Sunanda Vashisht, a writer and Kashmiri Pandit, turned out to be India’s best defence at the hearing

Sunanda Vashisht, a writer and Kashmiri Pandit, harangued lawmakers for wilfully ignoring the role played by Pakistan-backed terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.

US lawmakers expressed concern once again with restrictions and detentions in Jammu and Kashmir at a highly partisan hearing on Thursday of a congressionally-mandated human rights body that has been charged with fielding a “lopsided ” panel of witnesses, most of whom are known for their virulent hostility to India.

The issues raised by them and most witnesses — an official and activists — were the same as those at a congressional hearing last month that has been privately acknowledged among India watchers as a “debacle” for India, which had been taken by surprise by the hostility, even from lawmakers considered friendly.

Wiser by that experience, the Indian embassy was better organised this time. It tried to reach out to the more than 80 lawmakers on the Tom Lantos Human Rights Committee, which held the Thursday hearing.

It briefed the official star witness, Arunima Bhargava of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, thoroughly, and pushed Indian Americans to lobby their respective lawmakers and make sure at least one witness would be “fair and balanced”.

The strategy appears to have worked. The effort was to “level the playing field”, said Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the Indian ambassador to the United States.

Sunanda Vashisht, a writer and Kashmiri Pandit, turned out to be India’s best defence at the hearing. “This is a lopsided panel,” she said at one stage, exasperated at the interventions from fellow panellists.

And, at the same time, harangued lawmakers for wilfully ignoring the role played by Pakistan-backed terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.

“We have to be cognisant of the fact. All deaths have been happening due to terrorists trained by Pakistan. This doublespeak is not helping India in any way,” Vashisht said.

Her criticism of the “lopsided” nature of the panel of witnesses appears to have hit home.

A senior member of the commission, who has been largely accused of calling a “second hearing in a short period of time” on India, is said to have “apologised” to Vashisht after the hearing for the constitution of the panel.

But he complimented her, in a conciliatory gesture possibly, “her participation was equal to five other panellists”.

Vashisht had aggressively challenged other witnesses and lawmakers as she argued for a balance to be struck between human life and human rights.

The Indian strategy and aim were to “balance” the narrative emerging at the hearing, and contain the discordant voices.

The criticism of India government’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, when Article 370 was abrogated changing the constitutional status of the state and since, came largely from the same set of Democratic lawmakers as the last time.

They were Sheila Jackson Lee, who heads the Pakistan caucus in the US House of Representatives, David Trone and David Cicilline, who are described as the liberal extreme of the Democratic party, and Pramila Jayapal, an Indian American who has been among the most aggressive.

“I am deeply concerned by the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir, to detain people without charge, severely limit communications and block third parties from visiting,” Jayapal said in an exchange with Bhargava.

She added these measures are “harmful to our close and critical relationship.

Bhargava, who acknowledged India was working on some of her chief concerns based on an advance briefing by Indian diplomats, said, “USCIRF is concerned about reports starting in August that the Indian government restricted freedom of movement and assembly in Jammu and Kashmir, limiting people’s ability to attend prayers and participate in religious ceremonies; forestalling any large gatherings, including for religious purposes; and for certain communities, curtailing access to health care and other basic services.”

USCIRF is the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

She added: “USCIRF has also seen reports of mosques being closed, imams and Muslim community leaders arrested and detained and violence and threats towards residents and businesses in particular.”

Restrictions on cellphones and movement and their impact on general daily life were among the key specific concerns that came up repeatedly at the hearing. Bhargava went further and broadened the scope of her criticism.

“India’s religious minorities currently stand at a precipice,” she said. “If the Indian government continues on its current trajectory, their livelihood, rights, and freedoms could be in serious danger.”

The USCIRF has been critical of the Indian government for years, and its annual reports have tended to push India towards a classification of countries that are deemed unilaterally by the United States to be egregious violators of religious freedom.

Bhargava, one of the body’s top officials, reflected those concerns at the hearing.

“Religious freedom conditions in India experienced a downward trend in 2018, a trend that unfortunately has continued and appears to be accelerating in 2019,” she said.

The USCRIF tweeted at the end a video of the exchange between Bhargava Jayapal, saying, “So great to see two strong Indian women having this conversation.”