Several members of Congress sharply criticized the severe restrictions imposed by New Delhi on communication and movement in Jammu & Kashmir even as the Donald Trump administration called relations with India a partnership and said it does not take a position on the revocation of the state’s special constitutional status.
“When we see Indian institutions have failed or respond slowly it is something that we take up, but this is not a relationship of dictation, it is a relationship of partnership,” Alice Wells, acting assistant secretary of state, said at a hearing on human rights in South Asia held by a congressional subcommittee in Washington Tuesday.
She said, “We are not taking a position on Article 370,” the constitutional provision that gave Jammu and Kashmir special status and which has been rescinded by the Narendra Modi administration.
But “we are taking a position on whether Kashmiris can live with dignity and have full economic and political life”, she said.
She said the State Department had expressed concern over the detention of local residents and political leaders, including three former chief ministers of Jammu & Kashmir, and has “urged Indian authorities to respect human rights and restore full access to services, including internet and mobile networks”.
A dozen members of Congress who spoke during the four-and-a-half-hour hearings uniformly expressed concern about the detentions, restrictions on communications and movement, and the prevention of non-Indian journalists from visiting Kashmir.
Many of them said the issues were raised by their constituents and several times the audience at the hearings clapped when statements critical of India were made. Subcommittee chairman Brad Sherman asked the audience to hold its applause and said it was important for India to restore normalcy to Kashmir and restore communications.
Some of the Democrats’ hostility toward President Trump spilled over to India. Elliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Trump gives “a free pass” to human rights violators and the State Department was giving India a “free pass” on revoking Article 370.
Many members of the House of Representatives asked Wells and Robert Destro, assistant secretary of state for human rights, what the administration was doing to ensure that restrictions were lifted and human rights respected in Jammu & Kashmir.
Representative Anthony Brown (D-MD) suggested that the US take economic measures against India. That was when Wells said the relationship with India was a partnership.
She said the country of 1.3 billion people had survived four wars, the suspension of the Constitution under the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, “Maoist insurgencies and insurgencies in Kashmir, and at the same time it has continued to lift people out of poverty and incrementally make advances. We respect that. So that conversation with India will continue.”
She repeatedly told the subcommittee that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other State Department officials had spoken to Indian officials about bringing normalcy to Kashmir. She said Trump had also offered his good offices to Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan if both agreed to his involvement.
But she also said Kashmir is a matter for India and Pakistan to resolve bilaterally.
The US welcomes “actions by the Indian government to improve the situation and address local grievances” in Jammu & Kashmir, she said. “While conditions in Jammu and Ladakh have improved, the valley has not returned to normal.”
Wells said the picture was mixed in Kashmir. “We understand that curfews have been lifted in most areas, landlines restored, and a majority of detainees released. Still, internet and mobile phone service remain blocked in some districts.”
But she also said Washington was “concerned about reports of local and foreign militants attempting to intimidate local residents and business owners in order to stymie normal economic activity”.
She told Representatives that while US diplomats had not been given allowed to visit Kashmir, the embassy in New Delhi was in touch with journalists, civil society groups and others to find out what was going on.
She said Pakistan’s harboring of terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad is destabilizing, and “Pakistani authorities remain accountable for their actions.” Successful India-Pakistan dialogue would be possible only if Islamabad took irreversible steps against terrorists on its territory, she added.
Sheila Lee Jackson, head of the Congressional Pakistan Caucus, stepped in to ask the acting assistant secretary of state “not to use the constant refrain of Pakistan in reference to terrorism”.
Jackson said, “Pakistan’s military has lost lives in their fight against terror and we should acknowledge that. I don’t think you would have government in Pakistan that condones the idea of terrorism.”
Wells replied, “While I share your praise for Pakistan’s courage in losing over 70,000 lives, military and civilian, in the fight against those groups that were targeting the Pakistan state, we are looking for the same level of commitment against militants targeting the Indian state or the Afghan state.”
Rep Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who is on the left in the Democratic Party, criticized Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, saying minorities in India are in danger. She said that on a recent visit to India she found that even Hindus were fearful and the media was under pressure.
She launched a strong criticism of the government’s actions in Kashmir and said she would be introducing a resolution on Kashmir.
Rep Ilhan Omar (D-MN), another leftist Democrat, picked up Pramila’s refrain about the BJP and the RSS and warned of a “genocide”.
Taking a more moderate stance, Rep Amerish ‘Ami’ Bera (D-CA), said the US and India share the core values of democracy and human rights and the “sooner we can get back to normalization of communication and press and others being able to visit, I think it is in India’s interest to do that and certainly in the world’s interest.”
Ted Yoho, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said the Kashmir issue should remain between India and Pakistan and repealing Article 370 was within India’s means. But he said India should remove the restrictions in Kashmir: “We don’t think anyone should live under those circumstances.”
Though the hearings were to cover South Asia, most of the discussion centered on India, though Sindhi rights advocate Fatima Gul spoke about the plight of minorities in Pakistan.