Many British MPs blunder into the Kashmir question, often with little or no understanding of who they are dealing with, and ignorant of Pakistan’s two-pronged strategy.
Events both in Pakistan and Europe this week re-focus our attention on the very deliberate strategy Pakistan pursues both on Kashmir and against the country it considers its eternal enemy—India.
Firstly, consider the mess which has unfolded in Islamabad. Having been in diplomatic isolation in the Trump era, Pakistan will have hoped that the arrival of US President Joseph Biden, afforded an opportunity to rebuild its relations with Washington DC. Instead, the first memos about the Islamic Republic to cross the new President’s desk will have concerned the subject which dominated discourse on Pakistan when Biden served as Vice-President—terrorism.
The successful appeal of Briton Omar Saeed Sheikh for the ghastly 2002 murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, and the outrage the case evokes in America, puts Washington under considerable pressure to extradite Sheikh for trial in the US. India will also be watching this case closely. In 1999, Sheikh was in Indian custody for the kidnapping of western tourists, when Pakistani intelligence collaborated with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) group, to seize an Indian airlines flight from Nepal to Delhi. The airplane was then flown to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where any rescue operation by the Indian authorities was impossible. Sheikh, along with HuM leader Masood Azhar, was released from Indian prisons in exchange for the lives of the hostages.
On release, Azhar and Sheikh reverted to type—Azhar forming a new terrorist entity, Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM, the Army of Muhammad) which conducted attacks in India at the direction of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Sheikh allegedly lured Daniel Pearl to Karachi, where he was abducted and murdered by Al Qaeda. The video recording of his beheading, for propaganda purposes, was to start a ghoulish trend copied by jihadis worldwide. Whilst no one expects Pakistan to hand Sheikh back to India, the US surely cannot accept a scenario where Pakistan allows Omar Saeed Sheikh to freely walk the streets?
Over Kashmir, Pakistan does not just rely on the brute force of groups like the JeM. Whilst the Islamic Republic ignores Kashmiris in the Shaksgam Valley it ceded to China in 1962, or the Aksai Chin territory China took from India the same year, it agitates internationally over the Indian union territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. In Europe, this means well-funded campaigns often draped in language ill-suited to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan—that of human rights, democracy and freedom of speech. This week has seen a series of online conferences in Denmark and the UK organised by the Tehreek-e-Kashmir (TeK) political group. Here, there is no mention of the JeM or the purging of the Kashmiri Pandits; instead, rhetoric focuses on attacking the Indian government and trying to raise the Kashmiri question to one of international crisis.
In the UK, TeK held a “Kashmir Solidarity Conference” this week, which consisted of three online meetings, each with an extremely long list of speakers. With TeK leader Fahim Kayani from Birmingham in the Chair, the first brought together TeK activists with aging representatives of Britain’s tiny revolutionary left, such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Stop the War Coalition (StWC). Perhaps it is time StWC asked the Pakistani state to call off its agents in Kashmir? On 2 February, some 16 former members of the European Parliament were scheduled to join the TeK for a second round of talks, but it was the event scheduled for 4 February which was to expose the Kashmiri lobby to some very uncomfortable scrutiny.
Among a whopping 35 advertised speakers, under the continued chairmanship of Fahim Kayani, was Pakistani Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed. He is perhaps best known internationally for referring to a February 2019 suicide attack by JeM on Indian soldiers in the following terms: “What happened in Pulwama in February, in my view, was Pakistan’s finest hour after the nuclear tests of 1998.” What a way to speak of a bombing which killed 40 men, and brought two nuclear powers to the brink of war. That such an individual was due to share a platform with no fewer than 27 British MPs, from across the main parties, should be a matter of real disquiet. According to reports on the popular British politics website Guido Fawkes, Mushahid Hussain Sayed was eventually removed from the event at the insistence of several Conservative MPs, after the details of his remarks become known.
As President Biden ponders how to respond to the challenges posed by Pakistan, and how to progress in the case of Omar Saeed Sheikh, he is not the only politician with some thinking to do. Consider those British MPs who blunder into the Kashmir question, often with little or no understanding of who they are dealing with, and ignorant of Pakistan’s two pronged strategy—one of violence, the other of diplomatic and political lobbying. Motivated primarily by the desire to appeal to loud voices in their own constituencies, it is perhaps too generous to say such MPs mean well. However, they ought to learn a harsh lesson from the Mushahid Hussain Sayed debacle. When it comes to Kashmir, Pakistan’s violence, and its lobbying, are hard to separate.
Dr Paul Stott is an Associate Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London, and at the European Foundation for South Asian Studies. He tweets @MrPaulStott