Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Shringla: A year of living diplomatically

Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the outgoing Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Shringla, who was recently appointed India’s next foreign secretary, will leave for New Delhi later this month.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Concern in some quarters of the U.S. Congress over the situation in Jammu and Kashmir in the aftermath of the government of India’s abrogation of temporary Article 370, particularly with regard to humanitarian concerns and communications blockade, has been “constructively addressed,” thanks to the sustained engagement and constant updates provided to U.S. lawmakers by embassy officials, according to outgoing Indian Ambassador to the U.S., Harsh Vardhan Shringla.

Shringla, who was recently appointed India’s next foreign secretary and will leave for New Delhi later this month, told India Abroad in an exclusive interview that much of the strong concerns and criticism expressed by U.S. lawmakers, in the weeks that followed the repeal of temporary Article 370 that accorded Jammu and Kashmir special status, including at a Congressional hearing on Oct. 22 where the Indian government’s alleged measures in the valley were assailed, was both a manifestation of the freedom of expression — a pillar of democracy in both the U.S. and India —and also a yearning desire for facts on the ground.

“Both our countries are open, free democracies and we voice our opinions openly and freely and what you are seeing with regard to the issues that you mentioned, is an expression of let’s say articulation of misguided concern, and in some senses, also a desire for facts,” he said, when pointedly asked about the India bashing at the hearing on Oct. 22 that came under scrutiny in India for what was widely reported as an unbalanced panel of witnesses, non-conformity to hearing protocol of no applause or cheering for any point of view and a Congresswoman (Rep. Ilhan Omar) questioning the integrity of an Indian journalist covering Jammu and Kashmir, who also happened to be the lone Kashmiri Pandit on that panel. 

Shringla said, “We have been actively engaging the U.S. administration, Congress, the media, think tanks and so on. This is important, as we have found on several occasions that the coverage in the mainstream media has tended to project a biased viewpoint without presenting all the facts. But engagement with Congress has been the main focus and as you correctly pointed out, I was one of the few ambassadors who took the initiative to brief interested members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“They all agreed that abrogation of Article 370 was an internal matter of India but had questions on telephone and internet connectivity, medical supplies, detentions, and I addressed them giving them facts on the ground, and since the situation has been improving day by day with restoration of mobile connectivity, text messaging, restoration of broadband internet in hospitals, release of detainees, Supreme Court’s evidence-based conclusion that no minors had been detained, holding of Block Development Council elections, bumper procurement of apples, schools are open, markets are open, people are back at work, we’ve sought to constantly update them,” he added.

The briefing by Shringla was a unique initiative by an Indian ambassador in recent years, and sources told India Abroad at the time that Shringla had invited any interested members of Congress to join for the briefing.

Interestingly, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal who has recently gone on a media blitzkrieg, including in an op-ed in The Washington Post, for not being given a meeting with External Affairs Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, had also been invited to join the briefing but did not attend, the sources said. 

In that briefing, according to sources present, Shringla also dismissed some outlandish allegations including one that authorities were “piping Hindu music” in Srinagar to convert Muslims. 

However, in the interview, Shringla said, “There continues to be some questions that in the minds of some Congressmen—and I’m using the word ‘some’ because I think the vast majority of nearly 200 Congressmen I’ve personally met in my time of one year in the United States, some several times, but all of them, senators and representatives at least once — have been receptive to our briefings and updates on the situation and I’ve always tried to respond to their questions.”

And, he added, “I’ve found that almost all of them understand the compulsions under which we are operating — the compulsions of ensuring the public safety of Indian citizens against cross-border terrorism, countering increasing radicalization fueled by inimical interests, concerns that good governance and the delivery of development efforts were not reaching the grassroots levels under Article 370 and the need to create a new paradigm of peace and progress to give the people of Jammu and Kashmir something to look forward to.”

 Shringla said that after the repeal of Article 370, tangible steps had been taken by the government to ensure that the young people in the valley are being provided with employment and entrepreneurship opportunities and there is “scope for business, investments in tourism, horticulture, job creation, support for apple farmers by way of a minimum procurement price for the apple crop till the end of March, beyond the apple season.

“That means two million apple farmers and their dependents in the valley would benefit significantly,” he added.

 Thus, Shringla argued, “We are looking at a completely changed situation, one which has the fullest support of the people of India, and from what I can see, the fullest support of the Indian American community, because wherever I’ve gone and spoken about the abrogation of Article 370 and the efforts that we are making, it has received tremendous receptivity and support from the community.

“So, I think that this is an issue that most Congressmen understand — that India needs time to untie this Gordian knot of cross-border terrorism and radicalization through creating a new paradigm of good governance, socio-economic justice and economic opportunities for all. The larger strategic context also has to be kept in mind,” he added.

Consequently, Shringla said that the few U.S. lawmakers who continue to be critical of the Indian government’s actions and “are pushing on his issue, perhaps because they don’t have a full understanding of the situation or they don’t want to have that, but as I’ve said, we have fully engaged with Congress and will continue to do that.”

He said he had instructed “all my colleagues that this is the highest priority — not the other things you are doing — and whatever you have, you drop that and you go and meet people, meet Congressmen, meet staffers, but get our point of view across, so that they can take into account,” the efforts of the government of India to alleviate the situation in Kashmir.

Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Shringla: A year of living diplomatically

Shringla pays a farewell visit to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, Jan. 3.

“And, it’s not a one-off thing. You have to constantly go and update them on the situation,” Shringla said.

 When asked if from the earlier bipartisan unity among lawmakers, which was evident when he first arrived a year ago, with regard to unstinted and sustained support for India, there was now a divide between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress, with the progressive wing of the Democrats led by the likes of Jayapal — the first Indian American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives — driving the castigation of India for its actions in Kashmir and also more recently for its Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), perceived as discriminatory legislation against Muslims, the outgoing envoy reiterated, “As I said, a vast majority of Democrats are understanding of this.

“There are some like Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D- Wash.), Rashida Tlaib (D.-Mich.), and Ilhan Omar (D.-Minn.) that are pushing a certain line that seems to be rigid,” Shringla said.

“We’ve tried to engage them, we’ve tried to explain to them the situation, but despite that, the formulation they’ve come up with, as to how they would like Congress to look at it, is counter-productive, besides being factually incorrect and not reflective of the current situation.”

He argued, “If you are not open-minded, if you are not objective on this issue, there is not much anyone can do.

“But, as I said, fortunately, there are a lot of Democrats who understand that this is a complex issue — an issue that has to be looked at from the context of decades of terrorism, a loss of more than 40,000 innocent Indian lives, increasing radicalization fueled from across the border, efforts at cross-border incitement and activation of proxies, but at the same time an effort on the part of the government of India to reach out to our citizens in the valley, in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir with a new and positive intuitive.

“So, all of this needs time, and what we are saying is, ‘Look, it’s only been a few months since the initiative was taken, we have ensured the public safety of our citizens, several attempts at infiltration have been foiled, and despite attempts by terrorist and extremist groups to intimidate people, we have ensured that life has returned to normal, whatever restrictions there were have been lifted.

“Today, landline and mobile telephony, including text messaging has been completely restored. Hospitals have restored broadband internet and more than six hundred thousand people have accessed internet through free internet kiosks set up for the public.

“So, we are cognizant of the concerns and interests of our citizens and are making efforts to ensure that things are moving in the right direction, but it does need some time. The conditions wrought by seven decades of terrorism and radicalization cannot be reversed in a day.”

With regard to the international media too being unrelenting in its criticism of the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir and assailing New Delhi for not allowing foreign journalists to travel to the valley to cover the situation on the ground, and even U.S. diplomats based in New Delhi also not being permitted to travel to the region to get an on the ground assessment, Shringla said, “As of now, the entire Indian media is regularly there. The local correspondents of these publications that you referred to (The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the UK Guardian) are very much there.

“So, if you have confidence in your local correspondents, and the Indian media, then what is the difference between having foreign reporters or Indian reporters there.”

He contended that “foreign reporters may be exploited by vested interests through orchestrated incidents to grab headlines.”

 Shringla cited the instance of Mubeen Shah, saying, “There has been a lot of pressure from Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal to release Mubeen Shah. Now, Mubeen Shah is known to be an organizer of child stone pelters. If you are putting public pressure to release someone who will organize innocent children to throw stones at security forces, which will not only endanger security forces but also endanger the children themselves, then how does that help defend human rights.” 

He said Shah and several others have been released, and some of this has to be attributed to quiet diplomacy.

“The more you raise it (publicly) without being open to see all the facts, the more you make the censure of India your cause celebre without complete comprehension of the need to change the paradigm with a new initiative since the status quo had exposed us to radicalization and terrorism and was not sustainable, you shut the door on the possibility of constructive and positive engagement.”

Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Shringla: A year of living diplomatically

Shringla with President Donald Trump. 

 In this regard, he said the publicity over Jayapal informing the media that External Affairs Minister Jaishankar not meeting with members of the Foreign Affairs Committee if she (Jayapal) was also to be in that meeting, Shringla said, we had made clear that we wanted to have “a constructive engagement —that we want our minister to meet the heads of the Foreign Affairs Committees of the Senate, of the House. His engagement with Congressional Foreign Affairs Committees during the short 36-hour visit for the 2+2 Dialogue had been bi-partisan, as is the norm.

“Besides his heavy bilateral schedule of engagements, the minister met the chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)  and even in the House, he met the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific Chairs — the outgoing chairman, Brad Sherman (D.Calif.) and incoming chair Ami Bera (D-Calif.) and Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) the ranking (minority) member.”

Shringla emphasized that the embassy, himself, the officers and the consuls general have engaged with any and all members of Congress who have expressed an interest in any India-related matter. 

 Meanwhile, on the question of the controversy over the CAA, coming close on the heels of the concerns in Congress over the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, which has spawned several protests outside the embassy and across the country against this legislation, with Jayapal taking up this issue too, Shringla asked how the embassy was dealing with this new scenario, said, “This is again, a question of ensuring that the facts are put out to counter any mischievous propaganda. As your own publication has reported, we have seen more demonstrations in the U.S. in support of CAA than against.

 “The CAA, which has been adopted by parliament through a vote is one that seeks to fast track the citizenship applications of those minorities who have been in India prior to 2015  from states which are contiguous to us — which are theocratic states, Islamic states — where they have been persecuted.

“But, in no manner, has there been any implication that it will affect any community or citizen of India. It deals with non-citizens who have fled persecution and are already living in India but do not have any legal status.”

 Thus, Shringla asserted, “No citizen of India can be threatened by the CAA,” and argued that the people who are concerned, should support steps taken to help those persecuted minorities who have been in India for decades, waiting for citizenship.

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