While Indian officials have tried to play up the fact that Tuesday’s hearing of the U.S. Congressional subcommittee would focus not just on Kashmir but also on human rights issues in other South Asian nations including Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Chairman Brad Sherman said during his opening remarks that the focus would be Kashmir. And the focus remained on Kashmir in the first half of the session.
Lawmakers, many of them Democrats, grilled the State Department’s top South and Central Asia diplomat Alice Wells and Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Robert Destro mostly on the continuing restrictions in Kashmir, and whether and how the U.S. was leveraging its relationship with India, on easing those restrictions.
They also asked questions about the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam and — albeit to a significantly less extent — questions about Pakistan’s human rights record and support for terror.
In her opening remarks, Ms. Wells said the U.S. was concerned about the detention of “hundreds of local residents and political leaders, including three former Chief Ministers of Jammu and Kashmir”, and had urged India to fully restore communications.
Ms. Wells also outlined the administration’s policy of encouraging India and Pakistan to engage in dialogue and for Pakistan to rein in terror groups including Laskhar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Kashmir being off limits to foreign journalists and U.S. lawmakers and officials was a recurring theme during the morning session of the hearing.
“Every day we need an impartial view of what is happening there,” Mr. Sherman said of the Indian government’s ban on foreign journalists visiting the region.
Congresswoman from Virginia, Abigail Spanberger, a former intelligence officer, emphasised the differences between the accounts she was getting from her constituents who had families in Kashmir and official accounts from the Indian government. She outlined stories from her constituents and asked how the U.S. was getting sources of objective, verifiable information.
“I want to find out the truth. There’s limited reporting in the press…” she said, calling for a classified hearing on the nature of security threats in Kashmir
The absence of journalist “testimony” from the region made it harder for the government [of India] to understand the situation and the implications of the restrictions on the region, Ms. Wells said.
The issue of Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen being denied permission to visit Kashmir while on a trip to India a few weeks ago, was also raised by lawmakers.
Chennai-born Congresswoman from Washington Pramila Jayapal, said she was in India visiting her parents when the Kashmir situation began [first week in August]. During the hearing she raised the issue of children being detained. She said the whole issue of detentions was of “huge concern”.
“This is unacceptable…the detention without charges,” she said, in reference to the Public Safety Act, which allows individuals to be detained for up to two years without trial.
Through the hearing there were references that acknowledged genuine security concerns and the fact that terrorists were taking advantage of the situation.
“…These are very muddied waters and lots of militant and terrorist organisations seek to take advantage of the situation,” Ms. Wells said at one point during the session.
Nevertheless, she repeatedly stated that she felt the current balance between national security and human rights was incorrect.
In response to a question from Congressman Jim Costa, a California Democrat, on whether she believed there were human rights violations in Kashmir, she said, “I believe there have been human rights violations. Yes.”
Mr. Sherman at one point raised a question on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which lapsed earlier this year. The bill’s objective is to grant minority group refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who are in India, citizenship. This would differentially and adversely impact Muslim refugees.
“This could just be one crackpot legislator, or this could be a serious proposal. Are we genuinely concerned that India will…have a difference in its documentation requirements …?” Mr Sherman asked. “Have we condemn to the concept of defining someone’s legal rights obligations based on their religion?”
“Well, we’re doing it right here,” Mr. Destro said.
Pressed on what leverage, specifically economic, the U.S. was using to effect change in Indian government policy on Kashmir, Ms. Wells outlined some of India’s recent history and said the administration understood and respected India’s democratic journey and its challenges and the U.S.-India relationship was a partnership.
“We respect that. So that conversation with India will continue obviously when we see India…Indian institutions, in our view, fail or respond slowly. You know, that’s something we take up. But this is not a relationship of dictation. It’s a relationship of partnership,” she said.
Ms Wells said the U.S. was continuing to engage, speak about its concerns and also pressed India for a roadmap on return to normalcy in Kashmir.