WASHINGTON, D.C.—Nearly two months after he expressed concern over the situation in Kashmir in a tweet, influential U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D.-Va.), who is the co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, has said he continues to remain concerned over the humanitarian crisis and communications blockade in the valley, and vowed to continue monitoring the situation closely.
In an exclusive interview with India Abroad, Warner, the ranking Democrat of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and vice-chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said he was still concerned about Kashmir “and I am going to be following the progress closely and we are going to continue to monitor.”
He said that he, along with Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tx.), the GOP co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, had “met with the Indian Ambassador (to the U.S., Harsh Vardhan Shringla) and there were many things on the Indian side of the story that had not been fully reported.”
Warner said that these included “jobs being now opened that had been in the civil service, the ability to pass property down to women, the opportunity to expand economic opportunity to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, and my feeling was that the number of detainees were now in a few hundreds, and I hope that those who are proven not to have committed crimes will be processed soon and be released.”
“But I do worry about the ongoing restrictions on the Internet and that the blockade still continues, and I do hope that all of these concerns can be met,” he added.
On Oct. 8, Warner tweeted, "While I understand India has legitimate security concerns, I am disturbed by its restrictions on communications and movement within Jammu and Kashmir,” and expressed the hope that “India will live up to its democratic principles by allowing freedom of press, information, and political participation.”
In the interview, Warner acknowledged that he was fully cognizant of the Congressional hearing on Oct. 22 convened by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia titled “Human Rights in South Asia,” where India was raked over the coals and pilloried for human rights violations against minorities, where the focus was largely on the current humanitarian situation in Kashmir.
Warner said that the Kashmir problem “has been a problem that has been festering since partition and clearly it’s been … and I know it’s been very popular in India domestically (the Modi government’s decision Aug. 5 to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian Constitution providing special status to Kashmir), but I do think, India now is an international power and has to view how its policy is going to be viewed around the world, when it talks these actions in a democracy.”
“And, so, this is why I told the Ambassador (Shringla) in our discussion that I hope to see more progress and I am going to monitor the situation,” he said.
Warner acknowledged that all of the concerns of Kashmiri Americans with family in the valley brought to the attention of U.S. lawmakers “are valid.” But he also noted that “there is an Indian (government) side of this issue that has not been reported as much in the popular press in America.”
Thus, he said, “The status quo in Kashmir, I am not sure was going to be the right, sustainable choice for the Kashmiris as well.”
However, Warner opined, “I do wish this (revoking of the status of Kashmir and its bifurcation into two Union territories) would not have moved so abruptly, but I am going to be following the progress closely and we are going to continue to monitor the situation.”
The senior lawmaker also lamented that his colleague Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D.-Md.) who was visiting India as part of a CODEL (Congressional delegation) during the Congressional recess in October had been barred from visiting Kashmir.
Van Hollen 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.
“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.
Warner disclosed during the interview that “one of the things that the Ambassador (Shringla) said was that he would welcome parliamentary delegations and I think that’s an interesting idea.”
“I know there was one delegation that came from Europe, but it appeared to be—what I read about it—from the far-right parties and so, it does not add to the credibility,” he said. “But my hope is that a Congressional delegation or other appropriate visitors, I think would help more the Indian government to move forward.”
Asked if he, in his capacity as a senior and respected leader in the Senate and also as the co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, would be willing to lead such a delegation, Warner said, “It’s hard to make a determination right now, when you may have impeachment (of President Trump) in front of us. And, I’ve got a re-election campaign (in 2020).”
“But, I need to go back to India, and I hope soon, but I also have a number of duties here,” he said, and reiterated that that the likes of Sen. Van Hollen and others, including U.S. embassy officials in New Delhi would be permitted to visit the valley to get a on-the-ground status situation for themselves.
Warner said, “I wish there is an Indian side of the story and I think the more that they can allow Congressional visitation and (U.S.) embassy officials (to visit the valley) that would be helpful.”
Meanwhile, asked for his assessment of U.S.-India relations with the second coming of Prime Minister Modi and in the Trump era, the lawmaker said, “They are generally good, but there are always going to be disagreements when you have two countries the size of India and the United States.”
“They are never going to be perfect, and so, there are always room for improvement,” he said, but reiterated, “I believe generally relations are good.”
Warner said, “There seems to be a personal bond between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump, with the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ and everything else, though of course, that was done by the Indian American community and Trump decided to come when he realized the rally was going to be huge,” and was going to attract more people than had ever attended one of his rallies.
But when pressed as to how a transactional president like Trump, for all his regular declarations that Modi was his dear friend had no compunctions to take hefty swipes and digs at Modi and India over trade issues, particularly vis-à-vis high tariffs he constantly accuses New Delhi of imposing on American exports, Warner said, “I think there is really an opportunity to try to do stronger joint defense cooperation and so on, but that needs to do with the off-sets issue.”
He said, “The India defense industry continues to grow, but you need to have some flexibility here. And, on tariffs, I believe that if we’d have every done TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), and ultimately included India in TPP, that would have been a better long-term relationship.”
Warner acknowledged that “actually if closer trade relations with India improves it necessarily helps both countries, and now India has continued to do better on FDI (foreign direct investment) in terms of retail and insurance sector. But, both countries need to open up (their markets) more.”
But returning to the issue of a deeper U.S.-India defense strategy as an emerging China, not just economically but militarily, poses a challenge to U.S. and Indian interests and security, he said that “India also has to do something.”
Warner said, “Even though the natural alignment of pure Indian interests and the American interests, for India and America have to be more closely aligned, India has to decide how much closer they want to formally on a defense basis with the United States,” and reiterated that “one of the challenges for a long time has been with the Indian government’s offsets.”
“There is going to be certain areas where you can’t get the Indian defense industry to move fast enough, and so, I’ve always said, I have no problem with off-sets if it’s a $10, $50 or $100 billion deal and we can do X percent as off-sets in the defense industry and other things where we can collaborate on—workforce training, other tools, infrastructure.”
But he asserted that “we do have to deal with these off-sets issue so that we can actually encourage more collaboration, and on some of the things we still place restrictions on and technology transfer is part of this and then with our Indian friends to be able to forge a closer alliance.”