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Canadian minister courts Kashmir controversy

By Ajit Jain in Toronto
April 03, 2009 14:09 IST
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A Toronto-based Kashmiri group, Peace and Justice Forum, quotes Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon as saying that Canada regularly presses India to respect Kashmiris' human rights.

This has sparked a controversy, as India has always maintained that it will not accept third party involvement in the Kashmir dispute as it is a bilateral issue with Pakistan.

Mushtaq A Jeelani, executive director, PJF, said he wrote to Cannon, and the minister replied in detail, saying, "The government of Canada takes the issue of a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Kashmir very seriously and continues to encourage the governments of India and Pakistan to move forward with the ongoing Composite Dialogue process, focused upon the resolution of key issues, including Jammu and Kashmir."

The minister's letter, Jeelani said in a press release, refers to the human rights abuses and said, "Through the Canadian high commission in New Delhi, Canada has established an ongoing dialogue with the government of India on human rights issues."

The letter, Jeelani said, also mentions that 'Canada regularly presses India to ensure that human rights, including the rights of Kashmiris are respectedÂ…' and that 'we will continue to engage with the government of India in this regard.'

Jeelani hasn't released either the copy of his letter to the minister or the minister's letter beyond the quotes in the press release.

India Abroad forwarded Jeelani's release to Cannon's media director, Catherine Loubier, for confirmation. Cannon's Press Secretary Natalie Saafian replied, but wouldn't confirm or deny the minister's letter to Jeelani.

Saafian said in her e-mail to India Abroad, "Canada has not deviated from its approach that supports efforts by both India and Pakistan to resolve Kashmir and other issues through the Composite Dialogue ProcessÂ… Canada continues to raise issues of concern on human rights with all countries in order that others may enjoy the values integral to Canadian foreign policy."

A detailed report in the Embassy magazine said, "Cannon set off a storm in South Asia and Ottawa this week after a letter in which he stated the government's plan to involve itself in the Kashmir dispute was made public."

Cannon was to visit India last month. His travel plans were canceled the date he was to depart for New Delhi and no explanation was given beyond his media director Loubier saying that there was some scheduling difficulty.

Embassy magazine quotes an unnamed Indian diplomat in Ottawa as saying, "The Indian foreign ministry became aware of Mr Cannon's letter on Friday, [March 20] and notified the chancery. The Indian high commission then raised the issue with Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade's South Asia division, which said Mr Cannon's comments were taken out of context."

The diplomat said the whole affair is 'obviously an orchestrated attempt to really blow the Kashmir problem out of proportion and to project one particular point of view.'

In what seemed like damage control, Conservative Member of Parliament Kevin Sorenson asked Cannon in the House of Commons whether Canada has changed its position regarding Kashmir.

Cannon responded, "Canada hasn't deviated from its approach that supports efforts by both India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir and other issues through the Composite Dialogue Process."

Extracts from the Hansard were e-mailed to India Abroad from the office of Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai, Cannon's parliamentary secretary. In Parliament, Cannon did not mention -- nor did he deny -- writing to Jeelani.

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Ajit Jain in Toronto