‘Is This a Humanitarian Crisis? - Yes. It’s a Disaster’: US State Dept on Kashmir
‘Our work is only beginning.’
NEW DELHI: On October 22 the United States House of Representatives held a public hearing on human rights in South Asia, whose first part saw congresspersons question their government on its position and policies in the region.
The hearing in front of a packed hall was chaired by Bradley Sherman, Democrat congressman from California. The government’s Department of State was represented by Robert Destro, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, and by Alice Wells who was appointed acting assistant secretary for south and central Asia in 2017.
Sherman began by remarking that the Kashmir valley, like much of the world, has had its borders determined by the actions of monarchs and imperialists. “While America does not focus on the rights of imperialists,” he said, “it is loath to change international borders.
“Which raises the question: is the Line of Control an international border?”
Excerpts from what followed:
SHERMAN: The Indian government’s decision on August 5 regarding Articles 370 and 35A was not a direct response to [the Pulwama] terrorist attacks, was not ‘cleared’ with the United States or anyone else, and has led to great concern for humanitarian conditions in Kashmir.
Hundreds if not thousands of political and civil society leaders have been detained, there’s severe restrictions on freedom of movement and freedom of assembly, just the ability to walk out of your house… roughly half the cell phones in the Kashmir valley are still not operating…
There’re also limitations on journalists, on outside observers, Senator Van Hollen was prohibited from going to Kashmir when he was in India… We need an impartial view of what is happening there…
When if not now will peaceful protest be allowed, and when will the international press be allowed to look not only at political protests, but the day to day lives of the people… children not attending school, those with medical needs unable to get to a doctor?
To be sure, militants are also terrorising the Kashmiri people and obstructing a return to normalcy. We need to focus on the human rights of people in the Kashmir valley today, and hopefully a resolution of the dispute in the years to come.
ABIGAIL SPANBERGER, Democrat from Virginia: I’m deeply concerned about what we’re hearing, what’s been reported in the press and not as openly, conflicting reports of what I’m hearing from the government of india and what I’m hearing from affected families, my constituents.
ANTHONY BROWN, Democrat from Maryland: I too have heard from constituents with ties to India and Pakistan, and I have considerable concerns about the way ahead, particularly the role of the United States government in addressing this situation—in the eyes of many, this crisis. I’ve met with many families in my district with families in Kashmir…
WELLS: …We share the concerns expressed by many members of Congress and their constituents about the manner in which Indian authorities have implemented the decision… We have urged the Indian authorities to hold promised assembly elections at the earliest opportunity…
ELIOT ENGEL, Democrat from New York and Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee: Around the world including South Asia we are witnessing an alarming trend. Human rights are under assault, governments are closing space for civil society, stifling media and internet freedom, censoring voices of opposition and dissent…
The Trump administration is giving a free pass when countries violate human rights or democratic norms. We saw this sentiment reflected in the State Department’s public statements in response to India’s revocation of Article 370 of its Constitution…
DESTRO: We are concerned by the detention of local political leaders and activists, as well as the internet blackout in Jammu and Kashmir. According to several reports the government has detained up to thousands of individuals since August, including more than 100 mainstream politicians, although many have since been released. The government did not officially confirm these large-scale detentions except those of prominent politicians…
In August, Prime Minister Modi announced a plan to return the region to normal order, which is something we would welcome. Thus far, however, the picture remains mixed. We understand that curfews have been lifted in most areas, land lines restored, and a majority of detainees released.
Still, internet and mobile phone service remain blocked in some districts. Reports indicate this has led to a shortage of medicines, delays in receiving healthcare, and stalled businesses. With communications blocked, local activists and journalists are not able to provide updates on the current environment in the Valley.
At least 300 people, including politicians, lawyers and activists remain jailed under the Public Safety Act, which allows for detention without charge for up to two years in matters affecting national security…
Restrictions on civil society, violent attacks on independent journalists, severe security force abuses, and persecution of minority populations, all erode democracy, lead to instability, and deter investment. The administration remains committed to partnering with South Asian nations to counter these abuses.
SHERMAN: I’m concerned about Kashmir because of what I don’t know. I don’t see people on the ground reporting to me… Do we have diplomats in the Kashmir valley, have we tried to send them?
WELLS: We attempted to send a delegation, we did not receive permission.
SHERMAN: What excuse did the Indians give? There are no terrorists working for the State Department!
WELLS: The Indians are still taking a conservative approach to opening up the Valley in particular. We are able to reach out to local journalists, civil society, contacts we’ve worked with in the past, we’ve had frequent communications with government officials as well as residents of Jammu and Ladakh.
SHERMAN: Can we trust officials if the government won’t let us visit?
WELLS: It’s not our best possible source.
SHERMAN: Is it our stand that Kashmir is a disputed territory as to which India is required to maintain the status quo, or is the Line of Control in effect an international border, where India has the right to treat it as it treats any other part?
WELLS: The US regards the Line of Control as the de facto line of separation between India and Pakistan and Kashmir. We recognise the de facto administration on both sides…
BRIAN FITZPATRICK, Republican from Pennsylvania: I want to focus on three areas: communications, healthcare, diplomatic access. What was the status prior to this turn of events, and has it changed back? Are communications back up, what was the government’s motivation for the blackout? Has the situation regarding healthcare deteriorated, is it back up, what was the motivation there? As for diplomatic access, obviously transparency in the best policy. Is it the case that diplomatic access is being denied, and if so, why?
WELLS: The situation in Jammu and Ladakh has largely returned to normal. The situation prior was open communications, we have seen in the last 78 days an easing but not total lifting of restrictions. 4 million cell phones and 50,000 landline phones are back up, but SMS and internet remains restricted. The Indian government says this is security based…
With healthcare, because of restrictions on communications and movement, there have been reported cases of individuals who didn't get to the hospital in time, or fulfil prescriptions, file information. We’ve urged the government of India to move quickly to ensure this is no longer the case.
I totally agree it would be preferable if I could say our diplomats have had candid conversations with a range of political and economic actors. I cannot, but we are engaging with a wide range of actors, with the government to make a roadmap on how India can establish a re-elected state assembly, which is what we’d like to see from our democratic friend.
SPANBERGER: I’m very concerned about what I’m hearing from Kashmir. The government of India tells me hospitals are open, food and medicines available, there’s freedom of movement, flights have restarted, that the communication blackout is over and only a few hundred are detained.
But my constituents, residents of central Virginia, who have family and loved ones in Kashmir, told me very different stories.
Families and children can’t leave houses — kids can’t go to school — an arthritic mother-in-law has to go through five to six checkpoints to get to a doctor — a sister-in-law who faced a life threatening emergency and extensive blood loss in childbirth — a fire in one home that consumed ten lives because emergency services couldn’t respond — a diabetic family member who can’t get his insulin — a father who died in Kashmir and his son in the US didn’t immediately learn of his death and return home.
I am concerned that there are no US diplomatic personnel in Kashmir. I am a former intelligence officer, trained to seek objective, verifiable information. But we have two conflicting accounts, there’s limited reporting in the press, and I want to find out the truth.
How is the State Department accepting that India, a close strategic partner on trade and military cooperation, is telling us we can’t enter Kashmir?
WELLS: We’ve heard these concerns directly too in our conversations with people from the region. We have seen a gradual improvement but there’s absolute, real hardship, inconvenience. When you don’t have open communications and media it makes it harder even for the government to understand the hardship its policies may be causing.
SPANBERGER: Children as young as ten years old have been preventively detained under the Public Safety Act… do we have any idea how many children are being detained?
WELLS: I don’t have the data… Statistics on detentions are very ambiguous. We know thousands have been detained, most of whom were released. But there’s a core, larger group of hundreds of individuals who remain under detention under the PSA — including politicians whose participation in civic and political life will I suspect be part of a solution…
SPANBERGER: If it’s security based, has India shared any specific, credible examples of threats that they were able to source because of the shutdown or preventive detentions?
WELLS: I can’t comment on that, but we have very close relations with the Indian intelligence services. There is a militancy in Kashmir, terrorist groups who operate in Kashmir who try to take advantage of political and social disaffection.
SPANBERGER: As a former intelligence officer I do take the security threat very seriously. I would love it if we could have a classified hearing to determine if in fact there are credible threats we’ve been made aware of, as allies of India, that have been the reason for these breakdowns.
SHERMAN: I take seriously that request and I want to associate myself with your questions…
ILHAN OMAR, Democrat from Minnesota: I too associate myself with that line of questioning…
Our partnership with India is strategic but also based on our shared values of democracy, religious pluralism and the respect of human rights. Under Modi and the BJP government all these mutual values have been threatened. I think we have to understand the situation in Kashmir as an overall Hindu nationalist project of the BJP…
Is the US committed to emphasising the centrality of Kashmiri voices in determining the future of the Jammu and Kashmir people?
WELLS: I disagree that we don’t have a values based relationship…
OMAR: We can agree to disagree. Are we going to centralise the voices of Kashmiris?
WELLS: The Supreme Court is reviewing the government’s decision, the High Court is reviewing habeas corpus petitions, the institutions of India’s democracy are working. We absolutely believe that Kashmiris’ voice needs to be heard.
When there is restoration of an assembly, when there are state assembly elections, that’s the way for Kashmiris to be able to register their views, and also in peaceful assembly. I think with the restrictions on communications and movement over the last 78 days, that ability to assembly peacefully has been difficult for Kashmiris to exercise…
PRAMILA JAYAPAL, Democrat from Washington: Let me start with the mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir. A magazine in India reported that at least 4,000 people were arrested and held under the Public Safety Act, a controversial law that allows authorities to imprison someone for up to two years without trial.
A court-ordered report found that police in Jammu and Kashmir have detained at least 144 children, including a nine year old, since August. How credible do you find these reports?
DESTRO: That’s a very important question. It’s hard to get accurate information, and when we can confirm it one way or the other we’ll get back to you. I simply don’t have that information today.
JAYAPAL: A report from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative talks about some of the numbers.
It also mentions a very important fact, that the High Court in its judgements on PSA cases actually slammed the Indian government for “non-application of mind”, saying that powers of preventive detention must be confined to narrow limits.
But even in cases where the High Court said these people should not be detained, the Indian government continued to hold those individuals. What have we done about that?
The whole detention issue is of huge concern for us as a democratic ally… This is unacceptable, detention without charges, even in the face of the High Court saying this is not appropriate. What have we done about it, what tools will we use to uplift this?
DESTRO: It’s a great question, a hard question. Due process takes a long time. We are remaining engaged with Indian civil society organisations, lawyers in India, and we will do all we can to nail down the facts and to get access to those court opinions. The good side is that there are in fact independent courts in India that are doing their jobs.
BROWN: Should we be concerned that a worsening human rights situation could alienate Indian Kashmiris who will resort to violence, and that this could lead to a military exchange between India and Pakistan?
WELLS: We recognise that India sees Jammu and Kashmir as an internal problem, but obviously it is a problem that could have external consequences, and we take very seriously the escalation in the rhetoric and tensions between two nuclear armed countries.
President Trump has engaged with both Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Khan on multiple occasions, in meetings and in phone calls, to express his concern over the tensions and to offer his services to mediate if requested to by both sides…
India and Pakistan did commit under the Simla Accord to engage bilaterally and to respect the Line of Control. We urge this constructive dialogue and the circumstances for a constructive dialogue to occur.
FITZPATRICK: I believe there were attacks just last week on members of the fruit trade. Could you speak to the security situation for civilians in Kashmir?
WELLS: We advise American citizens not to travel to Kashmir because of security concerns. We have seen the militants take advantage of the situation…
DAVID TRONE, Democrat from Maryland: Some of my colleagues in the Senate were denied permission to visit Kashmir… Have you communicated directly with India about their decision to block members of Congress travelling to Kashmir?
WELLS: Yes, we advocated for the travel of Senator Van Hollen and embassy officials to Srinagar, and we are disappointed they did not have the opportunity to go there personally.
TRONE: What was India’s response?
WELLS: The Indian government said that it was not the right time.
TRONE: Seems like the right time exactly!
WELLS: I agree that it would be much more advantageous for me to be able to rely on the first-hand testimony of our colleagues.
TRONE: I am in strong agreement. India has also blocked foreign journalists from travelling to Kashmir. Do you agree these actions run counter to democratic interest and transparency and open communications?
WELLS: We strongly support the ability of journalists to be able to travel to Kashmir and to report first hand. The absence of that testimony (for want of a better word) from journalists makes it hard for the Indian government itself to understand the situation and the implications of the restrictions.
TRONE: And how does the Indian government respond, that they don’t want transparency, they don’t want communication?
WELLS: Well, I think the Indian government points with a lot of justification to—there are security dimensions, they have been fighting an externally supported militancy and terrorist movements in Kashmir…
But the tradeoff that’s being made between national security and individual liberties is not one we’re comfortable with.
TRONE: Yes, we spoke to the Indian ambassador just last week and he explained that “other journalists are okay, just not Western journalists.” I’ve got a problem with that.
…The Indian government has also explained its actions in Kashmir, including the communications blockade, as necessary to protect from unrest. What legal means are left then for Kashmiris to express dissent?
DESTRO: Well, I think the easiest answer to the question is to use the existing mechanisms in Indian law… There are tribunals which are open and people can make their defences when they’re charged.
TOM MALINOWSKI, Democrat from New Jersey: Let me get right into the issue of Kashmir… When prisoners are being held incommunicado, there’s good reason to be worried about abuse, as we have no way of checking on stories, whether they’re being treated well or badly. In your experience, is that a situation in which our concerns should be heightened about possible abuses?
DESTRO: Oh absolutely. We need to have an open system. India, you know, says it has an open system and functioning courts—we need to make sure people get adequate representation and have a chance to be heard.
MALINOWSKI: And the communications blackout—in your experience, do terrorists need public cell phone networks in order to be able to communicate?
WELLS: I won't dismiss the fact that communication can be misused. As we said earlier, the tension between national security and individual liberty and well being, we think the balance is wrong in this instance. We need the quick restoration of cell phone and internet coverage.
MALINOWSKI: In our country we have great experience in counter-terrorism, both at home and around the world. I can't think of too many circumstances from the counter-terrorism point of view in which you need to deny the entire population access to communications, given that terrorists tend to have access to technologies that enable them to get around those restrictions.
In the same vein, can you think of any circumstances in our long history of combating terrorism in which it is helpful to deny access to a region to journalists or American diplomats?
DESTRO: No we don’t think it’s helpful. In fact it’s actually counterproductive in our view, because you can’t get accurate information about what’s going on on the ground. And in particular if you deny access to local actors and local civil society—if you listen, they will tell you. So this is a problem.
MALINOWSKI: In fact I would argue that the more such restrictions exist, the relative ability of terrorists to communicate vis-a-vis other members of civil society who might be our allies against terrorism an extremism is actually at its highest.
These kinds of situations disempower the very people who we need to be our allies against extremism and terrorism. The extremists are used to operating in the shadows. It is ordinary people, ordinary civilians who need to be able to use the internet, use their cell phones, and to be able to tell their stories.
To what extent, in your judgment, is this motivated by genuine national security concerns on the part of the Indian government, and to what extent is this really politics? A desire on the part of the Modi government to stoke religious division, not just in Kashmir but as we’ve seen in other parts of India, for political purposes?
DESTRO: Well I can't speak directly to their motivation, all we can do is go by what the Indian government is doing. And so in terms of this new census that they are taking [the NRC], that seems like a pretty bald attempt, as a lever to split the society.
Now why anybody would do that, I don’t understand. If you have a big democracy you want a nice, cohesive, loyal group of people. So the more you exclude people from the process, the more difficult your long term prospects as a democracy are… It’s these kinds of things that endanger the world’s largest democracy.
DAVID CICILLINE, Democrat from Rhode Island: I had a very disturbing meeting with constituents of mine who are from Kashmir, and are in regular contact with family members in Kashmir, and describe horrific circumstances.
What kind of notice did the US government have from the government of India in terms of revoking Article 370? How much preparation was done, how much of this was a surprise?
WELLS: We were not notified or consulted.
CICILLINE: And what kind of operation do we have on the ground, in terms of US diplomatic personnel to understand what’s happening in Kashmir?
WELLS: Typically we cover Kashmir from our embassy in New Delhi, and officials would travel to Jammu and Kashmir. We have not been since April, and since the August 5 revocation of Article 370 we have not received permission to do so.
CICILLINE: Which of course is in itself alarming. The notion that you would cut off communications and access to the media while you were engaged in some noble cause flies in the face of logic.
We have to presume that the reports we are getting of gross human rights violations are serious, and the fact that the press is being prohibited from reporting it ought to be a concern to everyone.
So what is the United States government doing to respond to it, to push back in a serious way?… It seems to me we have a very serious responsibility to draw the world’s attention to this behaviour, and to condemn it in the strongest terms. So what are we doing?
WELLS: We have engaged senior leaders in India, we have spoken publicly about our concerns, and here in greater detail…
Ultimately, India has very strong democratic institutions and I expect all the details we don’t have now will become public. That will serve as the basis for what is an ongoing dialogue with our partner on upholding human rights and upholding the very high ideals that are set in India’s Constitution.
CICILLINE: I understand that—but the notion that we continue to refer to their respect for democratic values, in the face of jailing dissidents, shutting down the press—it raises very serious questions, and my main concern is what we’re doing about it…
What I’ve heard from a number of sources is that they’re using some kind of pellet gun that’s harming children, and blinding them.
So they’re able to say “no one’s dying, there are no fatalities”, but what they’re doing is they’re maiming children, and then going around and picking up these children —because they’re blind they know they were at a protest— (Loud applause)
Are you familiar with this claim? What are we doing about it?
WELLS: Pellet guns were widely used in I believe 2017 [in fact in 2010] and resulted in significant casualties among people participating in demonstrations… Ultimately the government of India transitioned away from the use of pellet guns.
CICILLINE: But are you hearing that in this most recent set of activities they are using pellet guns, and that children in particular are being blinded, and then they’re rounding up those children, taking them away, families don’t know where they are?
WELLS: No I have not.
CICILLINE: Have you, sir?
DESTRO: Well I’m in the same information blackout, the whole State Department is in that position… I’m going to go back to our staff and ask, what other networks do we develop on the ground?…
CICILLINE: To what extent is this a result of the BJP and the RSS, in particular the RSS, this sort of ultranationalist (loud applause) sentiment that is really driving this effort and this assault in Kashmir, and what are we doing to combat that…?
WELLS: The revocation of Article 370 has long been a mainstay of the BJP political platform, and so when PM Modi won a majority in this latest election, in which 67% of Indians participated, the government moved quickly and without consulting us to implement it.
In doing so, they passed a bill through Parliament, where opposition members crossed the aisle to support revocation.
The revocation is a bit of a canard and it’s not that which we care about, it’s the circumstances in which Kashmiris can live their daily lives. 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.
SHEILA JACKSON LEE, Democrat from Texas: I want to ask pointedly, do you see this as a humanitarian crisis?
We have to act where there is a crisis: when doctors are locked up, people cannot have access to medical care, and the basic tools of communicating and connecting to one’s loved ones are denied. So, is this a humanitarian crisis?
DESTRO: Yes, it is. (Sustained applause) From a 72,000 foot perspective, it’s a crisis. To the individuals and families who are involved, it’s a disaster. The human part of human rights sometimes gets overlooked, and just this is the human part.
LEE: …Have you ever denied any reputable member of the Indian government or Indian reporters free access to any area of the United States?
LEE: So what can we do when American citizens and officials are denied ingress for legitimate purposes, to areas you have just described as a humanitarian crisis?
WELLS: We regret that Senator Van Hollen has not been able to travel to Kashmir. I’m confident we will be able to again, and really soon I’d hope, given the pace of the easing of restrictions.
We’re going to continue to engage India, and argue that there should be a roadmap to the restoration of political life in Kashmir, that Kashmiri voices should be heard as decisions are made about its future political makeup. So our work is only beginning…
Transcribed from the video available here.