Bill Carmichael: UK could and should help broker peace in Kashmir between India and Pakistan

AS if the world hasn’t enough trouble on its plate this week came news that two bitter rivals – both nuclear armed – are on the brink of war.

Indian soldiers and Kashmiri onlookers stand near the remains of an Indian Air Force helicopter after it crashed in Budgam district, outside Srinagar.

Hindu majority India, and its Muslim opponent Pakistan, have been squabbling over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir ever since the two countries were created as independent nations in 1947.

Indeed the two countries have gone to war three times over the issue in the past, but the current dispute marks a serious escalation of the conflict raising fears of further violence and bloodshed, and even possible nuclear conflagration.

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Earlier this week Indian warplanes struck at what they described as a terrorist training camp on the Pakistani side, in retaliation for an Islamist suicide attack that killed more than 40 Indian troops in Kashmir last month.

Pakistan claimed to have shot down two of the jets and they broadcast a video that purported to show one of the bloodied Indian pilots who had been captured – a clear breach, if true, of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.

There have been further claims and counter claims and some shelling across the Line of Control that separates Indian-controlled Kashmir from its Pakistani equivalent. The whole powder keg is dangerously volatile.

At the heart of the conflict is a dispute over territory, but there are several other factors that come into play.

It is true that many in the Muslim majority region of Kashmir dream of the day when they would fully become part of Pakistan, and there are also allegations that the Indian authorities have been heavy-handed in the treatment of protesters.

But one of the real causes of the problems in the region is the Pakistani government’s inability or unwillingness to deal with the terrorist problem in its midst.

Violent Islamist terror groups appear to operate with impunity inside Pakistan, and the Pakistani army and intelligence services have provided training and support to both the Taliban and Kashmiri militants.

India and Afghanistan have complained numerous times that Pakistan has turned a blind eye to terror groups plotting atrocities against its neighbours.

Another factor is the relative economic success of India, compared with Pakistan, and the resentment and jealousy this engenders.

The two countries share much in the way of culture and history – and of course a passion for cricket – and at the time of partition they were similar in that they were relatively poor, undeveloped, agricultural economies.

But India, particularly after the 1991 reforms when it ditched socialist central planning and central control in favour of a more free-market orientated approach, has raced ahead.

According to many key indicators – GDP, life expectancy, infant mortality, and literacy rates – India easily outpaces its neighbour.

So what happens now? In the short term we must hope that cooler heads prevail on both sides. The rhetoric has to be dialled down. Secondly, more international efforts through the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the Financial Action Task Force are needed to persuade Pakistan that terror cannot be tolerated.

In the longer term the eradication of poverty and promotion of economic prosperity is the surest way to ensure peace – and I wonder if Britain has a role to play here.

We are, of course, closely connected to the region because of the legacy of our empire and our closely entwined histories. We share much in common including political and legal structures, the English language and, of course, longstanding co-operation and friendship through membership of the Commonwealth of Nations.

As we disentangle ourselves from the moribund European Union and start looking for economic partners in more vibrant and fast growing parts of the world, is there not a marvellous opportunity for increased co-operation and trade between India, Pakistan and the UK?

Could we not build on existing ties of history, culture, language and the Commonwealth to forge new mutually beneficial bonds between our three countries that would benefit our economies and help promote a peaceful solution to the Kashmir conundrum? It is certainly a goal worth aiming for.