Revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir figures in UK election campaign

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The Kashmir issue, against the backdrop of the Indian government's revocation of Jammu and Kashmir's special status, has found its way into the General Election campaign in the UK, with candidates warning against bringing the divisions of the subcontinent into play ahead of the December 12 poll.

Social media messages and chat groups are being used by some Indian diaspora outfits to try and influence voters, with the Opposition Labour Party facing the brunt of the attacks for its perceived “anti-India” stance since it passed a resolution favouring international intervention in Kashmir.

“I don't think we are made better off as a country by continuing the divisions of our homelands, instead we should focus on Britain today. Kashmir is a matter for the people of Kashmir and all conflicts must be resolved within the law and Constitution of India,” said Virendra Sharma, a veteran Indian-origin Labour MP who hopes to win again from his Ealing Southall constituency from west London — a seat he has held for the party since 2007.

“This election is about making a decision about the kind of Britain we want to live in,” he said.

On August 5, India revoked the special status to Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated the state into two Union territories, evoking strong reactions from Pakistan.

India has categorically told the international community that the scrapping of Article370 was an internal matter and also advised Pakistan to accept the reality.

Some of the anti-Labour messages doing the rounds on WhatsApp and Twitter include attacks on the party as being “anti-Hindu” for not condemning protests organised by pro-Pakistani groups in London.

A particular video that is being shared widely depicts a controversial right-wing British journalist being heckled by protesters during the so-called "Free Kashmir" rally on Diwali last month, in an attempt to accuse the Labour Party of blindly supporting “Pakistan's propaganda” over India's abrogation of to convert Jammu and Kashmir into Union Territories.

“This is extremely worrying,” says Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, the first turbaned Sikh to be elected to the UK Parliament in the 2017 election.

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The Labour candidate, who hopes to win again from Slough in Berkshire, stresses that the party's resolution on Kashmir, wordings of which have been acknowledged by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn as being somewhat open to “misinterpretation”, was a focus on human rights and not anti-India in any way.

The resolution read: “Accept that Kashmir is a disputed territory and the people of Kashmir should be given the right of self-determination in accordance with UN resolutions.” Respect British Indians, an umbrella group claiming to represent over 100 British Indian outfits set up on Twitter to lobby Corbyn to withdraw the resolution, has also drafted a “pledge” for every British politician contesting the December 12 election to commit to revoking the “partisan and ill-informed” motion passed by the party at its conference in September.

The Indian diaspora, estimated to represent over 1 million votes in a UK election, have traditionally been wooed by all major parties with attractive photo opportunities at gurdwaras and temples.

However, experts point out that the idea that they could be mobilised into voting en masse over one particular issue is unlikely to be the case.

“While Kashmir may be a potent issue for some in the diaspora community, and therefore expressly concerned over Labour's interventionist stance, it is not for all,” said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a think-tank in London.

“Other factors such as Brexit may be equally important to British Indian diaspora voters, along with differing voting preferences on the basis of origin (a proportion of the diaspora originate from Eastern Africa), socio-economic status, age and traditional voting patterns/party loyalty,” he said.

Sunder Katwala, Director of the integration think-tank British Future, also highlighted the history of subcontinent issues finding their way into British politics without a major impact on the outcome of elections.

He said: “Only a vocal minority of voters would see Kashmir as the primary issue in how to vote in a British General Election”.

“For most British Indian voters, questions of who should lead the country, Brexit, the economy and taxation, schools and hospitals are going to be more important than views on international affairs may often reinforce broader views about (UK Prime Minister) Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn, whether supportive or sceptical, for voters with different views of the India-Pakistan conflict,” he said.

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