Trump administration denies it was given a 'heads up' on New Delhi’s move on Kashmir

Army personnel stand guard during restrictions on August 5, 2019 in Jammu, India. The government has imposed restrictions under Section 144 of the CrPC in Jammu. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Even a week after India’s revocation of Article 370 of its Constitution that provides special status to Kashmir, ripples over this controversial decision continued in the U.S., with the Trump administration denying that it was given a “heads up” about New Delhi’s intent.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, asserted that the administration was not consulted nor informed by the Indian government about its decision to scrap both Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution with regard to Kashmir. “There was no heads up given,” she said on Aug. 7.

Earlier, Acting Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, had also tweeted that India had not communicated to the administration of its decision.

Wells, who will head out to India this week, tweeted, "Contrary to press reporting, the Indian government did not consult or inform the U.S. government before moving to revoke Jammu and Kashmir's special constitutional status,” in the wake of several reports both in India and the U.S. that External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar had briefed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the Indian then pending decision on Article 370 on Jammu and Kashmir when they met in Bangkok last month.

Ortagus said Well’s trip to India was pre-scheduled, but acknowledged that current issues would necessarily figure on her agenda in New Delhi.

The spokeswoman also said that "Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan will travel to Thimphu, Bhutan, and New Delhi, August 11 through 17th to advance the United States partnership with two nations that are critical to preserving the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Ortagus said Sullivan after his visit to Bhutan, would travel to New Delhi to advance the "broad and multifaceted U.S.-India Strategic Partnership, which is based on a shared commitment to democratic values, economic growth and rule of law.”

"There, the deputy secretary will meet Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar and address the India-U.S. Forum," she said.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s contention during his conversation with visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had requested him to mediate the Kashmir imbroglio, was vehemently denied by New Delhi, Ortagus said there was absolutely no change in U.S.policy on Kashmir despite India’s decision to revoke special status for Kashmir, which she had earlier said New Delhi had made clear was “an internal affair.”

"No,” she shot back, when reporters asked her if there has been any change in U.S. policy on Kashmir that this bone of contention between India and Pakistan is a bilateral issue that has to be resolved between the two countries under the Shimla accord.

Bristling at the question, which has been prompted in the wake of Trump’s dubious claim that Modi had requested mediation and Trump’s doubling down a few days later after his meeting with Khan that he stood ready to do so if both countries wanted him to do so, Ortagus added tersely,"And if there was, I certainly wouldn't be announcing it here, but no, there's not.”

But she acknowledged that the administration continues to advocate for both countries to engage in dialogue over Kashmir, saying, "It's something that we've called for calm and restraint by all parties.”

“We want to main peace and stability, and we, of course, support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and other issues of concern," Ortagus said.

She noted that “we have a lot of engagement with India and Pakistan. Obviously, we just had Prime Minister Khan here, not just because of Kashmir. That's certainly an incredibly important issue and something that we follow closely. But we have a host of issues that we work with India on quite closely and that we work with Pakistan on quite closely.”

When reporters pressed her on Khan's allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir, Ortagus said, "I really don't want to go beyond what we've said, because it's such a tenuous issue. It's something that we're talking to them about quite closely."

"The United States, whenever it comes to any region in the world where there are tensions, asks for people to observe the rule of law, respect for human rights, respect for international norms. We ask people to maintain peace and security and direct dialogue," she added.

But Ortagus acknowledged that the administration was closely monitoring the situation and that the U.S. was aware that "there are reports, as you've mentioned, of detentions and restrictions of residents in Jammu and in Kashmir. And again, that's why we continue to monitor this very, very closely.”

On Capitol Hill, two influential U.S. lawmakers, warned Pakistan from exacerbating tensions in the region by engaging in any “retaliatory aggression” against India in the wake of New Delhi’s decision on Kashmir.

Senator Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel(D.-N.Y.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on Pakistan to take “demonstrable action,” to rein in Pakistan-based terrorist groups against any attacks that may be planned against India in the aftermath of India’s decision on Article 370.

On Aug. 7, Pakistan expelled India’s High Commissioner to Islamabad Ajay Bisaria and downgraded diplomatic ties with India over what it called New Delhi's "unilateral and illegal" move to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.

In a joint statement, Menendez and Engel said, "Pakistan must refrain from any retaliatory aggression, including support for infiltrations across the Line of Control, and take demonstrable action against the terrorist infrastructure on Pakistan's soil.”

But they also expressed concern over the detention and restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir and called on India," as the world's largest democracy,” to use this as “an opportunity to demonstrate for all its citizens the importance of protecting and promoting equal rights, including freedom of assembly, access to information, and equal protection under the law."

The lawmakers said, "Transparency and political participation are the cornerstones of representative democracies, and we hope the Indian government will abide by these principles in Jammu and Kashmir.”

In related developments, India’s Ambassador to the U.S. Harsh Vardhan Shringla, during remarks at the Heritage Foundation—a conservative D.C. think tank with close links to Republican administrations—made clear that the 
reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir is an “internal matter of India” and predicted that it would “have no impact on ties with other countries.”

Shringla said the Indian government decision on revoking Article 370 on Kashmir, doesn't affect either the international boundary or the Line of Control (LoC).

Instead, he argued that the action by New Delhi is a move aimed at good governance and to ensure socioeconomic benefits that go to the people of India are also ensured in an equal measure to the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir, particularly the disadvantaged sections of the population there.

Shringla said, "The reorganization of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories with their own council and legislature is an administrative decision. It's a decision which seeks to ensure that we provide good governance.”

"It's something that doesn't in anyway touch upon or affect the LoC, the international boundary and therefore, doesn't have any impact on our relationship with any other state," said he said.

Shringla, who was making his first public appearance just three days after the Indian government’s action, and addressing the topics of "Contemporary India: Foreign Policy, Development Strategy, and Regional Priorities for Modi 2.0,” said, "It's an internal matter of India," and that the bifurcating of the state into two Union territories—into Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, was to ensure that developmental and economic benefits go directly to the citizens of these two territories.

"We will see a great deal of change for the better. It would be greatly beneficial for the development of the state," he said.

In another development, in the aftermath of the Indian government action, the Committee to Protect Journalists—a U.S.-based media watchdog group—decried New Delhi’s total communications blackout in Kashmir, including access to the Internet.

Aliya Ifthikar, Senior Researcher of CPJ’s Asia Program, said, "A large-scale communication disruption at such a crucial time for Kashmir is an egregious violation of citizens' rights to information from a free press.”

"We call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his administration to guarantee that all communication blocks in Kashmir are lifted and that journalists are able to report freely. Communication blocks have no place in a democracy," Iftikhar said.

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