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Labour Votes Kashmir

The Brighton meet focuses on the troubled state to woo Asians

Labour Votes Kashmir
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

BY the standards of the Labour Party, it was a dream conference. First, there was Tony Blair's well received, mes-sianic pulpit call for a "New Labour, New Britain". And when the conference passed every single official resolution, including the controversial one to keep Trident nuclear missiles, the new leadership's grip over the party was confirmed. Finally, to prove that the new Labour had indeed begun to attract traditional Conservative supporters, there was the high-profile defection of Alan Howarth, former minister and true-blue Tory MP from Stratford-upon-Avon. This happened just a couple of days after the conference and on the eve of the Tory conference. It was, according to Plara Khabra, a Labour MP of Indian origin from Ealing, Southall, "The beginning of the campaign to defeat the Tories."

But this crucial Labour conference at Brighton, possibly the last before next year's general elections, was not without its share of hiccups: the challenge from the far left in the Liz Davis case; the breakaway threat from Arthur Scargill, the powerful president of the National Union of Mineworkers; and of course Kashmir.

Though the Kashmir resolution was not a top agenda item for the new Labour, it had the potential to split the Asian vote, which could determine the outcome of at least six parliamentary seats. And that, in a close contest, could decide the future of both Labour and the Tories (the present government has a majority of five).

That Kashmir would be an issue at Brighton was evident when a 24-line resolution, which stressed the "principle of self-determination for the people of Kashmir", was mooted by Gerald Kaufman, an MP from Manchester Gorton. This resolution was backed by the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) of Wycombe, Bolton South East, Rochdale and Bradford West. In theprevious Labour stance, the Shimla Agreement and UN resolutions were taken as the basis for a "settlement acceptable to all the peoples of Kashmir". But Kaufman, ex-shadow foreign secretary, claims this is not a shift but an "expression of continuity".

What Kaufman is reluctant to state, but party insiders suggest, is that this resolution is the result of pressure from Pakistani and Mirpuri immigrants in his and several other marginal constituencies. Although the Indian population (and vote) is almost twice as large, it is not as concentrated. Besides, Kashmir has been highlighted by groups like the JKLF.

There is another reason why some white MPs take a hard line on Kashmir: their candidature is being challenged by parliamentary aspirants from the subcontinent. According to party observers, there should be at least 30 black and Asian MPs to represent the diversity in British society. But in many constituencies with substantial Pakistani immigrants, Labour has suspended or denied membership to this community. This is most obvious in Kaufman's own constituency, where the membership of Ahmed Shahzad, a prominent Pakistani leader was suspended following his participation in a BBC documentary which showed Asian members being barred from parliamentary selection meetings in Manchester Gorton. In fact, according to the recently launched Campaign Against Labour Party Suspensions, at least 5,000 black and Asian members have been suspended in different parts of the country.

Writes Sarah Walsh of the Socialist Campaign, a left-wing publication popular with Labour members:  "Where black candidates stood a good chance, for example in Manchester Gorton and Birmingham, they found their membership rights removed or suspended." Thus, with Asian contenders breathing down their neck, it's no surprise that white MPs are going out of their way to prove their loyalty to the Kashmiri cause. Says Khabra of his fellow white parliamentarians: "They are playing a dirty game."

To counter the pro-Pakistani resolutions at Brighton, Khabra's CLP proposed an amendment which was incorporated in the final National Executive Committee (NEC) statement. This declared: "Any solution for Kashmir will have to be acceptable to all the peoples of Kashmir: Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists," and that "Britain should not prescribe any one solution to the problem. A solution is for the parties directly involved to find."

This statement, though a far cry from shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook's assertion at the Brent meeting in July that "Kashmir is a part of India," was mellow enough for Indian High Commissioner L.M. Singhvi to comment on it favourably. Although he did not agree "with every aspect of the statement", he took note of its "constructive and positive references". Among these was the fact that "the Shimla Agreement has been given the position of primacy and the commitment of both sides to (it) has been reiterated."

The statement appeased Indians but was far from satisfactory to the extreme left within Labour. The plea that "Britain must accept its responsibility as a former imperial power in the dispute," was described as "highly offensive" by Paramjit Bahia, Southampton county counciller and general secretary of the Association of Active Asians in Labour. "This shows they still believe in the old-style imperialist attitude," he said.

This attitude was also evident in the NEC observation, "It is a matter for world concern that three powers (India, China and Pakistan) with nuclear weapons, or the near capacity to produce them, are present in a disputed territory of such instability." The irony, that this was said at the same conference which passed the resolution to accept the more destructive Tridents, clearly escaped all the delegates present. 

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