Sameera Fazili, one of the 20 Indian-Americans who will be part of the Joe Biden Administration, has a unique India connect: her cousin Mubeen Shah, a prominent businessman, was among those held under the Public Safety Act (PSA) in the Valley clampdown coinciding with the scrapping of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Shah’s mother and Fazili’s father are siblings, and the family had tapped into their Washington and Delhi connections to help secure his release.
Fazili was picked by the new US President as Deputy Director of the National Economic Council (NEC), a policy body that is part of the White House. She had been a senior advisor in the NEC during the Obama Administration.
Shah was released in December 2019, and his is a rare case in which the J&K administration withdrew the PSA.
Fazili’s sister Yousra Fazili, a human rights lawyer, was among the Kashmiris who testified at the November 2019 US Congressional hearing on the situation in the Valley. She spoke in detail about her cousin’s sudden arrest, his health condition and how members of her Srinagar-based family had gone “from jail to jail in Srinagar” trying to find out where he had been taken. She said she could not begin to describe how closely knit the entire family was.
In her testimony, Yousra added that she and Fazili had dialled friends in the State Department on learning about Shah’s arrest on August 8, 2019. And that they were only able to confirm he was imprisoned in Agra after the State Department placed an “informational request” with the Indian government on his status.
“My cousin Mubeen has been made an example of. His imprisonment sends a strong signal to the people of Kashmir that money, family and status mean nothing in the face of Indian capriciousness,” she said in her testimony, going on to talk about how “armed forces are conducting night raids on homes and pulling young men and boys from their beds into military custody” in Kashmir.
Her cousin, she said, was “not a politician or a dissident, he isn’t a freedom fighter, or even a kid in the street throwing stones. He’s just a businessman. His life’s work has focused on bringing economic opportunity to Kashmir”.
Shah, who is based in Malaysia and owns a crafts business, was arrested when visiting Kashmir along with his wife. Belonging to one of the most prominent families of Kashmir, Shah has at various times headed the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Jammu & Kashmir Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and a body active on both sides of the border to promote trade across the Line of Control that was started in 2008 and is at a halt since India discontinued it in 2019.
Another family member, a niece of the Fazili sisters and Shah, is the India-based head of an international trade services’ association and also worked behind the scenes for his release, using her connections at the highest levels of government, sources said.
Shah’s arrest had also been mentioned by Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal at the first US Congressional hearing on Kashmir on October 22, 2019, who flagged his poor health. She wanted to know if the State Department had raised the matter of his arrest with the Indian government, and was assured by Alice Wells, then Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, that the US government had taken up Shah’s case with Delhi.
Following the intervention by the Fazili sisters, their Delhi-based niece and Jayapal, Shah’s wife and his brother had been able to visit him in Agra.
On December 6, 2019 — incidentally the same day as Jayapal introduced a bipartisan resolution in the House of Representatives urging the Indian government to end the restrictions on communications and the mass detentions in J&K — Shah was “temporarily” released. Two days later, the J&K administration informed the Supreme Court, in reply to a petition moved by his wife, that it had “permanently revoked” the PSA against Shah.
In October 2020, incidentally, the J&K Police said they were seeking to arrest Shah through Interpol over a purported Facebook post by him. J&K Director General of Police Dilbagh Singh said they had registered a case for the post that allegedly targeted non-local people living in the Valley. The DGP said they had initiated the process to declare Shah a proclaimed offender and attach his properties in Kashmir. But there has been no movement on this.
Fazili is one of two Kashmiri-origin members in the Biden team. The other is Aisha Shah, the partnership manager at the White House office of Digital Strategy. Married with three children, Fazili has degrees from Harvard and Yale, and is a community development finance expert. She was born in the US, where her doctor parents migrated to in 1970-71.
Speaking to The Sunday Express from Malaysia, Shah said, “We are happy as a family that Sameera has taken an important position in the United States government.”