WASHINGTON, D.C.— Ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to India later this month, a bipartisan group of four influential U.S. Senators have asked the State Department for an assessment of the human rights situation in Kashmir and the rights of religious minorities in the country.
On Feb. 12, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D.-Md.), Todd Young (R.-Ind.), Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.), and Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) — one of Trump’s closest friends and supporters who chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee — fired off a missive to to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who is likely to accompany Trump on his trip to India on Feb. 24-25 — saying, “We write as longtime friends of India regarding some of the troubling actions taken by the current government.”
“More than six months after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government unilaterally revoked the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, the government continues to block most internet in the region. India has now imposed the longest-ever internet shut down by a democracy, disrupting access to medical care, business, and education for seven million people,” they wrote, and added, “Hundreds of Kashmiris remain in ‘preventive detention,’ including key political figures.”
The lawmakers informed Pompeo that “these actions have severe consequences,” and noted, “That is why, in the Fiscal Year 2020 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs appropriations report, the Congress urged the Indian government to “fully restore telecommunications and internet services; lift its lockdown and curfew; and release individuals detained pursuant to the Indian government's revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution.”
On Aug. 5, the Indian government abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution that granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir — the only Muslim-majority state--and imposed severe curbs including on movement of people as well as on mobile telephone and internet connectivity, which led to widespread international criticism.
But India categorically told the international community, including the United States, that its decision to repeal Article 370 was an internal matter and in recent weeks Indian officials have said that the communications blockade has gradually been lifted and the internet is being restored in the Valley in a phased manner after reviewing the security situation.
In recent weeks, New Delhi has also been taking foreign ambassadors, including the U.S. Ambassador to India, Ken Juster, on escorted tours of the Valley to show that normalcy is being restored and that the initial curbs are gradually being lifted.
But the lawmakers in their letter to Pompeo, complained that in addition to the situation in Kashmir, six months after the revocation of Article 370, still continues to cause suffering to the people in the Valley with the communications blockade still in effect, “the Indian government has taken other troubling steps that threaten the rights of certain religious minorities and the secular character of the state.”
“This includes the passage of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which is being challenged in India’s Supreme Court,” they said.
Therefore, Van Hollen, Young, Durbin and Graham, called on Pompeo to provide them with an assessment of “the number of individuals detained by the Indian Government for political purposes due to India’s revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution with respect to Jammu and Kashmir, including an assessment, to the extent practicable, of whether detainees endure torture or other forms of mistreatment.”
Also, New Delhi’s “restrictions on communications in Jammu and Kashmir, including access to the internet and cellular telephone services and the level of access to Jammu and Kashmir the Indian government grants to independent observers, foreign diplomats and consular agents, foreign journalists, international organizations, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations.”
The lawmakers also called on the State Department to provided them details of “restrictions on religious freedom in Jammu and Kashmir, and, the number of individuals – including the number of religious, ethnic and other minorities -- at risk of statelessness, arbitrary deprivation or denial of nationality, expulsion or arbitrary detention pursuant to the Government of India’s latest National Register of Citizens list, and any excessive use of force by Indian authorities against demonstrators opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act.”
In October, Van Hollen, who was visiting India as part of a CODEL (Congressional delegation) during the Congressional recess, complained that he was barred from visiting Kashmir.
He told reporters in New Delhi on Oct. 4 that the Indian government had denied his request to travel to Kashmir, and 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.
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 was then approved by the full Senate as part of the FY 2020 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs bill.
Earlier, in several tweets, Graham, Trump’s regular golfing partner, had also made clear his concerns over the situation in Kashmir, saying that India’s decision to change the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir “must be addressed,” before it leads to a further escalation of tensions with Pakistan.
In a series of in tweets on Graham on Aug. 7, said that he spoke to Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on the "growing crisis" in Kashmir and expressed hope that the "Trump administration would help de-escalate the current crisis."
"Just spoke with the Pakistani Foreign Minister about the growing crisis in Kashmir. India's decision to change the status quo must be addressed before it leads to a further escalation of tensions,” he tweeted.
Graham said, "Hope the Trump administration will provide assistance to both Pakistan and India to find a way to de-escalate the current crisis. The last thing the region and the world needs is further military confrontations between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.”
Graham's remarks came after Pakistan expelled the Indian High Commissioner and downgraded its diplomatic ties with New Delhi, among other steps, in response to India’s abrogation of Article 370.
Congressional sources told India Abroad that it was Graham, who has emerged as a close confidant of Trump on issues related to South Asia, who had urged Trump to invite Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan for a White House Oval Office meeting in July last year to everyone’s surprise, after Trump, immediately after being sworn in as President in Jan. 2017, had pilloried Pakistan as taking the U.S. for granted even as it pandered to terrorist targeting the U.S., and cut off American military and economic aid to Islamabad.
In fact, Graham, also participated in the summit between Trump and Khan and just after that meeting, put out a statement saying that “I appreciate President Trump allowing me to be part of the meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Khan to discuss the way forward regarding Afghanistan and the future of the United States-Pakistan relationship. President Trump is keenly aware of the benefits of a better relationship with Pakistan,” and declared, “It is now time for the United States to have a strategic relationship with Pakistan, which is best achieved by a free trade agreement tied to security performance.”
He lauded what he called the “change by the Pakistani military where they have aggressively gone after terrorist networks along the Afghan-Pakistan border. I believe that Prime Minister Khan, along with the Pakistani military leadership, is ready for change and ready for the Afghan war to end in a smart way.”