The oddest connection has arisen in Britain between coronavirus and Kashmir. What began as one of those PR exercises that political parties launch with community groups, with the eventual election in mind no doubt, delivered a diplomatic gift that Indian officials would have claimed a coup if it were they who’d got it in the bag.
But it wasn’t them, it turned out to be the Hindu Council UK at a meeting with new Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer. The Labour Party set up the meeting. “We were meeting on this issue of Covid-19, on the many disproportionate deaths within the Indian community,” Umesh Sharma, Chair of Hindu Council UK, an influential umbrella group, tells CNN-News18.
“He (Starmer) was taking up that issue but I’m very sure he wanted to pass on that shift in policy via Hindu Council UK.” It was a major shift, Sharma said. “I could not believe my ears when he stated the fresh policy.”
In a statement following the meeting (that began with the effects of coronavirus), Starmer said, “Any constitutional issues in India are a matter for the Indian parliament, and Kashmir is a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully.”
Starmer further said that he is committed to “rebuilding trust” with the Indian community in Britain, and that issues involving Kashmir should not “divide communities here.”
Consider the Labour position earlier, and the fallout from it that led the Indian government to officially break relations with the Labour Party, a historic ally of India, last year.
The Labour position was capped in a resolution passed at the annual Labour conference in September last year.
The resolution supports “international intervention in Kashmir” and more particularly a “UN-led referendum.” The resolution was passed almost surreptitiously, with few leaders in attendance. That didn’t stop it becoming the official party position.
Britain’s Labour Party no doubt sits in opposition, and at this time, it is in a particularly weak opposition. But its position over Kashmir under its old leader Jeremy Corbyn became nevertheless a continuously painful thorn in the Indian side that not all the extrication efforts from Indian officials could dislodge.
It was a position that in effect backed an independence movement within Kashmir. Theoretically stated, within all of Kashmir, but aimed really at Kashmir on the Indian side.
For Pakistan, that Labour policy was a diplomatic aphrodisiac. The knock-on effects of Labour policy were far out of proportion to the relatively little one might expect from an opposition party’s views.
One parliamentary debate after another was called on Kashmir, one censuring speech after another was amplified through chosen media and social media into Kashmir itself.
The Pakistani government went so far as to issue an official statement asking for support to Jeremy Corbyn in the last election – when Corbyn as it turned out led Labour to its heaviest election defeat since 1935.
An Indian voter swing away from Labour is widely believed to have contributed to that defeat.
The new Labour Party leader has changed that old policy that so pleased Pakistan, and changed it enough into near reversal.
“It is a significant change in that it is completely different from what was being said by Jeremy Corbyn,” senior Labour leader and former minister Keith Vaz told CNN-News18.
However, he pointed out, the party resolution of last year still “represents the Labour Party policy.”
The new “sentiment” from Starmer “does not change that policy and does not change that resolution.”
For that to happen, Vaz said, “We need to get the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party either to make a statement of its own, or to bring forward a resolution in September this year where the previous policy is rescinded, and the sentiments that the new Labour leader has talked about are reflected in Labour Party policy.”
That effort, he warned, would lead to further conflict within the party.
“This is going to take some time to resolve, there are going to be people who would want to stick by the views expressed last year,” he said, while adding that this change now “is an important step forward and we must make sure we build on it.”