Washington: A US Congressional Commission's hearing on human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir nearly fizzled out as only four of the 84 members of the panel turned up for the hearing, the second such meeting by an American panel after India abrogated Article 370 to revoke the special status of that state.
Republicans refused to attend the hearing held by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, saying that this commission "is biased, one sided and has lost credibility.” Except for Republican Co-Chair Christopher H Smith, no other member from the party turned up for the hearing. Smith in his brief remarks said that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, which needs to act against terrorist groups based inside its territory.
People who testified before the two-and-a-half-hour long hearing include Commissioner Anurima Bhargava of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, associate professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Law, Justice and Culture, Haley Duschinski of the Ohio University, human rights lawyer Arjun S Sethi, writer Sunanda Vashisht and John Sifton of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Testifying before the Commission, Sunanda Vashist, an Indian-American columnist, told lawmakers that Kashmir has been an integral part of India. "India is not just a 70-year-old nation that you see. India is a 5,000-year-old civilisation. There is no Kashmir without India. There is no India without Kashmir. It's both ways. And I will say this at the top of my voice," Kashmiri-American Vashist said in response to the separatist- supported panel of experts at the hearing. "India's democratic credentials are unmatched. They have successfully in a democratic setup, defeated insurgencies in Punjab and Northeast. It's time to strengthen India against this insurgency in Kashmir and the human rights problem (in Kashmir) will be solved forever,” she said.
In her testimony, Yousra Fazili, whose cousin Mubeen Shah was one of the thousands held without reason leading up to the August 5 move, shared examples of others in the region, alongside her cousin, who have been arrested under the Public Safety Act termed a "lawless law" by Amnesty International and condemned in a United Nations report last year. "My cousin might be in jail and other people are in jail but the whole place is under arrest," Fazili said.
Sheila Jackson Lee, a Representative from Texas, asked for a pathway to ensure human rights in the region. "We should try to find a pathway to at least do the basics to ensure human rights in the region. Why not allow the members of the US Congress to visit both parts of Jammu and Kashmir -- in India as well as Pakistan," Lee said. Anurnima Bhargava, commissioner from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, alleged, "Religious minorities in India are under a state of fear and active persecution and violence." Bhargava, who is of Indian descent, said the restrictions in Kashmir impacted the ability of people to "practice their faith", visit their places of worship and exercise their rights.
She alleged that there was a growing persecution of religious minorities specially Muslims in India manifested in the form of anti-conversion legislation, and claimed that the Ayodhya verdict, National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, mob violence and revocation of Article 370 led to the growing sense of fear among the Indian minorities. Last month, the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Non-Proliferation of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee also held a hearing on the situation in Kashmir.
Duschinski in her testimony acknowledged that while an investigation into crimes against Kashmiri pundits still needs to happen, it should not be used as a mechanism to justify or erase other Kashmiris' struggles. "It's imperative to investigate all crimes against Kashmiri pundits through an international inquiry since Indian criminal justice processes have failed," Duschinski said. "It's also imperative that the pain and suffering of any Kashmiri community should not be instrumentalised, manipulated or weaponised as a claim against other communities." The testimonies also highlighted another issue that Kashmiris have been calling for since the beginning of the current crisis: Their right to self-determination, and for them to have the agency to tell their own stories without getting dragged into a talking point in the India-Pakistan conflict.