On August 5, the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi moved to fully integrate Jammu and Kashmir into India, ending 70 years of the Muslim-majority region’s semiautonomous rule previously guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. To preempt an inevitable backlash, the Indian government deployed thousands of additional troops to what is already the most militarized zone in the world, imposed an internet and communications blackout, and arrested and detained Kashmiri political leaders en masse. Months later, as so-called normalcy remains elusive, the U.S. House of Representatives is struggling to pass a nonbinding resolution that would condemn Modi’s actions and seek accountability for draconian restrictions and human rights abuses happening in the region.
The internal tension came to a head earlier this month, when a bipartisan resolution, introduced by Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., with 65 co-sponsors, failed to be scheduled for a markup in the House Foreign Affairs Committee as planned. Committee Chair Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., originally promised to bring the resolution up for debate, but after he met with Indian government officials, the resolution never made the schedule.
To mitigate a groundswell of scrutiny emanating from Congress, the Indian Embassy has launched a full-court press of lobbying initiatives.
“I am very disappointed that the resolution was not put on the markup calendar,” Jayapal said in a statement to The Intercept on March 3. “I worked with Rep. Steve Watkins to make our resolution bipartisan, and we worked with the Committee to make changes so that the resolution could move forward quickly at this critical time in India, where violence against religious minorities and journalists has claimed more than 40 lives in the last week.”
The Indian government and a pro-India advocacy group, Hindu American Foundation, have deployed an arsenal of lobbying tactics to hinder the House resolution’s momentum since its introduction in early December — expending a disproportionate amount of resources and manpower to prevent the House from taking an official stance on Kashmir. The resolution’s passage would be a symbolic blow to India’s international reputation, which has suffered under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s rapid-fire implementation of controversial policies widely seen as stepping stones to transforming the country from a secular democracy into a Hindu supremacist state.
After hearing concerns about the resolution from the Indian Embassy and other Foreign Affairs Committee members, Engel proposed edits to the language with the intention of “advancing a measure through the committee with a clear path to passage on the House floor,” his office said. But Kashmiri American advocates told The Intercept that the latest changes uncritically accept talking points from the Indian government and its supporters about Kashmir’s history and the current situation. Despite Jayapal agreeing to those edits, Engel did not include the resolution in the first markup of the year, as promised. Hindu American Foundation took credit in a newsletter for stalling deliberations after putting out a call to action to pressure members of Congress against supporting the resolution.
The postponement of the resolution is the latest wrench the Indian government and its supporters have thrown to quell the political backlash in the U.S. against India — likely out of fear that the country’s hard-fought bipartisan relationship could become compromised. To mitigate a groundswell of scrutiny emanating from Congress, the Indian Embassy has launched a full-court press of lobbying initiatives in Washington.
That lobbying campaign has included scores of meetings between embassy officials and U.S. lawmakers, the hiring of a Washington-based lobbying firm, and previously unreported emails to congressional offices that contain misleading information about the latest developments in Kashmir and the intentions behind the Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA. The Indian Embassy did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
Hindu American Foundation, known among progressive and minority South Asian American groups for using intimidation and the spread of misinformation to counter their advocacy work, has been at the forefront of reinforcing the embassy’s efforts — deterring members of Congress from taking critical positions on India and masquerading as a liberal representative of the Indian American community.
“If I could describe the Indian lobby, it’s very aggressive but not super sophisticated,” said a co-founder of Americans for Kashmir, a Kashmiri American-led policy organization based in Washington, who asked to not be named for fear of reprisal. “They seem to act with the intention to inflict blunt force trauma versus to have more nuanced conversations.”
Students and police face off during an anti-CAA protest outside the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi on Feb. 10, 2020.
Seizing the Narrative
Since Modi’s landslide reelection in May, the Indian government has instigated an alarming escalation of political and sectarian conflict. The government has insisted that scrapping Kashmir’s special status, and incorporating its part of the region into India as union territories, was necessary for Kashmir’s security and for Kashmiris to gain equal rights and economic opportunities. Since August, Kashmir has suffered more than $2.4 billion in losses, and thousands of people have been detained, some under the Public Safety Act, which permits detention for up to two years without charge.
Daily protests and communal and police violence erupted across the country following the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act on December 11, which excludes Muslim migrants from Muslim-majority countries from receiving expedited citizenship. Last month, the protests morphed into an anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi that coincided with Donald Trump’s first presidential visit to India.
“All of a sudden, the BJP government after winning reelection moved with a real urgency and clarity of purpose in enacting some very controversial, pro-Hindu majoritarian policies,” said Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow of Carnegie Endowment for Peace’s South Asia Program. “I think that took a lot of people in the United States, and in Washington in particular, by surprise.”
“All of a sudden, the BJP government after winning reelection moved with a real urgency and clarity of purpose in enacting some very controversial, pro-Hindu majoritarian policies.”
The abrogation of India’s constitutional Articles 370 and 35A, which conferred Kashmir its semiautonomous status and decision-making powers, sparked concern from dozens of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in August; Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered a strong rebuke, calling India’s actions “unacceptable” when he spoke at the Islamic Society of North America convention, and for the U.S. government to support “a U.N.-backed peaceful resolution that respects the will of the Kashmiri people.” India and Pakistan have fought over the region since 1947, when both countries gained independence from British rule.
The House Subcommittee on Asia’s October hearing on human rights in South Asia became a flashpoint for rising tensions between India and the U.S. Congress, as Democrats questioned why India would impose a blockade on internet access and prevent foreign journalists and government officials from visiting Kashmir if the situation on the ground was returning to normal. Panelist Aarti Tikoo Singh, a former Times of India journalist who justified the abrogation as a means of defending Kashmir against the “Pakistani terror state,” clashed with Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who earlier in the hearing said that “the situation in Kashmir is part of an overall Hindu nationalism project” and told Tikoo Singh that “the press is at its worst when it is a mouthpiece for the government.”
In the wake of the torrent of criticism at the hearing, the Indian Embassy hired Cornerstone Government Affairs to lobby House Democrats in particular, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who was the Indian ambassador to the U.S. until the end of January, told India Abroad, a news outlet that caters to Indian American communities. According to filings made under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the Indian government has paid the firm $120,000 for its services in the past three months. (Cornerstone’s contract with India lasted through the end of February; it is not yet public whether it has been renewed.)
India’s Ambassador to the U.S. Harsh Vardhan Shringla, with President Donald Trump on Jan. 14, 2019.
Photo: Embassy of India
A Cornerstone senior consultant, Democratic political operative Paul DiNino, is helping the group carry out its work for India. DiNino is deeply embedded with the Democratic Party; he has been a political fundraiser for several Democratic senators and worked as the national finance director for the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton administration, as well as a deputy chief of staff for former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
According to FARA filings last month, on behalf of the embassy, Cornerstone lobbyists have contacted members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission — which also held a hearing focused on Kashmir in November.
Shringla explained the Indian government’s hiring of Cornerstone, saying that direct engagement with members of Congress is the embassy’s “highest priority.”
As ambassador, Shringla held a marathon of face-to-face meetings with dozens of lawmakers after August 5, meeting some — like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — more than once. Prior to the October subcommittee hearing, he and other Indian diplomats briefed several Foreign Affairs Committee members and other congresspeople on Kashmir in a closed-door meeting.
Shringla held a marathon of face-to-face meetings with dozens of lawmakers after August 5, meeting some — like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — more than once.
Shringla also met with Republican lawmakers Reps. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., Pete Olson, R-Texas, and House India Caucus co-chair George Holding, R-N.C., who subsequently defended India on the House floor. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., hosted a farewell breakfast for Shringla before he left his position. In his new role as India’s foreign secretary, Shringla recently met with a congressional delegation in New Delhi that included Holding and Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., chair of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.
Indian American Muslim Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, has led the campaign on Capitol Hill to inform members of Congress on the fallout of the CAA in India and appeal to them to publicly address it. The Indian Embassy caught wind of the group’s activities and tried to intervene by asking members of Congress to meet with them or showing up at their offices, said Sana Qutubuddin, national advocacy coordinator for the council.
“The Indian Embassy has been trying to meet with everybody we’re meeting with, people who they think their understanding of India has been compromised,” Qutubuddin told The Intercept. “They’re trying to maneuver around us and suffocate our ability to effectively advocate for these issues.”
The embassy had scheduled a meeting with Democratic Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin’s human rights and foreign affairs staffer in late February, Raskin’s spokesperson Samantha Brown told The Intercept, but canceled the day of due to a scheduling conflict with the Justice Department.
Prior to hiring Cornerstone, India contracted the Podesta Group from 2010 to 2017 for a total of $4.7 million, according to FARA filings. The Podesta Group shuttered at the end of 2017 after its work with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort came to light during special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
The Indian government also has a longstanding relationship with BGR Group, a lobbying firm known for its Republican connections; that contract, which has been active since 2005, was renewed on January 1 for $175,000 through the end of March. BGR’s disclosures show that the firm works on “U.S.-India relations,” but does not detail specific issues.
An Indian paramilitary trooper stands guard along a road during a lockdown in Srinagar, Kashmir, on Oct. 30, 2019.
Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images
The Indian Embassy has also circulated several emails, obtained by The Intercept, to congressional staffers to share heavily biased updates on Kashmir, as well as to explain the scope of the Citizenship Amendment Act — including information that has been challenged by news reports and human rights groups.
On January 10, the Indian Supreme Court ruled the indefinite internet restrictions in Kashmir — which had been in effect for almost six months — an “arbitrary exercise of power” against Kashmiris’ freedom of speech and expression, and ordered the government to review them. On January 27, Vasudev Ravi, a second secretary for the embassy, sent an email to congressional offices that read, “Internet services have resumed in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir on mobile devices (date) and on fixed line broadband connections” as of two days prior.
This wasn’t true; several news outlets reported at the time that significant restrictions on internet access were still in place. Kashmiris were only able to visit about 300 government-approved websites, among them sites for news, entertainment, and search, but excluding social media, on a low-speed 2G connection — in effect making it difficult for people to even get online. On March 4, Indian authorities issued an order to temporarily restore full internet access — for about two weeks, and still at slow speeds.
A second secretary for the embassy wrote that “there has been no incident of major violence. Not even a single live bullet has been fired. There has been no loss of life in police action” in Kashmir. This wasn’t true.
In a January 2 email, Ravi wrote that “there has been no incident of major violence. Not even a single live bullet has been fired. There has been no loss of life in police action” in Kashmir. Violent standoffs between police and protesters, torture, and civilian deaths, have been well documented by multiple news outlets and human rights groups. Jammu Kashmir Coalition Civil Society and Associated of Parents of Disappeared Persons have documented at least six killings by Indian security forces between August 5 and December 31. The email also stated that there was “no restriction on media/journalists” in the region and “all mainstream newspapers are being printed,” but local reporters have been struggling under the lockdown: forced to work at a crowded media center with unreliable internet connection while facing intimidation and threats from security forces.
In another email sent as the Citizenship Amendment Act moved through parliament, Ravi dissected a New York Times article from December 9 that addressed the potential negative impact the bill would have on Muslim migrants — that it would deprive them a pathway to naturalization — and 200 million Indian Muslims who risked detention or deportation if they were not able to prove their citizenship under a proposed nationwide registry. Ravi pulled out several lines from the article, referring to its claims at times as “hyperbolic,” “polarizing,” and “completely false and without any basis.” The assertions in the Times article, he wrote, “stoke fears among Muslims and reinforce the myth that the legislation is anti-Muslim.” As The Intercept has reported, the CAA and an India-wide register of citizens, which has already been instituted in the state of Assam, could actually work together to explicitly target Muslims.
Ravi wrote in another email about the CAA that the law is “non-discriminatory; does not alter the secular nature of the country” — even though it omits Muslims, among other religious groups, and does not cover migrants seeking refuge from neighboring regions that do not have a Muslim majority, such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Tibet.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal during a House Judiciary Committee markup on Dec. 11, 2019.
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Shringla told India Abroad in January that while most members of Congress have been receptive to the embassy’s persistent outreach strategies, there remained some who “don’t have a full understanding of the situation or they don’t want to have that.” He named Omar, Jayapal, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., as members of Congress who have been particularly resistant; the latter two have introduced separate resolutions denouncing India’s actions in Kashmir.
Americans for Kashmir first worked with Tlaib to put out a resolution in November that sought support for Kashmiri self-determination, a key demand for many Kashmiris since a U.N.-mandated plebiscite in 1948 never came to fruition. A spokesperson from Tlaib’s office said her resolution, which has no co-sponsors, sought “to help highlight and end the human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir and recognizes that Kashmiris have a right to self-determination. She remains deeply concerned about the dangers they are facing. Her goal is to get legislation moving in the House to address these issues.” They said Tlaib would “continue to work to bring this issue to the House floor.”
The Kashmiri American advocates then pivoted to work with Jayapal on a separate resolution, which has faced several roadblocks from the Indian government, Engel’s office, and parts of the Indian American diaspora.
Jayapal scheduled two meetings with Shringla prior to introducing the resolution, both of which the Indian Embassy canceled. Two sources who worked on the resolution said that before Engel agreed to sign off on it, he required a Republican co-sponsor and watered down the original language — a characterization Engel’s office disagreed with. Jayapal introduced the resolution with Watkins, a Republican representative from Kansas, as a co-sponsor on December 6.
Jayapal scheduled two meetings with Shringla prior to introducing the resolution, both of which the Indian Embassy canceled.
The resolution was originally anticipated to be included in the Foreign Affairs Committee’s December 18 markup, but was postponed after Cornerstone sent a letter on behalf of Shringla to Engel and committee Ranking Member Michael McCaul expressing concern over the Kashmir resolutions, with a white paper of updates on the ground. The letter had been circulating online days after it was sent. “I firmly believe that mutual respect for each other’s institutions, such as the independent judiciary and the democratic processes that express the will of the people, would be undermined by Resolutions such as H:745 and H:724,” Shringla wrote, using the reference numbers for Jayapal’s and Tlaib’s resolutions, respectively. The Americans for Kashmir co-founder said it was unusual for the embassy to refer to specific legislation in its outreach efforts.
Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who was visiting Washington that week, asked to meet with Foreign Affairs leadership the same day the markup was supposed to happen. Jayapal was added to the list of attendees and urged to hold off on advancing the resolution until meeting with Jaishankar, the Washington Post reported. Upon learning that Jayapal would be present, the minister asked for her to be excluded; when Engel refused, the minister abruptly backed out of the meeting, a move that was criticized by many Democratic presidential candidates. Jaishankar later told Indian reporters that he didn’t think Jayapal’s resolution was “a fair understanding of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir or a fair characterization of what the government of India is doing, and I have no interest in meeting her.”
Despite the cancellation, Jaishankar still met with other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Asia subcommittee, namely Democratic Reps. Ami Bera and Brad Sherman and Republican Reps. Francis Rooney and Ted Yoho, as well as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jim Risch, R-Id., and Ranking Member Bob Menendez, D-N.J. In January, Menendez sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to press the Indian government to reverse the CAA. Offices for those officials did not respond to requests for comment.
While Jayapal’s resolution spent several weeks in standstill, Cornerstone met with Engel in person on January 15 to discuss Jammu and Kashmir. At the end of February, Engel’s office alerted Jayapal’s staff that a markup was planned for early March but that several more edits to the resolution were necessary. In addition to an amendment on the CAA and a proposed national register of citizens, Engel’s office said the chair intended the measure to reflect the changing circumstances in India without any duplicate or extraneous language, and to ensure it would pass with bipartisan support. Engel’s office said it had no record of the meeting.
Advocates said some of the changes, which are not yet reflected in the resolution text on the House website, are informed by materials the Indian Embassy has circulated to congressional offices. They also noted an additional reference to the mass displacement of Kashmiri Pandits, a minority Hindu community, from 1989 to 1990 — a highly contentious issue in Kashmiri history. Hindu American Foundation leadership had denounced Jayapal for omitting Pandits from the resolution when it was first introduced. HAF and Kashmiri Pandit groups have held congressional briefings since August on Kashmir, one of which Engel attended.
“In line with the viewpoint of many nations, HAF’s position is that the issue is one that is internal to India and should be resolved as peacefully and and expeditiously as possible,” wrote Suhag Shukla, Hindu American Foundation’s executive director, in an email. “We would also urge American lawmakers to not gloss over the impact of terrorism on both Indian and American interests in peace and stability in the region.”
The advocates said they thought the edits marred the resolution’s intentions to hold the Indian government accountable and decentered Kashmiri Muslims’ struggle.
When the resolution was not included in the March 2 markup notice, Engel at first gave reassurance that he would include it at the last minute in order to stave off opposition.
Meanwhile, Hindu American Foundation — members of which had informally met with Jayapal in December — sprung into action to spike the resolution. The group’s Public Policy Director Taniel Koushakjian circulated an email on March 2 that he had noticed Jayapal’s resolution was “gaining momentum” when he was on Capitol Hill the week prior. He urged recipients to help stop “Jayapal and her allies” from convincing Engel to include the resolution for markup, sharing a link to predrafted emails to send to Congress against the “bad, anti-India, anti-Hindu resolution.”
The Monday before the markup, Engel told Jayapal that he would not include the resolution due to concerns from Democratic and Republican lawmakers, Kashmiri American advocates said. Hindu American Foundation took credit for blocking the resolution; Koushakjian claimed in a newsletter that more than 2,500 emails were sent to Congress in the first 48 hours of the campaign. “You spoke. Congress listened,” Koushakjian wrote. “But we can’t stop, because our opponents aren’t going to stop, either. We won today, but that doesn’t mean victory is guaranteed tomorrow.”
Engel’s office confirmed that it had heard concerns from other Foreign Affairs Committee members, as well as the Indian Embassy, which it said was expected given that India was against the resolution. “Our office hears from virtually every embassy in Washington on resolutions like this,” Engel spokesperson Tim Mulvey told The Intercept.
“Chairman Engel has repeatedly refused to even bring the resolution up for debate,” Americans for Kashmir, along with 13 South Asian American and anti-war groups, said in a statement. “We are deeply alarmed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s posture of stonewalling and inaction.”
Engel, known for his hawkish stance on foreign policy, is facing uncertain reelection prospects this year. The 16-term incumbent is facing two progressive challengers in New York’s 16th District in the Democratic primary in June.
Rep. Ro Khanna does a live interview on Fox News in Sunnyvale, Calif., on March 24, 2020.
Photo: Nick Otto for the Washington Post via Getty Images
In recent years, Capitol Hill has become a microcosm of the glaring political differences within the South Asian American community, as identity-based groups have wrestled with one another to influence policy and perspectives on India and the diaspora. While Muslim, Dalit, and Kashmiri activists have worked to raise awareness among lawmakers on the injustices their communities confront in the U.S. and India, right-wing Hindu Americans and India interest groups established a dominant presence to wield outsized influence in Congress.
Congresspeople who have taken critical positions on India have also faced backlash in the form of angry messages online and over the phone, as well as demonstrations outside district offices and town halls from Indian Americans who threaten that the community will retract their support.
Last May, Equality Labs, a South Asian American human rights group, partnered with Jayapal and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., to hold a congressional briefing on caste discrimination in the U.S. based on a report that examined how the Indian caste system maps onto the diaspora. Before the briefing, Shukla said Hindu American Foundation had a phone conversation with Jayapal’s chief of staff and sent an email to him, Jayapal, and Khanna, stating that the group condemned caste-based discrimination and asked to attend the event “to learn and find ways for common ground,” with “no intention of disturbing” it. Neither office followed up with details, Shukla said.
Khanna withdrew from the briefing at the last minute due to “pressure from many influential Hindu groups.” Jayapal remained the event’s sole sponsor.
Capitol Hill has become a microcosm of the glaring political differences within the South Asian American community.
“I look forward to attending future briefings from those groups,” Khanna told The Intercept. “If they have another briefing, I would be happy to attend.” Khanna said he had spoken about issues regarding the caste system with the Indian ambassador and other high-level officials. “I have spoken out very clearly against right-wing nationalism and will continue to do so.”
Hindu Americans gathered outside a town hall hosted by Khanna in October, to protest a tweet he wrote under a story on Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s ties to Hindu nationalists, in which he called for Hindu American politicians to “reject Hindutva,” or Hindu nationalist ideology. More than 230 Hindu and Indian American groups and individuals, including Hindu American Foundation, sent Khanna a letter criticizing the tweet, as well as his statement on Kashmir, and asked him to withdraw from the Congressional Pakistan Caucus, which he had recently joined.
“I have no plans to remove myself from the Pakistan Caucus,” Khanna said at the time. “I am also a proud member of the India Caucus, and have been supportive in Congress of strengthening the U.S.-India relationship, including our defense ties. I will continue to work toward peace on the subcontinent, which requires a willingness to hear a diversity of voices on the issues at hand.”
In August, when Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., wrote to Pompeo expressing concern about India’s actions in Kashmir after hearing from his Pakistani and Kashmiri constituents, the backlash he received from Indian American constituents prompted him to hold a meeting with them and apologize for not consulting them first. He later went to “Howdy, Modi,” a political rally in September for the Indian prime minister held in Houston, attended by Trump and more than 50,000 Indian Americans, as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation and has since co-sponsored Jayapal’s resolution.
From Washington, Hindu American Foundation has backed the Indian government on Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act, according to activists, with an emphasis on minority Hindu communities from Muslim-majority regions.
By threading the needle between claiming to be a minority group subject to “Hinduphobic” hate violence and a representative for the Indian American community, Hindu American Foundation has gained access and influence in advocacy and policymaking spaces on Capitol Hill, said Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, a racial justice and domestic policy organization.
“They’re a very disruptive force with a lot of power,” Sridaran told The Intercept. “They are entering progressive spaces and using harmful analysis and policy recommendations against the communities that are actually impacted by real violence.”
HAF collaborates with Democrats who are either Hindu or politically connected to the Hindu American community. Last year, its board members made donations to Khanna, Bera, Gabbard, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Sherman, who was named the organization’s “Friend of the Community,” among others — as well as to a Hindu American political action committee, of which board member Rishi Bhutada is listed as treasurer. In 2018, Hindu American PAC donated $2,500 to Jayapal.
Shukla said in an email that the political work of Hindu Americans has been increasingly dismissed as malicious.
“This out-of-hand discrediting of Hindu perspectives is becoming a form of intolerance that would not be accepted if it was directed at other minority faith communities in the United States,” she wrote.
Though the fate of Jayapal’s resolution hangs in the balance, the Indian government’s lobbying apparatus shows no signs of abating its counteroperation to influence Congress and thwart progressive advocates.
Qutubuddin said the Indian Embassy has underestimated the ability of Muslim and Kashmiri organizers, through raising awareness and sharing their stories, to make an impact on the next steps Congress takes on India.
“The embassy is spending so much money to counter the voices of stakeholders,” she said. “We’re all from impacted communities; we were raised here but our families are there.”
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