Lawyers and human rights advocates have testified at a United States congressional hearing on Kashmir, demanding the release of detainees, giving foreign journalists and legal observers access to the majority-Muslim region, and calling for an end to the communication blackout that has been in place since August 5.
Kashmiri Americans, legal observers, scholars and lawyers testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing on Thursday, more than 100 days after India stripped the Himalayan region’s autonomy and imposed a crippling lockdown.
“I’m from a family where [in] the last three generations before me, anyone who’s a political activist was detained or tortured,” said human rights lawyer Sehla Ashai, who was among the seven members who appeared at the hearing in Washington, DC.
“I’m here because I hope that the current pattern and cycle of human rights abuses can be ended for once and for all,” said Ashai, who is based in Dallas, Texas.
In her testimony, Yousra Fazili, whose cousin Mubeen Shah was one of the thousands held without reason leading up to the August 5 move, shared examples of others in the region, alongside her cousin, who have been arrested under the Public Safety Act termed a “lawless law” by Amnesty International and condemned in a United Nations report last year.
“My cousin might be in jail and other people are in jail but the whole place is under arrest,” Fazili told Al Jazeera.
Others who testified before the two-and-a-half-hours long hearing include Commissioner Anurima Bhargava of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, associate professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Law, Justice and Culture, Haley Duschinski of the Ohio University, human rights lawyer Arjun S Sethi, writer Sunanda Vashisht and John Sifton of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
India’s Hindu nationalist government has justified the removal of Article 370 – which granted Kashmir limited autonomy – saying it was necessary to fight separatist fighters and bring development to the region.
But Kashmiris have accused the government of aiming to bring demographic change by allowing outsiders to buy land in the majority-Muslim region.
New Delhi also sent thousands of additional troops to the region – where more than half a million Indian security forces are already stationed to quell an armed rebellion that erupted in the late 1980s.
‘Displacement of Kashmiri pundits’
In the past 30 years of conflict, more than 60,000 civilians have been killed and tens of thousands of members of the Pundit Hindu community displaced.
Vashisht, a Kashmiri Hindu, testified that the repealing of Article 370 was, in fact, a “restoration of human rights” and raised the issue of the displacement of Kashmiri pundits. She claimed that New Delhi’s actions would help lower child trafficking and the rights of women.
Vashisht did not acknowledge reports that the current siege disproportionately affects Kashmiri women, with widespread misogynistic rhetoric used as a tool by the Indian state to scare women.
Duschinski in her testimony acknowledged that while an investigation into crimes against Kashmiri pundits still needs to happen, it should not be used as a mechanism to justify or erase other Kashmiris’ struggles.
“It’s imperative to investigate all crimes against Kashmiri pundits through an international inquiry since Indian criminal justice processes have failed,” Duschinski said. “It’s also imperative that the pain and suffering of any Kashmiri community should not be instrumentalised, manipulated or weaponised as a claim against other communities.”
The testimonies also highlighted another issue that Kashmiris have been calling for since the beginning of the current crisis: Their right to self-determination, and for them to have the agency to tell their own stories without getting dragged into a talking point in the India-Pakistan conflict.
India and Pakistan claim the Kashmir region in its entirety but rule only parts of it, and the South Asian neighbours have fought two wars over the territory.
The two countries came on the brink of war after more than 40 Indian security forces were killed in a suicide attack in Indian-administered Kashmir earlier this year.
‘Narrative of Kashmir told by Kashmiris’
Fazili, the human rights lawyer, told Al Jazeera that one of her main hopes from the hearing was to present a narrative of Kashmiris to the world, told by Kashmiris themselves.
“So much of today is being able to say, yes we are people with our own agency, and we can speak for ourselves and we can demand human rights and human dignity for ourselves and it’s not … it’s not coordinated by anybody else but ourselves,” she said.
Adil Mir, a Kashmiri American advocate, told Al Jazeera that he was hopeful about the hearing because it highlighted that Kashmiris are being active and creating the space for themselves.
“It’s been a long-standing frustration for Kashmiris that Indians and Pakistanis presume to speak on behalf of us and for us and have these passionate arguments about Kashmir when it’s not their families that are suffering,” he said.
Mir did not disclose the name of his organisation for fear of reprisal. That was a common concern expressed by other witnesses as well. Many worried that there are Kashmiris who cannot speak publicly about these issues.
“I’m speaking for my cousin and I feel very privileged and lucky to do that because I know so many families who are so afraid to put their voice on the record because they’re too afraid to speak,” Fazili told Al Jazeera. “They’re so afraid of retribution.”
Sethi warned in his testimony against the rising fear of Hindu nationalism that is stifling voices of religious minorities in India.
He added that many in the South Asian community in the US remain concerned over their safety or the safety of their relatives back home if they speak out.
Sethi and Bhargava connected the current Kashmir crisis to other crises across India, including Assam, where nearly two million Bengali origin people – both Hindus and Muslims – fear losing their citizenship.
“Vulnerable communities across India deserve justice,” Sethi said at the hearing.
In a question facilitated by US Representative James McGovern, all the witnesses agreed that the UN and international journalists should be allowed into Kashmir, and that the current ban on communication should be lifted.
US Representatives David Trone, David Cicilline, Sheila Jackson Lee, Brian K Fitzpatrick, Pramila Jayapal, and Chris Smith were present at the hearing.