15/11/2019 1:55 PM IST | Updated 15/11/2019 2:37 PM IST

Kashmir: U.S. Lawmakers Highlight Internet Blackout, Mass Arrests

U.S. lawmakers discussed human rights in Kashmir for the second time since the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August.

Danish Ismail / Reuters
Kashmiri journalists display laptops and placards during a protest demanding restoration of internet service, in Srinagar, November 12, 2019.

NEW DELHI — The internet blackout and mass arrests of Kashmiris, including children, emerged as points of concern in the second hearing held by U.S. lawmakers on Jammu and Kashmir since the Narendra Modi government abrogated the former state’s special constitutional status on 5 August. 

Other issues discussed included Hindu nationalism, in the context of the lynching of Muslims since the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, how the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being implemented in Assam, and the palpable increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric in India.

In the three months since its shock decision to abrogate Article 370, the Modi government has attempted to court support from the international community, most recently by organising a controversial visit by a delegation of predominantly far-right European MPs to Kashmir. 

The US lawmakers, who had convened the meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C on Thursday, are members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bi-partisan body. The speakers included James P. McGovern, a Congressman from Massachusetts, Sheila Jackson Lee, a Congresswoman from Texas, Christopher H. Smith, a Congressman from New Jersey, and Pramila Jayapal, a Congresswoman from Washington, who is also the first Indian American woman in the U.S. House of Congress. 

The panelists included three Kashmiris living in America — Sehla Ashai, a human rights lawyer; Yousra Fazili, a human rights lawyer and the cousin of Mubeen Khan, a businessman who is detained at the Agra Central Jail; and Sunanda Vashisht, a Kashmiri Hindu and a political commentator. The non-Kashmiris included Arjun Sethi, a human rights lawyer based in Washington D.C., Haley Duschinski, a law professor from Ohio University, and John Sifton, who specialises in Asia advocacy for Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

The US lawmakers said they had constituents who were “worried” about their relatives in Kashmir. 

“We are here because we are genuinely concerned about the human rights situation in J&K. We have constituents, who are our friends, people we care deeply about, who have relatives, who they can’t get a hold of and are deeply concerned about their health and wellbeing,” said McGovern, who chaired the panel discussion. 

While internet is still unavailable in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, postpaid mobile phones were made operational on 14 October.  All mobile phones are functioning in the Jammu Division and Ladakh, where there is also broadband internet. 

The testimonies

HRW’s Sifton disagreed with panelists who had previously claimed that very little information was coming out of Kashmir. Reports from Kashmir, he said, are why the public knows that thousands were detained without due process in August, there is no internet in Kashmir, and the mobile phones which have been restored do not carry data.

“As a result of all that people cannot do a lot of things. Business people cannot send orders or invoices or money if they need a web-based app to do that. Doctors cannot send an x-ray as an attachment to an email because they cannot send an email,” said Sifton. 

This, he pointed out, is having an “extraordinary effect” on not just freedom of speech, but also the freedom of health, work and education.

He added that while there is a “legitimate security concern” about militant groups backed by Pakistan operating in Kashmir and carrying out attacks, this does not absolve the Indian government holding to account security forces responsible for human rights violations. 

“India has absolved itself of blame by blaming everything on Pakistan and militants supported by them,” he said. “Until the Indian government acknowledges and addresses how their own abuses have fuelled this situation, all these problems are going to endure.”

India has absolved itself of blame by blaming everything on Pakistan and militants supported by them.

While there was a lot of impassioned testimony from the Kashmiri panelists, the US lawmakers doubled down on two immediate concerns: restoring the internet and allowing international journalists and United Nations observers into the Kashmir Valley. 

A major concern for the Indian government is whether lifting the ban on the internet could facilitate mobilisation of people who are unhappy with the abrogation of J&K’s special constitutional status and the manner in which it was done, potentially leading to widespread violence and killings. 

Human rights activists say that shutting the internet for lengthy periods of time — now more than 100 days in Kashmir — is disproportionate, even in the face of legitimate concerns about law and order. 

Speaking to HuffPost India in August, David Kaye, U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Speech and Opinion, said , “It’s clear that the government has a legitimate interest in public order and public safety. My only point is that shutting down the internet is disproportionate to that end. It ends up interfering much more than is necessary in order to prevent violence.” 

Sifton said, “A government cannot derogate from the freedom of expression and assembly so broadly and open-endedly and for so long. It is simply indefensible under international human rights law.”

A government cannot derogate from the freedom of expression and assembly so broadly and open-endedly and for so long.

On the issue of detentions, Sifton said, “It is a standard principle of human rights law that you cannot detain someone without due process except war time, which is not applicable here. International humanitarian law does not apply to the ordinary situations in J&K. And even if they did, there are rules about that too. You cannot just detain so many people without bringing them to court and explaining the legal justifications for their detention .”

Ashai, the Kashmiri lawyer, said that while the issue of preventive detention had escalated since 5 August, the problem had been systemic to the  cycle of human rights violations in Kashmir for decades. 

Last month, HuffPost India reported that hundreds of Habeas Corpus petitions in the J&K High Court were filed by anxious and frustrated relatives, some of whom do not know the whereabouts of their detained family members, but no relief was coming their way. 

Even while Indian journalists have been reporting on Kashmir for national and international publications since August, including freelancers, the US lawmakers and panelists insisted that it was important to allow “international journalists” to report in Kashmir. 

McGovern, who hosted the meeting, said there wasn’t “unanimity on all the basic facts”.

Lee said, “Why not allow members of the U.S. Congress to visit both parts of Jammu and Kashmir.”

Vashisth, the Kashmiri Hindu, said that while foreign journalists were not allowed in Kashmir, Indian journalists were writing and filing reports critical of the government. “Who is going to be responsible for the safety of international journalists?” she asked. 

Sethi, the human rights lawyer, shot back, “You should ask international journalists. International journalists go to Syria, they go across the world, it’s on them. I trust international journalists and their institutions to protect themselves.”

On the broader human rights concerns in Kashmir, Sifton said the Indian government needs to repeal draconian laws like the Public Safety Act (PSA) and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which allow preventive detention and for the security forces in Kashmir to operate with impunity.

“The impunity and abuses are also fueling the conflict and until India comes to terms with that we are going to see this going on,” he said. 

Internationalising  Kashmir

There was also a discussion on whether the way forward was to internationalise the Kashmir dispute. India has for decades insisted that Kashmir is an internal matter, and a bilateral issue that needs to be resolved with Pakistan. 

At home, the Modi government is facing flak for having dealt with Kashmir in a manner which has opened up it up for unprecedented international scrutiny.

In a bizarre move, last month, the Modi government allowed 26 lawmakers from European Union countries, some of whom made remarks that are insulting to Muslims and Islam, into Kashmir on a “private” yet tightly controlled visit.

This led to the European Union clarifying this was not an “official” visit, and a British lawmaker revealing that he was taken off the list of visitors when he insisted on speaking with Kashmiris and assessing the situation on the ground for himself. 

In September, this year, Pakistan managed to get the U.N Security Council to discuss Kashmir, for the first time since 1965. 

In October, U.S. lawmakers had a similar hearing to the one on Thursday, with human rights issues in Kashmir taking centre-stage. 

Analysts say while Pakistan is lobbying to raise Kashmir on Capitol Hill, India is pushing back by reaching out to US lawmakers to leave Kashmir to New Delhi. 

Sifton said, “Things have changed in Washington with respect to the U.S. Congress and India. They can’t just wiggle their way out of it by trying to pressuring Congress, which translates them into thinking that we have to change our behaviour. We can’t just keep pounding our fists and saying this is a domestic issue that you can’t tell us about or say it’s all about Pakistan…”

When McGovern asked if there was one thing the panelists could agree on, Khan, the Kashmiri whose cousin is detained in Agra, said, “I would like to think that we can all agree that children should not be detained. I’d also like to think that we can all agree that adults should not be detained without due process.”

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