New Delhi: In an intense hearing, US congressmen and women on Tuesday criticised 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.
In September, several US lawmakers had feted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ‘Howdy Modi’ rally in Houston, which was also attended by US President Donald Trump. Exactly a month later, US lawmakers, who constantly referred to concerns of their constituents, had a different take on Indian actions in Kashmir.
For over two hours in the morning of October 22, US administration officials had to largely defend Indian actions in Kashmir as their sovereign right, even as they expressed discomfort at choices made by New Delhi.
The hearing was titled ‘Human Rights in South Asia’, but the overwhelming number of questions were related to India, with a couple on the Rohingya crisis and Sri Lanka. The packed room broke into applause several times during the hearing, whenever a lawmaker or US official made a point critical of India.
The tone of the hearing on Tuesday at the house foreign affairs sub-committee on Asia and Pacific was highly unusual, as India usually gets bipartisan backing on Capitol Hill. 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.
‘It is about how Kashmiris live their lives’
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 began their testimonies by talking about the vibrancy of Indian democracy and the strength of India-US relations.
However, 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 also again clarified that Washington has no objection on Article 370 per se, but only the human rights situation. “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.
Also praising Indian democracy and the recent general elections, her colleague 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.”
No first-hand information
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.
Wells responded that the US had attempted to send a delegation to Kashmir, but did get a green light from India.
“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.
The Democratic representative also referred to the recent meeting of US lawmakers with Indian ambassador Harsh Shringla and Indian diplomats in the run-up to the hearing. He noted that during the meeting, the Indian envoy had mentioned that not all journalists were barred – just foreign nationals. “The only problem was with foreign journalists…not happy with that,” he said.
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 Kashmir?”
She also mentioned that Indian governments officials had told her that the situation in Kashmir had improved vastly. However, her 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.”
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 Lee, who had been present at the Howdy Modi event, asked whether this was a “humanitarian crisis”, Daestro replied, “Yes, it is.”
The endorsement of the phrase echoed the language inserted by a US Senate panel last September in a report to a key annual budget legislation, which had been seen as a barometer of rising impatience with the Indian line of reasoning in Capitol Hill.
Jackson Lee, who is also chairwoman of congressional Pakistan Caucus, also demanded that Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war against terror be recognised.
The national security question
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.”
On Sunday, India claimed to have destroyed terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir through artillery strikes. The Indian army chief had stated these were launch pads for terrorists to infiltrate into Jammu and Kashmir.
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 stated.
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.”
Sherman had intervened during the hearing to specifically “recognise” the presence of Muhajid Shah, whom he described as an “American citizen” whose father, a businessman, had been detained despite no political links.
Jayapal 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.”
Japayal asserted that she did indeed believe that Indian democracy was indeed alive and well. But, the Democrat lawmaker also stated that Indian democracy was being subverted – a topic that she raised with the Indian prime minister – due to rising intolerance and in other ways, like the detentions and the National Register of Citizens issue in Assam.
“I just hope that we will make a very strong statement on the detentions and raise it at the highest level. This is unacceptable and we hope to bring a bipartisan resolution on that,” she said.
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.
When Anthony Brown from Maryland demanded to know if US had any tools to leverage if India didn’t change its behaviour, there was pushback from the State Department officials. Wells noted that India, a country of 1.3 billion, had a wide-ranging strategic relation with US. “This not a relationship of dictation but of partnership,” she added.
Wells also gently chided Omar when the latter had said that US’s partnership with India based on values had been threated due to Modi government’s “Hindu nationalism project”. She disagreed that both countries didn’t have a value-based partnership, pointing out that actions taken were approved in parliament and the Supreme Court was reviewing the decision.
A majoritarian agenda?
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 majoritarian agenda.
“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.
The ranking Republican member of the sub-committee Ted Yoho said that there was the need to look at Pakistan’s actions in keeping terrorism alive.
“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.”
In her opening statement, she noted that Pakistan’s harbouring of terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyabba and Jaish-e-Muhammed was “destabilising”. “Pakistani authorities remain accountable for their actions.”
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.”
Along with Kashmir, there were also some substantive questions on the publication of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens in Assam leaving out 19 lakh persons.
In his opening statement, Destro observed that the appeals process “may disadvantage poor and illiterate populations who lack documentation”. “We are closely following this situation and urge the Government of India to take these issues into consideration,” he added.
The controversial congresswoman from Minnesota Ilhan Omar asked whether the US government was taking up the NRC issue in a stronger way. “Are we waiting for muslims in Assam to be put in detention?”
Wells replied that the judicial process was still open, with Indian institutions still working.
Sherman also commented that “human rights abuse doesn’t cease to be human rights abuse just because it is consistent with law”.
Later, the co-chair of the congressional India Caucus also sought a clarification whether there was a bill in the Indian parliament that seeks to discriminate against Muslims on the issue of citizenship.
Referring to the Citizenship Amendment Bill, Destro acknowledged that it gives a presumption of citizenship to some religious groups and leaves Muslims out.
“Is this a serious legislative proposal or a just a crackpot idea going nowhere,” asked Sherman. The senior US diplomat said that it was indeed “a serious legislative proposal”, but “thankfully, it is not going through the upper house”.
The sub-committee chair demanded to know whether the US had condemned the concept of defining someone’s legal rights obligations based on their religion. “We are are doing it right here. This is a good opportunity to do it,” he said.
When Republican Yoho had wanted to know if some religions were being treated unfairly, Destro commented that most religious groups are not discriminated against, but there was pressure to make special rules for Muslims for which US administration was “calling them out”. “India’s constitution provides for secularism and we want the same to continue,” he added.
Wells also testified that “violence and discrimination against minorities in India, including cow vigilante attacks against members of the Dalit and Muslim communities, and the existence of anti-conversion laws in nine states” are not in keeping with India’s legal protections for minorities.