With normal life affected for 78th day – main markets shut, public transport off the road, major political leaders under house arrest and internet still down – New Delhi is bracing for a critical assessment in Washington DC on Tuesday, where a US Congress panel will hold a hearing at the Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, in Delhi, External Affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Monday that by the time he visited the US after abrogation of provisions under Article 370, the “English-speaking liberal media” posed a much more difficult challenge than others, as it had “preset views” and did not present a “fair picture”.
US Congressman Brad Sherman, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia, will hold a hearing on “Human Rights in South Asia: Views from the State Department and the Region” at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington at 10 am US Eastern Daylight Time (7.30 pm IST) on Tuesday. According to the latest schedule available, US State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary (Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs) Alice G Wells and Assistant Secretary in Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour at the State Department, Robert A Destro, will testify before the committee.
They will be cross-questioned by US Congressmen on the panel about American efforts and assessment of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.
Indian ambassador to the US Harsh Vardhan Shringla had briefed Sherman and some others in the Congressional panel on the Kashmir situation before the hearing.
Sources told The Indian Express that while tough questions are expected from US Congressmen during the hearing, Delhi will watch the language used by US administration officials Wells and Destro in their testimonies.
In early September, US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus had said, in response to questions, “We continue to be very concerned by widespread detentions, including of local political and business leaders, and the restrictions on residents of the region. We are also concerned about reports that internet and mobile phone access continues to be blocked in certain regions. We urge authorities to respect human rights and restore access to services such as the internet and mobile networks. We look forward to the Indian government’s resumption of political engagement with local leaders and the scheduling of promised elections at the earliest opportunity.”
Some critique after smooth sailing
After New Delhi revoked J&K’s special status under Article 370, the US response has been quite muted - barring one statement by the State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus in early September, when she expressed concern over the “widespread detentions” and “urged” the authorities to “respect human rights”. She had also asked Indian authorities to “resume political engagement with local leaders” and hold “elections at the earliest”.
This was a clear evolution of the US administration’s position, and this approach is very different from the US position on August 6, when it had said that they “take note” that the Indian government has described these actions as strictly an internal matter. The US had said that they were concerned about reports of detentions and urge respect for individual rights and discussion with those in affected communities.
Speaking at the US-India strategic partnership forum here, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar asserted that the change in Article 370 of the Constitution was India’s “internal business”.
He said: “By the time I actually went to the US in September, which was about six weeks after the event, we had made considerable progress. I think it was a much more difficult challenge with the media, especially the English-speaking liberal media, because partly they were very ideological about it; they had strong preset views on this subject. In my view…in many ways they did not present a fair picture. Maybe they did not absorb a fair picture either.”
It may be noted that US Congressman Chris Van Hollen was not allowed to visit J&K by the government, and this denial of permission by Delhi will be raised during the hearing. Van Hollen, who has travelled across India but has never been to J&K in the past, had told The Indian Express, “I had thought it would be useful to go there and see the situation by myself. My personal view is that if you have nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear by allowing visitors to the state. I can only conclude that the Indian government doesn’t want us to see what’s happening out there.”
Among others expected to be called as witnesses will be Nitasha Kaul, associate professor in Politics and International Relations at the Center for the Study of Democracy (University of Westminster), and Angana Chatterji, co-chair of political conflict, gender and people’s rights initiative, research anthropologist, Center for Race and Gender, (University of California, Berkeley).
Also testifying will be Sindhi-American human rights activist Fatima Gul and Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific advocacy manager Francisco Bencosme.
On October 7, the official Twitter handle of the US House Foreign Affairs committee had tweeted, “India’s communication blackout in Kashmir is having a devastating impact on the lives and welfare of everyday Kashmiris. It’s time for India to lift these restrictions and afford Kashmiris the same rights and privileges as any other Indian citizen.”