BBC News: Election 2010 BBC News

Page last updated at 08:07 GMT, Saturday, 1 May 2010 09:07 UK

Chasing the UK vote in Pakistan's 'Little Britain'

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Mirpur, Pakistan

The town of Mirpur, in Kashmir
Mirpur, in Kashmir, is known to many as Little Britain

British accents can be heard throughout the Azad Mega Mart, one of the main shopping centres in the town of Mirpur in Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

"Most of the customers come from England," says Imran Javed, the mall's manager.

"They especially need food items which they use there, but can't usually get here - like baked beans, Ribena, Red Bull," he says. "They buy them here, and pay in pounds sterling."

Some in Pakistan call Mirpur "Little Britain".

When thousands of residents lost their livelihoods as farmers in the 1960s - when a huge dam was built in the area - there was a mass migration of Mirpuris to the United Kingdom, where there were labour shortages.

As a result at least 70% of the Pakistani diaspora living in Britain today originates from this one small district.

One community

Generations on, they travel back and forth for holidays, work and to see family.

In the centre of town are the studios of the Mirpuri radio station Rose FM. As we arrive, it is airing a phone-in programme, broadcast from Bradford, in Yorkshire, but listened to here in Mirpur.

I always come [to the UK] during elections - it's basically so I can tell people how to vote and who to vote for
Mehmood Chaudhry

MP for Mirpur

The callers, discussing social and political topics, come from both the UK and Pakistan.

"It is, in fact not two communities, but the same community living in two countries, the Mirpuris living here, and the Mirpuris in the UK," says Rose FM's general manager, Amaar Bilal.

"It's natural that those here are really concerned about what's happening politically over there, and that those in Britain are interested in what goes on over here."

That might explain why Sultan Mehmood Chaudhry, a former premier of Pakistani-administered Kashmir and current Pakistani MP for Mirpur, is doing a tour of Britain before the general elections there.

Speaking to us from Manchester, before his latest public speaking event, he said he saw himself as a leader of the Mirpuri community, at home and in the UK.

"I'm here for the 6 May election. I always come during elections," says Mr Chaudhry. "It's basically so I can tell people how to vote and who to vote for.

"Most of the Pakistanis here are from Mirpur, and I am the MP from Mirpur, and I know the issues here and who will be the best candidates to help solve the issues in Kashmir."

A proxy viting form
People are allegedly being asked to blindly sign proxy voting forms

But there are those who are angered by what they see as the tribalism of Mirpuri politics being transferred to the UK, where clans stick together and elders make decisions for the whole extended family.

"The vote is a very private and individual matter for any person," says Khwaja Sohail Bashir, 54, a British Mirpuri businessman and political activist who has recently settled back in Pakistan.

He says only voters themselves can understand the issues that affect them, and questions whether Pakistani politicians would appreciate what is happening with the British economy or the National Health Service and take that into account when trying to influence opinions.

"Every community should maintain its culture, it is what makes Britain such a beautiful society," says Mr Bashir. "But voting has got nothing to do with culture."

But others, like Rose FM's manager, disagrees. "These links cannot be broken," he says. He talks of the British government itself trying to promote connections between far-flung Mirpuri communities.

"We have had British politicians from various parties come to these very studios in Mirpur, talking about their agendas, so why shouldn't our politicians go to the UK?" he asks.

'Everybody does it'

But Mirpur's influence on this election does not stop at encouraging people to vote one way or another.

Sitting in the garden of a large villa in Mirpur, a British citizen who has been a taxi driver in Halifax in Yorkshire for more than 20 years, talks of a practice which has become widespread here.

For obvious reasons the man, in his fifties, does not want us to publish his name. He describes how people are going door to door asking Britons to blindly sign proxy forms for the upcoming elections, allowing someone else in the UK to vote on their behalf.

"They said I didn't have to fill in any details, just to sign my name at the bottom of the form," he says, smiling. "So I signed two."

He laughed as he told me he had no idea who was going to vote on his behalf, and whom they were going to vote for.

"I personally know 25 other people who did the same thing, lots of people just on this street, but everybody does it."

Many others, among the contingent of thousands of British citizens thought to be here, have admitted signing proxy forms in this way.

While proxy voting is a mechanism which does allow British citizens abroad to cast their vote, many will undoubtedly look upon this way of doing it as unethical.

But of those we asked who had participated in it, very few said they saw it as undermining the election process.

They said they did it because they thought it was good for their community.

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