Indian ambassador briefs US lawmakers on Kashmir

Harsh Vardhan Shringla

India's ambassador to the US, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, has briefed lawmakers on the situation in Kashmir and the steps taken by the government to maintain peace after Jammu and Kashmir's special status was revoked in August.

The briefing held on Wednesday, the first such by the top Indian diplomat here for members of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, took place amidst growing concern among US lawmakers on the curbs in Kashmir, several of which have been removed.

Since August 16, there has been a gradual removal of the curbs and by September first week, most were removed, officials in Jammu and Kashmir has said. The most prominent being the restoration of post-paid mobile phone services on October 14 for 40 lakh subscribers across networks in Kashmir.

Several congressmen who were not members of the committee also attended the ambassadorial briefing and a majority of them were from the Opposition Democratic Party. Congressman Ami Bera was the only Indian-American lawmaker present at the briefing.

Shringla and other diplomats from the Indian Embassy here and its consulates in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and San Francisco have reached out to hundreds of Congressmen and their aides after India revoked Jammu and Kashmir's special status.

Since August 5, the government besides restoring post-paid mobile phone services, has opened the state for tourists. On August 17, partial fixed line telephony was resumed and on September 4, nearly 50,000 landline phones were declared operational. Educational institutions are also open, but attendance has been thin.

The government has claimed that over 99 per cent of the areas in the state there are no restrictions on the movement of people.

Congressman Brad Sherman, who is holding a hearing on human rights in South Asia, in particular Kashmir, on October 22, said lawmakers have been hearing from their constituents and that there have been some alarming report of restrictions, on movement and communications and lack of access.

He, however, noted that some of these restrictions have been removed in recent days.

Interestingly, it is believed that Pakistan did not figure in the entire briefing that lasted for over 80 minutes. However, Shringla did mention the human rights situation in Pakistan and the issue of cross-border terrorism faced by India.

He briefed lawmakers on the historic context of the Kashmir problem, and the steps being taken by India post August 5. Shringla patiently responded to the questions from American lawmakers.

Lawmakers raised issues of missing persons, restrictions on movement and communications in the Valley.

Shringla refuted the allegations about missing persons and assured the lawmakers that if any of their constituents cannot reach their families, he will personally ensure that the communication channel between them was established.

The ambassador told the lawmakers that most of the restrictions have been lifted and the rest are being gradually removed.

Mobile communication in the Valley was shut down to prevent externally aided terrorists from disturbing peace and inflicting casualties, according to authorities in Jammu and Kashmir.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has already appeared before major Washington-based think tanks recently, articulating India's stand on Kashmir and defending the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir's special status.

During Wednesday's briefing, Republican congressman Pete Olson from Texas also spoke about India-US relations and the 'Howdy, Modi!' event in Houston, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump.

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