U.S. said to be pleased with India’s ‘incremental steps’ in Kashmir

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Alice Wells, left, with U.S. Ambassador to India Kenneth I. Juster, second from left.

WASHIINGTON, D.C. — Alice Wells, the State Department’s point person for South Asia, who recently visited the subcontinent, has said the U.S. is “pleased” over the Indian government’s “incremental steps” to restore normalcy in Kashmir, but called for the expeditious release of political detainees, including top Kashmiri leaders, held in custody without charge.

At a press conference on Jan. 24, Wells, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, also said she had brought up the issue of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) while in New Delhi, and noted that the legislation was undergoing “vigorous democratic scrutiny,” even as the Trump administration continued to urge “equal protection,” for all religious groups.

The senior U.S. diplomat who also participated in the Raisina Dialogue — a multilateral conference held annually in New Delhi, which since its inception in 2016, has emerged as India’s flagship parley on geopolitics and geo-economics—with regard to the situation in Kashmir, said, "I was pleased to see some incremental steps, including the partial return of internet service in Kashmir.”

Referring to the visit to Jammu and Kashmir by 15 foreign envoys, including the U.S. Ambassador to India Ken Juster, Wills said, “We see this as a useful step.”

The visit by these ambassadors was the first time since the abrogation of Article 370 that provided for special status on Aug. 5 that plunged the valley into a veritable lockdown leading to a humanitarian crisis and communications blockade that led to international concern, including by the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress, that these foreign diplomats had been permitted access to this only Muslim majority state to ascertain the situation on the ground.

Meanwhile, Wills also urged “the government to permit regular access by our diplomats, and to move swiftly to release those political leaders detained without charge.”

She was apparently referring to erstwhile Kashmiri chief ministers Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, who remain under detention that the chaperoned delegation of foreign envoys who were not given access to.

On the issue of the CAA, Wells reiterated that she had brought up the U.S. concern over the issue and emphasized the universal principle of equal protection under the law, in the wake of the CAA--which promises citizenship to only non-Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who came to India before 2015--being pilloried and being called discriminatory and unconstitutional by the opposition and by several local and international human and civil rights groups.

She said, "The visit also offered an opportunity to hear more regarding developments with India's Citizenship Amendment Act, which is undergoing I would say a vigorous democratic scrutiny, whether it's in the streets, by the political opposition, media, and the courts.”

“We continue to underscore the importance of the principle of equal protection under the law," Wells said.

On geopolitics, Wells said there was a clear awakening in India that seemingly was shrugging off its earlier passive foreign policy and now engaging globally in terms of advancing its own national and security interests.

“It's clear that India's broadening strategic horizons over the past two decades have resulted in a shift away from a passive foreign policy to the one that advances Indian interests more vigorously,” she said.

Wells said this was manifesting itself in tangible terms, with a clear shift visible, in the Indo-Pacific region, pointing out that “whether it's in our growing maritime and naval cooperation, the Quad, India's Act East Policy, there's virtually no daylight in our approaches to the Indo-Pacific.”

She said that Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger had made this clear during his remarks at the Raisina Dialogue, where “in endorsing an Indo-Pacific region stretching from California to Kilimanjaro only further reinforced the strategic convergence,” between the U.S. and India and other members of the Quad.

Wells said that in her discussions in New Delhi, she had also reviewed the 2 plus 2 dialogue that had taken place last month in Washington, D.C., and now to move “the diplomatic and defense gains achieved” during these talks forward.

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