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In April, the passing of Amanullah Khan, a vibrant and influential independence leader in the Kashmiri conflict, revealed the depth of support the independence movement had gained among the Kashmiri diaspora. Born in 1934, Khan was the founding leader of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a pro-independence political party with branches in India- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. It was instrumental in turning the Kashmir issue into a global cause, particularly in the United Kingdom where over half a million Kashmiris are believed to live, according to several academics and researchers, such as Roger Ballard and Virinder Kalra from the University of Manchester.
Over the years, the movement in the United Kingdom expanded, but also fragmented, branching off into different organizations. Still, it contributed significantly in raising awareness about the conflict in Kashmir, as well as the role resistance politics played in the development of Kashmiri identity. It also opened up pathways for British Kashmiris to enter British politics at both local and national levels. In 1992, the Labour Party even included a line on Kashmir in its party manifesto, which stated, “The Labour government will make itself available to our friends in India and Pakistan to assist in achieving a negotiated solution to the problem of Kashmir that is acceptable to all the people of Kashmir—Moslems, Hindus and Buddhists.” At the time, British Kashmiris organized study circles, discussions, made policy recommendations, and participated in different campaigns centered around racism, immigration, equality for minorities, and community development issues. However, today, British Kashmiris, although one of the most active in the South Asian community, are split over how they envision Kashmir’s future and divided along clan and tribal lines within the diaspora community.
Understanding the progression of Kashmiri politics abroad, and how it fractured, requires going back to the beginning. The movement did not gain significance in the United Kingdom until the 1960s, when Kashmiri labor migration rose sharply. Just before then, the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan had given Pakistan rights to the Jehlum, Chenab, and Indus rivers. Pakistan had built the Mangla Dam from 1961-1967, and the project submerged the ancient town of Mirpur, displacing over 100,000 people. Many of the displaced left Mirpur to join their fellow Kashmiris in the United Kingdom rather than go into interior Punjab and the Sindh provinces of Pakistan.
For his part, Khan arrived in the United Kingdom in 1976 at the invitation of the Plebiscite Front, a self-determination movement that emerged in Kashmir. He came with Abdul Khaliq Ansari, the head of the Plebiscite Front in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and also the leader of anti-Mangla Dam Movement. During this time, Khan worked with the Plebiscite Front in the United Kingdom and a year later it was converted into the JKLF. A few other Kashmiri nationalist activists joined the cause. Nazir ul Haq, who came from a politically active family, had moved to the United Kingdom in the 1960s, and was elected as the JKLF’s first secretary general. Previously, he had dabbled in the country’s labor and socialist movements. Still, Haq was never personally close to Khan and was even critical of him during his tenure in the JKLF. But Haq was a valuable part of the JKLF as he had been a member of the National Executive Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain for over ten years and had also co-founded the United Kingdom-based United Kashmir Liberation Front in 1969. After all, the organization’s primary objective was to raise awareness about Kashmir with the pro-immigration and minority groups and the political left in the United Kingdom.
So far, the movement has succeeded in raising awareness in the United Kingdom of Kashmir’s struggle against India, but it faces divisions within its ranks—those who want an independent Kashmir and those who want to see the state become part of Pakistan. (The JKLF cadres in the United Kingdom, for instance, do not support Kashmir becoming a part of Pakistan.) “The majority of the British Kashmiris are aware of the Kashmir issue, in terms of its forcible division by India and Pakistan,” Haq told me. “This is mainly due to the presence of nationalist and socialist groups in Britain, who were quite active and were regularly highlighting the issue in the media. However, the pro-Indian and Pakistan lobbies are very active in creating divisions among the nationalist Kashmiri ranks.” These lobbies are made up of an informal network of businessmen, journalists, politicians, and academics, who seek to divide British Kashmiris ideologically.
Moreover, although the JKLF was founded as a political organization, the party took a violent turn in 1984 when members associated with it abducted Ravindra Mhatre, India’s Assistant High Commissioner who was in charge of the Birmingham Consulate in the United Kingdom. The abductors had demanded the release of Maqbool Bhat, a popular pro-independence leader and co-founder of the JKLF, in exchange for Mhatre. After the Indian government refused to negotiate with Khan, who served as an interlocutor, Mhatre’s body turned up on a road in the United Kingdom. Later that week, the Indian government executed Bhat.
Following this event, Haq quit the JKLF. The British government carried out a number of raids across the country and questioned several activists, some of whom were arrested. Khan was also jailed, along with a few other members, but the JKLF itself was not banned. After serving a prison sentence of more than a year for Mhatre’s killing, Khan was deported to Pakistan in December 1986.
In 1988, Khan helped to launch an armed movement that aimed to recruit and train young boys in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to fight against Indian troops on the Indian side of Kashmir. The goal was to free Kashmir from Indian rule. Until the mid-1990s, it was successful in rallying massive support for its cause and raising awareness of how India had committed extreme human rights violations, killing and torturing civilians to crush the armed rebellion.
Back in Europe, the seeds of Kashmiri nationalism that Khan had sown began bearing fruit: more JKLF branches opened across Europe, the United States, and in the Gulf: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the United States, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar, to name a few. In the United Kingdom, support for this movement grew, and scores of British Kashmiris joined, leading to popular awareness of Kashmiri issues. Emboldened young men in Indian-controlled Kashmir joined the JKLF’s armed wing, which trained them and sent them back to the Valley to fight Indian troops in the Kashmir Valley. By the early 1990s, Kashmir’s freedom movement was a global one and the United Kingdom had become a hub for campaigns, fund raising, and political lobbying to highlight the human rights violations by Indian forces against Kashmiris.
The movement for an independent Kashmir reached its peak in the 1990s, when the JKLF had 32 branches across the United Kingdom alone. Due to a number of factors, such as the electoral defeat of older leaders in the JKLF’s British chapter, disillusionment and petty personality clashes within its ranks, there was a sharp decline in the JKLF’s prowess. The party shrank to a few branches and its activism grew less focused. Today, British Kashmiri activists have revived the JKLF to a significant extent and the recognition of British Kashmiris has risen since that decline. If there is a mass protest in the Kashmir Valley, for instance, sit-in protests also erupt in the United Kingdom. But overall, the movement has remained largely confined to protests outside the Indian embassy in London and a few other cities. With no major independent political forum or platform, Kashmiri diaspora politics remains riled in debates about identity and history.
More recently, Kashmiri politicians, who joined the British political scene some years ago, have started assuming prominent positions in a variety of political parties within both houses of Parliament. These politicians and other members of Parliament, like David Ward, Simon Danczuk, Imran Hussain, and Liam Byrne, among others, have continuously spoken up for the rights of Kashmiris both in Parliament and elsewhere, for the rights of Kashmiris. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, six politicians of Kashmiri origin were elected to the House of Commons. They joined the protests and marches against India, submitted motions, and facilitated debates in the Parliament on various aspects of the Kashmiri issue. In 2014, the Liberal Democrat member of Parliament David Ward secured a “general debate on the political and humanitarian situation in Kashmir” in the House of Commons, a move that didn’t sit well with India.
In October 2015, hundreds of British Kashmiris protested outside the Indian High Commission against Indian occupation of Kashmir since October 1947. They also rallied against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official visit to the United Kingdom in November 2015. They flashed banners reading “Kashmiris ask UN to implement its resolution on Kashmir,” “Modi go back,” “Kashmir is not part of India,” “Kashmiris want freedom,” “Modi is a terrorist,” and “Modi is a killer.”
Shams Rehman, who arrived in Oldham City from Mirpur in 1988, was once a member of the JKLF and a politically active member of the British Kashmiri diaspora. He has participated in anti-India demonstrations outside the Indian High Commission in London and attended public meetings to protest against human rights violations in Kashmir. Activists like Rehman have also produced leaflets, written letters to British Parliamentarians asking them to support Kashmir’s right to self-determination. “We [British Kashmiri activists and groups] also used to invite British politicians and leftist activists to public meetings,” said Rehman who is now a research assistant at the University of Manchester. Many sitting members of Parliament have joined these meetings and even spoken against India’s forced occupation.
Although Rehman believes that Kashmiri independence has become a more prominent issue among the diaspora in the United Kingdom, the JKLF movement has grown fragmented. “The awareness about the issue has certainly grown with some new initiatives such as the Kashmir Manifesto and campaign for Kashmiri identity to be recognized in Britain,” said Rehman, in reference to a push by the Kashmir Development Foundation, to make Kashmiri issues a part of the 2015 general election. “Several Parliament members were approached for their support and many did pledge their support,” said Rehman, who is the group’s research director. The manifesto sought to “seek concrete expression of support from all political parties on a five point agenda seeking social justice in the UK and Just Peace in Jammu and Kashmir.” One of the manifesto’s points is to lift up “the voices of the people of Jammu and Kashmir in the dialogue process” and make them “a principal stakeholder in any negotiations between India and Pakistan and international community” with a final goal to “transform the conflict” and push for “the realization of their inalienable right of self-determination.”
Although the JKLF was once a major organization, a number of other organizations have emerged in recent years, such as the Jammu Kashmir National Awami Party, United Kashmir People’s National Party, Pakistan People’s Party, Muslim Conference, and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, among many others. It has become a challenge now to bring all or most of these groups onto one platform. Most of these groups remain disconnected with the ground politics of the Kashmir Valley. Rehman told me that most of them are linked with Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
As a result, Haq believes that the new generation of British Kashmiris is “losing interest in the issue. He explained that “there are a variety of reasons for this: lack of education, mistaken assimilation, and adoption of the dominant culture.”
For all their history, British Kashmiris and their political movements have been weakened due to a lack of coordination and consolidation at a larger level. The movement sees sporadic successes, such as when 50 civilians were recently killed in the Kashmir Valley in the wake of a new ongoing uprising, and British Kashmiris protested across the United Kingdom. The reality on ground hasn’t changed, however. What Khan did in 1988 with the JKLF’s armed wing has now become a regular feature in the Valley, where local boys are ever-engaged in the fight.