Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Oct 24, 2019
The much-anticipated Congressional hearing on “Human Rights in South Asia” turned into an attack by Democratic lawmakers on India’s Kashmir policy and its democratic credentials.
India has a problem on Capitol Hill

It was not a good day for India. The much-anticipated Congressional hearing on “Human Rights in South Asia” turned into an attack by Democratic lawmakers on India’s Kashmir policy and its democratic credentials.

Pakistan got a pass save a few references to its terrorism enterprise. It was left to senior State Department officials who testified at the hearing to bring some history, geography and arithmetic to the proceedings and focus on Pakistan’s role in fomenting terrorism in India.

But the lawmakers were not interested in Pakistan for the most part. They looked at Kashmir in isolation, making it largely an Indian problem.

The increasingly vocal progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which tends to take an independent stand on international issues, led the charge. What it means in other words is that India no longer can claim automatic support in the US Congress. The cracks have begun to show.

Additionally, the “progressives,” some of whom are Indian American, have no love lost for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They see him as the architect of a majoritarian project, one that is undermining India’s secular democracy. They see an India changing colours, but don’t necessarily accept the reasons for the change.

The progressives can be unquestioning of propaganda coming from one side but are deeply skeptical of government statements and assertions. It doesn’t help that New Delhi hasn’t bothered to provide even rough official figures on the number of arrests – estimates ranging from 3,000 to a few hundred were cited at the hearing.

The hearing was “fixed” against this background -- Democrats who are not members of the Asia subcommittee or even the larger House Foreign Affairs Committee were invited to attend. They asked tough questions and left. It was clear that some were marking presence with little or no feel for the subject.

The Republicans – India’s recent promoters and the BJP favorites -- didn’t show and the couple who did, expressed serious concerns about the ground situation in Kashmir. The rest simply didn’t want to get in between the Democrats and their constituents who say they can’t contact family members in Kashmir.

And herein lies the biggest problem. American lawmakers from either party aren’t willing to defend house arrests of political leaders and detention of hundreds of others. Or to attend a hearing to point a finger at Pakistan.

So it should surprise no one that Congressman Brad Sherman, a Democrat and chair of the House subcommittee on Asia, presided over a free-for-all. Despite his earlier announcement the hearing would cover all of South Asia, he made it a Kashmir-dominated discussion.

At one point Sherman even allowed “audience participation” and gave time to a Pakistani American doctor friend to hold forth. It was an unprecedented move and designed to damage.

Not since the 1998 Indian nuclear tests have members of the US Congress shown such a visceral reaction to events in India. Questions on detentions, communications blackout, Internet restrictions and health care emergencies came with a persistence not seen in recent times.

But there was one major difference in 2019: the US administration defended India to a great extent and tried to put the Kashmir policy in context. Ambassador Alice Wells, the State Department’s point person on South Asia, reminded lawmakers that Modi had won two consecutive elections, that many opposition members had supported abrogation of Article 370 and that India’s institutions were functioning.

The second panel of independent experts was loaded with critics and the sole witness from India, journalist Aarti Tikoo Singh, was treated shabbily by both Chairman Sherman and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

Omar, who wears her identity politics on her sleeve, made personal attacks on Singh without giving her a chance to respond. A polarising figure in American politics, Omar has made statements on Israel, al-Qaeda and 9/11 that are deeply controversial.

What happened in the second panel was Kabuki theatre, pure and simple. Witnesses were chosen for their ideological leanings rather than expertise and given a platform by Sherman.

Apart from playing to the gallery and appeasing the Council on Islamic-American Relations – a controversial influence peddling group and funder of political campaigns -- what transpired in the second half of the hearing is of less consequence.

The first panel comprising administration officials is a more authentic measure of where things are. New Delhi can take some satisfaction that the Trump Administration stands solidly behind the partnership even as it questioned the detentions of political leaders and urged the Indian government to resume political activity in the valley sooner rather than later.

Wells said the US encourages “the Indian government to follow through on its commitment to hold local assembly elections at the earliest opportunity.” She noted that a small number of local political leaders were released earlier this month, and hope the trend would continue.

Wells went on to say the US “supports the rights of Kashmiris to peacefully protest, but condemns the actions of terrorists who seek to use violence and fear to undermine dialogue.”

This balance between attempts to bring normalcy and threats to undercut it was noticeably absent in the aggressive questioning by lawmakers who seemed to have made up their minds. Wells pushed back.

Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives and a respected leader of the progressive wing, asked tough but fair questions. She announced she would introduce a bipartisan resolution on Kashmir urging India to lift all restrictions on peaceful assembly and communications.

A bipartisan resolution against India will be a tough pill to swallow for the Modi government. But a move like this has been in the making after hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts by more than 50 lawmakers.

There’s no denying that India has a growing problem on Capitol Hill. And it goes beyond a battle of perception or competing narratives, incidentally neither of which India has won.

The problem goes deeper. Old friends of India such as Senator Mark Warner, co-chair of the India Caucus, have gone public with statements on Kashmir.

No doubt, the Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, are responding to constituent pressure but that pressure is partly manufactured and partly real.

The question is if one side can manufacture pressure, why can’t the other?

Another problem for the Democrats is Modi’s endorsement of Donald Trump for 2020 at his Houston rally last month. He and his political managers introduced a needless wrinkle that will play out in mysterious little ways. Betting on one side publicly has consequences.

The last takeaway: Missing in action in the entire show on Capitol Hill was the Indian American diaspora whose muscle was celebrated with fervor at the “Howdy Modi” rally. It neither filled the room with supporters nor managed to get less partial Congressmen to show up.

It raises the obvious question: Is the diaspora effective only for organising a worship rally but fails against the muscle of real competition – in this case the Council on American-Islamic Relations?

CAIR has a national presence, is fully entrenched and was first out of the door on the Kashmir issue with some timely prompting by Pakistan’s supporters.

It’s a controversial organisation and the first to shout “Islamophobia” at any hint of criticism of Islamist actors. Many of CAIR’s office bearers have brushed against the law; one was even convicted of laundering money for Hamas. Interestingly it is on the list of proscribed groups in the UAE, but not in the US.

If Indian American groups promoted and supported by the BJP can’t take a dubious organisation on, they should avoid the grandstanding and organise. Photos with Modi don’t produce results on Capitol Hill.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Seema Sirohi

Seema Sirohi

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 +