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a congressional hearing on human rights in South Asia, but nearly all lawmakers focused questions on India, which rescinded Kashmir’s decades-old autonomous status in August.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.


Eternal City Rome looks for return of good fortune to Trevi Fountain

Updated 51 min 42 sec ago

Eternal City Rome looks for return of good fortune to Trevi Fountain

  • The coronavirus stopped tradition of throwing coins into the fountain
  • Used to raise nearly $1.7 million every year for charities

ROME: Many visitors to Rome will have tossed a coin over their shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, as legend has it that this means one day they will return to the Eternal City — and find love and good fortune.

Thousands of visitors used to do that every day and night at this 17th-century masterpiece, one of the best-known landmarks in Rome alongside the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica.

The coronavirus stopped that, nobody knows for how long. And that is at the expense of the poor in Rome who were receiving that money — nearly $1.7 million every year — through a charity that helps the many homeless and vulnerable in the city.

The tradition of tossing coins into this magnificent white marble fountain, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and set like a precious gem between the palaces of the city center, gained worldwide popularity after the release of the 1954 romantic comedy “Three Coins in the Fountain.”

But the tradition started long before the popular American film was made. Originally, it was said that a thirst-quenching glass of water from the Trevi Fountain would ensure good fortune and a quick return to the Eternal City.

According to legend, tossing one coin into the Trevi Fountain means that you will return to Rome; tossing two coins means you’ll return and fall in love. And tossing three coins means you’ll return, find love and marry.

Luck or no luck, the money tourists throw into the fountain all goes to a good cause. It is collected every Monday from the monument during the cleaning of the fountain and then given to Caritas, a Catholic charity, which uses it to support soup kitchens, shelters and any other efforts that help Rome’s poverty-stricken communities, which are mostly composed of immigrants.

The national lockdown declared by the national government against the coronavirus infection stopped tourists visiting Rome.

As a result, in the past 20 days Caritas has lost nearly €190,000 ($210,000) from the “treasure” that is usually obtained from the Trevi Fountain.

“That money is gone with the tourists. And right now it would have been more useful than ever as poverty increases,” said Don Benoni Ambarus, the director of Caritas.

This is one of the many side-effects of the pandemic. If it continues like this until December, there could be more than €1 million less available for the charity. “Ours is not an alarm as at the moment there are many worse dramatic situations to face, but we have to think about it. For the moment we are holding on, compensating the loss from the Trevi Fountain with a fundraising campaign we launched a few days ago,” the priest told Arab News.

The poor people of Rome need the coins from the Trevi Fountain.

Revenue from the fountain funds five “emporiums of solidarity” — supermarkets in  districts of the city allowing about 2,000 of the most needy families to shop for free.

The coins fund a hostel offering 60 beds and 180 meals a day to the homeless. They also fund the repatriation of the bodies of migrants, and expenses for those who cannot afford funerals.

“Now we are stuck,” the priest said. “Our hope is that the fountain will once again be full of coins soon. Not only because poor people need those coins but also because having the tourists able to throw coins again would be a gesture of normality, that would mean that this city is back to its normal life.”

Across the nation, the government is concerned about the effects that the coronavirus may have on levels of poverty and social unrest for those who cannot make enough money to buy food at the supermarket.

Due to the lockdown to contain the infection and the shutdown of non-essential factories and businesses, many Italian citizens have seen a sharp decrease in their incomes. Although soup kitchens and shelters in Rome remain open, the informal systems of support, such as spare change dropped in a cup or supplying a free breakfast pastry, no longer exist.

The closure of bars and restaurants has cut off access to washrooms. Major problems are expected, especially in the south of Italy where the informal economy plays a large role and income has historically been lower.

After an alarming report from the Italian agency for homeland security warning of the “concrete possibility” of people breaking into shops and supermarkets to get food, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that mayors will soon be able to issue vouchers for food shopping to help low-income people cope with the economic consequences of the coronavirus.

Using an initial €400 million fund, and with an advance payment of €4.3 billion, the central government wants to help the poorest sections of Italian society. Local municipalities will have to use this fund to buy food, medicines and other essential goods for citizens with low incomes.

When it happens, the return of tourists, and coins, to the Trevi Fountain will be a welcome sign that the fortunes of the needy in Rome and Italy are looking up.