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So What’s Cooking?

A Labour government may spell trouble for India over Kashmir

So What’s Cooking?

EVEN as it celebrates the victory of the democratic process in Kashmir, the Indian Government could again come face to face with the ‘foreign hand’ in Kashmir. And that hand could belong to, not Pakistan or Afghanistan, not even Saudi Arabia, but faraway Britain. Come summer, come Labour into power, and the smiles Indian and British diplomats are sharing could well become strained.

Robin Cook, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, sounded neutral enough on his visit to India. But as he moved on, the cloak of neutrality clearly wore thin. And disappeared completely by the time he reached Islamabad and was interviewed by Pakistani daily Jang.

His offer of mediation in Kashmir was "not encouraged" in Delhi, Cook told Jang. But, "India could recognise that it needs a third party to find a solution to this problem," he said. That party, Cook identified in Islamabad, before leaving for London. "The Labour Party," he said, "recognises that Britain must accept its responsibility as the former imperial power in a dispute that dates from the arrangements for Independence." Britain’s role in Kashmir, he said, is an "obligation", a "responsibility" and a "duty".

In London, a small but shrewd battery of MPs has produced texts that obliquely emphasise what really lies behind the assertions of neutrality. A resolution by the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) a year ago had spoken of Kashmir as an area "bounded by" India and other countries. Labour, it said, "believes in" the UN resolutions but "also notes" the Shimla Agreement. And Cook is careful after his Indo-Pak visit to address "Prime Minister Sultan Mehmood Chaudhry of POK" while Farooq Abdullah remains just that, not Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. The Indian media failed to read the message partly because Cook said different things to different people. Even before he set off, Cook’s office sent out different statements to the Indian and the Pakistani media. "The passage on Kashmir is identical," said Andrew Hood, his assistant who accompanied him. But identical it wasn’t. Critical differences were inserted quietly.

For instance, a statement to the Indian media in London said: "I will be visiting India administered Kashmir and Pakistan administered Kashmir and expect to discuss the position set out in the NEC statement with both governments." The statement to the Pakistani media began the same way but went on to say that Cook would discuss the situation with both governments as well as the "Kashmiri representatives". Newly-elected Farooq Abd-ullah was not mentioned as one of them. A far cry from the British policy set out by former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. A three-point policy which supports bilateral talks between India and Pakistan, a genuine political process in Kashmir and cessation of armed support to terrorists in Kashmir from outside. Hurd, in fact, annoyed Pakistan when he said the UN resolutions were now out of date.

Cook’s three-point agenda, on the other hand, backs a solution in terms of the UN resolutions, assigns a special role for Britain, and envisages a solution that satisfies all Kashmiris. There is no mention of a political process; the changed situation in Kashmir spells no change in Labour policy over the last year and there is nothing on the arming of terrorists from outside.

That Cook’s policy is a call for Pakistani votes, a belief held by Indian officials, holds little water since there are twice as many Indians than Pakistanis in Britain. And even if more Pakistanis think Kashmir than Indians, only three MPs—Gerald Kaufman, Max Madden and Claire Short—actually make Kashmir their business. 

The turnaround in Labour’s stand perhaps came last year, a couple of months before the NEC resolution, at a meeting arranged supposedly by Labour councillors. "The position of the Labour Party on Kashmir is that Kashmir is a part of the Indian state. And the resolution of the present issue in Kashmir is an internal matter for India to be conducted on the terms of the Shimla Agreement," Cook said. But he had hardly uttered the words when High Commissioner L.M. Singhvi took centrestage and declared a major diplomatic win. "It became a blatant Government of India affair," said Councillor Paramjit Singh Bahia. "The minute Cook finished his speech the chaps in India House started beating the drums of a diplomatic victory." Cook was furious over the obvious takeover by India House. And so Labour MP Piara Singh Khabra was rejected in favour of Lord Swraj Paul to accompany Cook on his Indian visit. "I was told I would not accompany Robin Cook to Kashmir," a humiliated Khabra said. 

Cook’s distaste of Indian dinner diplomacy became apparent when he and former shadow foreign secretary Jack Cunningham were invited by Singhvi to India House and led to a surprise dinner with the Hindujas. The two leaders made their annoyance clear among party leaders. Subsequent attempts by Singhvi’s juniors to repair the damage meant only months of wasted wine. Responding to Singhvi’s eulogies at a dinner hosted by the Gujarat Samachar daily, Cook said that "the real test of his (Singhvi’s) diplomatic skills will come when Labour comes to power". And that’s a subtle warning. 

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