In anticipation of Donald Trump’s Delhi visit, Congressional Research Service (CRS), a private entity working for the US Congress on key issues, circulated a report Kashmir: Background, Recent Developments, and US Policy in January. Authored by K Alan Kronstadt, the report details the Kashmir happenings after August 5 and envisages longer passages about the US response to these developments starting with Trump’s July mediation offer. The report concludes by flagging the questions that Congressmen are interested in.
In July 2019, while taking questions from the press alongside visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, President Trump claimed that Indian Prime Minister Modi had earlier in the month asked the United States to play a mediator role in the Kashmir dispute. As noted above, such a request would represent a dramatic policy reversal for India. The US President’s statement provoked an uproar in India’s Parliament, with opposition members staging a walkout and demanding explanation. Quickly following Trump’s claim, Indian External Affairs Minister (Subrahmanyam) Jaishankar assured parliamentarians that no such request had been made, and he reiterated India’s position that “all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally” and that future engagement with Islamabad “would require an end to cross border terrorism.”
In an apparent effort to reduce confusion, a same-day social media post from the State Department clarified the US position that “Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss” and the Trump Administration “stands ready to assist.” A release from the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Engel, reiterated support for “the long- standing US position” on Kashmir, affirmed that the pace and scope of India-Pakistan dialogue is a bilateral determination, and called on Pakistan to facilitate such dialogue by taking “concrete and irreversible steps to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure on Pakistan’s soil.” An August 2 meeting of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Jaishankar in Thailand saw the Indian official directly convey to his American counterpart that any discussion on Kashmir, “if at all warranted,” would be strictly between India and Pakistan.
President Trump’s seemingly warm reception of Pakistan’s leader, his desire that Pakistan help the United States “extricate itself” from Afghanistan, and recent US support for an International Monetary Fund bailout of Pakistan elicited disquiet among many Indian analysts. They said Washington was again conceptually linking India and Pakistan, “wooing” the latter in ways that harm the former’s interests. Trump’s Kashmir mediation claims were especially jarring for many Indian observers, some of whom began questioning the wisdom of Modi’s confidence in the United States as a partner. The episode may have contributed to India’s August moves.
Trump Administration Reacts
Indian press reports claimed that External Affairs Minister Jaishankar had “sensitized” Secretary of State Pompeo to the coming Kashmir moves at an in-person meeting on August 2 so that Washington would not be taken by surprise. However, a social media post from the State Department’s relevant bureau asserted that New Delhi “did not consult or inform the US government” before moving to revoke J&K’s special status.
On August 5, a State Department spokeswoman said about developments in Kashmir, “We are concerned about reports of detentions and urge respect for individual rights and discussion with those in affected communities. We call on all parties to maintain peace and stability along the Line of Control.” Three days later, she addressed the issue more substantively, saying,
“We want to maintain peace and stability, and we, of course, support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and other issues of concern…. Whenever it comes to any region in the world where there are tensions, we ask for people to observe the rule of law, respect for human rights, respect for international norms. We ask people to maintain peace and security and direct dialogue.”
The spokeswoman also flatly denied any change in US policy. The Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also responded in a joint August 7 statement expressing hope that New Delhi would abide by democratic and human rights principles and calling on Islamabad to refrain from retaliating while taking action against terrorism.
The government’s heavy-handed security measures in J&K elicited newly intense criticisms of India on human rights grounds. In late September, Ambassador Wells said,
“The United States is concerned by widespread detentions, including those of politicians and business leaders, and the restrictions on the residents of Jammu and Kashmir. We look forward to the Indian Government’s resumption of political engagement with local leaders and the scheduling of the promised elections at the earliest opportunity.”
During an October 22 House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on human rights in South Asia, Ambassador Wells testified that, “the Department [of State]has closely monitored the situation” in Kashmir and, “We deeply appreciate the concerns expressed by many Members about the situation” there. She reviewed ongoing concerns about a lack of normalcy in the Valley, especially, citing continued detentions and “security restrictions,” including those on communication, and calling on Indian authorities to restore everyday services “as swiftly as possible.” Wells also welcomed Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent statements abjuring external support for Kashmiri militancy:
“We believe the foundation for any successful dialogue between India and Pakistan is based on Pakistan taking sustained and irreversible steps against militants and terrorists on its territory…. We believe that direct dialogue between India and Pakistan, as outlined in the 1972 Shimla Agreement, holds the most potential for reducing tensions.”
Some Indian observers saw the hearing as a public relations loss for India, with one opining that “India got a drubbing and Pakistan got away scot-free.” However, for some analysts, the Trump Administration’s broad embrace of Modi and its relatively mild criticisms on Kashmir embolden illiberal forces in India.
In August and September, numerous of Members of Congress went on record in support of Kashmiri human rights. During October travel to India, Senator Chris Van Hollen was denied permission to visit J&K. Days later, Senator Mark Warner, a co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, tweeted, “While I understand India has legitimate security concerns, I am disturbed by its restrictions on communications and movement in Jammu and Kashmir.
In October, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Non-proliferation held a hearing on human rights in South Asia, where discussion was dominated by the Kashmir issue. In attendance was full committee Chairman Representative Engel, who opined that, “The Trump administration is giving a free pass when countries violate human rights or democratic norms. We saw this sentiment reflected in the State Department’s public statements in response to India’s revocation of Article 370 of its constitution.” Then-Subcommittee Chairman Representative Brad Sherman said, “I regard [Kashmir] as the most dangerous geopolitical flash- point in the world. It is, after all, the only geopolitical flash-point that has involved wars between two nuclear powers.” Also during the hearing, one Administration witness, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Destro, affirmed that the situation in Kashmir was “a humanitarian crisis.”
Congress’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a mid-November hearing entitled “Jammu and Kashmir in Context,” during which numerous House Members reiterated concerns about reports of ongoing human rights violations in the Kashmir Valley. Among the seven witnesses was US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Commissioner Anurima Bhargava, who discussed restrictions of religious freedom in India, and noted that USCIRF researchers have been barred from visiting India since 2004.
In S Rept 116-126 of September 26, 2019, accompanying the then-pending State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill for FY2020 (S 2583), the Senate Appropriations Committee noted with concern the current humanitarian crisis in Kashmir and called on the government of India to (1) fully restore telecommunications and Internet services; (2) lift its lockdown and curfew; and (3) release individuals detained pursuant to the Indian government’s revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution.
H Res 724, introduced on November 21, 2019, would condemn “the human rights violations taking place in Jammu and Kashmir” and support “Kashmiri self-determination.”
H Res 745, introduced on December 6, 2019, and currently with 40 cosponsors, would recognize the security challenges faced by Indian authorities in Jammu and Kashmir, including from cross- border terrorism; reject arbitrary detention, use of excessive force against civilians, and suppression of peaceful expression of dissent as proportional responses to security challenges; urge the Indian government to ensure that any actions taken in pursuit of legitimate security priorities respect the human rights of all people and adhere to international human rights law; and urge that government to lift remaining restrictions on telecommunications and internet, release all persons “arbitrarily detained,” and allow international human rights observers and journalists to access Jammu and Kashmir, among other provisions.
Issues for Congress
A key goal of US policy in South Asia has been to prevent India-Pakistan conflict from escalating to interstate war. This means the United States has sought to avoid actions that overtly favoured either party. Over the past decade, however, Washington appears to have grown closer to India while relations with Pakistan appear to continue to be viewed as clouded by mistrust. The Trump Administration “suspended” security assistance to Pakistan in 2018 and has significantly reduced non-military aid while simultaneously deepening ties with New Delhi. The Administration views India as a key “anchor” of its “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, which some argue is aimed at China. Yet any US impulse to “tilt” toward India is to some extent offset by Islamabad’s current, and by most accounts vital, role in facilitating Afghan reconciliation negotiations. President Trump’s apparent bonhomie with Pakistan’s prime minister and offer to mediate on Kashmir in July was taken by some as a new and potentially unwise strategic shift.
The US government has maintained a focus on the potential for conflict over Kashmir to destabilize South Asia. At present, the United States has no congressionally-confirmed Assistant Secretary of State leading the Bureau of South and Central Asia and no Ambassador in Pakistan, leading some experts to worry that the Trump Administration’s preparedness for India- Pakistan crises remains thin. Developments in August 2019 and after also renewed concerns among some analysts that the Trump Administration’s “hands-off” posture toward this and other international crises erodes American power and increases the risk of regional turbulence. Some commentary, however, was more approving of US posturing.
Questions for Congress
Have India’s actions changing the status of its J&K state negatively affect regional stability? If so, what leverage does the United States have and what US policies might best address potential instability?
Is there any diplomatic or other role for the US government to play in managing India- Pakistan conflict or facilitating a renewal of their bilateral dialogue?
To what extent does increased instability in Kashmir influence dynamics in Afghanistan? Will Islamabad’s cooperation with Washington on Afghan reconciliation be reduced?
To what extent, if any, are India’s democratic/constitutional norms and pluralist traditions at risk in the country’s current political climate? Are human rights abuses and threats to religious freedom increasing there? If so, should the US government take any further actions to address such concerns?
(The references mentioned in the analysis have been edited out for paucity of space. The reproduced passages mentioning the chronology of the events from the US point of view form a minuscule part of the report.)