WASHINGTON: The Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) is facing a “humanitarian crisis” and India’s Aug 5 decision to annex the “disputed” territory has been a “disaster” for Kashmiris, observes a US Congressional panel.
These observations were made at a daylong hearing of a House subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on Tuesday, described by the Indian media as “the most critical examination that any Indian action has received in a panel of US House of Representatives since the 1998 nuclear tests.”
At least, three lawmakers, Ilhan Omar, Tom Malinowski and David Cicilline, asked US officials testifying before the panel, whether the Indian government’s motivation behind the recent Kashmir decision was national security or an ultra-nationalist and majoritarian agenda.
“To what extent is this a result of the BJP and RSS, particularly RSS, … ultra-nationalist sentiment, driving this effort and this assault in Kashmir?” asked Congressman Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat. “What are we doing to combat that and help them recognise that this is not an appropriate way to behave in a democracy?”
“The revocation of Article 370 has long been a mainstay of the BJP political platform. So, when PM Modi won majority in this latest election, in which 67 per cent of Indians participated, the government quickly and without consultations with us, (moved) to implement it,” US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice G Wells responded.
“The revocation is a little bit of a canard …, we are not taking a position on Article 370, we are taking a position on whether Kashmiris can live in dignity and have a full economic and political life,” she added.
Congressman Cicilline asked if Indian security forces had used pellet guns on Kashmiris after Aug 5 and whether children blinded by these guns were away and their families did not know where they were. Ms Wells promised to look into the report.
The panel’s chairman, Congressman Brad Sherman, questioned India’s claim that it cut-off Kashmir from the rest of the world to prevent cross-border terrorist attacks.
Mr Sherman asked whether there had been any “verified cross-border terrorism” incidents since Aug 5, when India changed the status of occupied Kashmir.
Ms Wells stated that she was “hearing different stories from different sides” but “we have observed a decline in incidents of infiltration.”
This observation contradicts the Indian claim that there has been a build-up of terror groups waiting to cross the Line of Control.
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who chairs the congressional Pakistan Caucus, asked Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights Robert Destro if he would describe the situation in IOK as a “humanitarian crisis,” Mr Destro said, “Yes, it is.”
Ms Jackson Lee, who is also a member of the Indian caucus and had attended Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Houston earlier this month, demanded that Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war against terror be recognised.
She then approached the issue of humanitarian crisis from another angle. “Have you denied any reputable member of the Indian government or reporters from India into the US,” she asked.
“No,” responded Ms Wells, creating space for Ms Jackson Lee’s follow-up question. “What can we do, when (US lawmakers) are denied ingress for legitimate purposes to areas in Kashmir,” she asked.
“We regret that Senator (Chris) Van Hollen was not able to travel to Kashmir. I’m confident that we will be able to travel to Kashmir again,” Ms Wells said.
In the two-hour long morning session, Trump administration officials were often forced to defend Indian actions in Kashmir while expressing “discomfort at choices made by New Delhi,” as an Indian media report noted.
The hearing was titled ‘Human Rights in South Asia’, but the overwhelming number of questions related to Kashmir. The packed room broke into applause whenever a lawmaker or US official criticised Indian actions in Kashmir.
Ms Well underlined her concerns “about the manner in which Indian authorities have implemented” the Aug 5 decision, pointing out that Washington has been steadily raising the level of its concern over the situation in Kashmir.
She also said the US supports the rights of Kashmiris to peacefully protest, but condemns terrorists “who seek to use violence and fear to undermine dialogue” between India and Pakistan.
“Are we supposed to trust these government of India officials when the government of India doesn’t allow our diplomats to visit?” asked Mr Sherman when Ms Wells said that US diplomats relied on Indian officials and media reports for information on the situation in Kashmir.
When Ms Wells said that India argued now’s not the right time to allow foreign officials and journalists into Kashmir, Congressman David Torne said: “Seems like the right time exactly.”
“How is the State Department accepting that at this time India, a close strategic partner for the United States on everything from trade to military cooperation, is telling us that we cannot allow US diplomats to enter Kashmir?” asked Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger. She said that Indian government officials had told her the situation in Kashmir had improved but her constituents, who had family in Kashmir, gave “very different stories”. She also quoted several cases of how the blockade had disrupted lives and had even caused deaths.
Congressman Tom Malinowski noted that the communication blockade “disempowers the very people who want to be our allies”.
The first Indian-American Congresswoman, Pramila Jayapal and Congressman Sherman mentioned that a Kashmiri American, Mujahid Shah, whose father, a businessman, had been detained despite no political links.
Ms Jayapal said she was deeply worried that despite orders from the high court to stop preventive detention, India was not releasing even those who had received a favourable verdict.