Kashmir issue roils lawmakers and pundits as Congress prepares for a hearing

An Indian security guard on a street during a curfew in Srinagar on August 8, 2019, as widespread restrictions on movement and a telecommunications blackout remained in place after the Indian government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C.— The Kashmir imbroglio, which once again catapulted itself into the international community’s consciousness in the wake of the Indian government’s revocation of Article 370 of India’s constitution giving Kashmir special status and the consequent tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi, has continued to simmer in U.S. Congressional and Trump administration circles, with the House Foreign Affairs Committee likely to discuss the situation in Kashmir sometime this month.

Meanwhile, leading think tanks, progressive Indian-American U.S. lawmakers like Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna—strong backers of presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who recently castigated India for its actions in Kashmir calling it “unacceptable”-- also expressed concern over the situation in Kashmir and what they feared in India’s dilution of its democratic principles and secular credentials.

In the mix, were the respective lobbies on either side of the equation—for and against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stripping of Kashmir’s special status and the government’s deployment of additional security troops and communications blockade—on overdrive in appealing to their Senators and U.S. Representatives, not to mention the U.S. and the international media, to push their perspective and message across.

On Sept. 6, Rep. Brad Sherman (D.-Calif.), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific--which has jurisdiction over matters pertaining to South Asia too--after meeting with a cross-section of his Kashmiri American, Pakistani and Muslim American constituents, announced that he would soon convene a hearing on the situation on Kashmir.

Sherman said, "The hearing will focus on the humanitarian situation in Kashmir, where many political activists have been arrested and daily life, the internet and telephone communications have been interrupted,"and acknowledged that he was concerned if “people able to get food, medical care etc.”

He said, “I had an opportunity to meet with Americans from Kashmir Valley just a week ago in the San Fernando Valley, along with my colleague Congressman Andre Carson, we heard stories of difficulties encountered by my constituents and others and the fears they have for their loved ones.”

“I look forward to learning more about human rights in Kashmir,” Sherman added.

Carson (D.-Ind.) an African American, is one of three Muslim American lawmakers in the U.S. Congress—the others being Ilhan Omar(D.Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D.-Mich)—and Congressional sources told India Abroad that the Kashmiri Americans and the Pakistani and Muslim Americans working through the Council on American-Islamic Relations(CAIR)—the leading Muslim American advocacy group in the country—had also urged Carson to urge his colleague Sherman to schedule a hearing of his Subcommittee on Kashmir, besides the pressure from Sherman’s own constitutents.

But Congressional sources close to Sherman made clear to India Abroad that any hearing Sherman convenes would be to explore the situation in Kashmir with regard to the human rights situation in the Valley in the aftermath of the Indian government’s clampdown and the availability of food, medical care and the travel and communication restrictions, and not to have any discussion on the Indian government’s revocation of Article 370 and Article 35 A, which the lawmaker considered an internal affair of India.

In fact, when President Donald Trump in July, during his White House Oval Office meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, offered to mediate the Kashmir problem and made the dubious claim that Prime Minister Modi had requested him to do so—which was immediately denied by New Delhi—Sherman called Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Harsh Vardhan Shringla to apologize for Trump’s claim, which turned U.S. policy on Kashmir set in stone for decades that it was a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan on its head.

Sherman also tweeted at the time, “Everyone who knows anything about foreign policy in South Asia knows that India consistently opposes third-party mediation [regarding] Kashmir,” and added, “Everyone knows [Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi] would never suggest such a thing. Trump’s statement is amateurish and delusional. And embarrassing.”

Sherman, also, in a subsequent tweet said that he had apologized to the Indian ambassador for Trump’s remarks.

But in recent weeks, besides Sanders, about a dozen or more U.S. lawmakers, mainly Democrats, including the likes of Carson, Omar, and Indian American legislators Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington State and Ro Khanna of California have expressed concern over what they believe is the deteriorating situation in Kashmir.

Jayapal, the first Indian American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and now the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus—one of the largest caucuses in the U.S. Congress-- said she’s “deeply troubled” over the mass arrests in the valley, and called for “transparency” by the government of India in the aftermath of its revocation of Article 370 of the constitution that provided for special status for Kashmir.

In a tweet on Aug. 24, Jayapal said, “Deeply troubled by report of Indian Govt’s arrests of 2,000 in Kashmir. This on top of reported plans for large-scale government detention camps for Muslims.”

She argued that “using fear and hyper-patriotism to suppress dissent is as detrimental in India as it is in America.”

“Democracy requires transparency, due process and freedom of assembly and speech,” Jayapal argued, and added, “These are absolutely essential, even in the most complex of situations.”

Jayapal, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, also attached a New York Times article on her Twitter account that reported that the whereabouts of the people rounded up in Kashmir since Aug. 5  after the announcement by the Indian government of its decision to revoke Article 370 remained unknown.

 According to the Times report, “Kashmiri politicians, business owners, activists and scholars are among those swept up as India tightens its grip — critics say illegally — on the territory.”

On Aug. 29, Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, tweeted, “It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist & Christians.”

However, Khanna, who recently joined the Congressional Caucus on Pakistan and Pakistani Americans—becoming the first and only Indian American lawmaker thus far to join this Caucus—also has pilloried Prime Minister Khan for his heated rhetoric after India’s action on Article 370, saying during a recent interaction with members of the Indian American community in Freemont, Calif., that "Kashmir is an internal matter for India's democracy and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan needs to cool his heated rhetoric and not escalate to a war or conflict.”

"Imran Khan's rhetoric of war with India is absolutely ridiculous," Khanna said.

But according to Amar Shergill, an attorney, executive board member of the California Democratic Party(CDP) and chair of the CDP Progressive Caucus, the tweet by Khanna, a rising star in the progressive movement, who is vice-chair of the Progressive Caucus in the House, “breaks new ground for South Asians and for all in the progressive movement. He is joining progressive South Asian Americans and our allies around the world in standing against oppression. His rejection of Hindutva encourages us all to embrace the principles of fundamental human rights that bind us together as Americans.”

In an op-ed in San Jose Inside on Sept. 3, Shergill said Khanna’s tweet signaled “a political shift in the South Asian American community” and while acknowledging that it “arrived quietly” predicted that it would “have consequences for years to come. It reverberated from its origin in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party with implications for the United States, India and world geopolitics.”

Describing Khanna as someone “with a deep understanding of and connection to South Asian politics, and, yet, he stated in decisive moral terms that the dominant political ideology of India must be rejected as a matter of fundamental human rights,” Shergill wrote, and declared, “This is brave new ground for South Asian policy discourse in the US.”

Shergill wrote that “Hindutva is a fascist and supremacist movement similar to white supremacist movements in the US. It mobilizes around a virulent religious ethno-nationalism, holding that India is a homeland for only Hindus and uses violence to intimidate compliance around its economic and political policies.”

“Every organ of Indian democracy is in crisis under Hindutva and progressive movements across South Asia have been mobilizing to ask the world for solidarity as they continue to bravely resist the volatile conditions in the region. Further, Modi and the Hindutva movement have set upon a path to influence U.S. policy from within the American political system,” he alleged.

Shergill spoke of how “Khanna’s statement incited a torrent of hate and criticism from pro-Hindutva and pro-India political supporters, balanced by progressives and anti-Hindutva activists heralding his courageous stance. However, the full measure of Khanna’s words is yet to be felt.  Modi and the Indian government are certain to be dismayed by this challenge to the inroads they have made within certain sectors of the Indian community in the US.”

“In the coming months, we will see a debate within the South Asian American community and the Democratic Party regarding the morality of Hindutva and how the party can reach consensus given the political crisis in India. Khanna’s statement goes to the heart of this debate by laying bare the obvious hypocrisy of Hindutva’s American supporters,” he said.

Shergill argued, “South Asian Americans simply cannot claim to support civil rights and equality for all Americans while simultaneously advocating for religious supremacy that results in the rape, torture, murder and oppression of minorities in India,” and added, “If white supremacist hate crimes against South Asians in America are reprehensible and corrosive to society, then Hindutva supremacist hate crimes against Dalits, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians in India must also be condemned.”

On the D.C. think tank circuit, Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that in the United States, the Indian government’s decision on Article 370 and subsequent actions in Kashmir, “have attracted almost universally negative coverage: A spate of news stories and op-eds have highlighted the quashing of Kashmiri human rights, the risk of war between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, the threat to Indian federalism and democracy, and the rise of a muscular brand of Hindu nationalism hostile to Islam.”

Writing in The Atlantic on Sept. 5, Dhume predicted, “New Delhi will have a hard time selling its message outside its borders unless it changes its behavior. Bluntly put, India’s branding as the world’s largest democracy does not square with preemptively arresting up to 2,000 Kashmiris, including three former chief ministers of the state; suspending mobile-telephone networks and the internet for weeks; and locking up doctors for bringing attention to medicine shortages in the valley. Five members of the U.S. Congress, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar, have publicly called on India to lift its communications blockade. More will likely follow.”

“To an impartial observer, India’s actions smack of collective punishment. Unlike Hindu chauvinists, reasonable people distinguish between a small number of Islamic militants and ordinary Kashmiris who just happen to be Muslim. Blinding civilian protesters with pellet guns suggests cruelty, not compassion, and at least one protester has died as a result of the Indian security forces’ actions,” he said, and predicted, “The jingoistic TV channels and permanently enraged social-media trolls used so effectively by the BJP to mold public opinion at home have little influence elsewhere. Modi’s Kashmir gambit may be popular with Indians, but it’s unlikely to win over the world.”

Earlier, Jonah Blank, Senior Political Scientist and South Asia specialist at the Rand Corporation—often dubbed the Pentagon’s own think tank and partially funded by the U.S. Dept. of Defense—also writing in The Atlantic, said, “By removing a constitutionally enshrined special status for Jammu and Kashmir, Narendra Modi’s government has destabilized India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, all at once.”

Blank, a former senior Congressional staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote, “This may be the most important event in an enormously volatile part of the world since the end of the last century, with repercussions that will extend far beyond Kashmir itself. Most immediately, they will be felt throughout India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but the long-term effects could ripple much farther afield.”

“Yet the impact of this decision by Modi’s government is more likely to come not as a sudden blast of radiation, but a slow transmogrification of democracy—in India, in South Asia, and quite possibly much farther,” he said. “The key mechanism may be Modi’s removal of the rule, dating back to colonial times, barring non-Kashmiris from settling in Kashmir. Without this provision, the demographic balance of the state could shift—and with it, the idea that a vibrant democracy must take special efforts to protect the status of minority communities.”

Blank wrote that “such a move would solidify the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist agenda of redefining India not as a multireligious secular state, but as a Hindu rastra in which 200 million Muslims are tolerated only so long as they remain on good behavior.”

On Sept. 3, Ambassador Shringla, obviously in an attempt to counter the negative coverage, the Congressional concern and administration concern, and continuing discussions on what India’s actions mean for stability in the subcontinent and also India’s much admired democracy and secular principles, in a podcast said the government’s actions were “precautionary and preventative measures” to maintain peace in Kashmir and to ensure that "vested interests" from across the border don’t scuttle these efforts.

He asserted that the government revoking Articles 370 and 35 A were aimed at changing the paradigm in Jammu and Kashmir- from cross-border terrorism and radicalization to jobs, inclusive development and a hope for peace.

Shringla said the rationale for the measures taken were to "ensure that the positive steps of the government should not be scuttled due to incitement and vested interests from across the border."

He bemoaned, “Over the past few weeks we have seen a great deal of speculation, some pedaling of half-truths, untruths, factually incorrect information that disseminated in the media, primarily in the US.”

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