On October 22, the United States House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on human rights in South Asia. While Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were also under the scanner, the committee devoted much of its energy to India, specifically the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.
Concerns about Assam’s National Register of Citizens, which excluded 1.9 million people, who now face the risk of statelessness, made an appearance in these statements. But Kashmir remained in focus.
Alice G Wells and Robert Destro, the representatives of the United States government who testified at the hearing, also submitted written statements. As in the hearing, their written statements struck a delicate balance. “The Indian government has argued that its decision on Article 370 was driven by a desire to increase economic development, reduce corruption, and uniformly apply all national laws in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in regard to women and minorities,” writes Wells. “While we support these objectives, the [US State] Department remains concerned about the situation in the Kashmir Valley, where daily life for the nearly eight million residents has been severely impacted since August 5.”
Wells encouraged the Indian government to hold local assembly elections but also criticised acts of intimidation and violence by militants: “The United States supports the rights of Kashmiris to peacefully protest, but condemns the actions of terrorists who seek to use violence and fear to undermine dialogue.”
Both Wells and Destro flagged detentions in Kashmir, especially the incarceration of political leaders. They also pointed to preventive detentions under the Public Safety Act. “We have urged the Indian government to balance its security priorities with respect for human rights,” writes Destro.
But Ravi Batra, the chair for the National Advisory Council for South Asian Affairs, who also submitted a written statement, gave unqualified approval of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move on Kashmir.
“His actions on August 5, 2019 were judicious, as they were careful. Indeed, I owe India an apology, as when she suffered her Mumbai Terror attack on November 26, 2008, when Jews and Americans were singled out for death by Pakistan-based Terrorists, I joined in arguing for “restraint.” I was wrong. Terror needs to be eradicated, so our rights and freedoms mean something.”
Three people who spoke on human rights in Kashmir also submitted their statements. They were Nitasha Kaul, Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, Aarti Tikoo Singh, senior assistant editor at The Times of India, and Angana Chatterji, co-chair of the Political Conflict, Gender and People’s Rights Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley.
There were recurring themes in all three testimonies – what human rights and dissent mean in the context of Kashmir, how the government actions of August 5 must be seen, how the current situation in the Valley must be seen, the place of Kashmiri Pandits in the conflict.
On human rights
For Kaul, the state was the main source of abuse:
“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. Even in recent years when the armed opposition to Indian occupation has been at its lowest, there have been glaring instances of rights abuses and contemptuous treatment of Kashmiris who seek justice for the abused.”
Tikoo Singh dwelt on militant violence in Kashmir, which she said was primarily sponsored by Pakistan:
“Since 1990, about a thousand Hindus and nearly 15,000 Kashmiri Muslims who disagreed with Islamist jihad and the cause of Kashmir’s secession from India, have been killed by Pakistani sponsored militants. In confronting the Pakistan sponsored militancy, the Indian army and state police have also committed grave human rights abuses. However, what the Indian state has done pales in comparison to what the foot-soldiers of the Pakistani military and ISI have done to ordinary Kashmiri Muslims in the last 30 years....
“But ironically, the perpetrator of violence in Kashmir has been projected as the victim of human rights abuse; violence and threats of violence have been presented as dissent. In none of the great democracies like the United States, or those in Europe, have terror acts especially sponsored by a rival state, been legitimised by calling it dissent.”
For Chatterjee, the excesses of the Indian state are propped up by laws that grant it impunity and the Pakistan association has been used to “pathologise dissent” and justify state excesses:
“During the armed militancy in the 1990s, local and cross-border militancy received support from Pakistan, including from the misogynist Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which reportedly ended in 2002, following pressure from the United States. However, foreign machinations are not evidenced in the massive call to local dissent by Kashmiri civil society since 2004-06, and through the summer of 2009, 2010, 2016, 2018, and following August 5, 2019, despite the lockdown, for example. By the Indian state’s own admission, incidents of armed militancy that have taken place and may reportedly be linked to foreign groups or institutions, have abated...
“Yet, Kashmiri dissent remains pathologized by institutions of state and majoritarian segments of Indian society, and are responded to with sanctions, and the normalisation of violence, reprisal and brutality…
“Human rights violations and crimes by state institutions and forces target civilians in Kashmir as a method in containment.”
On the August 5 decisions
According to Tikoo Singh, the decisions of August 5 were justified by the Constitutional principles of secularism and taken for the benefit of the people of Jammu and Kashmir:
“Now for India to accept a special status for a state only because its a Muslim majority, is in direct contradiction with its philosophy and future outlook”.
For both Kaul and Chatterjee, the lack of democratic consent delegitimised the August 5 decisions. Chatterjee demanded:
“Subjected to a near-constant state of militarised suppression for decades, as Kashmiris have been, and in active and continual dissent, as Kashmiris have been, how can the Indian State take for granted the collective consent of the Kashmiri people?”
Kaul argued that the government knew it was an undemocratic decision:
“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.”
For Kaul and Chatterjee, the actions of August 5 were those of a Hindu majoritarian state fulfilling its agenda.
“The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party 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...
“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.”
Human rights since August 5
For Tikoo Singh, the removal of “temporary provisions” only helped to “strengthen” human rights:
“The removal of these temporary articles sought to better integrate the residents of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh into the rest of India. In particular, it would provide Kashmiris with equal protection under the law and all the rights other Indian citizens enjoy, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religion, or social class.”
The first two weeks of inconvenience were necessary because of “credible intelligence reports” on terror attacks, she argued. Since then, all disruptions had been engineered by “Pakistan-backed terror groups – Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammad”. Violent agitations since August 5 were not directed against the Article 370 decision but spurred by Pakistan, according to her.
For Kaul, the August 55 decisions drained the people of Kashmir of even more rights and imposed “collective punishment” on residents of all communities:
“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.”
As channels of civil dissent are cut off, Chatterjee warned that Kashmiri anxieties could result in armed action:
“Kashmiris state that following August 5, 2019, they are afraid of their forcible incorporation into the Union of India by Hindu nationalists. Many are apprehensive that inhumane conditions, extreme brutality and the negation of human rights by institutions of state could foster an armed uprising within Kashmir.”
On Kashmiri Pandits
Chatterjee noted that “the right of return of Pandits and their reparation and healing remain imperative and urgent”.
For Tikoo Singh and Kaul, both Kashmiri Pandits themselves, it is a fraught question. For Tikoo Singh, the Kashmiri militancy, propelled by an Islamist Pakistan, was geared against their expulsion:
“According to Ambassador Haqqani, the Pakistan-sponsored insurgency sought to cleanse Kashmir of non-Muslims to make the state entirely free of minorities.”
The West’s alleged silence on Pandits was a grievance:
“Despite this history, many sections of the US political class and Western media are found censuring India while giving a free pass to Pakistan… They have never asked that if it is a struggle for Kashmiri independence, rather than a jihad against Hindus, how was it that the first step taken by Pakistan sponsored terrorists was the extermination of Kashmiri Hindus.”
The August 5 decision, according to Tikoo Singh, corrected historical wrongs:
“Finally, the removal of Articles 370 and 35A is expected to facilitate the rehabilitation and resettlement of the ethnically cleansed Kashmiri Pandit population in the Kashmir Valley.”
Kaul, for her part, saw the plight of the Pandits primarily as a failure of the state:
“[G]overnments 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….
“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)... 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…
“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.”