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Starmer Turns His Back on Kashmir

By folding to a pressure campaign orchestrated by the far-right BJP government, Keir Starmer's statement on Kashmir today not only betrayed Labour members – it abandoned a people living under brutal oppression.

Today Labour leader Keir Starmer released a statement with the unaffiliated group Labour Friends of India where he repositioned the party on Kashmir and committed to “rebuilding trust” with the British Indian community. In doing so, he ignored the unanimous position taken by Labour’s annual conference, where members voted to stand in solidarity with the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination.

The fiction of Labour’s ‘anti-Indian’ stance has been prominent since the general election, when a number of Indian communal organisations criticised the party over its opposition to the Indian state’s brutal occupation of Kashmir. As of the start of this year, that occupation had resulted in dozens of deaths – and just in February, India arrested top Kashmiri leaders under a law that allowed them to be detained for up to two years without trial.

In the run-up to last year’s general election criticisms of Labour’s Kashmir position gained widespread traction across the mainstream media. Headlines interchangeably accused Jeremy Corbyn of being “anti-Hindu” and “anti-Indian.” This conflation not only erased the hundreds of millions of Indian Muslims in India, but also the fact that Hindus only make up 44% of the Indian population in the UK. However, it suited the narrative of one particular group: the Hindu nationalist BJP government.

During last year’s general election, the BJP’s UK affiliate announced that its members would be canvassing for the Tories in 48 marginal constituencies. This was condemned as divisive by many British Indians at the time. A group of socialist Indians put out a statement rejecting the narratives coming from these so-called communal organisations who were propagating what, in our view, were old colonial tactics of divide and rule. 

Alongside this, we canvassed weekly in Harrow East in the hope of pushing out Bob Blackman, the incumbent Conservative MP. Blackman has hosted figures linked to the BJP militia, the RSS – whose uniform is derived from European fascist movements – in parliament and regularly panders to Hindu nationalism in the hope of keeping his seat.

While canvassing in Harrow East, we found that members of the local Indian community had been inundated with fake news through WhatsApp. There was what amounted to a propaganda campaign misrepresenting Labour’s policy on Kashmir and spreading Islamophobia. The degree to which the two were connected can be seen in recent comments by Anil Bhanot, interfaith director of the Hindu Council. After the leadership election, Bhanot said he hoped Starmer’s victory would result in an end to the “anti-Indian, pro-Islamic stance” of Jeremy Corbyn.

There was also criticism during the election that Labour had been sidelining Indian candidates. This seems to have stemmed from a single incident which was spun as a systemic issue. The selection of Claudia Webbe in Leicester East, where she was born and bred, over local councillor Sundip Meghani was portrayed as an affront to the local Indian community in Leicester and a microcosm of a wider “anti-Indian” tendency in Labour.

This narrative not only erased Leicester’s significant black population, but also the Indian candidates selected to represent Labour in constituencies across the country. In the 2019 intake, Navendu Mishra was elected to represent Stockport while Nadia Whittome was elected in Nottingham East. Here again we see how supporters of India’s far-right government have been manufacturing false narratives to justify their conduct in Kashmir.

Many months after Labour’s conference, the human rights situation in Kashmir remains abysmal. The brutal seven month curfew and communications blackout imposed after the Indian government revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019 meant that Kashmir was one of the least prepared regions in the subcontinent for the coronavirus pandemic, with severely restricted access to basic food and medical supplies. 

As the military occupation continues, Kashmiris have more reason to be fearful of this period than most, with hundreds of activists languishing in overcrowded prisons. The Kashmiri people need international support in their calls for human rights more urgently than ever before.

But today Keir Starmer chose to align himself with those who pit communities against each other in order to maintain the decades-old and worsening occupation of Kashmir. He has not only ignored the will of Labour members and international law, but has deserted the Kashmiri people’s struggle for self-determination.

It is they, not self-declared communal leaders, who our elected representatives should be meeting and learning from. We must be unflinching in our criticism of Starmer’s backtracking on this issue. By going against policy set by the highest democratic body in the Labour Party, he has played directly into the hands of far-right Hindu nationalists. It is a truly shameful episode for a party that proclaims internationalism and support for human rights.