Kashmir is a prime example of how Prime Minister Modi is taking India in the wrong direction in terms of human rights and democracy
In a special congressional briefing organized by IAMC, Hindus for Human Rights, and 15 other American civil rights groups, US Congressman Andy Levin rebukes PM Modi for trampling human rights of Kashmiris
APRIL 20, 2022
Greetings, everyone. I’m so grateful to the Indian American Muslim Council for bringing us together today for a Congressional briefing on Kashmir.
India is near and dear to my heart, and I’m always thankful for the opportunity to discuss how Congress can support human rights and democracy there. My first visit to India was way back in when I was a teenager, yet I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Asia with my dad for his work as the assistant administrator of the US Agency for International Development in India. We visited Delhi, Agra, Hyderabad, and Calcutta, and I also got to go to Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Indonesia as well.
As many of you may know, that trip literally changed my life. I fell head over heels in love with India and with its religious philosophies in particular, but everything food, art, languages, the whole thing. When I went to College, I became a religion major with a focus on the Buddhist philosophies of India and Tibet. I went back again and again, spending a year in Utah Pradesh during College and a summer in Karnataka and traveling around, including Kashmir and Ladakh during graduate school.
What struck me most during my trips was the religious pluralism and Democratic culture I experienced. I truly felt that I was witnessing a remarkable example of peaceful coexistence in the world’s largest democracy. It’s still amazing to me the way India conducts elections in such a huge and poor country. After all, I was studying Tibetan and Buddhism, learning enough Hindi to get by, living mostly amongst Hindus and making friends with Muslims as well.
Sadly, I fear that many years later, India’s current leadership is backtracking on this legacy. Instead of expanding India’s historically robust democracy, its pluralism, its famous tolerance, Prime Minister Modi’s legacy seems to be to undo or diminish this proud tradition. What’s happening in Kashmir is emblematic of these concerns. In 2019, Prime Minister Modi stripped the region of the privileged status it had held under India’s Constitution for 70 years.
At the time, I condemned this move for trampling Democratic norms and fundamental human rights, and I was deeply concerned that it would heighten tensions between India and Pakistan, two nuclear armed neighbors. Two years on, my fears have not been allayed substantially. While Kashmir may not be in the nightly news, what’s happening there deserves the world’s attention, and it’s still a prime example of how Prime Minister Modi is taking India in the wrong direction in terms of human rights and democracy. Human rights groups have documented how the Indian government has intensified its crackdown in Kashmir after revoking the territory’s special autonomous status. In 2019, the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which were just released for this year, listed numerous abuses in Kashmir, including killings by government and nongovernmental forces, arbitrary arrest and detention of local politicians and human rights defenders, and harassment and intimidation of journalists in the region.
Human Rights Watch has documented at least 35 journalists in Kashmir who faced police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault, or fabricated criminal cases just for trying to do their job reporting the news. These abuses in Kashmir matter because they’re not happening in a vacuum. What happens in Kashmir and in India more generally should matter to all of us. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention both expressed concerns about these attacks on journalists and noted that they seem to be part of a broader pattern. That, and I’m quoting may ultimately deter other journalists and civil society more broadly from reporting on issues of public interest and human rights in the region.
In other words, the impact is felt not just by journalists themselves in Kashmir, but by everyone in the region, and, I would argue, everyone in India who will suffer without the accountability of a free and independent press.
More broadly speaking, these abuses are part of a worrying trend towards authoritarianism and disregard of universal human rights protections around the world. I’m a firm believer in calling out abuses no matter where they occur and no matter who commits them. And at this point, let me just say this is something I do in terms of our own country, and I’ve been doing it for years. So almost 20 years ago, I led an effort at the AFLCIO, our national umbrella group of unions in the United States, to point out that the United States is not in compliance with fundamental human rights norms, the norms of the International Labor Organization when it comes to freedom of association at work, the freedom of Americans to form unions and bargain collectively. And friends, we’re still not in compliance. And look at the attacks on LGBTQ plus people on trans kids in particular going on in our country right now. So we’ve got to be honest about the rights of everyone everywhere. That’s why we must insist on shining a spotlight on abuses in Kashmir. And I’m grateful to the Indian American Muslim Council that you’re doing this event today, that you’re giving members of Congress the opportunity to speak out against these human rights violations.
And for all of your work as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and as the vice chair of its Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia, and Non Proliferation, I remain committed to speaking up for democracy, tolerance, and pluralism in my beloved India and to calling out abuses in Kashmir and elsewhere throughout India, the subcontinent, all of Asia, and the whole world. The State Department’s human rights reports, which I cited earlier, must also play a role in every meeting with Indian counterparts. US officials can use this report to raise human rights concerns and make clear that the United States cares about what happens in Kashmir and that we expect better of democracies like India, which is a shining light for the whole world. It’s through consistent messaging, constantly raising concerns about human rights, and speaking with one voice as the United States of America that we can have the biggest impact. It’s what I’m here to do today.
It’s what I’m in Congress to do and I’m hopeful that our voices will help make this clear to officials in India. Thanks again for asking me to join you and thank you so much for all the hard work you’re doing to raise awareness of these issues. Take care.