US to India: Steps to Improve J&K's Economy Would Require 'Normalised' Political Environment

Senior diplomat Alice Wells also took a dig at Pakistan, saying the US would like to see "the same level of concern" for Uighur Muslims in China.

New Delhi: Calling on India to ease restrictions in Kashmir at the earliest, the US on Thursday stated that any efforts to increase economic growth would “obviously” necessitate a “normalised” political environment and engagement of the region’s residents.

These concerns were raised by the US state department’s acting assistant secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells at a special media briefing on US President Donald Trump’s meeting with the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers.

In an apparent dig at Pakistan, Wells also stated that the US would like to see the “same level of concern” for Muslims detained in Xinjiang, where they have been kept in “concentration-like conditions”.

She said that the US has already expressed concern about “widespread detentions, including those of politicians and business leaders, and the restrictions on the residents of Jammu and Kashmir”.

The US has steadily been raising the level of concern about the situation in Kashmir, even as it agreed with India that New Delhi had the right to dilute Article 370 of the Constitution that granted the state special status.

A steady stream of concern

The first time that the US had expressed concern about the situation was at a state department background briefing in August by an unnamed official ahead of the meeting between Narendra Modi and Trump at France. A week later, the US embassy spokesperson in Delhi also echoed those words and called for a return to “normal political status” as committed by Modi in his Independence Day speech.

In the first week of September, US state department spokesperson in Washington Morgan Ortagus called for the resumption of “political engagement” with Kashmiri leaders and scheduling of elections at the “earliest opportunity”.

With Thursday’s comments, Wells is now the senior-most US diplomat to publicly articulate Washington’s unease at India’s continuing clampdown on mobility and communications in Kashmir since the August 5 developments.

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She implied that this was also raised by Trump with the Indian leader during talks on Tuesday. “We look forward to the Indian government’s resumption of political engagement with local leaders and the scheduling of the promised elections at the earliest opportunity.  As President Trump emphasised, Prime Minister Modi made a commitment that the recent changes to the status of Kashmir will improve the lives of the Kashmiri people, and we look to him to uphold this promise,” Wells said.

Wells noted that the US would “welcome steps that would lead to increased economic growth and the well-being of the Kashmiri people”. “That’s also obviously going to require there to be a normalised political environment and the involvement and engagement of the residents of Kashmir,” she added.

India has detained three former chief ministers and hundreds of politicians before and after Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was revoked and the state was bifurcated into two Union Territories.

When asked to clarify if the US had raised those concerns directly with Modi, she replied, “We’ve discussed these concerns with the Indian government at all levels.”

US President Donald Trump speaks during a bilateral meeting with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York City, September 24, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Asks Pakistan to lower rhetoric

She said Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had also raised these issues with President Trump. Referring to Khan’s “strong statements”, Wells said that the US would like a “lowering of rhetoric” between India and Pakistan.

Taking a dig at Pakistan, she said, “I would like to see the same level of concern expressed also about Muslims who are being detained in Western China, literally in concentration-like conditions.  And so being concerned about the human rights of Muslims does extend more broadly than Kashmir, and you’ve seen the administration very involved here during the UN General Assembly and trying to shine a light on the horrific conditions that continue to exist for Muslims throughout China.”

Islamabad was among the 37 nations who sent a letter to the UN in favour of China’s Xinjiang policy in July this year.

President Trump had offered to mediate between India and Pakistan several times, but New Delhi has not been interested so far.

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The senior US diplomat said that Washington would like to see Islamabad taking steps “whereby India and Pakistan can have a constructive conversation that leads to an improvement of relations between the two nuclear powers”.

These conditions, as articulated Wells, were to take serious action against groups engaged in cross-border terrorism, implement of the Financial Action Task Force action plan and prosecute UN-designated terrorists. “So whether it’s Hafiz Saeed who currently is in custody and under prosecution, but also leaders of [the] Jaish-e-Mohammed, like Masood Azhar, who long have been able to exploit their presence on Pakistani soil,” added Wells.