truth. I was furious and this anger led to my first real introduction to the British political system.
I reached out to some friends and together, we approached some MPs from across parties and this is when I met Bob Blackman, the MP for Harrow East in London. I reached out to Kashmiri Pandit activists around the world who I didn’t even know and they helped furnish key facts for the MPs who we requested to counter the lopsided propaganda.
Hailed as the first moral victory for India in the UK Parliament on Kashmir, this win proved a short-lived. Of the MPs who spoke in favour of India, many lost their seats and a couple got promoted to the front benches. This meant we were left with just two backbench MPs – Virendra Sharma (Labour) and Bob Blackman (Conservative) – to speak for us.
In 2016, when the terrorist Burhan Wani was killed, the propagandists dubbed it a martyrdom. There were rallies celebrating this so-called “martyrdom”, supported by Pakistan-origin parliamentarians in Birmingham. Some of us who know too well that these rallies are a breeding ground for radicalisation, objected and formal permission for them was ultimately withdrawn. Hurrah, everyone thought.
But lo and behold, the rally went ahead, albeit in a lacklustre manner. They just took to a smaller market square and assembled in lesser numbers but did what they planned to do. I remember saying to fellow Indian diaspora members: “Don’t be complacent. These guys are ruthless; they might still go ahead.” I hate to say, I was right.
During the 2015 UK General Election, the Indian diaspora became a bit more active and votes began swinging. The new immigrants of the last 10-15 years are naturally conservative in their ideology but the Tories didn’t seem to take note.
The Conservatives’ understanding of the Indian diaspora was limited to the Indian immigrants from East Africa, who came to this country as refugees and set up small vocations. With sheer hard work, they went on to make a mark for themselves.
The high-skilled immigrants of later years seemed to have made no impression on the party until the 2019 post-Brexit snap General Election, when Boris Johnson and his team won. This victory was attributed largely to the Indian diaspora because the disillusioned Labour Party votes fell into the Conservatives’ kitty. Why? Because the Labour Party took a stance of interference on Kashmir – passing an ill-conceived resolution under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Now, as early harvest deals feeding into a free trade agreement between India and UK and India as the second-highest foreign investor into the UK are being hailed, suddenly one hears of a fringe group from within the Conservative Party called the Conservative Friends of Kashmir. It is a simple fact of geography that Jammu and Kashmir are Union Territories (UT) of India.
Both India and Pakistan have friends’ groups within both the Labour and Conservative parties. Therefore, it is baffling what “Kashmir” even signifies in that context? What is important to note is that it isn’t even a formal group that has the blessings of party leadership. So what exactly happened here?
The propagandists seem to have either threatened or instigated some misguided members of Parliament to float a fringe group in complete opposition to the official government and party stand – the very same contentious stance that cost the Labour Party dearly at the ballot box.
The result is that the Indian diaspora, who reposed so much faith in the ruling part, feel cheated by this development. And, a heavy price will have to be paid by the Conservative Party if it does not act decisively.
Here are a some immediate steps required:
a. An apology to their voters on behalf of a bunch of rogue MPs for setting up this fringe group.
b. Disband any such fringe groups within the Tory party with immediate effect.
c. Clarify, unequivocally, the party’s stand on Kashmir and relations with India.
As for any wayward members keen to highlight human rights issues, there is no dearth of these closer to home: terrorism and radicalisation; grooming gangs and drug abuse; knife crime and the safety of citizens… the list is endless.
Lakshmi Kaul is the London-based UK Head & Representative at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and an active Indian diaspora campaigner. In this regular Talking Point column for ‘iGlobal’, she will focus on issues that deserve spotlighting within the Global Indian community, referencing her personal experiences.