I am proud to have lived my life in two of the world’s great democracies — as a citizen of India for almost 35 years, and today, as a proud American citizen and the first Indian American woman elected to the House of Representatives.
The United States and India — the world’s longest-running democracy and the world’s largest democracy — have shared a unique and important relationship for decades that has weathered disagreements and tensions on the core premise that our countries are important to each other and to global stability. Both our constitutions begin with the words, “We, the People.” And during the civil rights movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. identified Mahatma Gandhi and his movement for nonviolent resistance as a core inspiration.
So it came as a surprise when, last week, the Indian government communicated to the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., that External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar would not attend a meeting on Capitol Hill if I were present. The apparent reason was a bipartisan resolution I introduced this month, with Rep. Steve Watkins, R-Kan., as an original co-sponsor, calling on the Indian government to uphold basic human rights in Kashmir. The resolution was narrowly crafted to focus on three issues: lifting the communications blackout that has been imposed on Kashmir since August, ending detentions without charges and respecting religious freedom.
Engel rightly refused to accede to the demand; it is wholly inappropriate for any foreign government to try to dictate which members of Congress participate in meetings on Capitol Hill. It’s also a sign of weakness for any great democracy to refuse to allow those who have some criticisms to participate in a meeting — a giant missed opportunity for two countries that value dialogue and dissent.
When I visited India in 2017 with then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Engel on a congressional delegation, I raised the issues of religious freedom in India to Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly. Jaishankar also participated in that meeting.
Unfortunately, the situation in India has gotten far worse since that visit. There has been a spike in attacks against religious minorities throughout India. The Indian government’s imposition of a media blackout in Kashmir is now the longest-running internet shutdown ever to occur in a democracy. While some landlines have been restored, millions still have no access to mobile services or the internet. Foreign journalists have largely been kept out of the region, and even Indian members of Parliament have been unable to visit the area. Hospitals have been unable to get supplies, emergency health services have been severely disrupted and people with serious health conditions have been unable to access critical medicines.
Disturbingly, the Indian government also has “taken into preventive custody” more than 5,000 Kashmiris, including about 144 children — many under the Public Safety Act, a controversial law that allows authorities to imprison someone in Kashmir for up to two years without charge or trial. These “preventive” arrests afford detainees no due process and are clear violations of international human rights. As of Dec. 4, 609 people remained in custody in and outside of Kashmir.
Since August, I have advocated for several of my constituents, including one whose uncle Mubeen Shah was detained without charges and held for several months. Thanks to advocacy from his family, U.S. diplomats and my office, Shah was finally granted permanent release this month. His release was an important step forward for justice, but many others are still waiting for due process.
Over the past few months, I have consistently spoken with individuals who have provided criticism and defense of the Indian government’s actions. Prior to introduction of the resolution, I had two meetings scheduled with the Indian ambassador to the United States, both of which were canceled by the ambassador’s office. I have attended two congressional hearings on the issues in India, one in the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, where I have listened to expert testimony from the State Department and other witnesses.
Unfortunately, in the weeks since we introduced our resolution on Kashmir, India has passed a new citizenship law that excludes Muslim migrants from its majority-Muslim neighbors from a new pathway to citizenship, an unprecedented break from India’s secular constitution. Taken together with the National Register for Citizens — a citizenship survey piloted in the state of Assam that led to the exclusion of nearly 2 million people from the state’s citizenship records — many fear this new citizenship law could be used to prevent Muslim migrants from becoming citizens and voting. And on Friday, the Indian government issued an advisory demanding that cable television stations in the country abstain from broadcasting any content that “promotes anti-national attitudes.”
The United States has a responsibility to advocate for human rights around the world — a cause I have championed in my own life and work. As a member of Congress and as an Indian American, I will continue to speak out on fundamental principles of democracy such as freedom of the press, religious freedom and due process. Protecting these rights — particularly in the most difficult of circumstances — is the only way democracies can survive and thrive.