By Paul Goodman
No, not because we sold it to a Maharajah in 1846. Nor because we made a mess of it roughly a hundred years later (though that's a matter I'll return to). Rather, it's because at least half a million people of Kashmiri origin live in the UK - which means that what happens there matters here.
They originate from a region that's being shaken by a mass uprising, is a crucible of oppression and terrorism, and has been contested for over 60 years by two Commonwealth members - both of which are now nuclear armed - one of which could collapse entirely. And that's not taking into account Afghanistan, where both have ambitions and our troops are fighting.
Jonathan Foreman, who knows the Kashmir valley well, has clocked that violence and protests there are rising, and has written an account in this week's Spectator. I see that my old host Barrister Sultan Mehmood has been waving banners outside Downing Street, complaining that the Prime Minister has "exhibited his inexperience" on the Kashmir issue. As it happens, David Cameron has said next to nothing about it, but his remarks on Pakistan have been noted by the Kashmiri diaspora (which, again, is a matter I'll return to). They'll also have spotted that the Disasters Emergency Committee has to date managed to raise only a tenth of the money for Pakistan that it did for Haiti.
All that's to set the scene. Here's why Kashmir's a British issue: that's to say, one with the potential to impact on our country in a big and baleful way - more than any conflict abroad in which our armed forces aren't engaged. In what follows, I'll use "Kashmiris" as a synonym for British citizens of Kashmiri origin.
- For Kashmiris, read Mirpuris - who speak Pahari, not Kashmiri. Most British Kashmiris originate from Azad ("free") Kashmir, which isn't so much free as controlled by Pakistan (a source of suppressed anger). But they're Kashmiris in the sense that they originate from the old princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. That's right: the one sold by us to that Maharajah back in 1846.
- And officially, they're of Pakistani origin. Our census lumps them with in with their 500,000 or so fellow citizens who originate from Pakistan. Add well over a million British citizens of Indian origin, and you've a large number of people, concentrated in a relatively small number of urban areas, among whom the Kashmir issue arouses divided views and fervent passions.
- The conflict in Kashmir, like the condition of Pakistan, thus has ripple effects in Britain. Pakistan's a long way from collapse. (The army remains a dominant force.) But trouble there has effects here. The Al Qaeda connection's too obvious to stress. A further war over Kashmir between India and Pakistan - three have been fought since the 1940s - could have serious consequences.
- Kashmir's a crucible of oppression and terrorism. India holds one part it; Pakistan the other; the insurrection's in the Indian-administered (or occupied) part. As Foreman points out, some 80,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and the population of Kashmir's roughly 10 million. It's unclear how many troops India has there, but some estimates run as high as 700,000.
- The scale of the conflict is far greater than Israel/Palestine. As Foreman notes, ten times as many people have been killed in Kashmir than in Israel/Palestine. 80,000 people is approximately the same number as live in High Wycombe in my old constituency. If we'd as many troops per head in Britain as India's 700,000 in Kashmir, our army would be roughly four million strong.
- But it commands only a tiny fraction of the coverage. Unlike Israel/Palestine, the Kashmir conflict can't be squeezed into a narrative of present-day western colonialism. Nor is it a focus for European religious preoccupations. Kashmiris complain: the West's quick to act in Afghanistan or Iraq. And prone to diplomacy on Israel/Palestine. But Kashmir's ignored.
- There's little merit in the assignment of blame. Pakistan blames India for occupying the Kashmir valley. India blames Pakistan for stoking terror. In the valley, there's been murder, rape, terror, torture, mass graves - and indigenous protest. Al Qaeda and Wahabi extremists are in on the scene. The Kashmiris complain of India flouting UN resolutions while the world does nothing.
- Britain can do little, if anything, to soothe the conflict. Some Pakistanis and Kashmiris say that Britain has a special responsibility to help solve Kashmir's problems. However, India's a growing power that sees Kashmir as no-one else's business, is sensitive to what it views as British interference, and is fearful of domestic separatism. The UK only has scope to work at the margins.
- However, the Government's support for India's Security Council membership is problematic. Under Michael Howard, the Party had reservations about India's application, and specifically hoped for progress on Kashmir. After Cameron succeeded him, the Party took up India's quest with enthusiasm. The shift has gone down worse with Kashmiris than the Prime Minister's recent remarks about Pakistan.
- If there's a solution - and there may not be - Northern Ireland's a possible model. In other words, the withdrawal of Indian troops and Pakistani insurgents; making the line of control "just a line on a map" (as the current Indian Prime Minister put it), so that people and goods can move across it; maximum autonomy in the Valley; cross-Kashmir bodies to promote trade and tourism.
I'm not an expert on Kashmir, but I did spent the best part of ten years representing a large number of Kashmiri-origin constituents and, for what it's worth, I've been to Azad Kashmir, India and Pakistan. I tend to focus on cohesion rather than trade when considering our relations with all three. This may be an unbalanced view. But I own up to wondering, when David Cameron criticised Pakistan in India for looking both ways on terrorism, whether he'd thought of the domestic effects of saying so.