• Evan Barrett

Kashmir Under the Shadow of COVID-19, Briefing Summary

Updated: May 13, 2020

May 11, 2020

On Thursday May 7, 2020 Americans for Kashmir held a joint briefing with the offices of Representatives Jayapal (WA 7) and Watkins (KS 2) featuring a panel of human rights, press freedom, public health, and legal experts . The briefing focused on how conditions in Jammu and Kashmir have changed during the Coronavirus pandemic. Areas of coverage included the public health response, targeting of journalists, political prisoners, the enacting controversial laws, and the civilian lockdown. Below please find a partial summary of the proceedings featuring comments from each representative and panelist.

Opening Remarks

Congresswoman Jayapal

Representative Jayapal opened her comments by restating her commitment to the people of Kashmir and thanking Americans for Kashmir for their partnership in raising issues of “religious tolerance and pluralism, human rights and the rule of law.” Representative Jayapal went on to say: “This past year, I spoke out against the Indian government’s deeply unjust and horrific actions in Jammu and Kashmir. Some called it brave, given the vilification from too many people both in India and here in the United States for my stance. But I am a human rights activist, and to me, you cannot pick and choose when there are core human rights concerns and violations, even when it is your own country. I have not held back on criticizing my own government here in the US when necessary and I do not intend to do that for my birth country’s government. And so speaking out was just necessary. That said, it has not been an easy road and I am extremely grateful for your support and advocacy for my bi-partisan resolution with Congressman Watkins, House Resolution 745, calling on the Indian government to uphold basic human rights; it asked the government to lift its communications blackout, end detentions without charges, and respect religious freedom.” Representative Jayapal expressed hope that the resolution would get a hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but noted that there are Indian-American groups fiercely opposed to the bill. Representative Jayapal concluded her remarks by stating that both India and the United States must live up to their role as global leaders and democracies.

Congressman Watkins

Following Representative Jayapal, Congressman Steve Watkins offered remarks. Congressman Watkins also thanked Americans for Kashmir for their partnership and mentioned: “I was in war for 8 years both as an army captain and as a defense contractor and in all those years I learned a few things. One of the things I learned was that I was going to do all I could in this life to fight human rights abuses wherever they occurred. I believe it's the true American spirit to fight (these abuses) whenever and wherever they occur.” Representative Watkins also pointed out that Congress plays a pivotal role in raising the issue of Jammu and Kashmir because it is not covered sufficiently in the international press. Congressman Watkins also stated that the passage of Resolution 745 would be an important step in educating both the public and the media on the situation in Kashmir. Representative Watkins concluded his remarks with a call to action, asking those on the call to reach out to their representatives to support HR 745 and “join the fight” for the people of Kashmir.

Political Prisoners, Targeting Journalists, Lockdown

Francisco Bencosme, Asia Pacfic Advocacy Manager, Amnesty International USA

Francisco Bencosme opened his comments emphasizing that Amnesty International has increased its focus on Jammu and Kashmir given the intensification of the lockdown there under COVID-19. In particular, Amnesty International has noticed an, “intensification in terms of arbitrary detention, (violations of) freedom of the press and freedom of information.” Amnesty International is also concerned by the recent use of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) which has been used to charge journalists including photojournalist Masrat Zehra. According to Amnesty International, the UAPA does not meet international human rights standards as it allows journalism and other modes of expression to be charged as terror offenses. Bencosme said that in addition to these high-profile arrests, “at least a dozen” journalists were summoned to a detention facility in Srinagar where they were intimidated by security officials. Bencosme concluded his remarks saying: “A public health emergency is not an opportunity to bypass accountability and respect for rights. There is continuing use of unlawful and arbitrary detention along with limited internet connectivity...The people of Jammu and Kashmir are entitled to dignity and to be informed of the threats COVID-19 presents to their health. Measures need to be taken to protect human rights in the region and not further weaken them. Amnesty International will consistently call for the government of India to immediately release all of those who have been arbitrarily detained, to restore full internet access and to actively pursue trust building measures with the people.”

Public Health, Lockdown

Dr. Tanveer Mir, Chairperson of the Department of Medicine Wyckoff Heights Medical Center

Following Bencosme, Dr. Tanveer Mir, former chair of the American College of Physicians board of regents and a physician contributing to ongoing efforts fighting the Coronavirus outbreak in both New York and Kashmir, offered comments on the public health crisis in J&K. Dr. Mir opened her remarks by noting that the entire Kashmir Valley has been declared a so-called Coronavirus “Red Zone” by the Indian state without the support of testing or any other mechanism that would establish the infection rate there and require such a designation. According to Dr. Mir, the red zone designation has “further restrict(ed) all movement hindering procurement of food and other essentials.” Dr. Mir noted that in mainland India, special measures have been taken to allow citizens to access essential products while these measures have not been taken in Kashmir. Dr. Mir also noted that Kashmir has “a weak medical infrastructure...and is not prepared to meet the COVID threat...two tertiary hospitals are available for a population of 8 million...there are only two COVID testing sites and private sector testing has not been authorized...the total number of ICU beds in Jammu and Kashmir remains at 85...there is one physician for 3900 citizens and the WHO standard is 1 to 1000.” Given these statistics, Dr. Mir believes COVID-19 constitutes a significant threat to J&K. Despite the level of danger, the government has throttled internet speeds, causing significant harm to the public health response. “Kashmiri physicians have complained of not being able to access the latest CDC guidelines that are available worldwide. The loading takes too long at 2g speed...Doctors are also unable to join webinars which have become very helpful for research professors in labs to share the latest information with doctors on the front lines. Civilians aren’t able to load websites that provide general health guidelines like washing hands, wearing masks and keeping distance.” Dr. Mir also mentioned that physicians have not been permitted to participate in the public conversation about COVID-19 and have been threatened with jail if they communicate with the press. She stated that such measures are in keeping with the ongoing intimidation of doctors by the government since August 5, 2019. Dr. Mir further said that physicians have protested the lack of protective equipment since the outbreak of COVID resulting in punishment or reassignment. Citing beatings of civilians and arbitrary lockdowns, she said an effective public health response requires working with the public rather than criminalizing them. Concluding her remarks, Dr. Mir stated “COVID-19 is a humanitarian crisis in Kashmir. Lack of COVID testing, (and) public health infrastructure have been compounded by an arbitrary lockdown...Kashmiri communities are prevented (by the lack of internet) from being active partners in this public health fight.”

Controversial Legal Changes

Sehla Ashai, Attorney and Professor of Law

Following Dr. Mir, attorney Sehla Ashai offered a perspective on the legal situation in Kashmir, including recent changes to the domicile law. Ms. Ashai started by noting that the “full annexation of Kashmir has long been a project of the ruling party the BJP.” Ms. Ashai described an intensification of persecution in J&K following the abrogation of Article 370 in August, including arbitrary detentions, violations of freedom of expression and assembly. According to Ashai, the annexation of Kashmir does not change the international legal status of Kashmir and is a violation of both international law and a number of UN resolutions which state that the Kashmir dispute must be resolved politically. Specifically, Ashai mentioned two treaties that India is a party to that the annexation of Kashmir violates, the “international covenant on civil and political rights and the international covenant on economic social and cultural rights.” Ashai went on to say that India has tried for 80 years to control the territory but has not succeeded in defeating the movement for Kashmiri self-determination and now has decided to “control Kashmir and dispose of Kashmiris.” In Ashai’s view, the lockdown measures in Kashmir are clearly intended to limit protests and organizing against the Indian government’s actions. Ashai also provided a detailed summary of the background and changes to the domicile law: “After the accession in 1947, which was disputed, Kashmir nevertheless maintained its ability to define what are called state subjects or permanent residents within the Union of India and were able to define the rights that accrued to people with that status. Those rights generally pertained to preferential state government hiring and land ownership...On April 20th, the government placed into effect an order that made it very clear that the Indian agenda is to change the demography of Kashmir. The central government has essentially arrogated to itself the ability to define who is ‘domiciled’ in Kashmir…In this case, the Indian government promulgated this order on April 20th while everyone is under lockdown for this pandemic, that says that Indian citizens who have resided in the occupied territory of Kashmir for a period 15 years or just studied in Kashmir for 7 years are eligible for domicile of this now Indian territory. It’s very clear that the ramifications of this are to materially and economically disenfranchise indigenous Kashmiris from their own land. And they’re designed to facilitate the influx of outsiders into this land and make Kashmiris a minority in their own territory.” Ms. Ashai concluded her remarks by saying that the purpose of the internet throttling is to deny information to Kashmiris. As an example, Ms. Ashai noted that mining rights in Kashmir were opened to private companies, and Kashmiri companies were unable to bid for these rights because of the lack of internet and reliable news in the territory.

Targeting Journalists

Aliya Iftikhar, Senior Asia Researcher Committee to Protect Journalists

Following Ms. Ashai, Aliya Iftikhar the Senior Asia Researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists spoke about the newly expanded campaign against journalists in J&K. According to Ms. Iftikhar, “Press freedom in Kashmir has always been under threat...journalists are at frequent risk of physical assault, legal threats, imprisonment and even murder. There’s been a significant escalation since August 5th, and the revocation of Kashmir’s special status and its conversion to a union territory. And like the other panelists have mentioned, this is when the Indian government enforced a strict communications blackout on the entire region.” Iftikhar went on to note that CPJ travelled to Kashmir in August to observe the media landscape and saw that journalism was “pushed to the brink of extinction.” CPJ has also observed an escalation of this campaign against journalists under COVID-19 and the group is “particularly concerned by legal investigations that have been launched against journalists in recent weeks.” These journalists include Masrat Zehra and Gowhar Geelani who are being investigated under a “draconian anti-terrorism law (the UAPA)” and Peerzada Ashiq who is accused of publishing “fake news.” Iftikhar also noted that the “slow judicial process” in India is a “punishment in itself” for journalists, as it requires them to devote time and resources to fight these legal battles even if they are not ultimately found guilty. Iftikhar believes this pattern of behavior is evidence of an Indian desire to “silence Kashmir.” Iftikhar concluded by saying that although the situation in Kashmir is particularly extreme, India is working to criminalize forms of journalism throughout the country and is using Coronavirus to pursue these ends. According to Iftikhar, CPJ’s position is that there has not been sufficient pressure on India to halt these abuses, and members of Congress should continue to raise the issue.


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