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Explained: Who is US Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, and why did Jaishankar refuse to meet her?

She is the first South Asian American woman elected to the US House of Representatives, and one of only 14 naturalized citizens currently serving in the US Congress.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: December 21, 2019 7:37:04 am
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., is interviewed about Robert Mueller outside the House chamber, Monday June 3, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington, after the House voted to approve a billion disaster aid bill. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar refused to meet Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal on his visit to Washington DC, PTI reported on Friday (December 20).

Jaishankar expressed disappointment with a Congressional resolution on Kashmir that Representative Jayapal had moved earlier.

“I am aware of that resolution. I don’t think it’s a fair understanding of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, or a fair characterisation of what the government of India is doing. And I have no interest in meeting (Jayapal),” the Minister said in response to a question from a reporter.

“I have an interest in meeting people who are objective and open to discussion but not the people who already made up their minds,” he said.

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The news was first reported by ‘The Washington Post’, which said Jaishankar had “abruptly cancelled a meeting with senior members of Congress” after the lawmakers refused to accommodate India’s “demands to exclude a Congresswoman who has criticized the Indian government’s policies in Kashmir”.

According to the report, Jaishankar was to meet the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot L Engel (D-NY); the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas); and others, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington).

“Indian officials informed the committee that Jaishankar would not meet with the lawmakers if the group included Jayapal,” the report said. “Engel refused, and the Indians pulled out, Jayapal told The Washington Post.”

What is the Congressional Resolution that Jayapal introduced?

On December 6, Congresswoman Jayapal introduced H.Res.745 in the 116th US Congress, “Urging the Republic of India to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible and preserve religious freedom for all residents”.

The resolution, co-sponsored by Steve Watkins, the Republican Congressman from Kansas, urged India to:

“(A) lift the remaining restrictions on communication and to restore internet access across all of Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible;

“(B) refrain from the use of threats and excessive force against detained people and peaceful protesters;

“(C) swiftly release arbitrarily detained people in Jammu and Kashmir;

“(D) refrain from conditioning the release of detained people on their willingness to sign bonds prohibiting any political activities and speeches;

“(E) allow international human rights observers and journalists to access Jammu and Kashmir and operate freely throughout India, without threats; and

“(F) condemn, at the highest levels, all religiously motivated violence, including that violence which targets against religious minorities.”

On the introduction of her bipartisan resolution, Jayapal said: “As the world’s largest democracy, India shares a unique and important relationship with the United States. I’m proud to have lived my own life in the world’s two greatest democracies — as a citizen of India for 35 years, and now as a proud American citizen and member of Congress. I have fought to strengthen this special US-India relationship, which is why I am deeply concerned by the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir. Detaining people without charge, severely limiting communications, and blocking neutral third parties from visiting the region is harmful to our close, critical bilateral relationship. India must quickly lift restrictions on cell phones and internet access, release arbitrarily detained people, protect free speech and peaceful protest, and condemn all religiously motivated violence at the highest levels across India.

“I hope to work with the Indian government and my colleagues in Congress to strengthen the US-India partnership, while protecting the human rights of the Kashmiri people,” she said, according to her page on the House of Representatives website.

Earlier, on October 23, at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the state of human rights in South Asia, “Jayapal had called on senior State Department officials to address human rights issues in Jammu and Kashmir, including its mass detentions without due process and communications blockade,” according to the House website.

Who is Congresswoman Jayapal?

Congresswoman Jayapal was elected in 2016, and is now serving her second term in Congress representing Washington’s 7th District, which encompasses most of Seattle and its surrounding areas.

She is the first South Asian American woman elected to the US House of Representatives, and one of only 14 naturalized citizens currently serving in the US Congress.

Congresswoman Jayapal’s page on the House website lists her as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, where she serves as Vice Chair of the Immigration Subcommittee, and on the House Education & Labour and Budget Committees.

“She is also the elected Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which represents approximately 40% of the entire Democratic caucus; the Immigration Subcommittee Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific Asian Caucus; and a Vice-Chair of the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus,” the page says.

According to her House bio, Representative Jayapal was born in India, and grew up in India, Indonesia, and Singapore. She reached the US by herself at the age of 16 to attend college at Georgetown University. She received her MBA from Northwestern University, worked in a number of industries in both the public and private sector, and published her first book in 2000, ‘Pilgrimage to India: A Woman Revisits Her Homeland’.

Jayapal is married to Steve Williamson, a long-time labour leader and strategist.

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