In an unusual step that has raised a few eyebrows in Washington, Union External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is said to have cancelled a meeting with the influential Congressional committee on foreign affairs because it included Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal who introduced the resolution urging India to lift all restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir after revoking Article 370.
This prompted a response from one of US Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, a top Democrat leader. “Efforts to silence Pramila Jayapal are deeply troubling. The US and India have an important partnership — but our partnership can only succeed if it is rooted in honest dialogue and shared respect for religious pluralism, democracy, and human rights,” Warren tweeted.
Following Jaishankar’s snub, Jayapal’s House Resolution 745 – introduced on December 6 — which urged “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” and had 19 co-sponsors, now added 10 Democrats over the last 24 hours, making the count at 29 on Friday.
While Jaishankar said he had “no interest” in meeting Jayapal, she tweeted that that this “only furthers the idea that the Indian government isn’t willing to listen to any dissent at all”.
Curious step from a veteran
Jaishankar has engaged with a range of members of the US Congress and overcome many a diplomatic challenge in DC. His rejection sends a signal that Delhi is thin-skinned. The panel is bipartisan and singling out a member makes it harder for India’s friends on Capitol Hill.
The Washington Post first reported that Jaishankar “abruptly cancelled a meeting with senior members of Congress this week after US lawmakers refused demands to exclude” Jayapal from the meeting. Jaishankar was to meet chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Eliot L Engel; committee’s top Republican Michael McCaul and others, including Congresswoman Jayapal, the report said.
The US House Foreign Affairs committee is a powerful bipartisan committee in the US Congress, which has been an advocate of stronger Indo-US ties. Jayapal has been vocal in her criticism of the government’s moves in Kashmir over the last few months, including at the October hearing.
The committee has also been critical of the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Last Monday, US House Foreign Affairs Committee had tweeted: “Religious pluralism is central to the foundations of both India and the United States and is one of our core shared values”.
“Any religious test for citizenship undermines this most basic democratic tenet,” the panel had said.
Jaishankar, who was in Washington DC for the Indo-US 2+2 ministerial dialogue, said the resolution introduced in the House of Representatives was not a fair characterisation of the situation in J&K.
“I am aware of that (Congressional) 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),” he said in response to a question. “I have an interest in meeting people who are objective and open to discussion but not the people who already made up their minds,” Jaishankar said.
Jayapal, in her response, tweeted, “The cancellation of this meeting was deeply disturbing. It only furthers the idea that the Indian government isn’t willing to listen to any dissent at all.” She was quoted by The Washington Post as saying: “The seriousness of this moment should have been a reason for a conversation, not dictating who’s in the meeting, which seems very petty.”
Jayapal, a Democrat, said she had planned to advance her resolution on Kashmir this week but was urged to wait until after meeting with Jaishankar. Now she plans to renew her push for the resolution in January, the report said. She is a Chennai-born US Congresswoman, who was visiting her family in India when the Indian government revoked J&K’s special status.
“My constituents care about the human rights situation, thousands of people detained without charges, and a communication crackdown that makes daily life more difficult,” she was quoted as saying.
PTI quoted sources saying the meeting was cancelled as the Committee kept changing the ground rules — a day before the meeting, the committee added Jayapal (she isn’t a member of the committee) and several other lawmakers who were known “India-bashers.”
Asked if New Delhi had a problem with Democrats, Jaishankar said: “My own sense is that support for the (India-US) relationship is extremely strong in a very, very wide cross section members of Congress and political leaders outside the Congress,” he said. “So, I wouldn’t take a few voices and necessarily reach a sweeping conclusion, which your question seems to suggest.”
“I’m not personalising this. I don’t want to get into names. All I’m saying is we have always operated in this country because we are always engaged with everybody (who) was reasonable and open-minded,” Jaishankar said.
Peter Lavoy, a former US Assistant Secretary of Defence in the Obama administration and an avid India-watcher in Washington DC, said, “Very surprised that @DrSJaishankar did this. He usually is resilient to this kind of engagement and criticism.”
Former minister of state (external affairs) and now, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said: “This is totally unworthy of a great democracy like India. I can’t believe @DrSJaishankar with all his diplomatic experience would refuse to engage with a critic; whether you agree with him or not, he is able to debate anybody! This intolerance of dissent is a BJP political failing.”
Jaishankar met the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Affairs Committee including its Chairman Senator James E Risch and ranking Member Senator Bob Menendez.
On the eve of the ministerial, he also met some key members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee including Congressmen Ami Bera and Brad Sherman from the Democratic party and Ted Yoho and Francis Rooney from the Republican Party.
The second 2+2 ministerial dialogue was hosted by US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark T Esper.