Keir Starmer has unilaterally changed Labour Party policy overnight, bowing his head to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the issue of Kashmir.
Having quickly appeased Israel’s foriegn office as Labour leader, Starmer has now done the same with India’s. This is in direct contradiction to what was passed democratically at the 2019 Labour Party conference.
Repression in Kashmir
Kashmir, the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent, is one of the most militarised areas in the world. Three nuclear-armed nations - China, India and Pakistan - all claim an area of its territory.
The region is regularly used by jingoist nationalists in both Pakistan and India as a cause to rally around. The area has been the issue of three wars between the two countries, as well as acting as a theatre for a whole host of other skirmishes and stand-offs.
In August 2019, Modi revoked article 370 and 35A from the Indian constitution by decree, with zero discussion in the Indian parliament.
Because of Kashmir’s complex history - neither fully allying with Pakistan or India at the time of independence - these constitutional acts previously gave a degree of autonomy to the region. As a result, it had its own constitution, a separate flag, and freedom to make its own domestic laws.
A new bill was rushed through in one day, in which Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh were bifurcated and given the status of union territories, under direct rule from Delhi. All tourists, pilgrims and workers from other states were forced to leave.
Tens of thousands of extra Indian army soldiers were deployed to the area. A strict curfew was imposed; all telephone lines and internet were cut off; and all political leaders were arrested. Credible accounts suggests that torture and mass repression by the army were used to supress Kashmiris.
Modi’s smear campaign
The move sparked outrage across the country and internationally. Jeremy Corbyn was one of the few leaders of the international labour movement to speak out clearly against these atrocities, stating:
“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.”
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.— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) August 11, 2019
At the 2019 Labour conference, delegates democratically passed two motions calling for an ethical foreign policy in relation to Palestine and Kashmir. Both passed almost unanimously.
The motion in relation to Kashmir recognised that there was human rights abuses, state endorsed violence against women, imprisonment of politicians, and a communications blackout.
It resolved to ensure basic human rights were restored, calling for: international observers to enter Kashmir; mediation of peace between India and Pakistan; allowing Kashmiris to have self-determination; and for the labour movement to “stand with the Kashmiri people fighting against occupation”.
The ruling BJP party and the right-wing Indian media was outraged that such crimes could be recognised and challenged by a major political party and one, potentially, on the cusp of power at the time.
An organised campaign was subsequently run to discredit Labour’s election campaign by the Indian government. This used the most vile communal politics of South Asia, with voters pressured to choose based on their ethnicity, not their class interests.
Worried that this smear campaign would affect Labour’s chances in marginal seats, party chair Ian Lavery reneged on the motion, saying:
“Kashmir is a bilateral matter for India and Pakistan to resolve together by means of a peaceful solution which protects the human rights of the Kashmiri people and respects their right to have a say in their own future.”
Labour is “opposed to external interference in the political affairs of any other country,” Lavery added.
Since becoming Labour leader, Keir Starmer has shifted the party’s position to one of outright defence of Indian imperialism. Any notion of Kashmiri rights, self-determination, or acknowledgement of human rights abuses has been eradicated.
“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 has officially stated. “Labour is an internationalist party and stands for the defence of human rights everywhere.”
Starmer’s equivocal statement, in effect, gives the thumbs up for India to constitutionally do whatever they like in its disputed territories. This is in direct contradiction with the claim that Labour “stands for the defence of human rights everywhere”.
This is not even a typical political fudge, full of the usual empty meaningless platitudes. It is an outright defence of Indian imperialism.
Indian and Hindu leaders
Keir Starmer apparently changed this policy overnight, after a Zoom call with Labour Friends of India - an organisation which has no official status or authority. Most British Indians will never have even heard of it.
The organisation is not even formally affiliated to the Labour Party. It has a zombie website. It has no campaigns; no democratic structures; and it doesn’t even have 400 likes on its Facebook page. Yet apparently it has managed to completely overhaul the Labour Party’s democratically-agreed policy and turn it into its complete opposite!
In fact, the organisation was founded in 1999 in the Blair years. Tony Blair, like a modern-day version of the British Raj, initiated a colonial type policy, giving authority and political power to unrepresentative religious organisations who supposedly ‘speak’ for their community.
This gave actual political authority to the Hindu Council - another Indian organisation Starmer is looking to cosy up to. This is another unelected body of the religious establishment, which again nobody knows. Yet it claims to speak on behalf of the UK’s one million Hindus.
In reality, the Hindu Council merely acts as a tool for British Indian businesses and for the Modi government.
This organisation led the aforementioned smear campaign against Labour in the 2019 general election, hysterically claiming that the party “used to be a progressive socialist voice [and now] has veered towards what almost is a facist ideology”.
The Council instructed temples and community halls to directly urge worshippers and members to not vote for Labour, thus in effect campaigning for the election of a Tory government.
The ‘Hindu vote’
Following the 2019 election, the Times of India ran an article that stated: “Did Hindu backlash cost Labour dear in the UK election? Not really, data shows.”
The Indian media attempted to portray that Labour had lost the election for their position on Kashmir; that being ‘anti-Hindu’ was one of the key reasons for the Labour defeat. The evidence reported by the paper showed this not to be true.
At the 2019 election, Labour won 29 of the 30 constituencies where British Asians make up a majority demographic. This was exactly the same result as the 2017 election, with Harrow East the only seat won by the Conservatives both times.
Labour’s vote share went down in these areas from 68% in 2017 to 61% in 2019. But this was still much higher than in 2015, under Ed Miliband, where the party only won 57%.
The smear campaign run by Modi supporters was particularly nasty in areas like Harrow East and Leicester East. Vile anti-Muslim rhetoric was used in a constant stream of flyers, posters, and WhatsApp messages, in an attempt to shift votes towards Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.
Despite all their efforts, the increase in the Conservative vote was minimal. The Tories increased their vote share amongst Asians by 0.8 percentage points, compared to 1.3 points across the whole population.
In both Leicester East and Harrow East, voter turnout dropped significantly. Rather than switching allegiances, many just stayed at home.
In other words, by appealing to workers of all ethnicities and nationalities on a class basis, the Corbyn-led Labour campaign was able to cut across the vile communal smears deployed by the Hindu Council and co.
Imperialism vs internationalism
Keir Starmer was a former human rights lawyer. Yet when imperialism has asked him to do its bidding, he has been more than accommodating. This, however, is not the end of the story. Labour MPs Richard Burgeon and Imran Hussian have directly opposed Starmer’s move.
I stand with the Kashmiri people in demanding an end to occupation. This is a crucial part of standing up for social justice and for an ethical foreign policy and it's what the Emergency Motion passed at Labour's conference last year calls for.— Richard Burgon MP (@RichardBurgon) April 30, 2020
I will be meeting with the Leader of the Labour Party to discuss Kashmir next week alongside other colleagues. pic.twitter.com/b5vTZ1wgVW— Imran Hussain MP (@Imran_HussainMP) May 2, 2020
Grassroots members who supported this motion at the Labour Party conference - alongside the many British Kashmiris in the UK - will not remain quiet over this issue. The overwhelming majority of Labour Party members do not want to go back to the days of Blair.
It was India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who wrote in his autobiography in 1936 that communalism - the attempt to divide society along ethnic lines - was a colonial device “to preserve Indian vested interests against Indians themselves, against undiluted democracy, against an upsurge of the masses.” [Jawaharlal Nehru: An Autobiography Oxford University Press, 1989 p.242]
The impact of the coronavirus crisis in South Asia has proven this. Reactionary forces, funded by big business, are attempting to cut across the rising tide of class unity across the Indian sub-continent.
Currently there is an enormous anti-Muslim campaign being run by Modi. His reactionary government is unable to deal with the current situation. And Islamic fundamentalism and the ISI in Pakistan are extending their repression to cut across the growing revolutionary tide. This has - and will - continue to be exported to the South Asian diaspora.
As the BJP’s foreign affairs chief Vijay Chauthaiwale stated in 2017: “We are also encouraging — and we plan to pursue this more aggressively in the months to come — the Indian diaspora to become part of [Modi's] social programs.”
Time and again, the Kashmiri people have been humiliated by the establishment and the so-called ‘defenders of human rights’ like Starmer. This is a lesson.
We cannot have any illusions in these establishment politicians, or liberal organisations like the United Nations and multinational NGOs.
Kashmiris must instead appeal to the working class. And the Labour Party, in turn, must heed this call, by doubling down and opposing imperialism everywhere, in order to cut across the rising tide of communalism and nationalism.
This must begin here in Britain, by organising to drive out this rotten Tory government, which supports repression and reaction abroad, and attempts to divide workers using racism and xenophobia at home.
Today, the Socialist Campaign Group and the rest of the labour movement must be bold in denouncing imperialism, and stand firm in appealing to workers of all religions, ethnicities, and nationalities on a class basis.
The 2019 election showed that - despite the money thrown at dividing South Asian communities - the overwhelming majority still put their trust in Corbyn’s Labour, with its radical left-wing manifesto.
Only the unity and organisation of the working class across borders can overcome the repression of the Kashmiris, the poison of communalism, and the reactionary attempts to divide workers along nationalist and religious lines.