Peterborough councillors to lobby city MPs over Kashmir

Peterborough city councillors concerned about human rights abuses in Kashmir will be writing to both Peterborough MPs Paul Bristow and Shailesh Vara, looking for their support in Westminster.

Tuesday, 11th February 2020, 5:00 am

There are as many as 20,000 people in Peterborough – almost a tenth of the population – who can trace their ancestry to the Kashmir region.

Following the Indian Governments’ move last August to abolish Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, the Kashmiri people have suffered from human rights abuses including the blocking of access to communication.

Many within the Kashmiri community of Peterborough have been unable to have contact of any kind with their family members or friends in Kashmir and are deeply concerned for their health and safety.

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A Kashmir solidarity meeting  at Cathedral Square EMN-190814-160933009
A Kashmir solidarity meeting at Cathedral Square EMN-190814-160933009

Speaking on their behalf, Cllr Amjad Iqbal (Labour, Centra), himself of Kashmiri decent, raised a motion at Full Council last week, looking for support from both of the city’s MPs to raise concerns about the situation in Kashmir at Westminster.

Cllr Iqbal said: “The revocation of these two articles by the Indian Government last year was a dark day for the Kashmiri community in Peterborough.

“This was a matter of great concern to our Labour MP Lisa Forbes and she raised the matter in Parliament stating that the very right of Kashmiri identity, to have their own flag, was a right that was given to the people of Kashmir more than 70 years ago when independence from Great Britain was granted.

“Article 370 dating from 1949 exempted Jammu and Kashmir states from the Indian Constitution allowing the Indian-administered region jurisdiction to make its own laws in all matters except finance, defence, foreign affairs and communications.

“Article 35A dating from 1954 empowered the Jammu and Kashmir states’ legislature to define themselves as ‘permanent residents’ of those states with dual nationality, both Indian and Kashmiri. It forbad outsiders from permanently settling, buying land, holding local government jobs or winning education scholarships in the region. It also bars female residents of Jammu and Kashmir from property rights in the event that they marry a person from outside the state.

“With this revocation of these two articles, the Indian Government has abolished decades-old laws that gave a measure of autonomy to the disputed Muslim-majority region, and the move is expected to further inflame tensions in an area of more than seven million people, as well as infuriate rival Pakistan.

“The Indian Government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), also moved a bill proposing the Jammu and Kashmir state be divided into two separate ‘union territories’ directly ruled by New Delhi, with Kashmiri’s having no choice under the Indian Constitution other than to identify themselves as Indian.

“What is worse is the Indian military and police have flooded Kashmir, effectively making putting it under martial law with one policeman to every three Kashmiri citizens.

“No communication with the outside world has been allowed since August, and the 20,000-strong Kashmiri community in Peterborough are now desperate to hear from their loved ones that they are okay and safe.

“What I am asking in my motion to this council is that we write to our MP and get him to appeal on behalf of the Kashmiri community in Peterborough – they need some direct action and they need it now.”

Cllr David Seaton, cabinet member for finance, had concerns, however, and said: “I’m very concerned that you only talk about our MP in the singular and constantly mention what Lisa Forbes is doing.

“You may not have noticed, but she’s not our MP anymore – get over it – presumably you are now referring to Paul Bristow MP?

“But Peterborough has two MPs, and I don’t like the way that you’ve quite deliberately excluded Shailesh Vara MP from your motion because you don’t think he’s on your side. He is. He’s on everybody’s side.

“The people of this city have two Conservative MPs and the people in the Kashmiri community of North West Cambridgeshire have a representative in Parliament who is there for them in the form of Shailesh Vara MP.

“Any decision of this magnitude taken by this chamber should include both our MPs and not just the one who you wanted in power because she was part of the Labour Party or you think you now have the ear of.

“I am therefore proposing an amendment to your motion that any communication we make following this debate about the situation in Kashmir should be made to both our MPs and not just the one you like for political reasons.

“I also think it’s important that we recognise not just the serious issues that are taking place in Kashmir, but also those events that have already taken place here in Peterborough and in London.

“There was a demonstration last August organised by the Conservative Muslim Forum Joint Council of Mosques and The Friends of Kashmir, at which there was cross-party attendance.

“Subsequent to that demonstration and following requests made by more than 400 attendees who signed a petition, it was Conservative MP Paul Bristow who raised the issue of Kashmir and the concerns of the Kashmiri community of Peterborough in his maiden speech in Parliament and Paul is now the vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Kashmir.

“Just this week Paul Bristow MP chaired a conference on Kashmir at the Houses of Parliament and I know that there are members here in this chamber tonight who attended that conference.

“So, while I support the principle of the motion from Cllr Iqbal, I think it would be very wrong not to acknowledge that there have already been some very important actions taken on behalf of the Pakistani, British citizens of Kashmiri decent, part of the Kashmiri community in Peterborough.”

Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald, council deputy leader, said: “It matters very little on an international scale what we say and do in this chamber if we continue to debate this matter for another two hours.

“It is, however, a political issue among the Muslim, Asian and Pakistani/Kashmiris in this city, so we should all agree that it’s a political issue and work together to do what can be achieved by Peterborough City Council.

“I say that we need to use the political avenue that is going to make a change – all this support for Paul Bristow is fine and yes, he’s made a good start and said some supportive things for the Kashmiri community, but both he and Shailesh are Conservatives – they won – get over it and go and talk to the guys, because they are the ones in Parliament and its only there that we can get anything done.

“I know how important this issue of what is going on in Kashmir is to our community, but I’m standing here tonight wandering what can I do about it from here? And the answer is nothing.

“I would much rather spend some quality time with cross-party representation down in Westminster, helped by the voices of our two MPs who can see what practicably can be done.”

Cllr Ansar Ali (Labour, North) took exception to these comments and said: “It was Lisa Forbes who took the lead in these matters, immediately supporting the concerns of the greater Kashmiri community in Peterborough, but she is no longer in a position to influence Parliament.

“For 72 years now this issue has remained unresolved. Our Prime Minister, at the very first opportunity that he had to answer a question from one of the Members of Parliament, said that this is an issue between India and Pakistan and Britain has no intension of interfering.

“This is beyond a political matter now and what we need is for our two MPs – yes they are Conservatives now – but we need them to point out that this is a legacy from the past which has been left unresolved with hundreds of thousands of people suffering.

“There is one military personnel for every three civilians in Kashmir – just imagine living in a society like that – and just imagine not being able to contact anybody even via social media.

“We talk and we shout about politics and which MP did what here in this chamber, when the real issue is ending the suffering of the people of occupied Kashmir.

“We owe it to the people of this city as their representatives to do something for the numbers of families who come from occupied Kashmir where this issue is now, they can’t contact their families, their families can’t get treatment and they are suffering and they are dying.

“So I ask and urge our council to take the lead and support our MPs Shailesh Vara and Paul Bristow to first and foremost go and speak to our Foreign Secretary and our Prime Minister to say ‘please interfere’ – because if Pakistan and India have not been able to solve this for 72 years, then they never will’.”

Members voted to agree that representations of the suffering of the Kashmiri people and the concerns of the Kashmiri community in Peterborough should be conveyed to Parliament by both MPs as soon as possible.

Robert Alexander, Local Democracy Reporting Service