Kashmir’s Big Question: What Will Joe Biden’s Win Mean for Human Rights in the UT?

Delighted that 'Islamophobic' Donald Trump will soon leave the Oval Office, Kashmiris hope that the US will bring pressure to bear on India’s Modi government against crackdowns in the Valley.

Srinagar: On Sunday morning, veteran Kashmiri journalist Yusuf Jameel heard a scrap dealer shout an unusual cry outside his home in Srinagar: “Ab ki baar, Trump gov khaar (This time, Trump is wrecked).” The slogan, which imaginatively rhymed with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election catchphrase for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was intended as a pun to convey the defeat of Donald Trump in the US elections the previous night.

“Conflict has made Kashmiris quite perceptive and aware about the politics unfolding across the globe and the significance it has for them,” Jameel told The Wire. “I was just amazed at the creativity and humour.”

The US presidential election stirred as much excitement in Kashmir as in other parts of the world, partly because a lot of Trump’s political messaging and policy measures pitted him directly against Muslim societies. His controversial ‘Muslim ban’, his decision to establish embassy in Jerusalem and his shrill rhetoric against Muslim immigrants had already made him unpopular among Muslims.

However, in the Kashmir Valley, the euphoria over Trump’s defeat was also sparked by the realisation that senior US Democrats have publicly called out the Modi government over human rights violations in Jammu & Kashmir.

In the midst of the communication and internet blackout in Kashmir last year, a number of US senators – among them marquee progressives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – denounced the Modi government’s crackdown in J&K.

The US’s new vice-president elect, Kamala Harris, had pledged to intervene in the J&K dispute “if the situation demands” and assured Kashmiris “that they are not alone in the world”. Bernie Sanders, an influential US senator who lost his presidency bid to Biden, had voiced support for a “UN-backed peaceful resolution” in J&K. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal went beyond the rhetoric of human rights advocacy and introduced a resolution in the US Congress seeking the cessation of the internet blockade in J&K and urged the Modi government to refrain from using excessive force against peaceful protesters in Kashmir.

The support for Kashmiris in the US did not end there. The US House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on human rights in South Asia last October, where representatives speaking in defence of the Modi government faced heat over excesses in Kashmir. The committee reiterated its apprehensions in a letter addressed to India’s foreign minister in August this year. The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission also organised a similar hearing amid concerns over the “increased militarisation of the security presence in the region (Kashmir) and the economic and social consequences of the central government’s actions, including continuing restrictions on internet and phones (sic)”.

Capping this political posturing by US progressives was the mention of Kashmir in president-elect Joe Biden’s policy document that made promises towards the “restoration of rights of the people of J&K.”

Is the optimism misplaced?

“A lot of Kashmiris view Biden’s victory positively,” said Mudasir Lone, a student from Pulwama town. “Given the past statements of Democrats in the US, there’s optimism that we might see some kind of changes, particularly in the domain of human rights and civil freedoms.”

But experts feel that this optimism may be misplaced. “It will be a while before Kashmir even appears on the US radar. Washington has enough problems to deal with domestically,” says Siddiq Wahid, a historian specialising in Kashmir and a former university vice chancellor. “US foreign policy is fickle on these issues. Democrats have always claimed they adhere to value-based foreign policy, but facts on ground have often been different. All we can do is make some educated guesses. It’s one thing to voice a certain opinion in the fervour of elections, but when the same people are briefed by the CIA when they come to power, in my opinion, they will decide to tread more cautiously.”

Watch: Biden Administration Will Support New Delhi, China Is the Big Issue to Resolve

Biden’s victory has sparked much debate in India over the place that Delhi might have in America’s foreign policy calculations. There are reasons for India to be apprehensive. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had earlier said that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), 2019, was a “dangerous turn in the wrong direction” and had sought sanctions against Amit Shah, India’s home minister. India was also marked as a “country of particular concern” by the USCIRF in April.

Last month, The Intercept and The Politico ran stories uncovering the way in which some candidates in the US election received funds from groups “ideologically connected to Hindu extremist groups in India.” The idea behind such funding was to shore up Indian-American candidates in return for guarantees that they would help undercut any Congressional scrutiny of the Modi government, including rights violations in Kashmir.

But if Biden’s vision document is any indication, he might run a wrecking ball on such efforts by strengthening “prohibitions on foreign nationals or governments trying to influence US federal, state, or local elections and direct a new independent agency – the Commission on Federal Ethics – to ensure vigorous and unified enforcement of this.”

There are strong suggestions that vice president elect Harris may renew her condemnation of the Modi government’s treatment of Kashmiris. “She will speak out if she is moved by something,” G. Balachandran, Harris’s maternal uncle, had told The Hindu. The Associated Press on Monday also reported that Biden was “expected to be more critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalistic policies, which critics say oppress India’s minorities.”

Representative image of two Kashmiri women. Photo: sandeepachetan.com/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Biden’s article in Foreign Affairs, published earlier this year, is a strong indicator of the objectives he is likely to pursue. He has been demonstrably wary of the rightward shifts that many nations have been experiencing over the last few years, churning out populists and demagogues. Modi is seen as the embodiment of a similar far right wave in India. “The international system that the United States so carefully constructed is coming apart at the seams,” Biden wrote. “Trump and demagogues around the world are leaning into these forces for their own personal and political gain. I will invite my fellow democratic leaders around the world to put strengthening democracy back on the global agenda. Yet when the world’s democracies look to the United States to stand for the values that unite the country – to truly lead the free world – Trump seems to be on the other team, taking the word of autocrats while showing disdain for democrats. By presiding over the most corrupt administration in modern American history, he has given license to kleptocrats everywhere.”

In the piece, Biden discouraged “ill-advised trade wars” with China and suggested building a coalition of democracies around the world, the integrated economies of which China – a big globalised economy itself – won’t be able to ignore.

The China factor

This economic interdependence is precisely what he intends to leverage to force China to stop human rights excesses and its abusive behaviour while at the same time forge a partnership based on convergences.

“I see US relations with China getting calmer,” says Pravin Sawhney, a defence expert who has co-authored Dragon on Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power. “So far as India is concerned, Delhi is not an ally but a strategic partner. There’s no de jure military alliance. If China-US relations thawed, the Chinese will have more time for the Indians. I see no possibility at all of India-China relations improving because the People’s Liberation Army is already here in Ladakh and the issues at hand are very severe.”

This alone rules out the kind of confrontational US-China relationship that Delhi, locked in a military standoff with Beijing, could have hoped to leverage to endear itself to the US and forestall any scrutiny of its own human rights record and depletion of democracy.

Though the US elections have just concluded, it’s yet to be seen which party has a lock on the Senate majority. The Democrats have retained their control over the House of Representatives while the control of Senate won’t be decided until a likely January run-off in Georgia.

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Even as Biden has been declared as President-elect, Trump has mounted a legal challenge in the form of a string of lawsuits alleging an election fraud. Trump has defied exit polls, racking up more votes than Barack Obama did in 2008 elections. Far from losing to Biden in a landslide, Trump’s performance was stellar. He trailed behind his Democratic contender only by razor-thin margins – in many cases by less than 1%, which legally entitled Trump to request recounts.

The fight between the Trump and Biden remained neck and neck throughout the counting process, which caused much surprise given that Trump’s popularity has been plummeting. A record voter turn-out – the highest since 1900 –  did not manufacture a so-called Blue wave either, raising questions about whether Biden would end up being a lame duck President governing a largely Trumpian America.

The Financial Times has argued that in event of a Republican-controlled Senate, where Biden’s major domestic policy initiatives could be stonewalled by the Republicans, only foreign policy would remain the domain where the president-elect would have the freedom to manoeuvre.

But does that guarantee a tougher US foreign policy for Kashmir that provokes India? “There’s not going to be any Kashmir-specific US policy,” says Khalid Shah, an associate fellow at Observer Research Foundation. “The US will invariably look at Kashmir through its larger policy on India and Pakistan. Delhi remains a crucial strategic partner and a counterweight to China. The US will not divorce its strategic interests for human rights advocacy. It has never happened in the past and won’t happen in the future. But at the same time, the US is also guided by the imperatives of the Afghan peace process that requires close partnership with Pakistan. Already we have seen how the progressive faction of US Democrats has railed against the Modi government over human rights and the CAB. Besides, the bipartisan support that India enjoyed in the US is also declining. The criticism of New Delhi coming from American lawmakers and senior US functionaries last year tells us that India won’t be able to pull off another August 5.”

Sawhney agrees that the US will not prioritise human rights in Kashmir over strategic ties with India. “It’s the Chinese who are going to play a bigger role,” he says. “The Americans are not going to get into it. If the US government has to choose between human rights and the Modi government, they will choose the latter.”

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.