In the first US Congressional hearing on India’s removal of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370, the Trump administration walked the diplomatic tightrope, telling the US Congress that there is a “humanitarian crisis” in J&K and adding that the relationship with India is not of “dictation” but of “partnership.”
Administration officials also told Congressmen that US diplomats wanted to travel to J&K after August 5 but the Indian government denied permission saying it is not the right time to go there.
On the key issue of change in status, however, US officials backed Delhi saying that the decision to revoke Article 370 was passed by the Indian Parliament where Opposition members “crossed the aisle” and voted in favour of the legislation. And that the matter is under review of the Supreme Court of India.
US Acting Assistant Secretary (Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs) Alice G Wells made it clear that the US government was not taking a position on the issue of Article 370 but on the manner in which it had been implemented.
Coming down hard on Pakistan, Wells said Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has been asked to “pull down” the terror infrastructure and take action against terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. She said Pakistan Army needs to show the same commitment against anti-India or anti-Afghan terrorist groups that it shows against terrorist groups attacking Pakistan.
US officials maintained they have “persistently” and “urgently” expressed concern to the Indian government that they are “concerned about detention of local politicians, including “three Chief Ministers” and “Internet blackouts” and that they have asked New Delhi to “balance between its security priorities and human rights”.
These were some of the broad takeaways from the two-and-half-hour long US Congressional hearing chaired by US Congressman Brad Sherman, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia, on the topic “Human Rights in South Asia: Views from the State Department and the Region”.
Several Congress members, including Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (who is a member of the Pakistan caucus), Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and other members questioned Wells and Robert Destro, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour.
Besides Kashmir, the NRC issue also came up for discussions, and as Sherman asked whether it is a serious legislative proposal or a “crackpot idea”, Destro responded: “It is a serious legislative proposal.” Probed further by Sherman “have we condemned it?”, Destro replied, “We are doing it right here.”
This was met with applause at the hearing. Sherman, who began the hearing by describing Kashmir as the “most dangerous flashpoint in the world”, said that he has for years condemned the terror attacks in Kashmir, and has also spoken about the Kashmiri Pandits. He said India’s decision with respect to Article 370’s revocation was not in direct response to these terror attacks.
Jayapal, the first Indian-American lawmaker in the House of Representatives, said she was visiting India to meet her parents, when the Kashmir decision was made. She said that she had raised the issues related to minorities and human rights situation in India with Prime Minister Narendra Modi about two years ago.
“I recognise that the situation is complex. I recognise that Pakistan is not without its share of responsibility.” However, India as the world’s largest democracy and a critical ally for the US, needs to uphold its commitment to human rights, she said.
Lawmakers Ted Yoho, Abigail Spanberger and Mike Fitzpatrick also expressed concern over the human rights situation in Kashmir and urged India to take steps to lift restrictions on movement of people, communication restrictions and detention of political leaders.
When Jackson Lee asked Destro whether it was a “humanitarian crisis”, he replied, “Yes, it is a humanitarian crisis”.
Wells, in response to questions, said, “We have attempted to send a delegation”, but added they “have not received permission”. She said that “it will be better to report first hand”.
She said the US was “disappointed” that it did not have the opportunity, and the Indian government said it is not the right time. She said the US strongly supported that international journalists be allowed to travel there. But she also said the situation is “complex”, and there are “security dimensions” because of externally-supported terrorism.
She said the US is not comfortable with the “trade off between national security and human rights”. However, she also said that they can’t dismiss the fact that communication can be “misused”.
“We share your concerns, we are concerned about detention of local politicians, Internet blackout… still Internet and mobile services are shut, although it has been lifted partially,” she said. She said the only tool they have is “persuasion”, and this hearing will deliver the powerful message to the Indian government. “We have been very persistent and urgent,” she said.
Saying repeatedly that the US administration is “focussed” on the situation in the Valley, she reeled out numbers that with regard to communication, there has been easing of restrictions — with 4 million cellphones being active, which is half of the total cellphones in J&K.
She acknowledged that Internet and SMS remain restricted, and the Indian government has told US interlocutors that it is “security based”, and to prevent malafide intention on the part of terrorist groups.
When Congresswoman Spanberger identified herself as a former intelligence official and asked how are they getting the information, Wells said that while she appreciated the concerns, she had heard directly from the Kashmiris. She, however, said there can be “gradual improvement”, to overcome “actual hardship and inconvenience”.
And, she made the point that the communication shutdown prevents even the Indian government from understanding the impact on the ground.
Wells also said that while the Indian government said that it is “an internal issue”, “but we realise that it has external ramifications”. She said that President Donald Trump has engaged with Prime Ministers Modi and Khan, and had expressed concern, and offered his services to mediate if both sides are willing.
She also said that the US has urged Pakistan to implement Khan’s commitment to take action against terror groups, which are “irreversible and sustainable”. She also pointed out that Khan said that anyone who crosses to Kashmir is the “enemy of Pakistan, enemy of Kashmir”, and she will watch closely whether Pakistan is true to its word.
When Spanperger pointed out that young children were being detained, Wells said there were “allegations” that children have been taken into custody, but also added that “statstics remained ambiguous”. At another point, she said these are “muddied waters”, indicating that the picture is not clear.
When one of the Congressmen asked whether the US was “leveraging” its position to put pressure on India, Wells said, “We have a wide ranging conversation with India on human rights.” She said the issue of cow lynchings are reported by the media and decried by human rights groups in the country.
She said that to give some context, India is a country of 1.4 billion people and has survived four wars and suspension of Constitution under Indira Gandhi, but has survived. “This is not a relationship of dictation, it is a relationship of partnership,” she said.
When Spanberger asked for security threats assessment, Wells said that she will not be able to comment on that and added that “There is a militancy in Kashmir. Terrorist groups do try to take advantage of disaffection.” On this, Spanberger asked for a “classified hearing on the nature of terrorist threats”, to which Sherman replied that he will consider this “seriously”.
Stressing that Indians are taking a “conservative approach”, Wells said they have been “able to reach out to activists, journalists, and are engaging with them”. She said the US administration is also reaching out to a cross-section of Indian society, and is cutting across all ministries.
Asked about the Line of Contriol, she said the US regards the LoC as the de-facto line of separation. As such, the US recognises the de-facto administration on both sides of the LoC. “We don’t take a position on the type of government on either side,” she said.
When Congresswomen Ilhan Omar called the NRC issue an “anti-Muslim project” comparing it to the Rohingya crisis, Wells said the matter dates to a 2013 Supreme Court ruling to address the issue of illegal immigration. She said that 1.9 million people excluded from the NRC include “Muslims and Hindus”. Adding that 300 appeal panels have been set up, she said they will continue to watch this and the judicial process is “still working”.
On NRC, Destro said that “due process takes a long time”, and the US is engaged with the Indian government, and that there are “independent courts in India”.