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Kashmir turmoil

Kashmiris expect Biden to pressure India on human rights

Campaign plank cheers region but reality offers little hope for actual change

Indian security forces leave after a gun battle with suspected militants in Srinagar on May 19. The U.N.'s human rights watchdog has warned that the situation in Kashmir "has been in free fall."   © Reuters

SRINAGAR, India -- Joe Biden's victory in the U.S. presidential election a month ago has instilled hope in politicians and citizens in India-administered Kashmir who expect President Donald Trump's replacement to raise the issue of human rights abuses in the region.

The campaign's website has a lengthy page, "Joe Biden's Agenda for Muslim-American Communities," that lists atrocities committed against Muslims around the world, including Kashmiris, Rohingyas and Uyghurs. "In Kashmir," the page says, "the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir. Restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the Internet, weaken democracy."

This passage has stoked optimism that is noticeable on the streets of Kashmir. Locals regularly discuss Biden's victory and the impact they expect it to have on Kashmiri politics.

Ghulam Mohammad, 80, and a resident of Budgam, a western district of Kashmir, said, "We as a society have witnessed grim situations, especially after the abrogation of Article 370," referring to a part of India's constitution that had given the then-State of Jammu and Kashmir a semi-autonomous status before New Delhi abolished it last year. "The victory of Biden and Harris in the 2020 U.S. election has brought in a ray of hope in these dark times.

"After a long time, this triumph has brought a smile on my face."

Yasmin Hussain, a resident of Srinagar, the largest city in the region, echoed Mohammad's sentiments. Since Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi "share a good relationship, [Kashmiris] are happy about [Trump] losing and are hoping the new president will have a better policy towards Kashmir."

Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi, a senior political leader and three-time member of the Legislative Assembly in what was Jammu and Kashmir, told Nikkei Asia that the Biden campaign's talk of working for democratic and secular values "gives us a reason to be optimistic that we may be heard at that level."

Former chief ministers of the dissolved state congratulated Biden and his vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris, on social media. "Their win gives hope to rest of the world that right wing extremism & those who sow division & hatred will sooner or later be relegated to the pages of history like Donald Trump," tweeted former chief minister Mehboba Mufti.

The region's inhabitants note that when Kamala Harris was herself running for the Democratic nomination for president, she had been vocal on Kashmir issues. In October 2019, during an event in Texas, Harris raised her concern for the human rights violations in the region. Harris said the U.S. would intervene in the Kashmir conflict "if the condition demands" and assured Kashmiris "that they are not alone."

Idrees Kanth, an academic from Kashmir who teaches global history, told Nikkei that people in the Kashmir Valley would be hoping Joe Biden inaugurates a new phase in American foreign policy, that he is more attentive toward Kashmir and calls on India to put a stop to its repressive and authoritarian measures in the region.

A banner featuring Kamala Harris is pasted on a wall at a bus stop in the village of Thulasendrapuram, where Harris' maternal grandfather was born and grew up, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.   © Reuters

Sheikh Showkat Hussain, former dean of the school of legal studies at the Central University of Kashmir, said Biden and Harris have expressed concern regarding the plight of Kashmiris. "Therefore, people are hopeful. Whether that hope is genuine or misplaced, only time will tell," he said.

Fozia Nazir Lone who teaches at the School of Law at the City University of Hong Kong told Nikkei that, considering the past trajectory of U.S. Democrats who have voiced support for Kashmiris, one can expect the Kashmir conflict will get some attention under the new administration. "We can hope for a positive change," Lone said.

Indian Prime Minister Modi in August 2019 abolished the constitutional article that had given semi-autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. Security forces have been seen on the streets ever since, and high-speed internet remains banned except in two districts.

An injured Kashmiri Shi'ite Muslim reacts as he is detained by Indian police while trying to participate in a Muharram procession in Srinagar on Aug. 28.   © Reuters

In August, the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement calling on "India and the international community to take urgent action to address the alarming human rights situation [in Kashmir]. Since the Indian Parliament revoked the constitutionally mandated status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August 2019, the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir has been in free fall."

Despite the hopes and wishes of Kashmiris and Joe Biden's agenda, there is little reason to expect U.S. foreign policy in regard to that region to change under a new president. For one thing, American politicians on both sides of the aisle favor a deep partnership with India, a nation they see as sharing an interest in countering China.

"I don't anticipate much change in U.S. policy toward India under a Biden administration," said Michael Kugelman, the Deputy Director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center. "I don't see any change in policy toward Kashmir, either."

The change will be in rhetoric, Idrisa Pandit, an independent Kashmiri-American academic based in Canada, told Nikkei.

"The only shift I foresee from the Biden-Harris camp," Pandit said, "is that they will every now and then speak out more strongly on the human rights of Kashmiris and human rights of minorities in India, particularly religious rights."

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