Wednesday, 28 May 2008

A meeting with Mike Gapes,Chairman of House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee

A meeting with Mike Gapes MP

09 December 2006

I had an honour of meeting Mike Gapes MP in the House of Commons where we discussed Kashmir dispute and other issues related to violence, terrorism and racism. We agreed that forces of extremism, communalism and terrorism have to be opposed; and that democratic values and dialogue should be promoted to resolve disputes.

Mike Gapes is not an ordinary Member of Parliament as he holds an important position - Chairman of House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. As the Chairman of this influential Committee he keeps a watchful eye on the important issues of the world and has a very busy schedule; and despite that he kindly found some time to see me.

Mike Gapes MP has recently led a delegation of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee to India and Pakistan. During its six days visit the members of the Committee visited Delhi, Amritsar, Chennai, Mumbai, Lahore, Islamabad and Kabul. As a Head of the delegation Mike Gapes had meetings with important figures from different walks of life in India and Pakistan, which include President Pervaiz Musharaf of Pakistan, Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Finance Minister P Chidambaram and experts and business people in both courtiers.

Before the last general elections a small group of Muslims campaigned against him and accused him of being a ‘Zionist’. They tried to ‘demonise’ him by projecting him as ‘anti Muslim’ and ‘anti Islam’, and despite this campaign he won majority of Muslim votes in the last general elections; again at a time when Afghanistan war and chaos in Iraq was at its peak; and every one knew role of the ruling Labour Party in these wars.

This shows that this polite and soft spoken politician has his roots in the community. I first met him in a public meeting which was held to oppose Islam -phobia and racism. He claims to respect all the religions. He advocates two states solution – Israel and Palestine living side by side; and those who oppose this solution took things out of context and began this campaign against me, he said.
Mike Gapes MP was first elected as Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Ilford South in April 1992. He was re-elected in 1997, 2001 and 2005. He served as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee from 1992 to 1997, and the Defence Committee from 1999-2001 and 2003 to 2005. He was elected as Chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee in July 2005, and still holds that position.

Mike Gapes was Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Northern Ireland Office from 1997 to 1999 and Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Home Office from 2001 to 2002. He was Chair of the Board of Governors of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy from 2002 to 2005. He is also Chairman of the All Party Crossrail Group.

He says Britain provides an opportunity to followers of all faiths to practise their religions and preach it to others as well. This right is not available to some people in their countries of origin; and this fact should be appreciated and law of land must be respected.

And in order to show his respect to Sikh religion, before travelling to Lahore by road via Wagah border, Mike Gapes visited Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest place of the Sikh religion; and had a meeting with the Management Committee of the Golden Temple.

This visit of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee came at a time when very important developments are taking place in that region. The Committee visited India and Pakistan as part of their current inquiry into South Asia, and examined the following issues:
Political and economic developments in India and its growing importance.
Relations between India and Pakistan, and the question of Kashmir.
India’s role in the region and its links with its neighbours.
India’s contribution to the international system, including to the United Nations and other multilateral fora, such as the non-proliferation regimes.
The roles of the United Kingdom and the European Union in South Asia.

It is expected that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee will produce a report and some recommendations to the Parliament and the Government. I hope that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee will be cautious in its deliberations, as report of Emma Nicholson on Kashmir has annoyed the Pakistani government; and they have coordinated a campaign against her report.

Pakistani officials and their ‘foot soldiers’ majority of whom have not even seen the report, claim that Emma Nicholson in her report to EU was biased and has refuted the Kashmiri peoples right of self determination. This report and its contents are a separate topic but these people need to be told that what value Emma Nicholson’s remarks about right of self determination has when President Pervaiz Musharaf himself has thrown baby with the bath out of window.

General Musharaf has refuted Kashmiri peoples right of self determination with the entire history and sacrifices of the people for this cause. And irony of this story is that these very people are welcoming the suggestions made by General Musharaf which lead to division of Kashmir, hence deny people right of self determination. An Indian writer and political analyst Jayoti Malhotra while commenting on General Musharaf’s statement said, ‘The president's proposals seem to fit in with Prime Minister Singh's plans like a hand in a velvet glove.’

Perhaps it was this hullabaloo on Mike Gapes’ mind or his obligations that he was cautious when he spoke to me on these hot issues. He, however, agreed with me that Kashmir dispute and all other disputes should be resolved through a process of dialogue; and terrorism and use of gun has no role in this. He told me that during his visit to India he met some Kashmiri leaders and discussed this issue with them. Some nine Kashmiri leaders were invited to meet the delegation, but some were unable to make it; and local media twisted this story and called it a ‘boycott’.

India and Pakistan get plenty of opportunities to present their case on Kashmir, but we Kashmiris are not allowed to present our case before the world community. So we Kashmiris should welcome every opportunity to discuss Kashmir dispute with foreign delegates, especially Parliamentarians, as it helps us to present our case before the world and not go down the route of ‘boycott’. And if some leaders have actually ‘boycotted’ the meeting then it speaks volumes about political maturity and wisdom of these ‘leaders’. Surely ‘leaders’ with that kind of mentality an approach are not suitable to lead the Kashmiri people.

I am sure Mike Gapes discussed Kashmir dispute and the peace process with senior leaders of India and Pakistan, but he was not prepared to give away too much. I discussed with him the report of Emma Nicholson and General Musharaf’s most recent statement and his proposal of giving up Pakistan’s claim over areas of Kashmir under India, hence paving way for the division of the State.

I told him that our struggle and sacrifices were not for division of Jammu and Kashmir. We want united and independent Kashmir. Thousands of people have not given their lives that both India and Pakistan could legitimise their hold on respective parts of the State. I also told him that our struggle was secular and democratic in nature, and we did not see this as a struggle between two religions. I conceded that our struggle was kidnapped and taken over by jihadi groups, especially non Kashmiris who wanted to communalise the struggle in order to push through their own agenda.

Mike Gapes said he knows what I and other JKLF groups want, and that majority might opt for an independent Kashmir if this option was available to them. But this option is not available as both India and Pakistan are against this. Kashmir dispute is a complicated one, and Kashmiri leadership is divided and are not sure what they want. To make it worse for the Kashmiris India and Pakistan are not willing to grant independence. In view of this Kashmir dispute could only be resolved by some courageous initiative, and it is not for us to say what should be that solution.

He further said we wholeheartedly support the peace process and wish to see peace and stability in South Asia. Once there is peace and stability there then the region can make important contribution to the world politics. India and Pakistan can divert their resources and fight poverty, disease and illiteracy.

Mike Gapes and I agreed to continue this dialogue between us that we can coordinate our efforts to fight forces of communalism, hatred and terrorism. I told him that as a British Citizen who has lived here since 1966, and who has children who have made London as their home I want to ensure that streets of London are safe for them and for all other people who live here. If we want to benefit from fruits of democracy and liberal and secular society then we have no choice but to fight back all those who want to destroy peace and harmony of this society.

Writer is Chairman Diplomatic Committee of JKLF, Director Institute of Kashmir Affairs and author of many books on Kashmir. He could be reached at: mailto:drshabirchoudhry@hotmail.com

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