The Indian government has largely been able to convince foreign governments that its decision to revoke the special status of Jammu & Kashmir and bifurcate the state into two union territories is an “internal matter” but the continued suspension of basic rights and house arrests of political leaders are proving harder to explain and justify.
As days turn into weeks, criticism has begun coming from different directions – from UN human rights experts, from American politicians and from the State Department. This is different from the editorial pages of The New York Times, which clearly favour harsh critics of the Indian government and patently biased pro-Pakistani voices.
Managing the ground situation in J&K in the most optimal manner, preventing violence and Pakistan-inspired trouble-making in general while maintaining basic freedoms was always going to be the toughest part of this controversial decision by the BJP. And expectations of the international community for a faster return to normalcy have now begun coming to the fore.
The strongest words have come from a group of UN human rights experts who called the restrictions “intrinsically disproportionate” and a form of “collective punishment.” Reports of arrests of young people during night raids must be investigated because they raise the risk of “enforced disappearances,” they said. Such measures could exacerbate tensions in the region, something that causes genuine concern among officials and human rights activists alike.
Indian diplomats are working hard to explain that harsh measures are meant to prevent violence and gathering of flash crowds armed with stones. Given Pakistan’s well-established role in inciting violence in Kashmir and its deep frustration with India’s decision to revoke Article 370, New Delhi has to take every precaution.
In the war of public perception, India no doubt has tougher standards to meet given its democratic traditions and openness while Pakistan gets a pass – especially from major US newspapers. No one cares that two former prime ministers of Pakistan, a former president, and many opposition leaders are currently in jail, the media is muzzled, Ahmadis are officially not considered Muslims, the Baloch disappear daily, the humongous Pashtuns protests are blacked out while terrorists strut about with official protection.
There is clearly a failure somewhere that a state so identified with terrorism and one which harboured Osama bin Laden is able to pretend it cares about human rights in Kashmir and find buyers for its line.
US lawmakers on Capitol Hill and senior officials in the State Department have begun publicly commenting on the continued clampdown in J&K, denial of access to the internet and other restrictions on average citizens. While the number of statements compared to what would have been a flood 10 years ago is low, they still present a public relations and policy challenge for New Delhi.
Over the last week, voices demanding a release of detainees and restoration of “basic freedoms” – to quote a senior State Department official – have amplified. The official said the human rights situation in Kashmir was the focus of the US administration in the near term and India should move quickly to bring normalcy as Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself promised.
There is a distinct possibility that the human rights issue may come up when Modi meets President Donald Trump in France this weekend. The official US support for developments in J&K being an internal matter has evolved to it being an internal decision with external ramifications and “regional implications.”
Congressman Adam Smith, a Democrat and chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, was exercised enough that he called the Indian ambassador to raise the issue. “There are legitimate concerns about the ongoing communication blackouts, increased militarization of the region and enforcement of curfews,” Smith said.
Other Democrats too have started asking questions whether of their own volition or because they are being prodded by Pakistani American constituents or Pakistan’s newly appointed lobbying firm is ultimately immaterial. New Delhi can brace for more “expressions of concern” once the US Congress comes back from recess next month, expecially if the ground situation in J&K doesn’t improve.
< lang="EN-US">A Congresswoman from New York, Yvette Clarke, has already warned that the Kashmir issue will be “front and center for the US Congress to deal with and we are going to deal with it forthright” when the Congress is in session next month. < lang="EN-US">
Currently the Democrats control the House of Representatives and what they say matters. Several members are privately talking about “growing authoritarianism” in India and what this might mean for the future of the India-US partnership.
Some Congressmen are looking at the “trend lines” on human rights in India. It’s not hard to imagine a future Democratic president openly disapproving of Modi/BJP actions. Such public opprobrium is bound to rub New Delhi the wrong way, which could negatively affect the partnership.
Soon after the Aug. 5 decision by the Indian government, the two top Democrats on foreign affairs in the House and Senate – Congressman Eliot Engel and Senator Robert Menendez -- had issued a joint statement, reminding New Delhi about the importance of “transparency and political participation” as the cornerstones of representative democracies.
They also pulled up Pakistan and asked that it “refrain from any retaliatory aggression” and “take demonstrable action against the terrorist infrastructure on Pakistan’s soil.” To be sure, Pakistan is under the scanner for its terrorist-friendly policies from both the Congress and the administration.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS), a non-partisan official source of policy inputs for the US Congress, released a 15-page report on Kashmir for the first time in 17 years examining recent developments. It said the Indian government’s moves raise serious constitutional questions while “New Delhi’s heavy-handed security crackdown” raises human rights concerns.
The report acknowledged that the Indian government’s Aug. 5 actions “appear to have been broadly popular with the Indian public… and were supported by most major political parties.” But it also noted critics who saw the Modi government’s move as “undemocratic in process” and as “direct attacks on India’s secular identity.”
The troubling part of the CRS report was the relative fuzziness about Pakistan’s use of terrorism as state policy even though official US policy is no longer fuzzy about Islamabad’s role in promoting, protecting and pushing the many terrorist groups cultivated by the ISI.
Among the questions raised in the report for the US Congress to ponder going forward, is whether India’s decision negatively affects regional stability. If so, what leverage does the US have and what policies can best address potential instability. Would increased instability affect Pakistan’s cooperation in the Afghanistan peace process?
The final question the report raises is whether the current political climate in India threatens the country’s pluralist traditions and democratic norms. Is religious freedom under threat in India today and should the US government take “any further actions to address such concerns.” This is a call for a stronger focus on human rights.
Since CRS reports often are the building blocks for Congressional action, the Kashmir report will likely influence the many Congressional staffers who write the talking points for the lawmakers.
New Delhi must assess the ground situation in Kashmir and the external climate with a clear head to decide how much traffic the road can bear.
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Seema Sirohi is a columnist based in Washington DC. She writes on US foreign policy in relation to South Asia. Seema has worked with several ...Read More +