US Congress resolution on J&K clampdown may put India in a corner

US Congress resolution on J&K clampdown may put India in a corner

A resolution introduced in the US Congress last week has urged India to swiftly end the communications clampdown, in place since August, in Jammu and Kashmir besides seeking the release political detainees in the region.

The resolution, introduced on Friday in the House of Representatives by Indian-American Democrat Pramila Jayapal who represents Washington’s 7th district in the US Congress, has bipartisan support – Republican Congressman Steve Watkins from Kansas is a co-sponsor. According to a PTI report on Sunday from Washington, the resolution will not be put to vote in the Senate and does not have the force of law.

The development coincides with reports that India has hired a new lobbying firm, the Washington-based Cornerstone Government Affairs, to better communicate its views and expand outreach with Democrats in Capitol Hill.

Traditionally, Democrats have been seen as more vocal on issues like human rights and nuclear non proliferation vis a vis India in the past, though since the early years of the 21st century, human rights issues have rarely figured as a major talking point in India-US dialogues.

“I have fought to strengthen the special U.S.-India relationship, which is why I’m deeply concerned. Detaining people w/out charge, severely limiting communications, & blocking neutral third-parties from visiting the region is harmful to our close, critical bilateral relationship," the India-born Jayapal said in a series of Twitter posts overnight Sunday.

“The Indian government must quickly lift restrictions on cell phones and internet access, release arbitrarily detained people, protect free speech and peaceful protest, and condemn all religiously motivated violence at the highest levels across India," she said. “I hope to work with the Indian government and my colleagues in Congress to strengthen the U.S.-India partnership, while protecting the human rights of the Kashmiri people," she added.

Analysts say the fact that it was an Indian-American who has introduced this legislation was likely to attract attention in the US and outside. “We should be worried as the resolution will affect India’s image given that is an Indian origin American legislator who has brought this resolution" and hence lends a certain credibility to it, said former foreign secretary and ex-ambassador to the US, Lalit Mansingh.

The text of the resolution states that it “recognizes the dire security challenges faced by the Government and India in Jammu and Kashmir and the continuing threat of state-supported cross-border terrorism." It also notes that the 14 February attack in Kashmir, that caused tensions between India and Pakistan to spiral, was carried out by an Indian national, who was a member of “Pakistan-based, United States-designated foreign terrorist organization."

But the resolution also states that house “rejects arbitrary detention, use of excessive force against civilians, and suppression of peaceful expression of dissent as proportional responses to security challenges." It also urges New Delhi to note the need to respect human rights and international humanitarian law in actions taken “in pursuit of legitimate security priorities." The resolution also proposes six steps New Delhi should take that range from lifting restrictions on communication, restoration of internet access, releasing all “arbitrarily detained people" to allowing international human rights observers and journalists access Jammu and Kashmir.

Mansingh said he was doubtful if Jayapal’s resolution would be carried in the House of Representatives given the bipartisan support for better ties between India and the US. “Still it is damaging for India’s image," he said recalling that since the year 2000, there had been a “new approach towards India as strategic partner which drowned any voices expressing concerns on any concerns expressed vis a vis human rights or religious freedom. “Now, there is a global debate on rightwing authoritative regimes in the world," which seems to caught India too in its wake, Mansingh said.

The resolution comes ahead of two key Indian ministers – Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh – visiting the US for the “2+2" dialogue on 18 December.

During a visit to Washington in September, Jaishankar had visited major think-tanks in Washington and New York to explain why India had revoked article 370 of the Indian constitution that gave special status to Kashmir and put restrictions on communications. Days after Jaishankar’s visit, a sub committee of the Appropriations Committee of the US Senate had referred to the “humanitarian crisis in Kashmir" in its report accompanying a key legislation on annual funding for the US State Department. It had called for India to remove the communication blockade, security restrictions and release of political detainees. This was followed by a high-profile Congressional committee hearing on 23 October and yet another by the US Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission – both of which examined the situation in Kashmir. On its part, the US Administration had seemed to try walking a tight rope on the matter. In her testimony on 23 October US acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells said Washington welcomed New Delhi’s attempts to improve the situation and “address local grievances” in Kashmir while being concerned about the detention of local political leaders and activists and the internet blackout.

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