Indian minister attacks 'interfering' Blair

Kashmir crisis
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Tony Blair was publicly rebuked by an Indian cabinet minister yesterday over suggestions he had arrived with a plea for calm over the flashpoint region of Kashmir.

In a foretaste of the formidable diplomatic high-wire act he will have to perform in talks with feuding India and Pakistan, the Prime Minister listened gravely as Pramod Mahajan told him: "People say you have come to cool us down. We've been cool enough for the last 50 years."

Mr Mahajan, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and Information Technology, also demanded that the leaders of the Kashmiri separatist groups that India blames for last month's bombing of its parliament are rooted out with the same determination shown by the West in tracking down Taliban leaders. "There cannot be one set of rules for one and another set of rules for another," he told the Prime Minister.

Mr Blair pleased his Indian hosts but risked inflaming hardline Islamists with a bluntly worded call for the Muslim world to combat the "fundamentalism and fanaticism" that exports terror around the world.

But the problem he faces in talks today with his Indian counterpart, Atal Behari Vajpayee, is how to call for restraint by India's armed forces on the Pakistan border without ruffling feathers in a nation notoriously hostile to suggestions of interference by its former colonial master.

India's sensitivity on the issue was highlighted yesterday after Mr Blair said: "Of course Pakistan has a very strong position on Kashmir, and they are entitled to that political position."

His comments were interpreted by the Indian media as suggesting Britain backed Pakistan in the dispute that has raised tensions to their highest level in 30 years. His aides later said it was a simple statement of the force with which Pakistan argued its case.

Downing Street has grim memories of the disastrous visit to India in 1997 by the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who infuriated the Indians with a reported promise to mediate in the Kashmir dispute. This time Britain has been at pains to stress that the stand-off can only be resolved by India and Pakistan.

Mr Blair, speaking to the conference of the Confederation of Indian Industry in Bangalore, admitted: "From time to time since independence, relations between Britain and India have – let me put it diplomatically – occasionally been a little scratchy." He said the links were now "strong and confident" and won applause with a promise to support India's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The Prime Minister said the world had received a "wake-up call about religious fundamentalism" following the 11 September attacks on the US. He called on Muslim secular and religious leaders to "take on the fanatics, the extremists who warp the true message of Islam, which is caring and decent".

With signs of the diplomatic temperature lowering between India and Pakistan, the Government has been heartened by moves by Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on the leaders of Pakistan-based militant groups fighting in Kashmir. In a meeting with General Musharraf later this week, Mr Blair is expected to welcome the arrests but urge him to go further.