In February 1984, the deputy head of the Indian Consulate in Birmingham was grabbed as he got off the bus heading home with a cake for his daughter’s birthday. The next day, Kashmiri nationalists announced that they had kidnapped him and were demanding a ransom and the release of a Kashmiri leader in Indian custody. The Indian government refused and Mhatre was brutally murdered. Three decades later in 2005, the Kashmiri connection came to life once again when a group of British born young men blew themselves up on the London public transport system murdering 52 innocent commuters. Their journey to Al Qaeda training camps had started through Kashmiri oriented ones.
This sad history of violence shows how intimately the UK is tied to the waves of violence that occasionally pulse through Kashmir, and shows why attention needs to be paid to what is happening in there now. The newly crowned BJP government led by Narendra Modi won a landslide election victory on May 23 on a platform of revoking a key part of the constitution which defined Indian controlled Kashmir as separate to the rest of the country. This reclamation has come at a moment when violence in Kashmir appears to be sharpening as the Muslim majority population chafe against rule from Delhi.
The Indian government’s assessment of the potential impact of this decision can be seen in the fact that the Internet has been largely cut off and the mass deployment of thousands of soldiers into the region. Over the weekend thousands started to stream away from the region near India’s border with Pakistan after the government issued a series of warnings about potential violence.
Pakistanis protest against India in Lahore on August 5 – Credit: AP
Pakistanis protest against India in Lahore on August 5 Credit: AP
They are right to be concerned. Quite aside the fact that internecine violence between different ethnic and religious communities in India has in the past resulted in mass death and violence, this region often acts as a flashpoint between India and Pakistan. Since 2015 there has been an growing number of terrorist attacks against Indian security forces which has resulted in an escalating level of response by the Indian government against Pakistan. While there is some evidence of cross-border support from Pakistan, they are able to exploit genuine and growing anger in Kashmir at the moment.
This move by the government in Delhi is unlikely to do much to tamp this down. Rather, it is likely to exacerbate people’s fears that Delhi is going to open the region more to re-settlement by non-Muslim populations from elsewhere in India. The region’s special status will feel further under threat and create a context that will become a further flashpoint between India and Pakistan. These are two nuclear armed states who have shown in the past few years an escalating pattern of armed confrontation over incidents starting in Kashmir.
This has hugely dangerous consequences for one of the most populated parts of the world. But it also resonates in the UK. Talk to any MP who represents a constituency with a substantial South Asian population, and they will tell you about the degree to which issues in the subcontinent show up regularly in their surgeries. At one point, a Kashmiri focused political party managed to claim city council seats in Birmingham on a platform largely focused on Kashmir. The UK is right to be deeply proud of its South Asian communities (both current Chancellor and Home Secretary claim this proud heritage), but unfortunately there are difficult politics attached. What happens in Kashmir resonates in the UK.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)