U.S. senator refused permission to visit Kashmir, says transparency important

NEW DELHI – U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen said he was refused permission to visit Kashmir on his trip to India this week as the Indian government’s clampdown in the restive region enters a third month.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland. (Photo Facebook)

Van Hollen is one of nearly 50 members of Congress who have expressed concern at the situation in Kashmir. Indian authorities have deployed thousands of additional troops, shut down Internet access and mobile phone service, arrested more than 3,000 people and detained nearly all of the region’s political leadership.

The crackdown coincided with India’s announcement on Aug. 5 that it would strip Muslim-majority Kashmir of its autonomy and statehood. The Indian government says the detentions and restrictions on communication are necessary to prevent violent and potentially deadly protests in response to its announcement.

Van Hollen, a Democrat who represents Maryland, said he asked to go to Kashmir so he could see the ground reality for himself.

“If the Indian government has nothing to hide, they should not worry about people visiting Kashmir and witnessing the situation with their own eyes,” Van Hollen said in an interview Friday (Oct. 4, 2019) in New Delhi.

As the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States “talk a lot about our shared values,” he said. “I think this is a moment where transparency is important.”

Last month, Van Hollen proposed an amendment to an appropriations bill that referred explicitly to the restrictions implemented by India. While encouraging “enhanced engagement with India on issues of mutual interest,” it also noted “with concern the current humanitarian crisis in Kashmir” and called on the Indian government to restore communications and release detainees.

The amendment was adopted unanimously by the Senate Appropriations Committee and the bill is likely to receive a full vote in the Senate in the next several weeks.

A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to a request for comment on the amendment. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Home Affairs did not immediately respond to a query about Van Hollen’s inability to visit Kashmir.

In recent weeks, India has eased some restrictions in the Kashmir Valley, which is home to 7 million people. Landline connections are now functioning, albeit fitfully, and constraints on movement are intermittent rather than total. But mobile service and Internet connections are cut off. Meanwhile, the region’s mainstream political leaders remain in detention. Some are being held under a stringent security act used to combat the region’s long-running anti-India insurgency.

Since Aug. 5, several politicians from elsewhere in the country have been turned back by the authorities when they attempted to visit Kashmir. Two politicians petitioned India’s Supreme Court to visit, but they were not free to travel where they wanted. One said that he was prevented from speaking with Kashmiri nonpoliticians.

No foreign journalists have received permission from the Indian government to report in Kashmir since Aug. 5, although Indian citizens who work for foreign news organizations, including The Washington Post, have been able to report from the region.

Later this month, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on human rights in South Asia in which Kashmir will be a focus.

“There’s a lot going on in Washington, but I believe concern is rising about the situation in Kashmir,” said Van Hollen. His conversations during his two-day visit to India “have only heightened” such concerns.

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