WASHINGTON, D.C.— Rep. Ilhan Omar (D.-Minn.), one of two Muslim American women elected to the U.S. Congress in 2018, who quickly became President Donald Trump’s bete noire and the subject of his ire in tweets and at his rallies, took on the Modi administration on Oct. 22 with a scathing attack over its actions in Kashmir and its perceived anti-Muslim citizenship requirements in Assam.
Omar, a Somali American, who is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a fierce progressive and a protégé of Rep. Pramila Jayapal, in questioning administration officials at the Congressional hearing on ‘Human Rights in South Asia,’ asserted, “Our partnership with India is strategic, but it is also based on our shared values of democracy, religious pluralism and respect of human rights.”
She said that during the tenure of Modi and the BJP government, “all of these mutual values have been threatened, and I think we have to understand that the situation in Kashmir is part of an overall Hindu nationalism project of the BJP.”
Omar asked Acting Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Alice G. Wells, one of the administration’s witnesses at the hearing, “if the United States is committed to emphasize the centrality of Kashmiri voices in determining the future of the Jammu and Kashmiri people.”
Wells, pushed back strongly on Omar’s “characterization that the U.S. and India don’t have a values based relationship with the Modi government,” and told the controversial lawmaker that the actions Modi took, "were approved in parliament, including by members of the opposition and the Supreme Court is reviewing that decision, the High Court is reviewing habeas corpus petitions. So, the institutions of Indian democracy are working.”
Wells acknowledged, “We absolutely believe that the Kashmiris voice needs to be heard and when there is a restoration of a state assembly election, that’s the way for Kashmiris to be able to register their views—also in peaceful assembly.”
“So, I think the concerns over the restrictions on movement and what we’ve seen over the last 78 days is that ability to protest peacefully has been difficulty for Kashmiris to exercise,” she said.
But Omar argued that both in Kashmir and Assam “the impunity we’ve seen in crimes against Muslims under the BJP was a warning of worse things to come,” and said “in Assam, this is a clear anti-Muslim program and you’ve seen the same reporters that the Indian government is starting to build camps in Assam presumably to hold those who are unable to prove their citizenship.”
“This is how the Rohingya genocide (in Myanmar) started,” she claimed, and reiterated, “At one point, do we no longer share values with India? Are we waiting for the Muslims in Assam to be put in those camps.”
Wells push back again, pointing out that “the appeals process is still open, the judicial process is still working in India and as a democracy, we respect other democracies abilities to self-police and self-regulate. So, this process is underway.”
“Our voices have been heard, your voices are going to be heard, and obviously there is international attention focused on this National Citizenship Registration,” she said.
However, Omar noted, “Processes of legality can take place under the justification of security and such,” and added, “The fact that there are public statements of having only Muslims prove their citizenship should be extremely alarming, and an excuse that we don’t police other democracies is not one that should be acceptable to this Committee or acceptable to the American people.”
“We have to raise our voice of concern and we do that in many situations and this should not be an exception in this situation,” she said.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D.-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, who had convened the hearing, and the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, chimed in saying, “I join with the gentle lady from Minnesota in the belief that human rights abuse does not cease to be a human rights abuse just because it is done pursuant to the law or the court rulings of the country committing the abuse.”
He argued, “It’s not whether it is legal under law, it’s whether it is consistent with international human rights.”
Omar got into it later in the afternoon, when private witnesses testified, including and Indian journalist who had been invited by the Subcommittee on the urging of the Hindu American Foundation and the Kashmiri Pandits lobby in the U.S.
The journalist, Aarti Tikoo Singh said that the Kashmiri Muslims have suffered the most from Pakistan-sponsored terrorists, and slammed Western human rights activists and the international media for ignoring this.
"The number of Kashmiri Muslims who have been killed in Kashmir is immense and they have been victimized by the Pakistani terror state. The 30 years of Islamic jihad and terror in Kashmir perpetrated by Pakistan has been completely ignored and overlooked by the world press,” she said.
Singh accused the Western press of presenting a "distorted reality of Kashmir,” arguing that "while they are rightly highlighting the instances of violations committed by the Indian security, the story is often presented without context and historical understanding and it also carries a lot of certitude and self-righteousness of a narrative that helps the perpetrators and not the human rights abuse in Kashmir.”
To lend credence to her contention, she cited the assassination of senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari, saying that “he believed in peace and dialogue between India and Pakistan. He went from city to city across the world trying to convince the powerful players that Kashmir needs peace. But on June 14, 2018, he was shot dead right outside his office in Srinagar by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the same terror outfit banned by the United States that also perpetrated the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.”
"Why did they kill him? Because Shujaat wanted Pakistan to end violence and human rights abuse in Kashmir. They killed him because he wanted peace,” Singh alleged.
She also cited the terrorism perpetrated by the other Pakistan-based group, the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), recalling that it was “the same terror group responsible for the 2002 killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Jaish, in the last two months, has been issuing posters, warning Kashmiri Muslims not to resume their normal lives."
Singh also took a hefty sweep at the hearing, obviously going by the morning’s session, where India had taken a bashing, mainly from Democratic lawmakers, describing it as "prejudiced, biased, a setup against India and in favor of Pakistan".
This set off Omar, who said accused her of making “incredibly dubious claims,” and obviously playing to an audience back home and lectured her saying, "Ms. Singh, a reporter's job is to find the objective truth about what is happening and report it to the public. You have an enormous audience at The Times of India and you have an enormous responsibility to get it right. I am aware of how the narrative shaped by reporting can distort the truth. I am also very aware of how it could be limited to sharing only the official side of the story.”
“The press is at its worst when it is a mouthpiece for a government. In your version of the story, the only problems in Kashmir are caused by what you call militants, the only people protesting to break away from India, and are all nefariously backed by Pakistan.”
Omar, continuing to slam Singh, added, “You also make the incredible dubious claim that the Indian government's crackdown in Kashmir is good for human rights. If it was good for human rights, Ms. Singh, it wouldn't be happening in secret. You make--what I might call-- a feminist case for the occupation of Kashmir and communication shutdowns, saying it will be better for women."
Singh, in her defense, shot back, "My record--my professional record-- is that I have lashed out at every single government in India on various issues, from human rights violations committed in Kashmir to the lynchings over beef. I have a record of being non-partisan throughout in my profession of the last 20 years. So, for Ms. Omar to say... such accusations against me, is really condemnable."