Reviewing the Tom Lantos Commission Hearing on Kashmir
Updated: May 2, 2020
November 16th 2019
The hearing highlighted the human rights abuses, illegal detention of minors, and encroachment of freedom in Kashmir since August 5th.
On November 14th, The Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights hosted a historic hearing titled “Jammu & Kashmir in Context”. The Commission was chaired by Representatives Jim McGovern and Chris Smith. Other congressional members who attended the hearing were Rep. David Cicilline, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Rep. David Trone, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.
The hearing was separated into two panels, one with a government representative and the other with experts. The government panelist from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was Anurima Bhargava. The panelists for the second panel were Haley Duschinski, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Law, Justice and Culture, Ohio University; Sehla Ashai, Human rights lawyer; Yousra Fazili, Human rights lawyer; Arjun S. Sethi, Human rights lawyer and Adjunct Professor, Georgetown Law; Sunanda Vashisht, Writer and political commentator; and John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch.
The reason for the hearing was best illustrated by Rep. McGovern’s statement, "We're here because we are genuinely concerned about the human rights situation in Kashmir. We're here because we have constituents who are our friends, people we care deeply about, who have relatives they can't get a hold of, who are deeply concerned about their health and wellbeing."
Key takeaways from the panels:
human rights abuses are happening in Kashmir currently and at an alarming scale (Sifton)
security and human rights can never be mutually exclusive (Bhargava, Sifton)
the Indian government is using a blunt force instrument that is taking away human rights and religious freedoms from Kashmiris and Indian minorities at large (Bhargava)
illegal detentions of minors is occurring in Kashmir in large numbers (Duschinski, Sifton)
human rights violations perpetrated in Kashmir by state and non-state actors has been an ongoing issue (all panelists).
While many important aspects of the ongoing human rights crisis in Kashmir and across India were mentioned in the October 22nd Asia Subcommittee Hearing, this was the first time that the stories and voices of actual Kashmiri Muslims were directly represented. Human rights lawyer (and former senior US official) Yousra Fazili shared a painful firsthand account of her cousin, Kashmiri businessman Mubeen Shah, who has been imprisoned since August by the Indian government without charge or recourse hundreds of miles away from his family in Kashmir. Mr. Shah was dragged from his home under the cover of night and has been denied access to critical medical care necessary to treat l life-threatening health issues. His story, along with thousands of other Kashmiris who have also been imprisoned without charge, was covered in detail by the New York Times.
Sehla Ashai, a Kashmiri human rights lawyer, noted the history of suppression and violence against Kashmiri voices, saying that “in the three generations before me, several of my relatives have either been jailed, tortured, or killed for the same truths that I am here to say to you today. So speaking openly to you about the plight of Kashmir without fearing for my life, is not a privilege that I take lightly.”
Writer, political commentator, and Kashmiri Hindu Sunanda Vasisht shared her perspective as a Kashmiri Pandit and detailed stories of Pandit suffering in the early 1990s. Professor Haley Duschinski also highlighted the suffering of Kashmiri Hindus and further elaborated that the government of India has neither credibly investigated the crimes committed against them nor other populations in Kashmir. Professor Duschinski went on to say “It is imperative to investigate all crimes against Kashmiri Pandits through an international inquiry since Indian criminal justice processes have failed. It is also imperative that the pain and suffering of any Kashmiri community should not be instrumentalized, manipulated, or weaponized as a claim against other communities.”
In the hearing’s first panel, Commissioner Anurima Bhargava from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom USCIRF) testified at length about the downward trend of religious freedom in Kashmir and throughout India. Commissioner Bhargava highlighted USCIRF’s concerns that the rapid rise of Hindu nationalism is directly tied to the actions and rhetoric of the ruling party at the state and national level. She summed up USCIRF’s perspective by remarking that “India’s religious minorities currently stand at a precipice. If the Indian government continues on its current trajectory, their livelihood, rights, and freedoms could be in serious danger.”
In his questioning of Commissioner Bhargava, Congressman David Cicilline cited USCIRF’s reports on India from 2018 and 2017 that directly implicated Prime Minister Modi, saying that Modi "has done little to provide justice for victims of large-scale past incidents of communal violence, often caused by inflammatory speeches delivered by leaders of Modi’s party" as well as commenting that members of Modi’s BJP party "have ties to Hindu nationalist groups implicated in religious freedom violations, used religiously divisive language to inflame tensions, and called for additional laws that would restrict religious freedom". Rep. Cicilline also raised questions about the close ties between the BJP party and the right-wing paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). USCIRF’s most recent report stated that the RSS’s campaign to “alienate non-Hindus or lower-caste Hindus is a significant contributor to the rise of religious violence and persecution”.
John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, spoke at length about India’s clear violations of international human rights law, first addressing the communications blockade by stating, “when you do a kill-switch approach where you shut off mobile data, even if you leave the phones on, if you cut off the internet, in that way, you are violating international human rights law, so it’s just not a question here. You can impose short time shutdowns in certain circumstances, you can narrowly tailor restrictions, you can do a lot of things, but you can’t do what they’ve done.” He went on to condemn India’s mass detentions without any due process as completely outside the bounds of international human rights law.
The (mostly) complete hearing can be viewed below.