Members of the US House of Representatives conducted a hearing on “Human Rights in South Asia” on 22 October 2019, hearing voices from India, Pakistan, and Kashmir on the human rights situation. Such hearings are held to allow members of the US Congress (of both the ruling and Opposition parties) to reflect the concerns of their immigrant constituents from these regions, as well as to scrutinise US foreign policy to ensure it is in keeping with the US Constitutional values as well as international human rights standards.
At this hearing, concerns about the Modi Government’s conduct in Kashmir and in Assam, and its treatment of India’s minorities, came in for scrutiny and harsh criticism. The US Government representatives at the hearing sounded defensive, citing India’s rights as a democratic country to handle its own “internal” matters while expressing deep discomfort with India’s policies.
Liberation brings you key excerpts from the questions, interventions and testimonies.
Modi Government’s and Media’s Lies On Kashmir Exposed
AMONG those who testified on Kashmir was Aarti Tikoo Singh, a Times of India journalist known for her bigoted Islamophobic tweets. But the hearing in the US Congress was not a panel discussion on a fascist propaganda TV channel in India, where she would be allowed to shame and shout down critics.
Representative Ilhan Omar called out Singh:
“Ms Singh, a reporter’s job is to find the objective truth about what is happening and report it to the public. You have an enormous audience at The Times of India and you have an enormous responsibility to get it right. I am aware of how the narrative shaped by reporting can distort the truth. I am also very aware of how it could be limited to sharing only the official side of the story. The press is at its worst when it is a mouthpiece for a government. In your version of the story, the only problems in Kashmir are caused by what you call militants, the only people protesting to break away from India; and are all nefariously backed by Pak. You also make the incredible dubious claim that the Indian government’s crackdown in Kashmir is good for human rights. If it was good for human rights, Ms Singh, it wouldn’t be happening in secret. You make, what I might call, a feminist case for the occupation of Kashmir and communication shutdowns, saying it will be better for women.”
Congressman Brad Sherman who is the Chairman of Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific also called out the claims by Singh that foreign journalists were able to access Kashmir. He pointed out that while excellent Indian journalists working for foreign publications were filing stories from Kashmir, those publications were unable to send journalists who were not Indian citizens, to report from the Valley.
Modi Regime’s Role in Communalising Citizenship
Many Representatives raised concerns about the NRC and Citizenship Amendment Bill, especially Home Minister Amit Shah’s statements declaring that only Muslims need to worry about being stripped of citizenship.
Representative Ilhan Omar said:
“Under Modi and BJP, all of US-India mutual values (of democracy and pluralism) have been threatened. We have to understand what is happening in Kashmir as part of the overall Hindu nationalism project of the BJP. ...Is the US committed to ensuring the centrality of the voices of the people of the Jammu and Kashmir region in determining their own future?...The situation in Assam is as bad as Kashmir if not worse. In both cases we can see the impunity for crimes against Muslims under the BJP regime.
“In Assam, almost 2 million people are being asked to prove their citizenship. There have been official statements to the effect that no Buddhists, Christians, Sikh refugees/immigrants need to worry about their status – and so this is a clear anti-Muslim program.
“The Indian Government is starting to build camps presumably to hold those who are unable to prove citizenship. This is how the Rohingya genocide started. At what point do we question whether PM Modi shares our values? Are we waiting for Muslims in Assam to be put in those camps? The fact that there are public statements to the effect that only Muslims will have to prove their citizenship should be extremely alarming.”
Robert A. Destro, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour US Department of State was asked by Congressman Brad Sherman who is the chairman of subcommittee on Asia & the Pacific if the Citizenship Amendment Bill was “a serious legislative proposal or a just a crackpot idea going nowhere.” Destro replied that it was indeed “a serious legislative proposal”, but that “thankfully” it was yet to be passed by the upper house. In response to the statement by US assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells that judicial processes were still on in the NRC case, Sherman replied, “human rights abuse doesn’t cease to be human rights abuse just because it is consistent with law.”
Excerpts from Written Testimony of Dr Nitasha Kaul
(Nitasha Kaul, Associate Professor, Centre for the Study of Democracy University of Westminster, London, UK and herself a Kashmiri pandit, made a moving and masterly presentation at the hearing. Her written testimony also referenced the Kashmir Caged report authored by CPIML PB member Kavita Krishnan and three others, who were among the first to visit and report from the Valley after the lockdown. We carry excerpts of her testimony below.)
Kashmir is a long drawn international conflict that has taken huge toll on developing countries of India and Pakistan but the biggest victims have been the people of contested territory of Jammu and Kashmir whose right to self-determination as well as basic human rights have been denied for an unacceptably long time. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein wrote in June 2018, “It is a conflict that has robbed millions of their basic human rights, and continues to this day to inflict untold suffering”. There have been numerous reports produced by international organisations that have highlighted the denial of human rights. Most recently, OHCHR produced two extensive reports where it highlighted how essential norms of democracy and human rights are being flouted in both Indian and Pakistan administered Kashmir.5 India claims Jammu and Kashmir to be an integral part but continues to show a profound contempt for people of the same Kashmir and deny them basic human rights. Indian response to Kashmiri protests – peaceful or violent – has been more state violence.
What changed on 5 August 2019 in Indian-administered Kashmir – known as Jammu and Kashmir under Indian constitution – that had de jure autonomous statehood? It had both constitutionally guaranteed autonomy as well as its statehood abolished without any consultation with the people affected. In fact, this act was preceded by a complete lockdown in the state where tourists and pilgrims were warned to leave the state immediately on the pretext of security threat and the native residents left without telephone, internet, and communications. The enforced silencing of people flouted all principles of democracy – consent, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, right to live with dignity. As I have written in Foreign Policy, this continuing action of India does not reflect a democratic practice but an authoritarian colonial power.
Emptying of Democratic Political and Civil Spaces
Kashmiri political leaders of all persuasion, including three ex-Chief Ministers, have been arrested. Indian government has been evasive on the reasons behind the detention and it has given no indication of how long these arrests and detentions will last. Not only have the political organisations that seek self-determination been banned and their leaders placed under indefinite arrests in prison or house arrest, but the new stage since 5 August is the mass arrest of civilian pro-India politicians. Indian action is seen as a contempt for all residents of Kashmir. Forcing a fundamental change upon a people without any efforts to secure consent is anti- democratic.
Elections in Indian Administered Kashmir are deeply divisive with many people boycotting it since electoral participation is represented as consent of Kashmiris to being ruled by India and thus making redundant the promise of plebiscite that India and Pakistan made through United Nations Resolutions of 1947 and 1948. However, some Kashmiris do participate in elections since they believed in working within Indian system. Even those pro-India leaders are now under indefinite arrest. This illustrates that Indian government is fully aware of the erasure of autonomous statehood as being deeply unpopular and thus its action lack democratic consent. To repeat, an imposition of a landmark change in governance while keeping the entire population locked is a sign of authoritarianism and not democracy.
The ongoing siege in Kashmir involves arbitrary arrests of hundreds of members of civil society including academics, teachers, business persons. A flourishing civil society is an integral part of a democratic set up and through severe restrictions on its functioning, Indian state has deprived Kashmiris of any way of expressing themselves in a peaceful manner. Even elderly women who marked a silent protest in Srinagar, capital of Indian-Administered Kashmir, were not spared and detained.12
Human rights defenders, who were already under severe pressure, since August 5 are unable to function in Kashmir. For instance, every year on 30 August, the UN Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance, Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons led by Ms Parveena Ahangar, organises a vigil protest involving hundreds of elderly women and men whose sons had become victims of enforced disappearance at the hands of the security forces and have had no justice due to prevalence of impunity through emergency powers in place in Kashmir since 1990. This year, even the peaceful gathering of elderly parents mourning and waiting for their disappeared sons was not allowed. As Parveena writes “This year we have been strangled, and there was no coming together because through its siege, India has denied us even the right to mourn.”
While much of Indian media has been acting in an embedded manner merely regurgitating the state narratives without critical questioning about their legitimacy or justification, some members of Indian civil society and independent fact finding missions have reported about everyday life in Kashmir and suffering of the common people since the siege began.
What makes democracies different is that the people are seen as rights-bearing individuals and the actions of Indian state have accelerated the process through which every Kashmiri is subjected to an arbitrary exercise of power and their welfare is made dependent upon the whims of the officials. Even the courts that are meant to be defenders of rights are barely functioning. Rather than reassurance from Indian diplomats that they can help individual Kashmiris living overseas get in touch with their family, what is required is a lifting of the siege; the former is a sign of arbitrariness of power with no accountability.
While the Indian government rejects any criticism of its conduct as interference in its internal affairs, portrays all opposition in Kashmir as a proxy war of Pakistan, and reassures the international community that its actions are meant for the betterment of life of all people of Kashmir, in practice, its actions have meant collective punishment for all residents. The Muslim majority as well as the Hindu and Sikh minorities living in the valley are subjected to severe restrictions, arbitrary exercise of power and an uncertain future. As UN Human Rights experts pointed out, this is collective punishment.
Democracy requires a credible environment for anyone to dissent peacefully and without fear. Under the current set up, with leaders and activists of political parties, civil society organisations and human rights bodies all facing restrictions, and ordinary people facing surveillance, arbitrary detentions and clampdown on rights to communicate, there is no space to dissent peacefully and without fear.
After a total clampdown on the phone and internet services, the government has only allowed landline connections and now mobile services after weeks of delay and that too under international pressure including possibly from the American leaders. However, to see these severely partial restorations as return to “normalcy” is unfair. Majority of people in Kashmir rely on pre-paid mobiles and thus continue not to have access to telephone or internet. Even the post-paid mobile connections that have only been allowed in the last one week with the proviso that this limited service will be withdrawn any time government feels it poses a challenge to security, does not allow internet. Thus, Kashmir (especially the valley) has become a place that is devoid of internet.
Internet is not a luxury in today’s world. It is essential to survive in a modern society. Without access to internet, millions of Kashmiris have been deprived of means to access information and be active citizens of the world. Different aspects of life – business deals, online banking, applying to educational institutions, taking examinations, accessing medical help and so on – have come to a grinding halt.
Indian government has made the case that removal of autonomy will make investment easier. Given the volatility of security situation, which foreign investors would take the risk? Even Indian private investment is unlikely unless there is an assured heavy return. Kashmir has a fragile ecosystem and with the removal of autonomous statehood, the risk is that decisions will be made centrally by those with no understanding or care for the sustainability of development in Kashmir. Justification of denial of freedom through the promise of development is not only anti-democratic but outrightly colonial.
While media freedom in India is better than in countries such as China or North Korea, for a democratic country, its deteriorating situation is a cause for serious concern.31 When it comes to reporting on Kashmir, there is a big disconnect between how international newspapers including New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, The Telegraph and others report and how Indian channels and some newspapers report. While the former highlight different aspects of life, the latter often come across as state propaganda.
The Wider Question for India and the World
What explains the drastic and unilateral action by Narendra Modi led government? What is the significance of it for those beyond Kashmir? The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has had in its manifesto the pledge to remove autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir enshrined in Article 370 because it saw it as a special guarantee to a Muslim majority state. BJP is avowedly Hindu nationalist and its leaders and activists have repeated their resolve to convert India into a Hindu nation where Hindu supremacism will reign. While Indian government pays respect to Mahatma Gandhi when in the West, the ruling party has senior politicians who celebrate the murder of Gandhi and valorise the assassin Nathuram Godse. A BJP Member of Parliament asserted there won’t be a need for elections in the future because Narendra Modi would be seen as an unchallengeable nationalist leader.
Muslim and Christian minorities are seen as enemies and obstacles in the agenda. Various rights organisations, scholars and news commentators have highlighted the spike in everyday discriminations, prejudices and violence that religious minorities have to endure. The primary focus is on demonising and marginalising the largest religious minority – Muslims. Several Muslims have been lynched and instead of calling for the punishing of the culprits, members of the ruling party have justified the acts and sometimes valorised the culprits. As India imposes the world’s largest exercise to identify citizens through National Register for Citizens in state of Assam, millions have been rendered potentially stateless, many Muslims. This statelessness is bureaucratically enabled and on a scale bigger than what afflicted Rohingyas in Myanmar. India’s Home Minister has publicly announced that the government will ensure that every person who cannot prove citizenship will get rights to stay in India unless they are Muslim.
Given the size of the population of India, the question of minority rights should be a priority not only for Indians but the international community. Without greater democratisation within India and pressure from international community, the prospect of India turning into a Hindu nation is real.
While political actors may benefit from these anti-democratic actions in Kashmir and celebrate a resurgent militarism, I have noted during my visits to Kashmir that sometimes ordinary soldiers stationed there have a better understanding of the possible solution than the political class. While patrolling a hostile population, they would express their view that Kashmir needs a political and not a military solution. The governing party is using Kashmir issue to silence all opposition as anti-national and pro-Pakistan. This chauvinist attitude is a dangerous trend in a democracy. It encourages the celebration of violence and the heroization of the perpetrators of violence against Kashmiri Muslims.
In fact, even the cost for Indian citizens to speak out against the government’s actions in general and on Kashmir in particular is being made high. For Hindu chauvinists in power, Kashmiri Muslims are perfect enemies – they are stereotyped as dangerous, fanatic seditious, separatist, and terrorist - and thus fair game for violent crackdowns. Even as the fig leaf of democratic deliberation is dispensed with in the case of this momentous de jure transformation in Kashmir and a majoritarian consensus manufactured in the name of nationalism, the checks and balances that protect democracy in India risk getting diluted or being made obsolete through means including the transformation from within of public institutions and constitutional bodies.
What about Kashmiri Pandits?
While the struggles for self-determination and self-representation in different parts of Indian and Pakistan administered Kashmir are long, one specific characteristic of Kashmir valley was the relative absence of Hindu-Muslim hate politics until the late eighties. Kashmiri Pandits/Hindus as well as Sikhs lived along with Kashmiri Muslims in villages and towns. During the beginning of armed uprising against Indian state, following on from the widely reported electoral riggings in 1987, the mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits occurred. With immense violence of state and non-state actors all around, the exodus of a religious minority took place.
Indian state which has claimed sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir singularly failed to protect the minorities while suppressing the majority. Further, governments have converted the suffering emerging out of dislocation into a tool to be used for collective punishment of all Kashmiri Muslims. Rather than investigate the cases of killings of religious minorities or make real efforts to facilitate their return to their original homes, India has adopted the approach of divide and rule. As Amnesty International reported, “A Jammu and Kashmir Police report in 2008 stated that 209 Kashmiri Pandits had been killed in the state since 1989, but that charges had been filed in only 24 cases. Several cases in which Kashmiri Pandits were killed by suspected armed group members – such as the killing of 24 Kashmiri Pandits in 2003 in Nadimarg, Shopian – have not led to convictions.”. Supreme Court of India rejected re-opening of investigation of deaths on the grounds that “...more than 27 years have passed... No fruitful purpose would emerge, as evidence is unlikely to be available at this late juncture.”
How does one make sense of this when looked at along side and not as competing with the overall number of Kashmiris (mostly, but not exclusively, Muslim) killed (figures range from 50,000-more than 70,000) including in documented cases of massacres such in in Gawkadal, Handwara, Chattisinghpora, Sopore, and Doda; forcibly disappeared (figures range from 6000-10,000); women rendered half- widows; many raped (including the mass rape in the villages of Kunan-Poshpora in 1991); many more tortured; children and young adults detained without trial. All Kashmiris have suffered immensely – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, men, women, sexual minorities – and it is irresponsible on the part of the State to exploit and exacerbate the divides and encourage the discourses of competing victimhoods. Most cases of human rights abuses never lead to prosecution as violence and discrimination are systemic. In fact, there are well publicised cases where the perpetrators of human rights abuses have been awarded and publicly feted.
What we witness is a clear instance of failure by the state, compounded by an insistent refusal to face up to its ignominious action, something that would be necessary to provide justice and redress to all Kashmiris, by first of all acknowledging their humanity and their suffering. It is far easier to continue extracting political profit by propagating ‘what about Kashmiri Pundits?’ in response to every brutalisation of other Kashmiris, especially Muslims.
What different communities in Kashmir need is reconciliation, justice and moving ahead as equals. India has shown no interest in this.49 In fact, this unilateral move of Indian government widely perceived as utter debasement and humiliation of Kashmiri Muslims, risks making permanent and irreconcilable the divisions along identity lines. It puts an end to the possibility of moving on without grievance.
As a matter of urgency, the Subcommittee should urge the Indian Government to:
- End all elements of siege in Kashmir valley and fully restore mobile telephony and internet
- Release all political and civil society detainees immediately
- Put an end to use of pellet shotguns for crowd control
- Work with all stakeholders to ensure safety and security and functioning of schools and educational institutions
- Restore democratic rights for all including the freedom of speech and assembly
- Allow Kashmiri as well as foreign media to travel and report freely and without intimidation
- Commit to providing safe environment to human rights defenders and organisations to conduct their work without fear
In the medium term, the Subcommittee should:
- Urge India to withdraw its draconian emergency laws such as Armed Forces Special Powers Act and Public Safety Act that provide impunity to security forces
- Urge India to fast track investigation of all the allegations of human rights abuses including enforced disappearance, sexual violence, torture, and extra judicial killing and punish the perpetrators
- Urge India to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate killings of Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs and Muslims
- Call upon both India and Pakistan to end to the use of torture, extra-judicial killing, arbitrary detentions including of political activists and juveniles
- Ask the State Department to take up the cases of human rights abuses in both India and Pakistan Administered Kashmir on a regular basis.
- Send delegation of political leaders and facilitate trips of fact finding missions to Indian and Pakistan administered Kashmir to meet different sections of society.
- Demand India and Pakistan to fully cooperate with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and implement all recommendations made in its two recent reports on Indian administered Kashmir and Pakistan administered Kashmir
In the long term, the Subcommittee should:
- Call for demilitarisation of Indian administered Kashmir and Pakistan administered Kashmir
- Encourage credible dialogues amongst Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris.
- Ensure the respect for freedom and the right to self-determination of all people of Jammu and Kashmir
- Most importantly, the international community must create the space for a credible and sustained dialogue in which Kashmiris from the different regions in order to arrive at a mutually acceptable resolution of the toxic status quo for all inhabitants of the region.
While as a scholar of International Relations, one should be concerned about the significance of Kashmir conflict for two nuclear powered countries India and Pakistan, it is important for the purpose of a hearing on human rights to focus on the people who matter most in this instance– the Kashmiris. Neither Pakistan nor India have a stellar record when it comes to protecting minority rights and religious freedom; security forces in both the countries have been accused of practicing torture, extra judicial killings, enforced disappearance and abusing human rights.
Given that even the status quo of India-Pakistan-Kashmir stalemate has been shattered by the unilateral action of India, huge uncertainties loom and it is important for the international community to intervene both for the sake of peace in the region and to avoid humanitarian disaster involving Kashmiris. While Trump-Khan-Modi type of diplomacy may sound promising, unless a range of different stakeholders of Indian and Pakistan administered Kashmir are involved as serious partners, no durable and humane solution is possible.
To be clear, arbitrary arrests, shrinking of space for peaceful expression of views, and restrictions on freedom of assembly and other democratic rights have long been a feature of life in Kashmir. What is new is the acute and extreme nature of the restrictions, the contempt for all democratic norms, and putting an end to all possibility for dialogue with Kashmiris who seek justice, dignity, freedom, and self- determination. Given there is no longer any space for peaceful expression of dissent anywhere in Kashmir, what are the Kashmiris being pushed toward? While selling its actions in Kashmir as aimed for development, Indian state has flouted every single principle of democracy.
To quote a great fellow countryman of yours, Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. What happens, or is condoned, in Kashmir has both regional and global ramifications, and it is thus vital that we take sincere steps forward, right now, to act in good conscience, to act for the defense of the ideals of human rights, substantive democracy, and freedom.
NRC Flawed In Vision Not Just In Execution
The Indian Express editorial of 22 October 2019 commented on the scapegoating of bureaucrat Prateek Hajela who oversaw the NRC exercise in Assam, by the BJP Government in State and Centre, and the Supreme Court’s nod for Hajela’s transfer out of Assam:
“This turn of events only reconfirms the view that the NRC has been a flawed exercise from the beginning. But the flaw lies not in its execution, but in the absurd idea that the state could walk back in time and identify “foreigners” from a population of nearly 3.5 crore. ...
“... Given the complexity of the problem, no bureaucracy could have delivered a fool-proof or a universally acceptable NRC. The vision behind the NRC rejects the reality that societies are a product of migrations, triggered by political, geographical and economic reasons. Politicians who fan fears around the spectre of migrant populations subsuming indigenous cultures, and claim that there are bureaucratic solutions to reverse migration, are being blind to historical processes.”