WASHINGTON: In an intense hearing, US congressmen and women have criticized India’s recent actions in Kashmir related to barring access to foreign journalists, senators and diplomats, political detentions and the communications blockade, and even compelled the US administration official to condemn the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
The hearing was titled ‘Human Rights in South Asia’, but the overwhelming number of questions were related to India.
The tone of the hearing at the house foreign affairs sub-committee on Asia and Pacific was highly unusual. This may have been the most critical examination that any Indian action has received in a panel of US House of Representatives since the 1998 nuclear tests.
In the second half of the day, the sub-committee again sat down and listened to expert witnesses who gave different sides on the issues of human rights and terrorism in Kashmir.
Both the US administration officials, State Department’s assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells and assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Robert Destro were in attendance.
Wells noted that the US had concerns “about the manner in which Indian authorities have implemented” the decision to modify Article 370 of the Indian constitution, removing the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir.
Later in the hearing, Wells said “Revocation is not what we care about, it is about how Kashmiri live their lives.”
While maintaining that reading down Article 370 was an internal matter for India, the US administration has been steadily raising the level of its concern over the situation in Kashmir since August 5.
Wells and Destro both noted that hundreds, including three former chief ministers, had been detained under the Public Safety Act, which allows detention without trial for up to two years.
“The United States supports the rights of Kashmiris to peacefully protest, but condemns the actions of terrorists who seek to use violence and fear to undermine dialogue,” stated Wells.
The US house of representative member added, “Still, we are compelled to
underscore human rights issues of increasing concern precisely because, if left unchecked, they could undermine India’s democratic success.”
He also noted that there has been gradual lifting of the curfew, landlines have been restored and a majority of detainees freed. “Still, internet and mobile phone service remain blocked in some districts. Reports indicate this has led to a
shortage of medicines, delays in receiving healthcare and stalled businesses.”
Throughout the two different hearings, nearly all lawmakers expressed outrage that foreign journalists, diplomats and officials were not allowed to visit the Valley to get first-hand information.
The sub-committee chair, Brad Sherman, who is also democratic co-chair of the India Caucus, pointed out that Senator Chris Van Hollen had been denied permission to visit Kashmir.
“Are we supposed to trust these government of India officials when the government of India doesn’t allow our diplomats to visit?” asked Sherman about understanding the ground situation in Kashmir. Wells replied that due to the lack of access, US diplomats were dependent on their interaction with Indian government officials and contacts among journalists and civil society living or working in Kashmir.
Later, David Trone from Maryland asked about the reasoning given by India for not allowing access to US officials and diplomats. “They said that it is not the right time,” said Wells. “Seems like the right time exactly,” responded Trone.
Similarly, Democrat congresswoman from Virginia, Abigail Spanberger, also expressed anger at India blocking visits by US officials. “How is the State Department accepting that at this time India, a close strategic partner for the United States on everything from trade to military cooperation, is telling us that we cannot allow US diplomats to enter
She also mentioned that constituents who had family in Kashmir gave “very different stories”, as she reeled out alleged examples of how the communication blockade had disrupted lives – from a family of ten dying in a fire to a son unable to learn
about his father’s death.
Wells said that there was a “gradual improvement” in Kashmir, but at the same time, there was also continuing hardship.
“When you don’t have open media or open communications, it makes it harder even for the government to understand the disruptions that its policies are causing.”she said.
The senior State Department official stated that while four million mobile phones have been turned back on, they accounted for just half of the total phones in Kashmir. Further, mobile services were limited, with no SMS and internet facilities.
Robert Destro stated that in the absence of getting direct information from the ground, his team had been hearing from various Kashmiri voices about the impact of the communication blockade.
When Representative Sheila Jackson, chairwoman of congressional Pakistan caucus, asked whether this was a “humanitarian crisis”, Daestro replied, “Yes, it is.”
Spanberger, a former CIA operative, asked whether India has shared examples of terror attacks and incidents that have been thwarted due to the communication blockade.
When Wells stated that she could not comment, Spanberger asked
for a classified hearing so that US officials could give their assessment on the validity of the national security argument of Indian government. Chair Sherman promised to take her suggestion seriously.
Later, Sherman also asked whether there had been any “verified cross-border terrorism” incidents since August 5, which was the day that Indian government started the process to change the status of Kashmir.
Wells stated that she was “hearing different stories from different sides”. While the Indian government has argued that there has been a build-up of terror groups waiting to cross the Line of Control, Well added, “We have observed a decline
in incidents of infiltration.”
New Jersey’s Tom Malinowski asked US officials whether they considered restrictions on access to journalists and diplomats to a region useful from a counter-terrorism point of view. “It is counter-productive, in our view,” replied Destro.
Malinoswki further commented that the communication blockade and restrictions actually“disempowers the very people who want to be our allies”.
He asked whether US had ever used such methods of a complete communication blockade in its “long experience” of counter-terrorism operations”. “In your experience, do terrorists need cellphone service to communicate?”
Wells replied that she could not be entirely dismissive of the Indian concern about security, but she noted that the “balance was not right here”. In several places during the hearing, Wells had repeatedly said that US was “not comfortable” with India seemingly prioritising security over human rights. “We think that this balance is wrong,” she
The first Indian-American Congresswoman, Pramila Jayapal, mentioned the case of the uncle of one of her constituents, who continued to be in detention despite several medical complications. She referred to Mubeen Shah, former head of
Jammu and Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, who had been detained in August 5 and had subsequently been shifted out of the state.
Jayapal asked for a letter from Mubeen Shah’s urologist demanding his immediate release to be entered in the record.
The congresswoman from Washington state noted that the Indian government has told her that Shah was receiving medication. “That is not what his family is saying. This is not what his doctor is saying.”
She had also expressed a deep worry that despite orders from the high court on powers of preventive detention, the Indian government was still not releasing many of those in custody who had received a favourable verdict. “What tools
are we going to use uplift this?”
Destro stated that the US remained engaged with civil society and lawyers to get access to facts and court opinions. “Look at the high or good side that there are indeed independent courts in India.”
Jayapal had later commented that during her last visit to India, which coincided with the Indian government’s move on Kashmir, she had sensed an unprecedented level fear among minorities over rising intolerance and government policies.
To Jayapal’s query on what were the metrics of normalisation, Wells replied that there were no explicit standards, but mentioned that US would like to see the release of political detainees, re-establishment of normal political life and
restoration of the state assembly.
Later, to a question from Sherman on the credibility of the local elections to be held in Kashmir, Wells had added that this could be “one measure to see willingness of Kashmiris to engage with the Central government”.
Earlier, Spanberger had also raised concerns from her constituents that children were being detained under the Public Safety Act. Wells noted that while allegations had been made, she didn’t have any data. Another member of congress, David Cicilline, had also framed a question about the use of pellet guns.
At least, three lawmakers, Ilhan omar, Tom Malinowski and David Cicilline, asked questions on whether the Indian government’s motivation behind the recent Kashmir decision was national security or rather an ultra-nationalist and
“Revocation of Article 370 has long been a mainstay of BJP political platform. So when Modi got the majority, the govt moved quickly. They passed a bill where the opposition also crossed their aisle,” Wells responded.
“We welcomed Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent unambiguous statement that terrorists from Pakistan who carry out violence in Kashmir are enemies of both Kashmiris and Pakistan,” Wells noted, adding, “We would like to see it enforce
as that is an important statement.”
She also stated if Pakistan does take irreversible steps to persecute terror group and implement FATF standards, then that could be a basis for a successful dialogue between India and Pakistan.
When asked by Yoho if Pakistan was taking any steps, she replied, “We are seeing some actions.”