- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2019

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

Pakistani charges that India has conducted a militarized takeover of Kashmir and jailed thousands of political prisoners are “completely wrong” and designed to undermine New Delhi’s attempts to bring economic prosperity to the disputed territory, India’s top diplomat in Washington said Thursday.

In a wide-ranging interview Thursday, Amb. Harsh Vardhan Shringla accused Islamabad of conducting a misinformation campaign over the recent tensions in Kashmir and denied that the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is conducting a Hindu nationalist policy bent on ending Muslim dominance in Kashmir and of undermining minority rights in the world’s most populous democracy.

“Some of our detractors are spreading false rumors, including through the U.S. media and it is malicious in nature,” Indian Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Shringla told The Washington Times on Thursday.

“The Pakistanis would like to make [Kashmir] a religious and sectarian issue,” he said. “It is not. India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world — 200 million Muslims — and I have not seen any instances where the Muslim community has voiced any disaffection over the very courageous initiative we have embarked upon in Jammu and Kashmir.”



The envoy in the interview also weighed in on India’s larger foreign policy goals, the Trump administration’s trade war with China and U.S. unease over India’s reported pursuit of advanced S-400 missiles from Russia.

While he declined to comment specifically on an S-400 deal — saying only that “India has to maintain a minimum deterrence capability” — the ambassador extensively praised the depths of the U.S.-India “strategic relationship” under President Trump.

India is the major defense partner of the United States,” he said. “The largest military exercises we have with any country are with the United States.”

India has felt the sting of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and its clash with the socialist government of Venezuela — both exporters of oil to India. The Modi government has acquiesced to U.S. sanctions against Iranian oil purchases, but has voiced subtle criticisms of the trade restrictions and has not cut all ties to Tehran.

Ambassador Shringla also sought to cast a positive light on the U.S.-India trade relationship. The United States is India’s second-largest trading partner, but only the 18th largest export market for American goods — an imbalance that President Trump has criticized in the past.

Trade tensions flared up this summer when the U.S. ended tariff-free treatment on some $5.6 billion of Indian exports, ruling that India no longer qualified for preferential treatment as a developing economy. The Modi government soon after announced new tariffs on more than two dozen U.S. products, including almonds and apples, in retaliation for higher duties the U.S. had previously imposed on India steel and aluminum exports.

While India may benefit from an extended U.S.-China trade war, the ambassador said New Delhi is sensitive to American criticisms of its market access and tariff policies.

India has made a conscious effort to buy more American goods,” he said. “In the last year alone, we have bought $4.5 billion dollars of U.S. oil and gas and placed orders for 300 [American-made] civilian aircraft worth $39 billion, and in the last ten years, we’ve bought $18 billion of U.S. defense equipment,” he said. “This has reduced the adverse trade balance and that’s our objective towards meeting the Trump administration’s requirement that there is a more equitable trade.”

Setting the record straight

The Indian ambassador made no secret of his main priority Thursday — to counter the harsh Pakistani criticisms of the escalation of tensions in Kashmir, as well as Mr. Modi’s decision to revoke the territory’s special constitutional status as a semi-autonomous state.

Pakistani Amb. Asad Majeed Khan told The Times last week that “thousands” of Kashmiris had been imprisoned by India and that the Indian military was turning a vast section of the Muslim majority Himalayan territory into “practically a concentration camp.”

“In all fairness,” Ambassador Shringla said, “we would certainly ask that any such allegation be brought to us so that we can respond to it with the facts on the ground.”

“Anyone not able to reach their families is welcome to contact me or my colleagues in the Indian embassy and we will make sure that they reach their families,” he said, adding that any measures Indian forces took last month in the Indian-controlled area known as Jammu and Kashmir have almost entirely been pulled back in recent weeks.

Electricity is back, telephone lines are being restored and there is no shortage of medicine or hospital access, the ambassador said, although he acknowledged that there have been some “political detentions” of Kashmiris now being held “under house arrest.”

“Numbers are not exactly known to me, a few hundred are what authorities have mentioned,” he said, asserting that in order to ensure the success of the Indian government’s plan for Jammu and Kashmir, “we had to initiate a certain amount of cautionary and preventative measures.”

Kashmir’s status was ‘temporary’

Ambassador Shringla argues that New Delhi’s decision to remove the semi-autonomous status of Indian-controlled Kashmir violated no past treaties between India and Pakistan, which have controlled different parts of the divided Himalayan territory since 1947.

The Modi government acted, he said, in large part because of the mandate the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured in elections earlier this year. The BJP currently enjoys an “absolute majority” in the Indian parliament — the first such majority over the legislative body in a nearly 50 years.

“The government of India has followed the due legislative process,” the ambassador said. “Two bills were introduced in Indian parliament and were passed by a two-thirds majority.”

The move was also justified as a way to bring development and investment to the Kashmir economy, which has lagged behind the rest of the country.

“The political elite in the state essentially fostered a culture of nepotism and corruption,” Ambassador Shringla said, resulting in a “moribund economy” for young Kashmiris who were then preyed upon by Pakistan.

Islamabad has “facilitated cross-border terrorism and the incitement of violence” in the territory, he said. “What the Indian government is offering now in Jammu and Kashmir is the prospect of good governance, the delivery of social justice and economic development.”

Mr. Modi “has talked about making Jammu and Kashmir the tourism hub of the world in the next five years,” Ambassador Shringla said. “We are talking about huge investments in areas that Jammu and Kashmir is already known for — its tourism, its film industry, horticulture and handicrafts and other traditional industries.”

Private investment will follow, the ambassador claimed, asserting “billions of dollars” in private money is expected from a major conference being organized next month.

Hindu nationalism?

Ambassador Shringla scoffed at the characterization of Mr. Modi as a Hindu nationalist who sees India as a historic Hindu homeland and seeks to turn Jammu and Kashmir into a Hindu-majority state.

Such charges have dogged Mr. Modi since he was chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, when it was rocked by brutal sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims. That history haunted Mr. Modi upon his rise to prime minister in 2014, when the State Department briefly banned him from entering the United States because of allegations he’d played a role in fomenting the violence.

Ambassador Shringla said attention would be better focused Mr. Modi’s five subsequent visits to the United States since 2014, noting that “there have been no instances of communal violence or rioting between [Hindus and Muslims in India] since he became prime minister.”

“The first thing the prime minister said after being re-elected last year was that wants to build a strong and prosperous and inclusive India,” the ambassador said. “India is a secular democratic republic. Communities live together. They live peacefully and in harmony and you don’t have the sort of acrimony between religions that Pakistan is raising.”

Mr. Modi, he added, “is a man who has the best interests of Indians in mind, whether they are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Farsis, Jews or of any other religion, Buddhists. The important thing is that the country has to grow, the country has to develop and the country has to prosper. That is our priority. It is not our priority to create animosity between religions and that certainly not intended in Jammu and Kashmir.”

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