US voices Kashmir concern as lawmakers raise tone on India

US acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs, Alice Wells. (AFP)
Updated 23 October 2019

US voices Kashmir concern as lawmakers raise tone on India

  • Alice Wells, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said the United States “remains concerned” about the impact of India’s actions in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley

WASHINGTON: The United States on Tuesday renewed calls on India to ease its clampdown in Kashmir as several lawmakers voiced anger at actions by a country that usually enjoys robust US support.
Senior US officials also criticized Pakistan’s record during a congressional hearing on human rights in South Asia, but nearly all lawmakers focused questions on India, which rescinded Kashmir’s decades-old autonomous status in August.
Alice Wells, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said the United States “remains concerned” about the impact of India’s actions in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley.
“We have urged Indian authorities to respect human rights and restore full access to services, including Internet and mobile networks,” she told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
She said that the United States was also concerned about the detention of residents including mainstream political leaders and about impediments to both local and foreign media coverage.
India in August cut virtually all telephone and Internet service in Kashmir, fearing unrest in the scenic Himalayan region which its rival Pakistan also controls in part.
Indian authorities have since restored landlines and mobile service, but the Internet remains cut.
The actions by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government have triggered unusually vocal criticism by members of Congress, who along with successive US administrations have for two decades broadly backed building strong relations with India.
Representative Ilhan Omar, a prominent first-term Democratic lawmaker and one of the few Muslims in Congress, charged that Kashmir is part of a pattern against Islam by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
She pointed to reports of detention camps being built in the northeastern state of Assam, which borders Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Nearly two million people failed to prove their Indian citizenship in a controversial registration drive, with Modi’s government vowing that “illegal” immigrants cannot stay.
“This is how the Rohingya genocide started,” Omar said, referring to the bloody campaign by Myanmar against the mostly Muslim people.
“At what point do we no longer share values with India? Are we waiting for the Muslims in Assam to be put in those camps?” Omar said.
Wells, the State Department official, said the United States shared concerns but noted that the Assam citizenship registration was ordered by a court and that an appeals process was in place.
“As a democracy, we respect other democracies’ abilities to self-police and self-regulate,” she said.
Representative Brad Sherman, who heads the House subcommittee on Asia, shot back: “A human rights abuse doesn’t cease to be a human rights abuse just because it’s being done pursuant to the law or court rulings of the country committing the abuse.”

Despite lawmakers’ concerns, President Donald Trump has stood alongside Modi, joining him last month for an unusual joint rally in Houston where the two leaders vowed a hard line against extremism.
Modi argues that he will bring economic and social development to Kashmir by ending its special status — including restrictions on outsiders buying property.
But even some members of Trump’s Republican Party have voiced uneasiness. Kashmiri- and Pakistani-Americans have focused efforts on pressing Congress — evidenced at Tuesday’s hearing where the audience several times broke out in applause, generally a breach of decorum in Congress.
Representative Ted Yoho, the top Republican on the Asia subcommittee, said a dentist in his state of Florida told him how she learned weeks late, due to the blackout, that her grandmother had died in Kashmir.
“I don’t think anybody should have to live under those circumstances and I would hope that the free world would agree with that,” Yoho said.
The State Department also roundly criticized Pakistan for not reining in the virulently anti-Indian movements Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Wells deplored the “shrinking space for civil society and media freedom” in Pakistan, saying the situation has worsened in the past year, and voiced deep concern over treatment of religious minorities.


Far right surges amid Socialist win in Spain

Updated 11 November 2019

Far right surges amid Socialist win in Spain

  • After a fourth national ballot in as many years and the second in less than seven months, the left-wing Socialists held on as the leading power in the national parliament
  • The big political shift came as right-wing voters flocked to Vox, which only had broken into Parliament in the spring for the first time

MADRID: Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists won Spain’s national election on Sunday but large gains by the upstart far-right Vox party appear certain to widen the political deadlock in the European Union’s fifth-largest economy.
After a fourth national ballot in as many years and the second in less than seven months, the left-wing Socialists held on as the leading power in the national parliament. With 99.9% of the votes counted, the Socialists captured 120 seats, down three seats from the last election in April and still far from the absolute majority of 176 needed to form a government alone.
The big political shift came as right-wing voters flocked to Vox, which only had broken into Parliament in the spring for the first time. Sunday’s outcome means there will be no end to the stalemate between forces on the right and the left in Spain, suggesting the country could go many more weeks or even months without a new government.
The far-right party led by 43-year-old Santiago Abascal, who speaks of “reconquering” Spain in terms that echo the medieval wars between Christian and Moorish forces, rocketed from 24 to 52 seats. That will make Vox the third leading party in the Congress of Deputies, giving it much more leverage in forming a government and crafting legislation.
The party has vowed to be much tougher on both Catalan separatists and migrants.
Abascal called his party’s success “the greatest political feat seen in Spain.”
“Just 11 months ago, we weren’t even in any regional legislature in Spain. Today we are the third-largest party in Spain and the party that has grown the most in votes and seats,” said Abascal, who promised to battle the “progressive dictatorship.”
Right-wing populist and anti-migrant leaders across Europe celebrated Vox’s strong showing.
Marine Le Pen, who heads France’s National Rally party, congratulated Abascal, saying his impressive work “is already bearing fruit after only a few years.”
In Italy, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League party tweeted a picture of himself next to Abascal with the words “Congratulations to Vox!” above Spanish and Italian flags. And in the Netherlands, anti-Islam Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders posted a photograph of himself with Abascal and wrote “FELICIDADES” — Spanish for congratulations — with three thumbs-up emojis.
With Sunday’s outcome, the mainstream conservative Popular Party rebounded from its previous debacle in the April vote to 88 seats from 66, a historic low. The far-left United We Can, which had rejected an offer to help the Socialists form a left-wing government over the summer, lost some ground to get 35 seats.
The night’s undisputed loser was the center-right Citizens party, which collapsed to 10 seats from 57 in April after its leader Albert Rivera refused to help the Socialists form a government and tried to copy some of Vox’s hard-line positions.
Sánchez’s chances of staying in power still hinges on ultimately winning over the United We Can party and several regional parties, a complicated maneuver that he has failed to pull off in recent months.
Sánchez called on opponents to be “responsible” and “generous” by allowing a Socialist-led government to remain in charge.
“We extend this call to all the political parties except for those who self-exclude themselves ... and plant the seeds of hate in our democracy,” he added, an apparent allusion to far-right and also possibly to separatist Catalan parties.
United We Can leader Pablo Iglesias extended an offer of support to Sánchez.
“These elections have only served for the right to grow stronger and for Spain to have one of the strongest far-right parties in Europe,” Iglesias said. “The only way to stop the far-right in Spain is to have a stable government.”
Pablo Casado, the leader of the Popular Party, also pledged to work to end months of political instability. He said “the ball was in the court” of Sánchez, though. In recent months his party and Citizens have struck deals with Vox to take over some cities and regional governments.
Bonnie Field, a professor on Global Studies at Bentley University in California, called the political situation a “mess government-wise.”
“Spanish politics are now increasingly complicated and any governing formula is going to require lots of negotiations, and people being open to criticism,” she said.
The Socialists took a hit in the country’s Senate, losing their absolute majority of 133 seats in the upper parliamentary chamber amid the significant conservative inroads.
Julia Giobelina, a 34-year-old web designer from Madrid, was angry at having to vote for the second time this year. But she said she cast her ballot in hopes of stopping Vox.
“They are the new fascism,” Giobelina said. “We citizens need to stand against privatization of health care and other public services.”
Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s after a near four-decade right-wing dictatorship under the late Gen. Francisco Franco. The country used to take pride in claiming that no far-right group had seats in the national Parliament, unlike the rest of Europe. That changed in the spring, but the Socialists’ April victory was still seen by many as a respite for Europe, where right-wing parties had gained much ground.
Vox relied on its anti-migrant message and attacks on laws that protect women from domestic abuse as well as what it considers leftist ideology disguised as political correctness. Still, it does not advocate a break from the EU in the very pro-EU Spain.
It has nevertheless flourished after recent riots in Catalonia by separatists, capitalizing on Spanish nationalist sentiment stirred up by the country’s worst political conflict in decades. Many right-wingers were also not pleased by the Socialist government’s exhumation of Franco’s remains last month from his gargantuan mausoleum so he could no longer be exalted in a public place.
The debate over Catalonia, meanwhile, promises to fester.
The three Catalan separatist parties won a combined 23 seats on Sunday.
Many Catalans have been angered by the decision last month by Spain’s Supreme Court, which sentenced to prison nine Catalan politicians and activists who led a 2017 drive for the region’s independence. The ruling has triggered massive daily protests in Catalonia that left more than 500 people injured, roughly half of them police officers, and dozens arrested.