During his first dialogue with the Labour Friends of India (LFI) group on Thursday, the UK Labour party’s newly appointed leader Keir Starmer said Kashmir was “a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully“. He emphasised that such issues should not divide communities in Britain.
Starmer’s remarks were seen as an attempt to re-position his party’s stance on Kashmir and reach out to the Indian community in Britain. During the dialogue, Starmer also pledged to build stronger business links with India.
“We must not allow issues of the sub-continent to divide communities here. Constitutional issues in India are a matter for the Indian Parliament. Kashmir is a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully,” said Starmer, who succeeded Jeremy Corbyn as the party’s leader in the 2020 Labour Leadership elections.
What was the Labour party’s stance before Keir Starmer?
The party’s relations with the Indian diaspora have been strained, especially after its delegates passed an emergency policy motion in September 2019 criticising India’s decision to revoke Article 370, as a result of which Jammu and Kashmir lost its special status and was divided into two Union Territories — Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The delegates maintained that the people of Kashmir should have self-determination rights.
Its motion at the time stated: “The enforced disappearance of civilians, the state endorsed sexual violence of women by armed forces and the overall prevalence of human rights violations in the region not only continues but has exasperated further in the past week.”
In fact, just a few days after the abrogation, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn posted on Twitter, “The situation in Kashmir is deeply disturbing. Human rights abuses taking place are unacceptable. The rights of the Kashmiri people must be respected and UN resolutions implemented.”
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After the motion was passed, Ian Lavery, then party chair, clarified the party’s position on the matter and said that the issue was bilateral for India and Pakistan. This came after several Indian groups wrote to Corbyn protesting the motion.
Further, before the UK general elections in December 2019, LFI had expressed disappointment over the party’s failure to choose more than one Indian-heritage parliamentary candidate. In a statement released in November 2019, the group said, “We express our regret that the Labour Party has selected just one candidate of Indian heritage in 39 safe Labour seats, and no Indian heritage candidate in 100 target seats.
“Relations between the Indian community and the Labour Party are already strained,” it added.
A report in The Guardian said that in the run-up to the general elections, WhatsApp messages were sent to several British Hindus, urging them not to vote for Labour as the party was “anti-India” and “anti-Hindu”, and was trying to create tensions between Pakistanis and Indians in the UK.
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One of the messages reportedly read, “The Labour party is now the mouth-piece of the Pakistani government… It is anti-India, anti-Hindu and anti-[Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi. So if there are any Indians who are still voting for Labour, or are still members of the Labour party – then respectfully I say, they are traitors to their ancestral land, to their family and friends in India and to their cultural heritage,” the Guardian report said.
Why is the Labour Party’s relationship with the Indian diaspora important?
As per LFI, Indians are the largest ethnic community in the UK, numbering over 1.5 million people or accounting for over 2.3 per cent of the country’s population. Therefore, they form a significant vote share for any party. In the 2017 general elections, 50 per cent of the Indians living in the UK had voted for Labour.