Why Tensions in Kashmir Could Force a Rethink of UK Foreign Policy

The breathtaking beauty of Alpine-type lakes that surround Srinagar, in the heart of India-administered Kashmir, is a sight denied to most living or travelling from beyond this region. I got lucky – when first visiting India as a new MP in 2003 the tensions in Kashmir, which have sparked three wars between India and Pakistan as well as an on-going bloody three-decades-long insurgency, were at a historical low point. As a consequence I was able to spend time in this enchanting city and also walk freely in Jammu and Pulwama, the southern Kashmiri town where Islamist militant suicide bombers killed more than forty Indian troops on 14 February this year.

This mountainous valley region has been central to the conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations of India and Pakistan since Indian partition and independence in 1947. The uneasy ebb and flow of military and police incursions, terrorist attacks and retaliatory crackdowns by the authorities finally persuaded Indian Prime Minister Modi, basking in the afterglow of a landslide election victory in May to take decisive action in the first week of August.

Following a rapprochement between US President Trump and Pakistani PM Khan, ostensibly driven by the need to tackle the Afghanistan Taliban issue, India-administered Kashmir was placed under lockdown, subject to curfew and the withdrawal of internet and telephone facilities. This followed Modi’s decree that India’s only Muslim-majority state would lose its autonomous status. Under Article 370 of India’s constitution Jammu and Kashmir have been guaranteed the right to regional autonomy, not least in respect of the denial of property rights to non-residents. Despite periodic attempts by the UN to mediate, India and Pakistan have for seven decades now administered their respective parts of the territory albeit with the avowed intent on both sides of eventually taking full control. India’s Supreme Court confirmed only last year that Article 370 is a permanent fixture in the Indian constitution, so Prime Minister Modi’s actions set him on a constitutional collision course.

However, to his supporters Modi’s decisive action now reflects an increasing impatience within India at what many regard as the ongoing internal ‘Muslim problem’. Since partition the avowed interest has been to promote integration, dialogue and peaceful coexistence. The constant drumbeat of insurgency has enabled separatist to exploit the provisions for autonomy set out in Article 370 to promote their own agenda. As India’s economy continues to thrive the view from New Delhi and Mumbai has been one of continued frustration. The time, resource and diplomatic energy expended on Kashmir and the volley of international criticism that India regularly receives finally provoked the government to take radical action. Integration of the region into India is what a second-term Modi government now seeks.

A fortnight after the Pulwana suicide attack in February I visited India during the height of a tense election campaign. The statesmanship of Pakistani PM Imran Khan and Narendra Modi at that time, assisted by behind-the-scenes international diplomatic efforts with the respective military leaderships, saw a welcome diffusion of tensions after airstrikes and a skirmish between fighter jets over India-controlled territory following the atrocity. However, it is worth reflecting that aftershocks of India Prime Minister Modi’s decision to revoke Kashmiri autonomy are already being felt far closer to home.

Over a million UK residents are of Kashmiri descent, predominantly Muslim (as is the majority of those living in this disputed territory). The large-scale demonstrations outside The Indian High Commission reflect an increasing impatience at the UK government’s settled policy since partition in 1947 that we should have no formal role in mediation on behalf of Kashmiri citizens demanding resolution of their human rights and dialogue about the long-term future of the region. Nevertheless, the revocation of Article 370 risks upsetting this delicate balance, especially as there are probably twenty UK constituencies with sizeable Pakistani-Kashmiri populations making ever stronger overtures for a more proactive UK Foreign Office stance in Kashmir. These areas also enjoy strong family and community links between the UK and local Kashmiri population, which it is often argued by foreign policy specialists makes them more susceptible to recruitment by Islamist insurgents.