Wednesday 24th October was a historic day for Rochdale’s Kashmiri community as for probably the first time in the United Kingdom the Azad Kashmir flag was raised outside the Town Hall alongside the Union Flag and St Georges Cross. An excited crowd of hundreds of people from across Rochdale and quite a few from further afield met outside the Town Hall to celebrate a unique moment in time for Rochdale which, as a Borough was once again in pioneering mode in this year that celebrates its own history as the birthplace of the Co-Operative movement. The enthusiastic and excited crowd of men, women and children from across ethnic boundaries braved the cold and windy weather to watch history in the making and listened as speakers, including the Mayor of Rochdale – Councillor James Gartside – and other councillors spoke of not just of their pride in their own community but of their pride for their town and its community relations. The Leader of the Conservatives on the council was amazed at the turnout which he said was ”the best attended event of its kind I have ever seen.”
Although classified by the census as “Pakistanis” Kashmiris are a proud and distinct community with their own language and a rich cultural tradition. Although people of Kashmiri origin make up as much as two percent of the UK population very little is known about them outside their own community as despite their own proudly held identity they are not classified separately in national statistics nor consulted as a distinct group. In many ways they are excluded and it was for this reason that in his speech Cllr Daalat Ali from Kingsway ward (whose eighty year old mother herself came from Kashmir felt that “ “Today is a unique and historical day and the beginning of that inclusion, It is only fitting that it is starting from Rochdale, home of Co-op movement. Cllr Ali went on to thank the many people who had contributed to making the event possible including Sardar Aftab of the Kashmiri Development Foundation, the Chief Executive of Rochdale MBC and the town hall staff, councillors C and S Biant, Rochdale’s councillor for strengthening communities – Sultan Ali – Cllr Amna Mir who brought the flag from Kashmir and Cllr Shakil Ahmed and Peter Corby from The Pahari Literary Society for their help with publicising the event.
The event highlighted the good community relationships that are a feature of Rochdale. Ex-Mayor and Leader of the Conservatives on Rochdale Council Cllr Ashey Dearnley said that “This was a very positive for the Borough and helps cement the good race relationships we have in Rochdale which have seen us avoid the significant problems in other nearby towns like Oldham and Burnley. People of every background in Rochdale work hard together and events like this bring us closer together.”
Rochdale’s Member of Parliament Simon Danczuk was unable to attend in person due to parliamentary commitments but sent a letter of support and solidarity to the Kashmiri community who he “strongly believed were an integral and vital part of the British state and society.” Simon’s letter briefly outlined the recent history of Azad Kashmir and he promised as a Member of Parliament to”represent their case and raise their voice on all forums.” Simon added “This is a very good initiative and must be carried on.”
A very emotional Cllr Amna Mir who had travelled to Kashmir and brought back the flag thanked the council for “a wonderful and distinguished day for the town. It was great to see a sea of happy smiling faces – and not just men – celebrating this eagerly-awaited occasion.”
After the flag was raised many of the crowd escaped the biting wind and spent a happy hour in the Town Hall chatting over tea and biscuits about a day which will be remembered and treasured for a long time.