It is, though, the season of change, of thaw -- and perhaps as a reflection of improved Indo-US relations and, equally, of heightened peace moves between India and Pakistan, Congressman Burton has of late been making conciliatory noises.
At recent Congressional hearings, the lawmaker went out of his way to heap kudos on India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, for their efforts to address the Kashmir problem and bring about peace between the two countries.
In the most tangible manifestation of this turn-around, Burton -- senior member of the House International Relations Committee and front-runner to take over the Committee when its current chair, 81-year-old Henry Hyde, Illinois Republican, retires next November -- led a powerful Congressional delegation which arrived in India Sunday on a three day visit.
Apart from meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other senior government officials, the delegation also met representatives of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference. The team will leave for Pakistan on Wednesday.
In his first-ever interview with an Indian or Indian American newspaper, Burton, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Pakistan and Pakistan Americans, told rediff-India Abroad Managing Editor Aziz Haniffa that he was looking forward to his visit to the sub-continent. And, significantly, that he will likely vote in favor of the US-India civilian nuclear agreement, though he is yet to take a final decision on the subject.
What prompted this visit to India?
I was very happy when both Prime Minister Singh and President Musharraf started talking about solving some of their cross-border problems, and discussing the problems up in the Kashmir area. We have been very concerned about the possibility of war breaking out from time to time, and I thought because these two great leaders are now talking and trying to work things out, they ought to see from all sides of the Congress of the United States that we are supportive of their effort to make sure that peace prevails over there.
Will you be leading the Congressional delegation?
It will be my Congressional Delegation. I will be the leader, and we have Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas Democrat), Barbara Crubin (Wyoming Republican), Joe Wilson (South Carolina Republican and immediate past GOP co-chair of India Caucus), Steve Pearce (New Mexico Republican), Al Green (Texas Democrat), Carolyn McCarthy (New York Democrat), Loretta Sanchez (California Democrat) and a few others. It's a good group, a bipartisan group -- in fact, we probably have as many or more Democrats than Republicans.
We were told you will be meeting the leadership of both countries.
Yes. It is our intention to meet with Prime Minister Singh and President Musharraf, as well as others leaders in government such as your Defense Minister (Pranab Mukherjee). We will be talking to people about trade, we will be talking to them about some of the issues that have been going on for sometime. But the main purpose is to show support from the government of the United States and the Congress of the United States, that we really appreciate the working relationship between India and Pakistan. It's been sometime coming, and we really think the two leaders there are on the right track.
Given that you have a reputation as the harshest critic of India for years now, I must ask this question -- did the Indian embassy give you all the assistance you required in organizing this trip?
Yes. I know that in the past, members of the Indian government have not liked some of the things I've said, or the positions that I have taken, on issues such as Kashmir. But let me just say that they have been very kind, very helpful, and I am looking forward to working with them and getting to know them when I come over.
Had you met with Ambassador Ronen Sen?
I met the DCM (deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy Raminder Singh Jassal). He is a very fine man and we had a nice, long talk, and I hope to meet with the Ambassador very soon.
Your acerbic criticism of India began following the Indian army's action against the Golden Temple in Amritsar over 20 years ago; since then, you have criticized human rights violations by the Indian government in Punjab and Kashmir and introduced dozens of bills demanding that US aid to India be cut off. What has caused your current change of heart?
I am still concerned about the human rights problems, not only in India and Kashmir but elsewhere in the world. I've always been a very strong human rights advocate, and as far as the attack on the Golden Temple, you know that was of great concern to many people around the world.
We brought to the attention of people here in the United States and hopefully in that region of the world some of our concerns. As far as me being acerbic is concerned, I would have not have used that terminology, but I was very concerned and I expressed my concerns very strongly.
But I am so happy that India and Pakistan are trying to work out some of their differences, and I am anxious to talk to Prime Minister Singh and the leaders over there about some kind of a solution to the Kashmir problem. I am optimistic that things are going to be a lot better now and in the future.
Over the years, you have from the floor of the House strongly advocated for a separate state of Khalistan, urged the US government to support the call for a plebiscite in Kashmir and even advocated for independence in places like Nagaland and Assam. You have repeatedly argued that people in these areas are being persecuted, their human rights and religious freedoms and other rights being violated, by the government of India. Given your current change of heart, do you still advocate a separate state of Khalistan in Punjab and a plebiscite in Kashmir?
I think these are things that I ought to be discussing on a one-on-one basis with your leaders when I go over there. I will be with several other Congressmen, who will also have concerns, and I don't think talking about them right now is the right approach. I think the main thing is that leaders who are concerned about stability and democracy and freedom, if they are in good faith with one another, they can work out some of these very thorny issues.
I know it seems like a Gordian knot to talk about the problems of Kashmir and Nagaland and the Punjab and all those things, but I don't think they are insurmountable problems. I think they are problems that can be worked out, and I am anxious to talk to your government about it. It's nothing we can do anything about, but I would like to express my views to them, and then hopefully things will happen in the right way.
Appreciating that you would rather talk to the leaders about these issues before committing to print, would it be wrong to suggest that there has been a significant dissipation of your concern on issues like Kashmir, Punjab, Nagaland, etc in recent times, and that you today don't hold such strong views that essentially advocate separatism?
I still feel strongly about all of the issues that you and I are talking about right now -- but there maybe more than one approach to solving these problems. You know, in the past, we've talked about specific things that could be done to solve the problems, but there may be another way to solve the problems -- I don't know, and that's one of the reasons why I am anxious to talk to Prime Minister Singh and President Musharraf, and I know that they talk with one another. I know that Prime Minister Singh and President Musharraf have talked about the Kashmir issue for instance, and they've said that they want to find a solution to this long-term problem.
So your stance now is that you are essentially pleased that this problem, which you have been talking about for years in the US Congress, is now finally on the agenda?
I am very happy that it is on the agenda, and I think it shows that Prime Minister Singh is a leader who really is concerned about solving these problems and that takes greatness. I am happy that he's there doing that, and I am very happy that President Musharraf likewise is taking the time and the effort to discuss these very difficult issues.
In recent weeks, you have gone out of your way to appreciate the growing rapprochement between India and Pakistan, particularly in your remarks at the recent Congressional committee hearings -- despite the fact that the focus at those hearings has been the US-India civilian nuclear agreement. In some sense, is this CODEL you are leading a sort of fact-finding mission in terms of what Congress can do to support this détente of sorts between New Delhi and Islamabad?
Yes, it is. It's very important that the members of our delegation, and the members of Congress, hear all sides of the issue on this nuclear agreement. India has become a very big trading partner of the United States and a very good friend, a better friend now than they've ever been, and I think it is very important that we look at this agreement very thoroughly and try to make sure that it is something that's workable.
I hope it does work out, and we want to find out more about it -- and that's one of the things that we are going to be discussing on this trip. I was encouraged at the hearing about that, and I believe that this is something that probably will come to pass.
The Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement needs Congressional approval to change existing US laws, before it can be implemented. When the matter comes up before the House, have you decided how you will vote?
I have not made a final decision, but I am leaning very strongly towards supporting the Indo-US nuclear deal right now.
Over the years, thanks to your being tagged as vehemently anti-India, a group within the Indian American community has worked against you in your district, raising funding for candidates running against you and attempting to try and defeat you, though despite their efforts you have invariably won by huge margins. Now that you are reaching out to India, and leading a CODEL to India, do you think it is time to put all this aside? Is it time for your opponents to reach out to you, too?
Well, that's a decision for people who have maybe opposed me in the past to make. They have to make that decision. My position has nothing to do with politics. As you said, I usually win by very large margins anyhow. My view is that India is a nuclear power, Pakistan is a nuclear power. They have been on the verge of war over Kashmir and other issues for a long, long time. There have been human rights violations in that region up there, and I see an opportunity now for great leadership to bring about some positive changes, and I want to let them know that as a person who used to oppose a lot of the Indian policies, I am one who believes that they are on the right track and I want to tell them that the Congress of the United States appreciates what they are doing, appreciates that they are talking and that they are working together.
I am very happy at the attitude and the movement, and in the things like that Prime Minister Singh has been doing, and when I met with him in Congress (during Dr Singh's visit to the US in July, when he addressed a joint session of Congress and also met with the leadership of the House International Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), he seemed a little surprised when I told him that I thought he was doing a good job, probably because of my past views. But I think that Prime Minister Singh is the right man for the right job at the right time.
Coming back, finally, to your sustained anti-India stance and the many bills and resolutions that you have introduced that were inimical to India, can we now take it that all that is a thing of the past? That given the growing India-Pakistan rapprochement and the burgeoning strategic partnership between the US and India, you no longer feel the need for such action?
What I would say is, I still have concerns over human rights. There have been allegations of atrocities, as you know, in the past in the Punjab and Kashmir region.(But) With this new attitude on the part of the Indian government and Prime Minister Singh, I think it is time to take a step back and let things settle down and hopefully, we won't have to even worry about those human rights problems in the future. However, if we find that human rights violations continue to exist, of course, wherever it happens, anywhere in the world, I will be opposing it.
Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images