This week, President Trump invited Indian PM Narendra Modi to the next meeting of the G7. While India is increasingly seen as an important ally for the US, it is imperative that lawmakers take note of human rights violations and repeated curtailment of basic democratic rights committed by Modi's BJP government. In truth, India's behavior during the pandemic, particularly in Jammu & Kashmir, reveals it is trending closer towards China than a trusted partner worthy of a G7 meeting.
Throughout the month of May, China steadily moved troops, equipment and arms into what India considers the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, specifically the Galwan Valley and near Pangong Lake. Among the reasons speculated by regional analysts is India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomous status. As a result of these incursions, there have been at least two exchanges of fire and reports of other confrontations that did not devolve into firefights. Though the two nations are traditionally considered foils, one an eroding democracy and the other a one-party-state, India and China have mirrored one another, during the Coronavirus pandemic in troubling ways.
While the repressive policies of each predate the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, both nations have taken advantage of the COVID moment to further clampdown on dissidents and entire populations.
India’s shutting down of the internet and all other communications earlier this year in Kashmir echoed the same 2009 actions of China in Xinjiang. India’s increasing use of surveillance technologies has followed. The Indian government purchased surveillance technology from Chinese Communist Party-owned Hikvision, a company blacklisted by the US Commerce Department for being deployed against Uighurs, and is using the technology in Kashmir. In addition, India has begun using drones and other aerial technology to monitor the movements of Kashmiris. India has also adopted the Chinese policy of using facial recognition software against protestors. Already in use in Kashmir, facial surveillance has now made its way to India’s capital New Delhi where human rights activists and prominent voices from the CAA/NRC protests are now being charged under controversial UAPA terror laws and jailed without trial. "We’re the only functional democracy which will set up such a system without any data protection or privacy laws," said Apar Gupta, a Delhi-based lawyer and executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation. "It’s like a gold rush for companies seeking large unprotected databases."
China and India have also used the pandemic as a testing ground for the implementation of new forms of surveillance technology. China developed a contact tracing application to follow the disease that experts report will be used long after the outbreak is brought under control. According to Reuters, “India is aggressively pushing a state-backed contact tracing app to fight the spread of COVID-19, raising fears that the world’s second-most populous nation is on its way to Chinese-style methods of high tech social control.” India also followed China’s lead building a centralized database for health information on individuals and made using the app mandatory for public and private employees returning to work. According to the Software Freedom Law Center, India is “the world’s only democratic country to make the use of a contact tracing app mandatory for its citizens.”
Both countries have also used the cover of the pandemic to pursue regional geopolitical goals that would be unthinkable during normal times. China continues to erode any notion of autonomy in Hong Kong and is making threatening noises towards Taipei. India recently announced implementation of new residency laws, opening Kashmir to demographic flooding reminiscent of the Chinese government-sponsored Han Chinese flooding of Xinxiang. Both instances of demographic engineering were made possible by centralizing control over autonomous regions through military deployment, mass arrests, and communications blackouts. This extremely unpopular move was made during the COVID lockdown in Kashmir, more intensely observed than anywhere in India. The policy itself calls for significant salary deductions of any Kashmiri official deemed to be obstructing the process, reflecting how unpopular New Delhi knew the move to be. India instituted these changes at the moment of maximum control over the Kashmiri people, now facing a future without the hope of realizing self-determination through a promised referendum.
China seized headlines in February and March for its heavy handed approach to quarantine, going so far as to weld the doors shut on apartment buildings, sealing the suspected infected inside. In Kashmir, civilian movements were already restricted under military control before the outbreak, but epidemic conditions have been used to designate all Kashmiri districts “red zone” areas despite insufficient COVID testing. With the public under severe restrictions, aggressive cordon and search operations are being conducted, sealing off entire groups of villages and instigating fights with militants. A pattern of the military using human shields, blowing up civilian homes, destroying private property, stealing valuables, and contaminating food stocks is emerging.
Crucially, both countries also ramped up the harassment and arrest of journalists, limiting the ability of local populations to describe the nature of their lockdown to the world. Reporters Without Borders reported on detention of journalists in Xinxiang in July 2019, whereas the harassment and detention of Kashmiri journalists continues with new UAPA cases being called the “last nail in the coffin of press freedom in Kashmir”. International journalists continue to be officially restricted from entering Kashmir. Local media has seen dramatic changes as dependence on government advertising has influenced the coverage undertaken.
Suppressing free expression, a long-standing concern in China, is taking new forms in India.
Protesters in Kashmir continue to be fired upon and jailed. Internet usage remains heavily surveilled, with “cyber crime” units monitoring Kashmiri social media posts for “promoting anti-India, anti-social and anti-national activities”. Art is also being scrutinized. Having committed no crime, the detention of the Jammu and Kashmir Bar Association President continues due to his “ideology”. As per the recent judgement extending his detention without trial, he must renounce his beliefs before being considered eligible for release. An unknown number of Kashmiris remain detained as habeas corpus procedures are not being observed and detentions are being enforced upon verbal orders. Estimates range into the tens of thousands. The structural use of torture continues against civilians and those detained without charge.
While the world has taken notice of China’s aggressive behavior over the course of the pandemic, India has successfully kept its repression under the radar (at least from most Western press). Nevertheless, it is heartening that members of Congress are taking action. For example, Rep. Omar has distributed a letter to her colleagues demanding the administration brief Congress on arms sales to countries that have violated human rights during the pandemic including India. Congress should keep up the pressure on the administration, discouraging rhetoric related to India joining the G7 and encouraging the President to address India’s abuses in Kashmir as a part of any mediation between India and China.