‘Humanitarian Crisis’ in Kashmir continues to rile the U.S. Congress

The U.S. Congress has continued to up the ante over the situation in Kashmir, particularly over the “humanitarian crisis” and the communications blockade” imposed by the government of India, with a powerful Congressional committee urging India to withdraw the stringent measures that are adversely impacting the lives of the people in the state.

On Oct. 7, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that is chaired by Rep. Eliot Engel (D.-N.Y.) and also includes among its senior members Reps. Ami Bera (D.-Calif.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D.-Hawaii), sending out a tweet saying that “India''s communication blackout in Kashmir is having a devastating impact on the lives and welfare of everyday Kashmiris.”

Thus, it argued, “It’s time for India to lift these restrictions and afford Kashmiris the same rights and privileges as any other Indian citizen.”

The restrictions were imposed in the wake of the government’s decision on Aug. 5 to repeal Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that provides for special status for Kashmir and bifurcating the only Muslim-majority state into two Union Territories—Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

The Foreign Affairs Committee’s tweet, comes close of the heels of the announcement by U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, announcing that he would convene a hearing on “Human Rights in South Asia,” on Oct. 22.

Sherman, who is also the Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, also said in a statement on Sept.30 that the lead witness who will testify at the hearing would be “Assistant Secretary Alice Wells, who oversees all State Department policy towards South Asia,” and would also include “Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Scott Busby, who overseas human rights efforts is South Asia.”

“We have invited other State Department officials and we also expect to hear from private human rights activists on the issues,” he added, and noted that “the  hearing will focus on the Kashmir Valley, where many political activists have been arrested and daily life, the internet, and telephone communications have been interrupted.”

Sherman said, “The hearing will also review the humanitarian situation in Kashmir and whether Kashmiris have adequate supplies of food, medicine, and other essentials.”

Earlier in September, over a dozen U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D.-Wash.) had put out a statement, urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address concerns over the human rights situation in Kashmir and calling on him to lift the communications blackout.

Meanwhile, influential U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D.-Va.), who is the co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, said on Oct. 8, also expressed concern over the situation in Kashmir, saying he is "disturbed by restrictions” caused by the communications blockade and the restrictions on the movement of people in the Valley and called on the Indian government to live up to its professed democratic principles, including the freedom of press, information and political participation.

In a tweet, Warner, who is the ranking Democrat of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and is also the vice-chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, tweeted, "While I understand India has legitimate security concerns, I am disturbed by its restrictions on communications and movement within Jammu and Kashmir.”

"I hope India will live up to its democratic principles by allowing freedom of press, information, and political participation,” he said.

In another Kashmir-related development, another influential Democratic U.S. Senator, who was visiting India as part of a CODEL (Congressional delegation) during the Congressional recess, complained that he was barred from visiting Kashmir.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D.-Md.), told reporters in New Delhi on Oct. 4 that the Indian government had denied his request to travel to Kashmir.

He said the U.S. Congress, including both the Senate and the House, was “closely monitoring the humanitarian situation” in Kashmir, and was concerned over the continuing communication blockade, something which he had wanted to see for himself, but had been denied permission to do so by New Delhi.

“If the Indian government has nothing to hide, they should not worry about people visiting Kashmir and witnessing the situation with their own eyes,” Van Hollen told The Washington Post in an interview on Oct. 4 in New Delhi.

He said, “As the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States talk a lot about our shared values, (but)I think this is a moment where transparency is important.”

In Sept. Van Hollen proposed an amendment to an appropriations bill that referred explicitly to the restrictions implemented by India, and while encouraging “enhanced engagement with India on issues of mutual interest,” the amendment also noted “with concern the current humanitarian crisis in Kashmir” and called on the Indian government to restore communications and release detainees.

The amendment adopted unanimously by the Senate Appropriations Committee is likely to receive a full vote in the Senate when Congress reconvenes after its recess.

The Post said that spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs had not responded to a request for comment on the amendment, while a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Home Affairs had not responded to a query about Van Hollen’s inability to visit Kashmir.

Van Hollen said, “There’s a lot going on in Washington, but I believe concern is rising about the situation in Kashmir,” and that his conversations during his two-day visit to India “have only heightened” such concerns.

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