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India’s prime minister will visit the U.S. next week. What will he say about human rights in Kashmir?

Narendra Modi’s government has kept the region under lockdown since early August

- September 20, 2019

This weekend, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will start a week-long trip to the United States. The visit will kick off in Houston on Sunday with a “Howdy, Modi!” rally, which is expected to draw more than 50,000 members of the Indian diaspora community.

Modi’s visit has sparked intense criticism — and will probably generate protests. After his stop in Texas, he will receive the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Global Goals Award and join other world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly. But critics are likely to push Modi to address a human rights crisis in Kashmir, which the Indian government has kept under lockdown since early August.

Here’s the story, and what to expect during Modi’s visit:

1. What has happened in Kashmir over the past six weeks?

On Aug. 5, India announced changes to the legal and constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, stripping the region of its autonomy. Anticipating a blowback in response to this announcement, the Indian government suspended the freedom of movement for much of the Muslim-majority region, instituted a curfew and suspended phone and Internet services for more than 7 million people. The Indian government also placed local political leaders under house arrest and sent more troops to one of the world’s most militarized regions.

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While landline services have recently resumed, many of these restrictions continue. Indian forces detained some leaders, including a former head of the state, under the Public Safety Act, which allows for detention for up to two years without a trial. Kashmir has reportedly seen an average of nearly 20 protests per day since the August lockdown. Limited media access, however, restricts the ability to verify the extent of these protests.

2. How might this crisis affect Modi’s upcoming address at the United Nations?

On Friday, Modi will be addressing the U.N. General Assembly — the same day as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who will probably criticize India’s recent actions and bring international attention to human rights abuses in Kashmir. The Indian government’s lockdown will continue until at least this address, to ward off allegations of rights violations by the international community.

India tends to keep a low profile at the U.N. Human Rights Council, abstaining from or voting against resolutions condemning other countries. By doing so, the government hopes to avoid being similarly targeted for violating its international human rights commitments. It also does not want to set precedents that could be used by activists at home hoping to hold the country accountable on human rights issues.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has expressed concern over developments in the region. But Pakistan’s proposal to request a resolution on Kashmir failed to get the minimum number of votes to be placed on the council’s agenda.

More generally, research shows that populations typically underestimate the level of government repression unless their state is a target of shaming. Increased shaming by human rights NGOs leads to increased nonviolent protests and potential reductions in foreign investment in that country.

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Though diplomatic reactions on Kashmir have been muted, the Indian government faces criticism from the media and human rights organizations. India has taken steps to avoid this type of pressure — in addition to press restrictions in Kashmir, especially on foreign reporting, it has also cracked down on NGOs.

My research on human rights NGOs in India shows that almost one-third of Amnesty International’s reporting on India has focused on Kashmir. In the past, the government has raided and threatened human rights groups that criticized previous government actions in Kashmir.

3. What’s the U.S. response to the Kashmir lockdown?

President Trump will join the “Howdy, Modi!” lineup — this is also the first time that leaders of both countries will be addressing a joint rally. The Modi government’s recent announcement to exclude nearly 2 million mostly Muslim residents from a citizenship list has drawn parallels with Trump’s attempts to ban visas for immigrants from mostly Muslim countries.

India pulled Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy. Here’s why that is a big deal for this contested region.

In August, Trump stepped back from commenting on Kashmir, saying he felt India’s prime minister “has it under control.” While the State Department reaffirmed India’s description of the issue as an “internal matter,” Trump has offered to mediate. India, in turn, has maintained that there is no scope for foreign mediation.

The U.S. Congress, however, has shown increasing concern over Kashmir. On Sept. 12, a bipartisan group of four senators wrote to Trump urging him to pressure Modi to release detainees, lift curfews and restore telecommunications in the region, citing the issue’s “grave importance for democracy, human rights, and regional stability.” A number of U.S. House members, including Democrats Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Ted Lieu (Calif.), have publicly condemned reports of human rights violations in Kashmir.

India’s ambassador to the United States has asserted that media perspectives have been biased and counter to India’s interests. The Indian Embassy has also reached out to members of Congress, the think tank community and the Indian diaspora to explain the government’s view of the “real picture.”

Modi and his government have focused public commentary on how changes to the status of Jammu and Kashmir will bring economic development and good governance to the region. This stance was just reiterated by the Indian ambassador to the United States, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, in an editorial in the New York Times on Thursday. During Modi’s U.S. visit, this official line will probably remain consistent with India’s long-term policy of viewing Kashmir as a purely domestic matter — and not an area that requires foreign mediation or intervention.

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Suparna Chaudhry is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at Christopher Newport University.