WASHINGTON: The foundation of any successful dialogue between India and Pakistan is based on Pakistan taking sustained and irreversible steps against militants and terrorists in its territory, a key administration official told US lawmakers on Tuesday, amid expressions of deep concern and sharp criticism during a Congressional hearing over New Delhi’s handling of the human rights situation in the Kashmir Valley. In written testimony presented at a hearing on human rights in South Asia, Alice Wells, the US assistant secretary for the region, while welcoming Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s “recent unambiguous statement that terrorists from Pakistan who carry out violence in Kashmir are enemies of both Kashmiris and Pakistan,” nevertheless asserted that “Pakistan’s harboring of terrorist groups like Lashkar-e- Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed, which seek to foment violence across the Line of Control, is destabilising, and Pakistani authorities remain accountable for their actions.” “We believe that direct dialogue between India and Pakistan, as outlined in the Shimla Agreement, holds the most potential for reducing tensions. Restarting a productive bilateral dialogue requires building trust, and the chief obstacle remains Pakistan’s continued support for extremist groups that engage in cross-border terrorism,” Wells said in testimony submitted to the House subcommittee, where several lawmakers sought to discern the administration’s policy while expressing concern about both the human rights situation in the region and the geopolitical aspects of the issue.
Although the hearing was purportedly on “Human rights in South Asia,” questions from lawmakers, reflecting complaints brought to them by their Kashmiri constituents, centered most on the situation in Kashmir Valley. Several lawmakers, including Washington state’s Pramila Jayapal and Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, questioned Wells and her counterpart from the human rights bureau Robert Destro about the abnormal situation in the Valley, including alleged detention of children, the curtailment of communication and lack of medical access for the needy, saying it was unacceptable. Acknowledging that there had been some lifting of restrictions but the situation was far from normal in the Kashmir Valley, the officials told lawmakers that New Delhi had to balance the everyday needs of people and the malafide intention of terrorists as it weighed restoring the full spectrum of communications. They also promised to get back to lawmakers on reports on a number of unlawful detentions while acknowledging that US officials had not been allowed full access to the Valley.“The security situation in Kashmir remains tense. We are concerned about reports of local and foreign militants attempting to intimidate local residents and business owners in order to stymie normal economic activity. The United States supports the rights of Kashmiris to peacefully protest, but condemns the actions of terrorists who seek to use violence and fear to undermine dialogue,” Wells said in her written testimony, even as lawmakers chose to only reflect the concern of constituents. At least one lawmaker, Somali-American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, also excoriated the Modi government for what she described as its “Hindu nationalism project” that involved a broader anti-Muslim approach in India while suggesting the Trump administration had accepted the threat to common values that the strategic partnership was previously based on. But Wells rejected the notion, pointing out that the Indian electorate had twice elected the government, its actions in Jammu and Kashmir were approved by Parliament, and the institutions of India’s democracy were still working. Asked by another lawmaker what “economic tools” Washington had in its kit to influence India’s behaviour, Wells responded, “With due respect Congressman….this is not a relationship of dictation, it is one of partnership.”Although several lawmakers expressed concern about the human rights situation in the Valley, the striking feature of the hearing was that there were few questions on India’s action in scrapping the so-called special status for Jammu and Kashmir. Wells said the United States regards the Line of Control as the de facto line of separation between India and Pakistan and recognises the de facto administration on both sides. Acknowledging that what India had done in J&K was an internal matter, Wells, however, said it has “external consequences” and the US takes very seriously the escalation in rhetoric and tension following New Delhi’s actions, much of it because of the long history of support by Pakistan for terrorism and terrorist outfits.“We have called for the elimination of non-state actors and terrorist proxies so they cannot act in J&K. The more irreversible action we see from Pakistan…the more imperative the dialogue. So we urge circumstances for a constructive dialogue,” Wells told lawmakers.