Wednesday Oct 23, 2019
WASHINGTON: Influential US lawmakers on Tuesday expressed frustration over the human rights situation in Indian occupied Kashmir and urged the Trump administration to "urgently and persistently" push the Modi government for restoration of normalcy in the region.
During a special congressional hearing on ‘Human Rights in South Asia: Views from the State Department and the Region’, the ongoing situation in the occupied valley was declared "humanitarian crisis" and general “disaster” for Kashmiri families.
All members in attendance posed pertinent and critical questions to panellists and asked the administration officials to persuade India to restore freedom of movement, press, speech and release political prisoners.
The hearing was called by the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and had Acting Assistant Secretary Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells, and Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Robert Destro as witnesses.
Chairman of the Subcommittee Congressman Brad Sherman remarked that the entire world was focused on what was happening in Kashmir. Along with other lawmakers, he enquired the administration's reaction and forcefulness in pushing India to take steps to lift restrictions imposed on Kashmiris.
The state department official told lawmakers that the Indian government claimed Kashmir as an internal problem, but it was a problem that had external consequences including deterioration in relations between India and Pakistan.
“We are going to continue to engage with India. We are going to continue to argue that there should be a roadmap to the restoration of political life in Kashmir. We are going to argue that Kashmiri voices should be heard, as decisions are made about its future, political makeup,” Wells told the audience.
In her testimony and later during the session she maintained that a high-level engagement with Delhi was continuing in this regard and that the administration supports bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan.
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee called out the Modi government's accusations against Islamabad of supporting militants and acknowledged that Pakistan's armed forces had sacrificed in blood and money to eliminate terrorism.
“We have already seen the Kurdish crisis, genocide. I believe this is a moment and time in history that the Secretary at this time can be engaging highest levels of diplomacy in India,” she said, adding that India recognises itself as a democratic state but does not accept the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Responding to a question, Wells said, “US leaders have had a high-level engagement ever since August 5th on the subject of Kashmir. You have heard President Trump speak publicly to his own desire to help mediate if the parties were to agree,” adding "This has been a subject of conversation between the secretary, the president and we continue to urge that there be a reduction in tensions between India and Pakistan."
Wells, in response to a question about Senator Chris Van Hollen who was barred from travelling to Kashmir, said so far the US government officials had not been able to visit Kashmir to obtain firsthand information of the situation, though they had maintained contact with the government, civil societies and the members of the press.
She told the audience that the administration regarded the Line of Control as the de-facto line of separation, and welcomed Prime Minister Imran Khan's statement that terrorists who carry out violence in Kashmir were enemies of both Kashmiris and Pakistan.
She repeated that the administration was not notified about India's August 5 decision to abrogate Article 370 or to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir State into Union territories.
Earlier in her opening remarks, Wells said the State Department has raised concerns with the Indian government about the detention of local residents and political leaders, including three former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir.
“We have urged the Indian authorities to respect human rights and restore full access to services, including internet and mobile networks. Post-paid mobile service has been restored in the Valley, but internet access remains intermittent.”
She said both the foreign and local journalists had extensively covered developments in Kashmir, but many faced challenges in access and reporting due to security restrictions.
"While exact figures are difficult to ascertain, we understand several thousand people have been detained over the past two months, although many have subsequently been released. According to government sources, hundreds remain in detention – many without charges – under the Public Safety Act, which allows for administrative detention of up to two years," she said.
She further said the security situation in Kashmir remained tense. Clashes between youths and Indian security forces were a regular occurrence, and Indian forces killed suspected terrorists in multiple firefights last week.
"We are concerned about reports of local and foreign militants attempting to intimidate local residents and business owners in order to stymie normal economic activity. The United States supports the rights of Kashmiris to peacefully protest, but condemns the actions of terrorists who seek to use violence and fear to undermine dialogue," she said.
Originally published in The News