The Labour Party’s Kashmir motion divides South Asians in the UK ahead of elections

Demonstrators protest the Indian government’s revocation of Kashmir’s special status in Trafalgar Square, London. The votes of many in the British South Asian community may be influenced by their candidates’ stance on the issue. Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
18 November, 2019

On 12 December, the United Kingdom will hold a general election to find a resolution to the political deadlock over Brexit—a term that refers to the UK’s potential withdrawal from the European Union. However, not every voter will have Brexit on their minds as they cast their ballot.

The votes of many in the British South Asian community—specifically Indians and Pakistanis—may be influenced by their candidates’ stance on the Indian government’s recent moves in Kashmir. On 5 August, the Indian government revoked the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Following the move, several reports emerged of human-rights violations at the hands of the Indian security forces.

In its annual conference in September, the UK’s Labour Party passed an emergency motion on Kashmir. The motion noted that “there is a major humanitarian crisis taking place in Kashmir,” and called for “international observers to enter the region.” It further took note of “the enforced disappearance of civilians,” “the overall prevalence of human rights violations” and “the house arrest / imprisonment of mainstream politicians and activists.” It added that “the people of Kashmir should be given the right of self-determination.”

After the motion was passed, there was a backlash against it from many in the British Indian community, prompting the Labour party to later clarify that it views Kashmir as a “bilateral matter” between India and Pakistan. In September, The Indian High Commission cancelled a dinner reception with the Labour Friends of India, a group comprising Labour Party members, supporters and political office holders.

The motion also angered Bharatiya Janata Party supporters in Britain. The Overseas Friends of the BJP, or OFBJP, a foreign advocacy group with links to the BJP, urged Indians in the UK not to vote for the Labour Party. Kuldeep Singh Shekhawat, the OFBJP’s UK president, told the Times of India that it is campaigning in favour of the ruling Conservative Party, and that it has identified 48 seats where there are significant numbers of Indian-origin voters.

I spoke to Shekhawat on 8 November. “Forty-eight is figuratively speaking; it can be fifty, it can be twenty,” he said. “But Labour MPs have failed the Indian community. Kashmir is India’s internal matter, why is Labour interfering?” He added, “The Overseas Friends of the BJP is a non-political pressure group that works for protecting India’s interests in the UK. It is for the first time that we have decided on tactical voting against Labour Party.”

Shekhawat further noted that over hundred other Indian organisations have written to Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, against the party’s Kashmir motion. He said that the Indian community was very upset with Labour MPs for their “anti-India stand.”

However, on 11 November, Shekhawat sent me a statement qualifying his earlier remarks. “In recent media reports I have been quoted re the UK elections,” his message said. “To clarify, my comments were a general reflection of political activism amongst British Indians. They were strictly personal comments, and certainly not at the behest of @BJP4India or with the mandate of the national executive of the Overseas Friends of BJP.” Shekhawat added, “Having said this, I am sure British Indians will be looking very carefully as to who they vote for in the upcoming elections, and support those candidates (regardless of party) who will best represent the interests of their communities

Following the Labour Party’s motion, WhatsApp messages that describe the party as “anti-Hindu” and “anti-India” have been circulating among the Indian diaspora community. The messages urge British Hindus to vote against the party.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, a Labour MP, said these messages were an attempt to divide the British Indian community. “I urge my Hindu and Sikh British compatriots: don’t fall for the divisive tactics of religious hardliners, trying to wedge apart our cohesive community, circulating lies on WhatsApp,” he said in a tweet. “They won’t silence the likes of me, who will speak up for human rights.”

Shekhawat said that the OFBJP is campaigning for the Conservative candidate in Dhesi’s seat. Dhesi is standing to be re-elected as the MP for the Slough constituency which has 17.7 percent Pakistani-origin and 15.6 percent Indian-origin constituents. He is also part of the All Party Parliamentary Group for British Muslims.

“I appreciate that the wording of the emergency motion on Kashmir has caused some division within the party and community, which many of us have discussed and the party leadership is currently looking into,” Dhesi told me. “Unlike what some people may try to portray, the Labour Party is not anti-India, anti-Pakistan, or anti anyone else. We merely stand up for and have always stood up for the human rights of all, regardless of background, colour or creed.”

Preet Kaur Gill, the Labour Party’s candidate for the Birmingham Edgbaston constituency, said she was not worried about the WhatsApp messages in circulation. The constituency is also one of the seats where Shekhawat said the OFBJP plans to campaign for the Conservatives. “People vote for MPs based on their track records,” Gill said. “I have had overwhelming support from my BAME”—Black and minority ethnic—“communities. On Kashmir, I have been clear it’s a matter for India and Pakistan to resume talks to address.”

Virendra Sharma, the Labour Party MP for Ealing Southall, has expressed his disapproval of his party’s stand on Kashmir. OFBJP is therefore supporting his campaign for re-election.

Meanwhile, South Asian voters in Britain were divided on the Kashmir motion, and whether it will impact the community’s electoral choices. “I will vote for Tan Dhesi not only because I am a Labour Party member, but because he has raised human-rights issues of Kashmiris,” Nazar Lodhi, a human-rights activist from Slough told me.

I also spoke to Nazir Ahmed, a vocal supporter of Kashmir’s independence, and a member of the House of Lords, the upper house of the UK parliament. “I am sure people will look into policy of each party and vote accordingly,” he said. “I cannot predict the outcome of the elections; however, I am sure people will ask the candidates about their support for the right of self determination [of the Kashmiris].”

Others had opposing views. “Many British-Indian voters appear to be shifting towards the Conservative party and some are also being attracted to the Lib-Dem party,” Dr Sujinder Singh Sangha, an educationist and researcher in Birmingham, told me, while referring to the Liberal Democrats party. “It seems that many British-Indian voters perceive the Labour leader as influenced by the pro-Kashmiri-separatist lobby in Britain.” He added, “Many Hindus whom I know, like many Sikhs, don’t see themselves exclusively through the religious perspective. They may vote in accordance with their socio-economic-political views.” However, he said that “most reject Labour’s Kashmir stance,” which may impact the voting pattern.

Avtar Singh Buttar, the Constituency Labour Party treasurer for Ealing Southall, described the polarisation he had witnessed in his area ahead of the elections. A Constituency Labour Party, or CLP, is an organisation of members of the Labour Party who live in a particular UK parliamentary constituency. “We went to many Hindu houses and they said they will not vote Labour,” he said. “And all Muslims said they will vote Labour provided that Labour’s candidate is not Hindu.”

An activist campaigning for the Labour Party in Harrow East constituency shared a similar anecdote on the condition of anonymity. Harrow East has a significant number of Indians, largely Hindus. She said, “Many doors we have knocked on have said to our face that our mandirs have asked us not to vote Labour as it is anti-Hindu.”

In response to the backlash, the Labour party has admitted that its motion has caused offence to the Indian community. It further clarified that it views Kashmir as a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan. In a letter to the Labour Friends of India on 10 October, Corbyn conceded that “some of the language used” in the motion “could be misinterpreted as hostile to India and the Indian Diaspora.” The letter added, “Labour understands the concerns the Indian community in Britain has about the situation in Kashmir and takes these concerns very seriously. “However, it also noted that the Labour party is “committed to ensuring the human rights of all citizens of Kashmir are respected and upheld.”

On 11 November, Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery issued another letter that is being viewed as an attempt to contain the situation. “We recognise that the language used in the emergency motion has caused offence in some sections of the Indian diaspora, and in India itself,” the letter said. “We are adamant that the deeply felt and genuinely held differences on the issue of Kashmir must not be allowed to divide communities against each other here in the UK.” It reinforced that the “Labour Party holds the Indian diaspora community in the highest regard.”

The letter added, “Kashmir is a bilateral matter for India and Pakistan to resolve together by means of a peaceful solution which protects the human rights of the Kashmiri people and respects their right to have a say in their own future. Labour is opposed to external interference in the political affairs of any other country.” It further clarified that the “Labour Party will not adopt any anti-India or anti-Pakistan position over Kashmir,” before noting that the party is “motivated by our desire to protect the human rights of all peoples in the current situation.”

The International Khalsa Organisation, a UK-based community group with members from all faiths, met in early November to discuss the issue. I spoke to Sukhwinder Singh, the president of the organisation. “While the Kashmir issue remains important to many of our members, the majority said they will vote according to the party manifestoes,” he told me.

Dr Onkar Sahota, a member of the London Assembly, echoed similar views. “While there is an ongoing debate within Labour over Kashmir and may have a nominal effect on how people vote, it will not have too much impact,” he said. “Where there is violation of human rights be it Kashmir or Yemen, we have a right to comment. We should not however interfere in the politics of other countries. I feel Kashmir issue can be solved bilaterally with sincere discussion between India and Pakistan. We should not let politics of Indian subcontinent influence what’s best for this country. We need to worry about Brexit, NHS”—the National Health Service, England’s publicly funded national healthcare system—“education.”

According to a college student in Coventry, a city in central England, the Kashmir issue will not directly impact students’ voting choices. “While Kashmir seems to occupy mind space within the Indian and the Pakistani communities in small pockets of the UK and that too largely within the older generation,” the student said, on the condition of anonymity, “the youngsters have their priorities well in sight.”